Revisiting Riyadh: Exploring the intersection of memory and construction

Revisiting Riyadh: Exploring the intersection of memory and construction



Eight years after leaving the Saudi capital, Riyadh has become both a stranger and a friend.

Riyadh is a city that everyone's been talking about. With developments sprouting in every corner, the Saudi capital has become a global focus point, especially since securing the World Expo 2030 and FIFA World Cup 2034. But for me, Riyadh is not just a city, it's the backdrop of my life.

My parents and grandparents witnessed the metamorphosis of Riyadh. From the 1970s to the 2020s, they saw how the Kingdom changed. But that change wasn't as drastic as the recent one. The last time I was in Riyadh was in 2015, and complicated visa procedures kept me away from this city I call home. But the news of Saudi Arabia easing its visa policies was a beacon of hope, and joining the FACT Magazine team added a poetic twist to this narrative. As FACT extended its presence to the Kingdom, it meant travelling to Riyadh for work — and finally, I got my chance.


As I boarded the plane from Dubai to Riyadh, I was excited but also nervous. I wondered if Riyadh would be the same. Once I landed, I made my way to Mansard Riyadh, A Radisson Collection Hotel, where I would temporarily reside. A sadness engulfed me. Every time I previously visited Riyadh, a family member would pick me up from the airport. This time, it was a stranger, who welcomed me to the city that I once called home. Yet the excitement to explore the celebrity-favoured Mansard Riyadh surpassed any melancholy. Yes, celebrities now graced Riyadh — a reality that my 1999 self could never have fathomed.

The drive to the hotel triggered a flood of memories. I searched for Star City, an amusement park I frequented with my friends. To my surprise, I couldn't find it anywhere. The road itself was new, still under construction, a testament to the city's relentless evolution. Later, I discovered that Star City had been demolished long ago.

After dinner at L'Ami Davé, I reunited with my uncle. Eager to revisit my childhood home, we ventured to Al Malaz, and soon, I was standing outside the building that cradled my childhood and teen years.

Shaheera Anwar Riyadh

The massive white gates stared back with steps leading into a treasure trove of memories. The entrance doors, once transparent, now adorned with intricate designs, hinted at the passage of time. Despite the changes, the door to my apartment remained familiar, a silent witness to the chapters of my life. The staircase next to it triggered a cascade of memories. I went to look for the Panda stickers I had stuck on the wall behind it, but they were either removed or painted over.

The apartment door remained closed, a symbolic barrier to a time that now belonged to someone else. At this point, I wanted to ring the bell to my apartment (or what it once was). But it was 11pm, and no one would open the door to a stranger at such a late hour. Nevertheless, I ventured outdoors to gaze up at the familiar windows and balconies that each held a fragment of my past. There was the window to my bedroom, which I shared with my sister — a sanctuary of secrets, camaraderie and many catfights. This window, to this day, holds the thrill of shared rebellions.

Shaheera Anwar Riyadh

The mosque — right in front of the apartment building — was a haven during Ramadan. I went for many Taraweehs here. Now, it stood under construction — like the rest of Riyadh. After this revisit to my home — as it will forever remain in my memory, I went on an exploration of flavours that defined my culinary indulgences in Riyadh.

Mutabbaq, originally a Yemeni delicacy, beckoned me. I made my way to Ghawar near Sitteen Street and grabbed my favourite Vegetable Mutabbaq. As I traversed the city, landmarks unfolded — the famous Pakistani restaurant Hyatt — owned by my grandfather's friend; a barbershop where my sister had gotten bald, the hospital where she was born and Shola. Once consumed by flames, Shola stood reborn, awaiting a new chapter. A metro station emerged in front of it, signifying a symbol of Riyadh's evolution.

Shaheera Anwar Riyadh

As I returned to the hotel, I stopped at the bakala (a local supermarket) and stumbled upon a forgotten joy — Pufak. These cheese balls are a relic from my childhood. I also noticed that some parts of Riyadh were absolutely unrecognisable, but the familiar corners of the city retained their charm, whispering a comforting truth.

I returned to my room tired after the day's adventures and with a storm of emotions. I could not believe that the door to my home — where I spent my entire life — was right before my eyes, yet I still couldn't cross it. I longed to step inside and reclaim what was once mine, but I couldn't. I had to grapple with the reality of being a stranger here now.

The next day unfolded with reunions. I made my way to Maccoys, a broast haven. The legacy held firm and the broast with garlic sauce still tasted the same — a testament to the endurance of cherished flavours.

Adamant on trying to step inside my childhood home, I went back to the apartment and rang the bell. It was 4pm and I hoped to revisit the past 20 years of my life. But that door never opened — and it probably never will.

As the departure loomed, conflicting emotions tugged my heart again. The joy of returning to family juxtaposed with the melancholy of bidding farewell to a place I once called home. At the Riyadh Duty-Free Shop, I purchased all the Riyadh fridge magnets they had, so I could keep hold of a tangible piece of the past. Now, adorning my fridge, these magnets are more than mere decorations. Among them, my son who's yet to visit Riyadh — has taken a particular liking to the one shaped like a heart, showcasing the majestic landmarks of the city — also echoing my memories.