Sangada Mukku (Crying Corner)

As one drives along the Mathaar(airport) street to the old city centre Al Bathaa in Riyadh, typically on a Thursday evening, he starts to sense a different vibrancy from the rest of Riyadh. While you would hardly see a soul on a hot summer day on the streets of Riyadh, save some labourers toiling on the streets or building works, the sight as you near the Five building complex is very different…

I remember my very first visit to that place; it was during summer 1987, Riyadh was not the hyper modern city it is today. I was bored, lonely and decided to walk from the Marriot to Bathaa. I had been in Riyadh only a few days; my first assignment out of India and it did not at that time strike me odd to take a two-mile walk. Well, it turned out to be one hell of a walk, the road was burning hot, the temperature outside was dry & between 35deg-45deg C, both my nostrils burned and the feet started to hurt. I remember my feeling then, no problem trudge on…I was fed up, I wanted to see some countrymen and I was a bit homesick, wife and son back in India, new office, new lodgings, unfamiliar food and hotels…

Once you reached Batha, you saw a hustle and bustle slightly different from those one expects in a typical Arabic souk (market). You start to see large numbers of Indian and Filipino workers congregating. As you neared the five buildings (that is what it is still known as – the 5 building complex) you saw the shoppers…everybody was buying something to take home – The annual vacation has finally been approved…stuff expected by the rest of your family & friends. Soaps, perfumes, clothes, jeans, electronics, cassettes and what not. These were all available at the best prices in these buildings and some haggling was permitted. The latest technology was available in the electronic & camera shops.

As you crossed the five buildings, you came to a big car park and saw thereabout a big mass of humanity. The decibel level was much higher, you smelt curry and big animated groups of Malayalis, Pakistanis and Filipinos (mind you, only men) were busy chatting. Very few women in Batha those days, small groups of Filipina nurses or an odd Asian or European family. The people around devoured the odd woman who went by, with their eyes - I can understand why, after long absences from their families!!!

The Malayali’s called the place Sangada mukku – and that was precisely what it was. It was a hub of activity, an accessible meeting point. This was where they met at week ends to share news, Kerala politics, personal sorrows, Kafil news – sponsors (employers), woes about air tickets, embassy, checking around for labour visas for their friends and family…and what not. Here was where they purchased currency or sent money back home via hawala routes. Keep in mind that there was no Internet or personal computers and all communication then was via phones, letters and believe it or not, cassettes. These tapes had ‘Kathu’ letter songs – with a droning tonal quality not dissimilar to modern day rap (It can sound as bad to the uninterested listener), which were mailed or sent through friends travelling back home.

The Malayali normally trooped first to ‘Mumtaz video’ where one could pick up a Malayalam or Hindi movie cassette or the latest WWF episode. I had no idea what WWF was till I saw King Kong bundy and Hulk Hogan at a friend’s house, but that is another story. They would troop in and ask, “has ‘336’ come?” It took me a while to figure out that these were WWF episode numbers. I could imagine why they were so popular, probably it helped get out the pent up anger at their Kafil.

I was really amazed, what a place! People looked happy, they met their friends even strangers or countrymen with an eagerness you do not see elsewhere, they abused the Kafils with gusto and finally rounded it off with a meal of Porotta and chops before they sadly waited for their mini buses (coaster’s) back to where they worked and lived.

I visited S-Mukku virtually every week for a few years after that visit to pick up rental movies and it was only here that you felt that physical Malayali connection in Riyadh.

It is sometimes said – If you don’t know Batha, you do not know Riyadh, If you have not been to Sangadamukku, you won’t understand a gulfi…

I walked back armed with a newly rented cassette, well fed on porottas and curry and a happy mind, but alas! by the time I reached back, my new Bata North Star’s heel had split open. I guess they were never made for walking in Riyadh. For that matter I don’t think any walking shoe is!!!

It has been ages since I left Riyadh for other lands, I wonder if Sangadamukku still exists? For sure in the minds & hearts of thousands of Malayalis who lived in Riyadh..

Michale Goldfarb a WBUR reporter said this in his ‘Shifting sands’ report- So beautifully!!

Batha is a forlorn place at night, a place where you can feel time slowly being butchered. It's streets are lined with men shuffling along at loose ends, separated from their families for months and even years at a time. They work in Saudi Arabia to earn salaries that are tiny by American standards, but huge by the standards of the villages they come from in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia or the Philippines. But, they never fully integrate into Saudi society, and the locals ignore them. The nice thing about Batha for a visitor to Riyadh is that it is the one place where men and women can speak to each other, if there are no Muttawa around, and talk about their lives.


Anonymous said...

Hi Manmadhan,
Here is another artcile about Indian's in KSA.
May be you know the author.

Also write about the Magazines blackened with Indian Ink.


Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy,

Excited to read your article Sangada Mukku!

Yes, Sangada Mukku is still very much there. Open car parks given way to multi storry buildings. Batha is full of Mallu clinics and Bengali bakalas ( mini stores ). Recently it became famous as Bangali maffia mukku with drugs, gambling and even prostitution. Few months back with strict order from Riyadh Governer they have been wiped out yet some of the thugs are back but not in full action and activities. In the process few mallus also became forced victims.

I use to visit Riyadh every month on official mission and never forgets to pass by Batha, a place, as you correctly said, part of any expacts worked in Riyadh even for a month.

Irrespective of what is known or told about Riyadh outside Saudi Arabia, that place is still rich enough for everybody to save some money unlike in Dubai where I am currently based after 20 good years stay in Saudi Arabia.

The family life and social proximity one enjoys in Riyadh
is difficult to get anywhere else where. Except open trading in women and wine, that place is still healthy and peaceful to live in. Dubai is, no matter, an excellent place on earth to live in provided if you are rich!


Maddy said...


have a look at this guys blog, gives you a serious take on the censorship, i will try to doa slightly ligher one.


n said...

"probably it helped get out the pent up anger at their Kafil."