'To be polite, I made sure I kissed 80 men'

Yemen was fun, but Jeremy Atiyah expected the party he attended in Saudi Arabia to be a dull affair. It turned out to be an absolute hoot
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The Independent Travel
Women and whisky - I was sure the Saudis didn't go for that at their family parties. So what did they go for? When a friend of mine, Abdulaziz, suggested I join him in partying with his uncles in Riyadh one Saturday night, I decided to go along and find out.

The house of Abdulaziz's first uncle looked like most Saudi homes - a walled fortress in a suburban street, cream-coloured, angular, impregnable. "Just come straight in," said Abdulaziz, slipping off his shoes and stepping over the threshold.

I glanced in. To my alarm, an immensely formal meeting appeared to be taking place right there: 80 bearded men, all wearing brilliant white, pressed thobes and red ghutras, were sitting on cushioned seats lining the walls of the reception hall - awaiting my entrance. Breaking my laces in the effort to get my shoes off, I stumbled in. Abdulaziz had started kissing and shaking hands with everyone in sight. Gingerly, I set off after him.

Starting in the centre from the ancient uncles with scraggly white beards exuding power, I moved on through the multitude of hulking sons and nephews who had come to respect their elders. Nobody seemed to be worried about why I was there. Finally I took my seat at a place by the wall, and did the best I could to be inconspicuous. I watched the number one uncle himself arrive, wrapped in a camel-hair gown edged with gilt brocade. A crowd of grandsons surged forward to kiss him on his head and whisper deferential phrases into his ear.

There was little chat. People drank tiny coffees, ate dates, and passed around a solid gold incense-burner. Abdulaziz was with his cousins, going through greeting-rituals, each taking it in turn to say one word, as though running down a list at speed. The whole conversation, from beginning to end, was a dance that had been learnt long ago in the deserts of Arabia.

At last the feast was ready. We walked through to a leafy courtyard open to the hot night sky, and found, on carpets, several entire sheep cooked in dishes of saffron rice. Abdulaziz made a cut in the first sheep with a two-foot-long knife and people tore burning pieces of meat off the bone with their fingers. The food was disappearing in silence, and I worried whether the presence of a heathen - me - was spoiling the conversation. Abdulaziz assured me this was not so. "Everyone likes you," he said, chewing fast. "We know you are a good man. You believe in God."

I did not catch his eye, and concentrated on my food. It wasn't long before we were being pushed aside. The second shift - a scramble of little boys - had arrived to take our places; these would be replaced by the household women. On the subject of women, there was, needless to say, none in sight. I was conscious though of what sounded like a primary school playground just behind a wall; this was where all the mothers and daughters had been hidden away.

Abdulaziz suggested the time had come for us to move on. And having taken our leave (80 polite handshakes), we drove off to the house of uncle number two. I was introduced to more bearded men who were being presented as the brothers of the sister-in-law of the uncle of someone from the party we had just come from. Abdulaziz had a big family. And the uncle himself, it transpired, was a billionaire. He sat there grinning and showing a big wet tongue, happy in the company of 17 sons and dozens of grandsons. A group of camels grazed nearby. In a country where a man is measured by the size of his family, the uncle was a hero. But he had some bad news: "My fucking days are over," he said. He was offering a reward of $2m for any doctor who could replace his old genitals.

The hot night air, the playful grandsons, the hubble-bubbles, the smells of charcoal and incense, the smiling, imperturbable faces: parties in Riyadh were fun! "Well," Abdulaziz said, with a slight shrug. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. But I prefer women and a little whisky at my parties."