Living It Up In Saudi

When Eric switched careers some years back, I had two conditions…No Nigeria, no Saudi. Fearful from the bits and pieces I had heard over the years, my lack of knowledge and the general unknown – these places did not rest easy on my soul and I didn’t want to become a ‘diver-wife’ who was always waiting to hear if her man was OK,….. no matter the day rate. As it turned out I was to be that anyway – as he traveled to remote places to dive in deep and unfamiliar waters.

And as usual life takes one on unexpected paths and “never say never”, they say…and so now not only do we live in the Middle East, but Eric works in Saudi full time – based in the southern coastal city of Khobar, close to the 25 km King Fahd Causeway joining Saudi to Bahrain.

Settling into a different country has many challenges, but with challenge comes growth.  One of the challenges that’s helped us grow has been the requirement for all of us to spend a bit of time in Saudi…..

Now while Saudi may not feature as a regular on Western travelers ‘top ten destinations’ list, many, many people, male and female, travel from all corners of the world to Saudi every year to take part in Hajj at Mecca. This pilgrimage is an Islamic requirement – as laid out in the Five Pillars of Islam along with prayer, belief in one God, fasting and helping those in need. It is a journey that is anticipated with enthusiasm, excitement and joy. Others travel to and from Saudi to work, and even others, like our neighbours for example, travel regularly to Saudi to visit family and friends…IMG_0279

Truth be told, enthusiasm, excitement and joy were not the emotions that I was feeling overwhelmed with as we planned our trip although certainly I was a little curious ..and of course keen to see Eric’s work and living environment across the causeway.

Living so close to Saudi for a while had given me the opportunity to talk to others about their Saudi experiences; – local folk who enjoy the freedoms that come with life in Bahrain. The almost standard first complaint I would hear about everyday life in Saudi (Pilgrimages to Mecca excluded) is that it is just basically boring. A similar story from an expat mom now living in Bahrain confirmed this. She was of the opinion that life in Saudi was manageable and even enjoyable until her kids grew a little older and started needing to socialize beyond the playground. These thoughts calmed me as we donned our abayas and headed out. If boredom was all I had to contend with then I certainly could cope!

At the very least, we knew the basic rules – Woman cannot travel alone by vehicle because they may not drive. Abayas are to be worn in public, and although the girls and I could walk around together, once we entered a restaurant or cafe, we needed to sit in the ‘family section’.  Strong displays of affection in public are discouraged as is any form of ‘wild behavior’, and definitely no pork or alcohol.

Other than that, things did seem fairly normal. We were treated with courtesy and consideration – and although we received the odd surprised glance, in fairness we were three western females wearing our Arabic attire in a clearly amateurish manner, staying in a hotel in a business area of downtown Kohbar – not known for its feminine/ family like atmosphere.

In fact “a breathe of fresh air“, we were….according to Neil, the elderly British expat who has been running the hotel for the last 30 years. He then went on to recite Blake later that evening while we were dining in the family section of the hotel restaurant, so yes,…fairly normal, in an ‘Arabia meets Faulty Towers’ kind of way.

Surprisingly, despite the thick androcentric atmosphere – the shops along the streets outside our hotel displayed beautiful western style ball gowns and bizarrely fabulous cakes indicative of Saudi lifestyle way beyond my realm of understanding and experience… and later while stepping out to a local mall we found the women and children, out and about, dressed modestly and dining in the family sections….and so the week rolled on in an uneventful fashion until the girls and I decided to head across the street one morning for a breakfast of coffee and donuts, just to do something different…..

Abayas flapping in the morning breeze we blew down the block to the donut joint and  sought out the family entrance. There wasn’t one. A friendly gent having his morning espresso helpfully waved us towards the main door and inside although there was no signposted ‘Family Section’, the venue was divided into three parts – the front street area where our helpful gent and friends were hanging out, the middle section consisting of five empty tables, (bar one which was occupied by a young man) and a separate back section which was completely empty.  We ordered and waited at the front counter and when our coffee arrived I thought it prudent to check that the back section was indeed where we could sit. The young guy behind the counter looked at me in a confused manner and then somewhat sheepishly explained that it was not really possible for us to stay. We could purchase food but we couldn’t eat it in the venue. We would need to leave…’you know it is the tradition’….I think were his words.IMG_0239

As a privileged, white, western woman, the shock that I experienced in that moment is difficult to describe – even though I knew that this type of experience was possible here under certain circumstances. Perhaps if a male had been with us things might have been different. Perhaps that particular venue does not have a demarcated family section.  I am still trying to figure that part out…although clearly I need to go back to my rule book! I am also aware that Saudi is a dynamic and complex society grappling with many issues of change… Just this past week it was broadcast that the Saudi government has laid down further restrictions on the power of the ‘Religious Police’. And in addition to all of that, I am aware that my shock level relates directly to my privilege level and my lack of experience in the arena of prejudice and powerlessness…

My initial response  was a desire to turn around and have ‘a go’ at the unsuspecting, over-entitled young male, munching on his donuts behind us –  occupying one seat in an otherwise entirely empty and open section. Wisdom that comes with age helped me hold my composure and with a smile we turned on our heels and sailed back out through the front door, held open for us by yet another extremely courteous Saudi man…..

I have grappled with this experience over the past few months. On reflection what I felt in the moment was extreme frustration, quite a bit of humiliation and plenty of helplessness…yet all that had happened was we were told in a very gentle manner, that we could not stay. This was a soft experience. It did not involve trauma or violence brought on by fanatical, militant extremist nut cases. It did not damage us or hurt us. It will not leave us with scars, unlike the centuries of struggle before us and taking place even today. However for myself and our two young girls who have never really had to look straight in the eye of discrimination  – it was a challenge to be dealt with – life-schooling at its best  – clearly laid out for us as our heads smashed up against a proverbial glass ceiling that we had never felt before. And it was helpful. It encouraged us to look closer at and discuss issues around restrictions, inequality and social boundaries that are found everywhere  in the world – inviting us to look at our own cultural spaces more closely where the boundaries between rights and privileges are often deeply blurred.

February 2016 Celebrating New Places and Learning Experiences