Posts Tagged ‘CUSTOMS’

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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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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Saudi Arabia is mostly desert. The land, the buildings and sometimes the sky are dusty and brown. People seek respite from the heat in the malls, but for a splash of green, the choices are few. Salam Park is a lovely getaway in the midst of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Emerald lawns, palms trees, acacias and walking paths surround an artificial lake. Food kiosks scattered around the park are numerous and peddle boats are available for hire.

In much of the world Salam Park would be rather ordinary, just one of many parks scattered across a major city. In Riyadh, however, it is an island of calm in a city dominated by cement and concrete. Birds twitter and play in the sprinklers. Families fish in the lake. Normal stuff. But breathing fresh air into one’s lungs, being a part of nature is such a rare treat in Riyadh that a trip to the park becomes almost a religious experience.

Because this is Saudi Arabia, religious practices are observed even at picnics. The park has its own mosque and the call to prayer is broadcast at the appointed times. A designated outdoor prayer area occupies the prettiest view spot in the park on a small hill. Prayer rugs await the faithful.

I want to send up prayers of gratitude for sunshine and shade trees and the stray cat twitching his tail as he watches the flock of birds pecking at worms in the damp grass nearby. The next call to prayer is hours away. But I can’t wait. I pray now.ImageImage.

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The interior ministry of Saudi Arabia recently released a list of 50 names that parents cannot give to their newborn babies.

Most of the banned names fall into three categories: names that are perceived as offensive to Islamic sensibilities, names affiliated with royalty and names of non-Islamic or non-Arabic origin. Some of the names are common in Saudi Arabia.

Has the ban created anger or amusement among those already bearing these names? Perhaps a little of both.

Names such as Malaak (angel), Rama (Hindu god)  and Amir (prince) fall into the first two categories. Some of the names are controversial because they can be interpreted in multiple ways. Alice and Linda make the list. Non-Arabic names, yes, but why those names and not Tiffany or Emily? Has there been a trend toward babies with Western names? I have yet to hear of a Saudi baby named Alice.

Benyamin, which is on the list, happens to be the name of the Israeli prime minister. Abdul Naser, another name on the list, is the name of the famous Arab nationalist ruler of Egypt, who was at odds with Saudi Arabia. Coincidence?

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Glamping (glamour-camping) is nothing new to Saudis and their desert-dwelling neighbors. Saudis love to camp. Some families go every weekend. Ancient Bedouins knew how to camp. Their traditions persist, as I recently discovered, with only a few minor adjustments.

Saudis, these days, drive out of the city in Suburbans and Yukons on 4-lane highways. Quad bikes have replaced camels. Electric spotlights have replaced oil lamps. Tents adorned with twinkle lights glow across the landscape for miles at a stretch. In the distance, high on the dunes, enormous tents on private land offer hints of luxury camping that I have yet to experience. Meanwhile, rental encampments for middle class families (and lowly teachers, like me) crowd the side of the road. Food trucks, illuminated by colored lights, lure single men to escape the family tent, if only  for a while.

Even the tents at the low-budget camps (where I went with my co-workers last weekend) are huge, with colorful patterns on their interior canvas. Dozens of carpets line the floor inside. Outside, more carpets are laid out around the fire pit. Tea kettles rest on the cement fire ring and the logs on the fire give off a rich, smoky aroma. Cushions on top of the carpets invite us to sit and enjoy the snacks set out in small bowls. Big, upholstered arm-rests make lounging more comfortable and we settle in to sample the dates, nuts, stuffed grape leaves, crackers and baklava. We wash it down with fruit juice, water and soft drinks.

But first, we must dance. The abayas and head scarves come off (this is a women-only trip). Shareen (dressed head to toe in leopard print) connects speakers to her ipod and cranks up the volume. The wailing Middle Eastern singing sounds just right in this setting. The women bust out their best dance moves. Someone has brought a red hip scarf, jangling with gold coins. They take turns wrapping it around their hips as they flaunt their dance skills – lots of seductive hip action and hypnotizing finger twirling. The Westerners try to imitate the Arabs, with limited success. A young cowgirl from Utah tries to teach everyone the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Now, who’s laughing?

Then it’s time to break out the Shisha. The women enjoy smoking the fruit-flavored tobacco from a hot pink pipe. They lounge next to the fire and blow smoke rings into the starry sky. Shisha finds it way into most Saudi celebrations – along with those other perennial favorites: dates and Arab coffee served in tiny cups.

Meanwhile, the male drivers are camping next door; a cloth fence separates their camp from ours. We have a large, sandy enclosure with a volleyball net, soccer balls and a port-a-potty. The drivers will cook our dinner while we play.

Two of the women have babies and we take turns passing them around while the very young moms, Rasha and Ruqaida, dance or ride the quad bikes around our little oasis. In a country where women are not allowed to drive, camping provides an opportunity for women who ‘feel the need for speed’ to get behind the wheel of something other than a baby stroller. One of the women in our group spends most of the evening riding the bike, faster and faster, until she finally flips it. No injuries, thankfully.

Speaking of reckless driving, one of the customs that is difficult to watch, during the long drive out of the city, is the habit of carrying babies in laps. Saudi Arabia has an extremely high traffic fatality rate, but car seats for infants and children are not common. In a country that is uber-protective of women, the lack of concern for child-safety on the roads is just one more contradiction in this culture that is full of contradictions.

By 10pm, the crescent moon has travelled far across the sky and the Westerners are hungry. True to this part of the world, dinner isn’t served until after 11. Thin plastic sheets are spread along the carpets, by the fire. Our drivers carry over plate after plate of food (which requires a rush to don abayas and headscarves for the five minutes the men are there). We feast on salad, tabouli and kebabs of lamb, chicken and beef. We smear great slabs of flat bread with hummus and discover a new favorite: thin, grilled meat patties seasoned with herbs, spices and bread crumbs. Yum!

Everything is delicious and definitely worth the wait. A giant cake decorated with the company’s logo reminds us of who is hosting our little trip. As an added surprise, our boss shows up after midnight. He has driven an hour out into the desert just to cut the cake and to wish us well.

The babies are tired and so am I. We head home, discussing plans for our next trip. We’ve bonded, as people do, over food, music, babies and laughter. The camping trip was a success! A nice break from the restrictions and claustrophobia I feel on a daily basis. Saudi Arabia is a tough place to live for a Western woman. The physical environment is harsh and so is the lifestyle. However, I have to admit, this place is growing on me. I may not love it, but I do love these people.IMG_0042IMG_0011



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IMG_0064 IMG_0025 IMG_0019 Saudi Arabia is not exactly a hot spot for tourists. The Janadriyah Cultural and Heritage Festival is one of the few ‘touristy’ activities here in the kingdom. Begun in 1985 as a vehicle to showcase regional traditions and reinforce cultural pride, it has become an annual celebration. Janadriyah is like a county fair, with camel races, traditional dance performances (men only, naturally) and booths selling food and handicrafts. It takes place during the relatively cooler month of February and lasts 2 weeks.

For an American, like me, many of the regional differences are too subtle for me to notice. One group of men in thobes, dancing with swords, isn’t very different from another group of men in thobes, dancing with swords. But the overall experience is exhilarating because of the authentic nature of the festival. This is a festival for Saudis.

People-watching is a favorite activity of mine and the chance to watch Saudi families, without them noticing, is a rare treat. An even rarer treat is to photograph Saudis, unawares. Taking photos of Saudi women is taboo in this culture. It just isn’t done. I took advantage of the crowds to pull out my camera. Parents were taking photos of their kids and others were taking photos of the performances and exhibits, so I felt comfortable (for the first time!) taking pictures in public.

Seeing the re-creation of rural villages, observing families dressed in robes, waiting in line to buy hot sambosas (deep-fried dough filled with meat and spices), visiting colorful souvenir booths, I thought of the county fair back home. But a county fair with a twist.

This fair is much closer to what Jesus would have experienced with his family than any fair I could take him to in my home town. This culture, which is so foreign and so restrictive for me, is similar to the culture in which Jesus lived. He dressed like these people. He ate like these people. His family and friends looked like these people. He was familiar with religious police who watch for any infraction and are quick to condemn those who don’t conform.

When I experience this culture, it is tempting to criticize. It is tempting to compare it with my culture and decide my culture is superior. However, I can’t help but wonder. In which culture would Jesus feel more at home?

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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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