Archive for February, 2014

valentine-4Saudi Arabia bans Valentine’s Day. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (religious police) consider Valentine’s Day a “pagan holiday.” They forbid the selling of anything red in the week before February 14. Red clothes, red roses and heart-shaped products are banned. Merchants caught selling such things risk arrest or the closure of their businesses. This has created a black market for roses. The traditional flower costs up to four times its original price. In one of the most conservative Islamic societies on the planet, even married couples are forbidden what would seem to be the most simple and innocent expressions of love: a bouquet of flowers.

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I was abruptly transferred from Khobar, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, to the capital city of Riyadh. Such is the life of an English teacher in KSA. Flexibility and adaptability are essential personality traits for anyone considering living or working abroad. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, is different when you leave your home country. Culture includes social customs, food, family, religion, art, literature and language (to name just a few).

But culture also includes business practices. One of the fascinating aspects of life in the kingdom is observing workplace customs. I am still a learner. Many workers in Saudi Arabia are not Saudi. They are Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc. So, when I begin to make assumptions about the culture, am I basing my opinion on what are actually a Jordanian’s opinion of Saudi culture? Or have I heard American opinions about the culture and now accept them as truth? It’s all very complicated.

I love to listen. I learn so much by asking  questions.

“Tell me about camels, Nawaf. I’ve always heard they like to bite and spit.”  Nawaf, my trusty driver, then launches into story after story about camels and the people who love them. After an hour, my stereotype of dog-hating Muslims (and we all know there must be something intrinsically wrong with ANYONE who hates dogs, right?) is replaced by a picture of affectionately silly camel owners who will buy back a baby camel they’ve sold because they can’t bear the sound of its mother whimpering in grief over her loss. Stories of people who pay huge sums of money for a camel and notice the droop of its lip  (the droopier, the better) and the shade of its coat (white is the best).

“Tell me about Shia Muslims, Rowia.” My highly educated, Sunni Muslim friend tells story after gossipy story that she has heard, but never actually witnessed. (‘They sacrifice babies!” “They have one night a year where they go out and have sex with strangers!”) No wonder there is such friction between Sunni and Shia Muslims!

Americans are no different from people in the Middle East. We tend to use broad brush strokes to paint pictures of people and places. Before I came to Saudi Arabia, an intelligent, educated friend told me, “You know, they hate women, over there.” I’m not sure who ‘They’ are or where, on a map, one would find ‘Over There’. What I do know is that there are people in this world who hate women, but there are many more who don’t.

Trying to interpret this culture for my friends back home is impossible. I’ve only been here 5 months. Yes, women’s eyes are the only part of their body exposed in public. Yes, there are public beheadings. Yes, families live behind high walls and dine in restaurants surrounded by folding screens. Yes, immigrant workers are sometimes treated as slaves. Yes, the Royal Family are obscenely wealthy because of oil. And yes, the muttawa (religious police) really do patrol the malls, making sure unmarried couples do not meet for coffee or exchange phone numbers. Yes, the muttawa admonish western women to, “Cover your head, Sister.” (the only English phrase they learn in muttawa school)

I asked another ex-pat from Nebraska how he explains Saudi Arabia to his friends and family back home. He’s been here for 2 years. I like his succint description. “They hear all these crazy things. So, I tell them they have Applebee’s Restaurant here. That always surprises them. It helps them understand the place a little bit better.”

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