Archive for May, 2014

It’s Raining Men on the Streets of Riyadh! But Where are the Women?

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. We rely on taxis and private drivers. We prefer private drivers because of their predictability. They speak a bit of English, they know where you live and their car is clean. We can call them ahead of time, they will drop us off at our destination and then return later to pick us up. We feel safe with our driver.

Many Saudi women will not take a taxi. Taxi drivers sometimes cross boundaries. They can be chatty and eager to practice their English, but they can also be inappropriate. Sometimes scarily inappropriate. They assume Western women are loose women.

But private drivers are more expensive. Sometimes I want to just go outside, catch a taxi and go grocery shopping. I don’t want to plan ahead. I don’t want to pay a premium for a short ride. So I use taxis. There is always a bit of tension if I am travelling alone. First, I have to tell him where I want to go. Next, I must haggle over the price. If we are unable to communicate, even using hand motions (10 fingers, flashed twice = 20 riyals) then I must wave him on and flag down another taxi. The trip home is the same. It is tiring to know that you will have to haggle a price every single time you need to go somewhere.

It can be stressful trying to explain where you live. Taxi drivers will nod and mimic your words, just to get you in the car. But, they don’t always understand where you want to go. I’ve had drivers who call friends as they’re driving, and then hand the phone to me so I can tell the friend (who speaks marginally better English) where I want to go. My first week in Riyadh, after a trip downtown, the driver took me for a ride, then slowed the car on a busy street and asked, “Where?” I had no idea where we were. After a moment of panic, I remembered that I had a number in my phone of someone who speaks Arabic. He spoke to my taxi driver and directed him to my apartment.

Besides not being allowed to drive, women are not supposed to ride in the front seat with men who are not their father, brother or husband. We squish in together in the back seat, while the front passenger seat remains vacant. At times, this restriction is truly annoying.

Just the other day, four of us left a restaurant and flagged down a taxi. Sometimes the drivers are flexible and will allow one of the women to sit in front. Not this one. He wanted all four of us to crowd into the back seat. Instead, two rode in one taxi and two had to catch another taxi. We get tired of the extra expense.

I don’t blame the drivers. Many of them are immigrants and will not risk being deported to accomodate me. Random checkpoints pop up from time to time. Police are checking for illegal immigrants, but I always cover my face with my scarf if I am in the front seat. I am an American and it is unlikely that I will suffer serious consequences. Not so for the driver.

The ban on women driving has a subtle, but profound effect on the culture. Yes, it is a custom that women have accepted and have adapted to. But at what cost? I find myself staying home. I think twice about every outing. The hassle of going from Point A to Point B makes life challenging. Multiple errands or appointments in a day are often impossible and certainly costly. Even women who live with a husband or brothers complain because the men are busy and not available to take the women when and where they need to go.

In many parts of town, there are no women on the street. Only men. Lots and lots of men. Where are the women? They are at home, behind closed doors. Exactly where they should be, according to those who passionately defend the ban on women driving.

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Hospitality is highly valued in Saudi Arabia. One of the customs I have come to love is the offering of coffee and dates. The tradition is carried out as a sign of welcome among friends, in ceremonies and even on planes and trains. Arabic coffee is boiling hot coffee, seasoned with cardamom. Sometimes saffron, cinnamon and cloves are added. It is served in tiny cups. Dates are served with the coffee. Small sips of unsweetened coffee with one or two mouthfuls of nature’s candy is the perfect snack. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s highest producers of dates and there are over 300 varieties. Obviously, I haven’t tried them all. But I’m working on it.

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Hand of Fatima

Hand of Fatima

Oops, I did it again! I complemented a woman on her beautiful bracelet. She instantly removed it and insisted I have it. I resisted. I apologized for admiring it. She forcefully opened my hand and placed it in my palm. She told me she wanted me to have something to remember her by. Finally, I acquiesced, embarrassed, but not wanting to make a scene. I thanked her profusely and told her how much I would treasure her gift.

Another cultural blunder. This is not the first time this has happened to me in Saudi Arabia. I keep forgetting that a complement must always, always, always be followed by the phrase, mash’Allah.

The prophet Mohammed said that the Evil Eye is real. What is the Evil Eye? It is a powerful gaze that harms the person or object it stares at. It stems from jealousy or envy. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. When admiring someone’s new baby, you must repeat, ‘mash’Allah’ after every complement. It translates, loosely, ‘God has destined it.’ It acknowledges that God is the one who has bestowed the blessing of a beautiful baby or a lovely piece of jewelry. Neglecting to say, ‘mash’Allah’ puts the person being admired at risk.

There are talismans to ward off the Evil Eye, but the prophet Mohammed forbade their use. In spite of that, the Hand of Fatima jewelry appears around the necks of Muslim women here, in the kingdom. The  Hand of Fatima is named for the prophet’s daughter. The symbol actually predates Islam, just as the belief in the Evil Eye predates Islam.

In my culture, complements are a way of recognizing someone’s good taste or good fortune. I think everyone deserves to feel pretty or special from time to time. I still have a lot to learn.


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caged-01“She did the best she could….and she still loves you”   –     Marc Maron


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arabic wedding 2layers

“I cried for three days when I saw his picture.”

That is the reality for young women in this part of the world. Arranged marriages are the norm. Mothers and sisters are recruited to scout out potential brides for the men. Appearance is high on the list of priorities, with light skin being one of the desirable features. Young women, on the other hand, may hope for a handsome prince, but families are more concerned with character, family connections and financial stability.

A supervised meeting is arranged; the couple may or may not converse. Telephone numbers are usually exchanged and that is when the real courtship is launched. Thank you, technology. Couples get to know each other by phone. The man may or may not see his intended’s face uncovered before the wedding, depending upon how conservative the family is.

My student, an intelligent and pretty young woman, confided that her fiancé, whose photo she showed me, did not, in appearance, match her dreams. I told her I thought he was cute. She didn’t disagree. Her father told her she didn’t have to marry the young man, who was a family friend. In the end, she decided to accept her family’s choice.

I wasn’t sure whether her decision was brave or cowardly. I’m still not sure. In my culture, we choose our own marriage partners. But the divorce rate in America isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for that system.

Times are changing, though, for better or worse. The internet has allowed young people to meet and develop serious online relationships. One of my students has a secret boyfriend. The problem is how to introduce him to her family. Only trusted friends can endorse a potential husband.

“Will you do it, Teacher?” my student begs.

As her teacher, and as a foreigner, I can vouch for him and provide a plausible explanation for how we know one another. He is a doctor. Or is he? Is the internet here like the internet in America? If so, I have reason to be worried for my student. She is intelligent. But, she is like women everywhere, wanting to believe the best when an attractive man pursues her. She is also 28 years old, dangerously close to the age when women are considered ‘too old’ for marriage. Do I trust her judgement? Am I willing to participate in a deception that has such potentially serious consequences? My first impulse is romantic. I want to help. But, ultimately, I can’t. There is just too much I still don’t understand about the culture.

Two women, two different approaches to marriage. Love isn’t even a factor. That comes later, after practical matters are taken care of. After family connections are confirmed. Sometimes bank accounts and virginity must be verified. (Thus necessitating, for some, a secret trip to Bahrain or Dubai for surgical ‘restoration’ of one’s virginity) In this part of the world, marriage is a contract between families. The bride and groom are part of a larger picture. Marrying without family approval is impossible. And that part of the marriage process seems quite sensible, even to this stubborn romantic.


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Living in the Middle East, I’ve come to the conclusion that Leonardo Da Vinci got it wrong. Okay, he was a genius and probably knew exactly what he was doing when he painted The Last Supper. But, even in the year 2014, eating on the floor is quite common here in Saudi Arabia. Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians all sit on rugs or cushions around a narrow rectangular sheet of plastic. The disposable ‘tablecloths’ are sold in grocery stores next to the paper plates and plastic tea cups. Big, block cushions serve as arm rests. Much of the food is eaten with the fingers. The rest is scooped up with scraps of pita bread.

Two thousand years have passed since the last supper, yet people in this part of the world still practice customs similar to those of the people represented in Da Vinci’s painting. I’m convinced that Jesus and the disciples sat on the floor on that fateful night.


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