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Volume 12, Number 7August/September 1961

In This Issue

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"Country Store" in Saudi Arabia

American and Saudi Arab shoppers in al-Khobar hightail it to Jameel's, where the warmth of welcome and comfortable clutter of wares are reminders of the old-time general store.

Abdullah Alhamad al-Khiliwi is a successful merchant in the city of al-Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia. Mr. al-Khiliwi is known to nearly all his customers simply as "Jameel," a name taken from the sign above his shop, "JAMEEL STORE." At midday, when he draws the plank shutters across his show-windows and front door, there is a subtle change in the pulse of this bustling, sun-drenched Muslim city. The twentieth-century tempo slows under the honored round of custom and faith.

Along streets where only a few years ago sinewy, powerful white donkeys drawing an unending variety of two-wheeled carts had an almost uncontested right of way, Fiats and Oldsmobiles, Mercedes and Chevrolets, pick-up trucks, contractors' huge diesel-powered trucks with plumes of blue smoke flowering above their high vertical exhausts, and fragile-looking bicycles now thread their way.

Along the sun-baked, asphalted streets other merchants are also closing doors, cottering shutters or lowering the wide, steel curtains that form the characteristic store-front of al-Khobar. Handsome, four-storied apartment buildings with street-level shops raise their balconied facades in the brilliant, transparent whiteness of the desert sun.

About a mile away from Jameel's at the end of the al-Khobar pier, six barefoot men clad in traditional thobes (ankle-length skirts) and ghulras (cloth headdresses) chant in rhythm and raise a heavy flat of Japanese plywood sheets from the hold of a coastal dhow onto the dock. "Ya Allah . . . ya Allah . . . ya Allah . . ." their prayer-chant gathers intensity, then falls to silence as the flat careens forward. Burlap-wrapped boxes of tea from Ceylon wait to be unloaded next. Jameel's merchandise comes across this dock from the ports of the world. A few blocks away in the older business quarter of the city, along the "old road," the money exchanges are shuttered.

On the new "main street"—Prince Khalid Street—the "exhibitions" (department stores) have emptied, the entrance to the bank is locked, the travel agencies have closed and the Hillman, Opel and General Motors showrooms are idle. Jameel locks the heavy wooden shutter across the door of his store. Over the thrum of traffic and the cry of a live chicken being stuffed into a grocery box by a young boy, Jameel can hear the muezzin's call to noon-day prayer from the large mosque—a call that rises through an amplifier. The stores of the city will not open again until four o'clock; they will then remain open until eight. Jameel steps from his store and walks along Second Street from which sounds are already disappearing.

Jameel is 46 years old. He is of medium height. His face is rounded and his upper eyelids tend to drop down across his dark eyes. There is a mingling of repose and courtesy in his face. When he laughs, his eyes open wide and he raises his head and tilts it slightly to the right. He moves his hands lightly on the air in gestures that have no abruptness, no sharp accents.

Every morning at eight o'clock, when Jameel opens his old-fashioned store, he steps into an arena of risk. For example, two bundles of red and yellow hula-hoops hang from the ceiling. Several years ago American families in Dhahran, Ras Tanura and Abqaiq wanted—demanded—hula-hoops. Parents entered their names on Jameel's reservation list. The list grew; Jameel increased his shipping order. He pleaded with his supplier in Holland—please hurry. The hoops arrived, alas, as the fad departed. Jameel was stuck with a big supply of the plastic circlets. "It cost me about four thousand riyals," he says. The hoops remind him almost every day of the will-'o-the-wisp nature of American fads.

In the swift progress of al-Khobar, Jameel represents a deviant moment. His is a distinctively "old shoe" establishment, a comfortable throw-back (from an American point of view) which his customers not only appreciate but applaud. They talk about Jameel's store with an odd affection. They brag about its marvelous disorder. An American merchant might be shocked by the tumble-down disarray of Jameel's shelves. And he might well shudder at the implication of the Americans' delight in this state of affairs. Jameel does not find it necessary to advertise that he is friendly; he is friendly.

A young American mother, kids in tow, remarks: "This is our dime store." A man puffing on his pipe remembers something else. "Jameel's reminds me of the old general store. I grew up in New England, and I can still recall the old country crossroads store. I always get a big kick out of Jameel's."

"Jameel—the man and the store have become one. The word means "beautiful" in Arabic; there are "Jameel" stores in Kuwait and Beirut; the name is a common male surname in the Middle East. These facts are all part of a strange phenomenon: Abdullah Alhamad al-Khiliwi has disappeared, perhaps permanently, into the happy oblivion of "Jameel's" success.

The "Jameel Store" is a relatively large room with a smaller room in the rear. It is, in the very best sense, a general store. Its astonishingly various stock cascades along glass-topped counters and rises to the ceiling where naked fluorescent lights hang and large-bladed fans rotate slowly. Although many of his competitors have installed modern open-shelf displays, Jameel persists in simply "putting out" the latest shipment wherever it will fit. Counters, shelves, old-fashioned display cases and shopwindows are a jumble of merchandise that would have been welcomed in America's crossroads past.

Jameel's "merchandising" may not follow the latest sales techniques, but no one seems quite willing to trade the charm of his methods for the methods of Madison Avenue. Somehow odd juxtaposition is a keynote at Jameel's. A handsome English perambulator built for twins (Does Jameel know the probability rate for the birth of twins? The odds against the sale of this pram?) is covered with a polyethylene cowl. Candlewicked counterpanes (also from England) are piled high in the pram. A child's wagon from the United States is filled with scouring pads, brass hardware for kitchen cupboards and window curtains, and ant traps. An ironing board stands open and is put to use as a display counter for glasses, ash trays, candy dishes, nut trays and other coffee-table accessories.

The manufactories of the world meet along Jameel's spill-ways. On one counter a four-quart pressure cooker from Eau Claire, Wisconsin nudges an electric iron from the English midlands. Meat cleavers from Birmingham, England contend with shiny, wooden-handled garden tools from Japan. A wood-base nutcracker (semi-automatic) from St. Louis stands by a box of ice cream scoops that arrived from Hong Kong. A baby's scale from West Germany hovers over a "cured" cast-iron skillet from Sidney, Ohio. A set of children's glasses decorated with the legend "La Belle et Clochard" (Lady and the Tramp) and bearing Walt Disney's copyright sits a few feet from a puree masher-and-strainer with a pastedton sales message: "Moulin-Legumes . . . veritable . . . pour chaque usage."

Jameel's is a combination treasure chest and scavenger hunt. In its narrow aisles Americans squeeze by one another and stoop to search through the heaped array in the shadows of a bottom shelf. "Americans see the price," Jameel says, "and that is the price. They do not argue. But for some of my customers the price marked down is only the start. They say, 'Is this the price?' and we talk about it." But in the narrow aisles and crowded corners one hears American housewives confounding Jameel's generalization. ''Let's wait until we get to Cairo," says one to another. "We may be able to do better." Haggling—the old tradition of the bazaar and the suq (Arabic for bazaar)—is highly formalized. The American woman is more direct. "Hey,

Jameel, this mop is marked eight riyals. On 'main street' it's seven." Jameel looks at the mop she is holding. He lowers his eyes. "A mistake." His voice is low and even. "It should be seven. Yes?"

Jameel was born in 1915 in the Nejd uplands in central Saudi Arabia. His father was a merchant ("Not in a store-he was, rather, door-to-door. And he shipped out dates." This was in the years before the Saudi Arabian Government proscribed the export of dates.) Jameel's schooling as a boy included some years in Bombay where he learned a utilitarian English, now colored with Americanisms from his years with Aramco and his subsequent years as a quasi-Yankee storekeeper. In 1936, just two years after Aramco started its pioneer drilling camp in Saudi Arabia at Dhahran, Jameel joined the company. He worked in the commissary where he became familiar with the variety of pots and pans, skillets and roasters, and other cookingware that the American housewife requires.

In 1951, Jameel opened a small store in al-Khobar. He had able and willing assistance from his American friends in the Aramco commissary, particularly Fred Graaf, now in retirement. Graaf wrote to manufacturers to get catalogues for Jameel. He guided his initial inventory. Since that time, Jameel has built his inventory on customer requests, long searches through manufacturers' catalogues (always with an eye to price), by reading the advertising in American and English magazines and by visits to stores and manufacturers in Holland, Germany and England. He is presently planning to visit Hong Kong and Japan.

In 1953, Jameel opened a branch store in Dammam, a nearby Persian Gulf city. The store closed within the year. ("No demand.") But the same year he moved into the then newest building in al-Khobar, his present location. One of his most persistent problems is quality ("American women are very fussy"). For a while he acted as agent in eastern Saudi Arabia for an English manufacturer of kitchenware. The pots and pans quickly tarnished and pitted in the salt air and extreme humidity. There were many returns, and Jameel was stuck with the stock. He dropped the agency and took on the agency for an American exporter of plastic goods. The plastics sell well and stay sold.

Later this year Jameel will move into a new store now under construction on Prince Khalid Street. Once more he will have a store in the "newest" section of the business district. "It will be more comfortable for my customers," jameel says. As he talks about the future, Jameel leans back from his cluttered counter (below the hands which rest on the glass counter-top one can see thread, needles, bobby-pins and ping-pong balls from Japan). His left shoulder touches the large show-window behind him which looks out onto the street. In silhouette against the late-morning sun one can see a row of dresses from Holland and England. There is a hooded sweat shirt among them.

The new store will be air-conditioned. And there will be a woman clerk added to Jameel's present sales staff of two. But will the store have the same casual flavor? The odds are that it will. "Oh, yes," Jameel says, "I will take the hula-hoops with me. Maybe some day . . . ."

This article appeared on pages 3-6 of the August/September 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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