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


4 thoughts on “Living It Up In Saudi

  1. What a great post. I have heard much about Saudi from people who stayed there. Most got by because fellow Brits kept together, their lives involving workplaces and colleagues and little else. Sad when you think one of the joys of travel or staying in another country is experiencing different customs, food and lifestyles. Though, given your experience, perhaps this is understandable. People used to freedoms don’t always take kindly when these are denied them, especially when that freedom is free access to places to eat. I think I might even balk at having to wear an all-encompasing garment to venture out. I rather like wearing what I want to wear depending on the weather and where I’m headed.

    That apart, it looks a fascinating country, but definitely one for a short break rather than a prolonged stay.

    • Thanks! I think travel in Saudi would be quite easy if we did so as a family. Apparently the landscape in some areas is breathtaking and of course there are fascinating historic sights. Perhaps before we leave the Middle East we will have an opportunity to do so. The abaya is an interesting topic. The Middle Eastern woman that I have spoken to seem to really enjoy wearing it. It is easy, it is feminine and of course is a part of who they are, culturally. But certainly I would find it a bit frustrating after a while and enjoy the options that I have. It is the heat that would get to me! It is so hot here in the summer, but then one doesn’t spend much time outside. Vitamin D insufficiency is also apparently a common problem among Middle Eastern Women, ironic considering how much sunshine this part of the world gets! It certainly has been an interesting and mind broadening experience!

  2. Beautiful juxtaposition of photos with your story leading up to the twist. I wasn’t expecting that ending, somewhat like you weren’t I guess. I think in the western world we are lulled by the progress we’ve witnessed and been part of. I remember 45 years ago my mother not being allowed into the main bar of the pub to speak to my father. She had to stand on the footpath at the window, or we could have gone to the lounge. 15 years later I unwittingly, not knowing there was such a thing still, walked into the Aboriginal segregated bar of an unfamiliar pub in an unfamiliar town looking for change for the public phone. 30 years ago, my first marriage was into a family who on religious grounds advocated restrictive rules re dress and behaviour for women. To this day I remember the feelings of confusion and non-comprehension of all these.
    Just a few months ago my sister and I went to wheel a pram with my 6 month old niece through the almost empty main bar of the local pub to another outside -non smoking- area, as the way past the people & tables directly outside -in the smoking area- was crowded, and were advised gently but formally by the publican – the G.O.’s cousin- we shouldn’t as minors weren’t allowed in the -non smoking- main bar. We were taken aback. I understand the RSA laws but it seemed excessive & regressive. And not particularly sensible as to avoid the smoking area we would have had to go back out to the road, along it no footpath, across the lawn and up stairs.
    What you and your daughters experienced, simply the segregation is incomprehensible enough to me but that there are places still in which are men only, polite as they are makes it somehow worse, so entrenched. An interesting insight but disappointing that although Saudi can manage to adopt consumerist western ways, humanist are lacking.

    • Thanks Elladee, I spent quite a bit of time during my week watching TV and particularly programs relating to the recent election of the first female public officers. One of the women elected, when questioned, pointed out that while government was progressive in thinking in many areas, for example, female driving – the general society was not yet ready. This was tested this last year apparently. So the case presented was that there is an ongoing tension between where they would like to go and how fast this can be done without causing chaos….that of course was just one persons view and it is certainly far more complex then that but it was interesting food for thought. Your point about the ‘men’s club’ style scene is also very interesting. Certainly this was a reality until recently in South Africa and then of course there were our race atrocities! The world is filled with complexity.

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