Category Archives: expat

Post Saudi Q&A Part I

When I woke up this morning, I noticed some new notifications in my WordPress app. One of them was a comment on one of my posts by a reader from Australia who had some very interesting questions to me, regarding my life in Saudi Arabia which by now is long over.

Since I love it when people share their thoughts with me on my work and ask me questions, I thought I would share today’s questions and answers with the rest of you.

Thank you very much for the questions and the nice remarks! ūüėČ

 

How did you find the transition between conservative countries and western civilisation? Especially with all the pro-feminists there are today?

Quite frankly, I am not even sure whether I actually noticed that there was a transition going on, even though I am certainly aware of the fact that technically that was the case. I assume that most people would expect me to say that I have experienced a huge culture shock and spent days locked in my room, hiding under the covers and counting the days until I may return home where I can eat pork, drink Gl√ľhwein and wear mini skirts again. I am sorry to disappoint you but no, this actually did not happen.

I guess I can say that the main thing in terms of transition that I noticed was the change of people’s appearance around me. All of a sudden I was surrounded by men in white robes that made me think of dresses and women of whom I could only see the eyes. Since I lived on a compound and went to an international school, the other differences between the conservative Middle East and the West appeared to me later and that in the difference of approaches to social interaction. For more info on that, I suggest you read this post. How did I find the change? I don’t really know. I would say that I found the transition relatively smooth which may be due to the fact that I have been somewhat familiar with conservative Muslims before because of¬†my Muslim friends in Berlin,

In terms of feminists I have to say that this issue has not really affected my view on my new ‘home’ because I have never really dealt with feminism in detail. After all, there are enough other women out there to do it for me. I would not call myself a feminist either. I do not run around saying that men and women should have the exact equal rights or that covering one’s hair is oppressive. For me it isn’t. Period.

All in all I’d say the transition was rather more interesting to observe than it was scary of worrisome. However, once I really arrived in Riyadh, as time passed, the differences between the cultures became very clear and visible.

Do you think that being a woman there was any more or less empowering in context?

The answer yes or no to this question depends on the point of view from which one would answer this. For me as neither Muslim, nor Saudi, nor Arab in general, I would say that it was neither more nor less empowering. It was more a neutral state of being rather than more or less empowering in the big picture. A local woman however, who always wished to live the western way would probably answer this differently. Just so you know.

Now, the longer I sit here typing this, I remember that the only thing that did indeed concern me and that I would call a less empowering thing in context, is the lack of mobility for women in this country. Since I was not allowed to drive (and even if I was, I would never dare to do so on the streets there and I am saying that after learning to drive in the Balkans which is actually quite something!!), it was difficult for me to be spontaneous. I could not just say to myself ‘I want to go and meet up with my Egyptian friend who lives in town’ and do so. I had to arrange a ride before I could go anywhere where I could not get by foot so fast and that was really bothersome at times because getting a ride anywhere takes time and costs quite some money, unless you are brave enough to hail a Saudi cab in the streets and get in there by yourself or your dad or husband or brother or whoever has time to do you the favor.

Many people say that being a woman in Saudi Arabia is difficult because you are being deprived of your rights and all and that people treat you worse than if you were a man. That happened to me only once at the airport when I had to deal with a police officer who probably thought he would rule the world one day or that he already did and I guess if I did not have a man with me that day, I would not have seen my plane ticket again but I must say that this was the only discouraging incident I have experienced in Riyadh as a woman during my nine months of stay. Whether that was just because I am white and not Saudi, I can’t say for sure.

I would even have to say that I have had more WTF moments since I am back living in Germany compared to my time in Saudi (that may be because from now on I have to arrange my life on my own and have to deal with all sorts of things by myself, showing the world that I am a ‘strong and independent woman’ and sh**).

I can say that while I was in Riyadh, I was able to go out for groceries on my own by actually walking down the street, I have been out in town for the spring festival by myself without any terrible incidents and I have been treated nicely by Saudi men and women when I was out to buy something because getting on the compound’s bus and go to the mall by myself was doable, too. For more on such every day niceties see this post¬†. Whether that is more or less empowering in context? You are free to decide but personally I was rather satisfied with my stay in Riyadh.

 

I Packed My Bag- Things That You Should Bring With You to KSA

I remember the night when I was all awake even though it was already 1 in the morning and my flight to Riyadh  was in eight hours. I stood there, my bunker of a  suitcase open and a bunch of my stuff spread all over the room. I had 20 kilograms available, a ton of things and I was traveling to a place where I have never been before. So naturally, I was asking myself: What am I really supposed to bring with me and what to leave behind (aside from the obvious sun glasses and sun screen)?

For those of you who might face the same issue, I have come up with a list of things that I did bring and some things that I wish I would have brought. If any of my local readers think I have forgotten something, please feel free to let me know in the comments! ūüôā

 

1. Warm clothes

Yes, I know that Saudi Arabia is as hot as hell and that the country is in the middle of the desert but hey, there is such a thing as winter in this country, too! Starting in October it will become significantly cooler and you will need more than just summer dresses, shorts and t- shirts. I suggest you bring a jacket or two and some warm sweaters. Fifteen degrees celsius in this country are way cooler than anywhere in Europe.

2. An umbrella

Again, I know that we live in the middle of sun and sand but it does actually rain here. The thing is that once it does rain here, it rains PROPERLY. So properly that if you have a pavilion standing in your garden that has a roof made of fabric, chances are that roof will not survive the rainfall, even though the rain here usually last for maybe 15-20 minutes. Sometimes longer though. You may also consider bringing appropriate jackets and water resistant shoes for such a case.

3. Proper shoes

There are not many sidewalks here and if you live in a compound, chances are you will not be outside very much because you let the negative media brain wash you into believing that walking on the streets in this country is extremely dangerous (spoiler alert: it isn’t!). If you are courageous enough though and do go outside to walk you will find that the streets are not in the best condition and there might be the one or the other hurdle to overcome. As you can guess, this point is dedicated especially to the ladies: Fortget about the high heels and bring sneakers or moccasins. That will be much more practical.

4. Conservative clothes

Saudi culture is very different from the western one. Even though you can find western clothes in every shop here in Riyadh, you would not necessarily wear them openly in public. It is advisable for men to wear long pants while women will be obligated to wear an abaya or a long, wide dress when outside. However, you might consider some modest every day life clothes in case you are invited to the house of a local family. It is very likely that they will appreciate if you dress modestly, meaning no shorts or strapless tops or anything of that sort. Just try and look presentable. Presentable the Arab way. All that may certainly depend on the people you are visiting, whether they are conservative or not, but it still might be useful to keep these cultural differences in mind. After all, you never know.

5. Cash

It is not so common here to pay for things using your credit card so I suggest you have actual cash with you. Chances are that in some places cards won’t be accepted or you will be asked to go to the next ATM and get actual cash. ¬†For those who don’t know, the local currency is the Saudi Riyal. One euro is about five Saudi riyals.

6. A cooling vest

Saudi Arabia is a very hot country and especially during the summer months it will be almost impossible to be outside without sweating waterfalls after the first two minutes. I can imagine that men are less likely to wear these outside over regular clothes, which is why I have another reason why the abaya is so practical. You may want to get a cooling vest, that will keep your temperature at a reasonable level and help you survive the heat outside. Just wear it under your abaya and life will be a little easier.

7. Classic gelatine (those of you who are into baking)

Most of you are probably wondering why I am putting this one here. What does gelatine have to do with anything? Well, I have a friend here who makes professional cakes and for most of her creations she uses gelatine to make the outer decorations or coating. However, it seems like you will not find any classic gelatine powder here. They have gelatine in all possible flavours but probably not the one you are looking for and the one they have is not of the best quality either. So, if you are into baking, bring your own gelatine.

8. A socket adapter

You can surely buy these here, which would probably make more sense but let’s say you arrive in Saudi and you have no time to go buy stuff, but you really need to charge that phone or ¬†laptop or else it dies. The sockets here are different from the European ones which I didn’t know before and so I found myself not being able to charge/ use ¬†my phone until I found an adapter. If you want to avoid such a situation, I suggest you try to find this¬†thing at home and bring at least one with you. Just in case. They look something like this.

On Social Segregation: Beware of the Sections!

Yesterday my mother and I went outside (outside as in “outside the actual compound” YES, my dear people, that is actually doable here…SURPRISE!!!) to get something for lunch. Luckily for us, there are some small places near us that sell (fast) food.

However, since my mother has not been outside very much so far, she had some trouble figuring ut which of the two doors she was supposed to use in order to get inside.

Because Saudi society pays so much attention to gender segregation, it has come up with the concept of having two sections. One for singles and one for families.

So, as in our case, if you want to go and eat outside (that is especially for the fast food places) you have to make sure to go through the right door. The¬†singles section is reserved for men (why don’t they just call it¬†men section¬†then?) while the¬†family section¬†is either for women, single or in groups, or for families.

Now, I don’t think that if you are let’s say a woman and you accidentally open the door to the men’s section, you will cause the apocalypse or something horrible will happen. But I think that would be just awkward and may cause some social discomfort since that would go against cultural norms. Besides, I can imagine that some men, especially the conservative ones, will be very confused seeing a woman in a male space all of a sudden. So let’s not upset men’s testosterone levels, ladies, by always entering either through the door that is tinted, or that says family entrance / section above it.¬†

Dear men, if you want to avoid hysterical screaming of hysterical and confused women, never walk into a place (accidentally or not) that has mostly women in it. They actually do start screaming. I have seen it happen.

Once I had ensured my mother that we had to go through the tinted door, we came to a staircase and went up to the second floor where a man was standing behind a counter in an empty room with some chairs and tables. That was quite a strange sight but I guess here is where the idiom other countries, other customs comes true.

Segregation does not only take place at restaurants though. You can see it in other places, too. The actual elimination of women from male places and vice versa happens at restaurants mostly. If you go to a bank there is one huge main entrance and somewhere around the building there will be a door which says ladies branch  above it but I have never been inside a bank here, so that is all I can say.

Some shops also have a families only board hanging over the entrance. That is mostly for shops that are for women like lingerie or cosmetics etc. An Uzbek man here told me that he wanted to get cosmetics for his wife but was not allowed inside the shop because he was a single male and had no female with him.  What I find very ironic though is the fact that women are allowed inside shops that are for men. Like shops that sell thobes or the Zara branch that sells male clothes (been inside there today and did not get kicked out). I have a feeling that it is the women who are being protected from men and not the other way around.

Sometimes there are also two waiting lines at fast food stands or grocery¬†stores in malls. However, these are disregarded most of the time. ¬†I have seen it several times that men would be standing in line under a board clearly having “women” written on it.

Those of you ladies who are sick and tired of being surrounded by men all the time, I suggest to visit the women’s sections in malls or a whole “ladies mall” all together. Places like¬†Panorama Mall¬†or the Kingdom Tower have a whole floor with shops where only women are allowed and men can’t see anything from the other floors because of the tinted glass all around it. In these places, the women who sell things walk around without abayas.

THAT must be the reason why some¬†VERY¬†desperate men sometimes put on niqab and abaya¬†just so they can sneak in¬†to the women’s floors to look at women in western clothes. That is what I have been told. I have not seen that transformation happen with my own eyes but based on my personal experiences at mixed gatherings I would not be surprised at all if this was actually true.

 

A Day in the Life of a Saudi Arabia Expat

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on my peace. joy. pancake blog about what a day in my life in Kosova looked like.

So, one day  I thought to myself: Why not do the same thing for Saudi Arabia, too? As you can tell by the title of this post, I thought that was a great idea, so here you guys go!

While other people around the world are still sleeping peacefully in their beds or are suffering from insomnia, I force myself to get up while being kind of jealous of my European comrades. This is not even because I wake up with the morning prayer calls,which I love the most, at around five in the morning, but because where I live now, the week starts on Sunday.  

So once I manage to keep my eyes open for more than ten seconds without falling back into a deep coma of sleep, I can already hear my cat approach my door and open it, greeting me with his cute, little “feed me, human!” expression on his face, accompanied by a whining meow. At the same time I can hear my alarm go off like there is no tomorrow and whenever I hear that sound of ringing bells anywhere outside of home, I shrink together instantly. My psychology teacher was definitely right: Never set your favorite sound as an alarm. NEVER!

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get from people who don’t know much about life in Saudi, is: “What do you wear outside?” Well, once I have gone through my morning routine and am running out of the house with my coffee mug in one, and my textbooks in the other hand, I have to try really hard not to fall over the long ends of my¬†abaya, which is a black sort of cloak that ALL women have to wear over their regular clothes when leaving their houses.¬†

The next 45 minutes I spend in a large, American style school bus, with a lot of either very sleepy or very noisy kids, most of which are either in elementary or middle school. Despite the variety of noises going all the way from someone in the back playing the clarinet to the two little kids who are watching Cat in the Hat on their Ipad right next to me, and who probably never have heard of that awesome invention called headphones, I still manage to catch up on some sleep for the next 40 km.

By the time the sun has come out entirely and the air has become significantly warmer, I arrive at school and get ready to make it through a day of workload like I haven’t known since I left German college prep four years ago. I have found out however, that even if the amount of work sucks (What else can you expect from IB?), it’s the people around me that help me to get through the day and say to myself: “That move across the globe was so worth it!” International schools are quite awesome in that aspect. You get to meet all sorts of people from all over the world and if you spend enough time with them, you will find that you become more and more like a completely new person. Maybe even for the better.

Throughout the day I hear the prayer call for another time or two. For those of you who may have been wondering, I should mention that in our school classes continue when the calls go off.

By the time I feel like my head is going to explode from all the knowledge I receive and all the things I have to keep in mind for later, the last bell has already rung and I find myself get my abaya from the locker and return to my bus back to the compound. That trip lasts almost as long as the first one with the only difference that the kids are now way louder and that I can’t fall asleep anymore, even though I would love to.

Riyadh is quite an interesting place and despite the limitations, such as no social mixing and the absence of public transport and places like movie theatres, there are some places that one could visit at the end of the work or school day. Malls are pretty impressive mainly because of their size but I am more of a bazaar or souk person. There’s way more to observe and many more interesting things to find. If you chose to visit a souk, a mall or just go out for dinner, beware of the prayer times because unlike our school, everything else shuts down when the call goes off.

Since I happen to be an IB student as you read at the beginning, you can probably guess that my evenings mainly consist of doing homework and studying (and I’m not even in the full IB, to be fair to my fellow students who suffer even more). But then, there are also the weekends where I find myself on a road trip with my family (that I wanted to write about for two months now) or a visit to the “edge of the world“.

So this is pretty much how I have spent the last couple of months. The awesome thing about living abroad though, is that it pretty much never gets boring. Every day becomes more and more of a new adventure, a new lesson, a new experience and that even more than in my home town. My advice to you: If you ever get a chance to live abroad, go for it!!

The Story of How the Watch Got Diabetes

One morning in Saudi Arabia, I woke up and decided that it is time for a new watch. To be more specific that was today.

So, I got on the compound bus with several other ladies that have nothing to do all day, except for household stuff and for whom the highlight of the day, as far as for activities, is a trip to one of Riyadh’s shopping malls that make German malls look like a McDonald’s in Macedonia.

I am not trying to say that the people who live here are so limited themselves, it is just that in Saudi Arabia this is what many people do all day to distract themselves,  Shopping and going out to eat if they are not at the gym.

Even though I am someone who enjoys the traditional bazaars more than the malls, I must say that sometimes there are interesting things about these places, too or at least when you are new here.

You will for example find that even in malls and serious shops, you can still bargain over the price of an object you may also notice that sometimes, customers get very special treatments while trying on a watch.

So I spotted this nice and expensive looking shop that sells watches. Assuming that the things that are sold there are actually real Swiss or Askania watches or whatever, I started to have a close look at the display cases.

Immediately there was a Saudi shop assistant at the counter, showing me all the newest arrivals, trying to direct my attention to the diamond watches, just as the guy in the previous shop did.

There seems to be something about Saudis and diamonds. Maybe some women are really foolish enough to believe that diamonds are a girl’s best friend?

I eventually found some exemplars that appealed nice to me. And here is where I learned that female customer’s are the most favorite customers and that some people really suffer under all the social interaction rules in this country.

The shop assistant was all into helping me chosing the right watch. I have never seen anyone being so enthusiastic about selling something to a woman. Especially in this society. ¬†At least I made a very nice purchase and managed to get the price from ¬†SR 1100 down to SR 600 (from 220 euros to 120 euros). My bargaining skills are improving! ūüôā

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After I FINALLY got out of the shop, I again made the experience that not everything in this place is as bad as people think it is.

When you come to Saudi Arabia and decide to leave the house, you may eventually run into people called mutawa. Sometimes they are also refered to as the religious police. So basically what they do is walk up and down streets or shopping malls, making sure that everyone behaves the way he or she is supposed to do in this society.

If you are an expat woman, you will most likely be asked to cover your hair. When that happens, DON’T argue, DON’T protest or show discontent. Just cover your hair and keep walking.

And this is what happened to me today, as I was just walking around the place. After the mutawa addressed me, ¬†I went in front of the window of a shop, put on my hijab as well as I could without the pins and believe it or not, but the guy actually said: “Thank you.”, when I was done and ready to keep walking.

That’s some nice improvement to see! The last thing that I expected when moving here, was for the religious police to be grateful for me following their orders. I guess such a polite response from these men does not happen often but apparently I was lucky this morning.

So what do you do when you had a successful day out? In my case, you treat yourself to something sweet! As I was in a hurry to get back to my bus, I didn’t find the Arabic sweets that I love so much. Instead I tried something called cinnamon rolls, which my American readers are probably familiar with.

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That thing is so sweet, my blood sugar started to rise from just looking at it. I mean the chocolate literally runs down the whole thing when you try to eat it. Well, but trying once is okay, right? ūüėČ

The Case of the Saudi Matryoshkas

Riyadh, the city that never sleeps.

Somehow I feel like this statement would suit the capital pretty well. There is not much going on here during the day, but once the sun sets, everyone gets out of their fancy or not fancy houses, gets into their fancy or not so fancy cars and turns the streets of Riyadh into a real challenge and hell for most European drivers.

But once the highway of hell, which is how I call the streets of Riyadh when there’s a lot of traffic, has been mastered, you can go to some quite interesting places. Who said that there is nothing to do in Riyadh?

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Souq al-Thumairi or Clock Tower Souq, as some people call it. It is the souq that is very close to the Chop-Chop Square, where the public executions take place. Yes, you read it right. Public executions.

As I mentioned in a previous post, souqs or Arabic bazaars are pretty awesome places to visit. Especially if you are looking for what I call national experience or just want to get rid of your money someplace else than the shopping mall.

As I walked through the streets and the narrow alleys, I felt reminded of the movie The Kiterunner. Probably because of the way the houses looked.

Salesmen were trying to get the attention of the pedestrians, thobes (clothing for Saudi men) in white and black were swinging in the wind and little kids kept running up and down the street. I actually passed by a Saudi man with his two little kids, probably nine or ten years old. A boy with dark hair, a brown thobe and sandals and the girl in a black abaya with red flowers, her hair under a black scarf. Where else would I witness such a scene if not in Saudi Arabia?

I went into the first store that caught my attention with all its bling, bling inside. I must say that I sort of felt like in a normal part of town for tourists. A lot of the things looked very much like souvenirs. Mass produced for the average expat, which is not necessarily what I was hoping to come across but there were some very interesting things to look at anyway. I guess that I just missed the part with the actual antique things. This is also known as the antique souq after all. Hopefully I will be luckier the next time.

The most hilarious thing I saw yesterday, and here is where we get to the title of today’s post, is the Saudi matryoshka. Most of you probably know this under the name Russian doll. That wooden doll that you can open up and that has smaller dolls in it. Well, believe it or not but Saudis have such a doll, too. Absolutely the same concept, except for the fact that the doll looks like either a Saudi man in a thobe or a Saudi woman in a burqa.

I definitely have to put this on my list of things to purchase before I leave this place sometime in May next year. I also put an eye on a Saudi coffee service. An Arabic looking coffee pot on a tray with several small glasses. Looks like it is made of silver (which it probably isn’t) and is nicely decorated in blue colors. Just my absolute dream object to put into a display case at home but too heavy for my suitcase. Maybe there is something I can do. We shall see.

Another amazing thing that I saw was a gramophone. I didn’t even know these are still around. I used to have a simple ¬†thing on which I would play my Russian fairy tales by Pushkin on vinyl discs and it wasn’t even really a gramophone.

So that was pretty much my night out for yesterday. After walking from one store to the next and enduring several minutes in a store that sold incense, perfumes and perfumed oils, I returned home happy but almost broke with some purchases of my own and gifts from some of the salesmen.

Jasmine perfume oil. I smelled lke a Saudi perfume factory by the time I went out of the store. :)
Jasmine perfume oil. I smelled lke a Saudi perfume factory by the time I went out of the store. ūüôā

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The more you buy on a souq in Saudi, the more the salespeople will give you little things as gifts.
The more you buy on a souq in Saudi, the more the salespeople will give you little things as gifts.

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Funny and creative decoration idea.
Funny and creative decoration idea.
A silk scarf that I got. Explains why I am broke by now. I really should work on my bargaining skills.
A silk scarf that I got. Explains why I am broke by now. I really should work on my bargaining skills.

Moving to Saudi Arabia: Back to When Everything Started or How to Pack Everything You Have in Less Than 24 Hours

Since the beginning of this blog, I have written about pretty much everything worth mentioning about the live of a student in Saudi Arabia, except for the day I actually knew I would have the chance to start my life anew. So here is my second post for today, which will be talking about exactly that.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult countries to get into. ESPECIALLY if you are a woman without a husband.  I have been waiting for a visa permit for about six or seven months and as I spent more and more time back home in Germany, my dream of getting to know another country, its culture and its people was in danger of bursting for ever.

The weather in Germany started to get worse. Sunshine and warmth were replaced more and more by a gray sky and constant rainfall and that adorable, pink warm sweater that felt like made of Cashmere wool, which it obviously was not, seemed to whisper in a tempting voice: “Buy me! C’mon I know you want to! I am so pink and fluffy!!”, every time I passed by it in the store.

At some point, at the beginning of September, I finally got an appointment at a so-called Tasheel Center, where I would leave my passport so that it could be forwarded to the Saudi embassy in Berlin. However, I was still kind of sceptic about the whole plan working out quickly.

So I was getting ready for a week home alone, as my hosts were planning to leave for vacation. I did all the necessary preparations and was looking forward to an undesturbed week, eating nutella with grissini bread sticks straight out of the jar, tin can ravioli and drinking coffee and ginger ale while either enjoying a good book or watching my favorite soviet Russian movies, which I like quite a lot.

And THEN, just as I got all excited about all the things I would do while on my own, I got the oh so awaited call, during which a voice with a heavy Saudi accent told me my passport was ready to be picked up.

So I immediately dropped everything and ran to the Tasheel Center to get my visa. I called my parents who were already in Riyadh, so nervous I couldn’t even speak properly.

My flight to Saudi was booked for the next morning. And after six months of waiting everything happened in a rush. I ran all over Berlin, doing the very last purchases, making an improvised “To- Do before leaving” list on my Ipod touch while on the train from one part of town to the other.

I have never been so excited about a new beginning as in that moment. I was so full of joy, I even dropped a 50 cent coin into the bag of a homeless young man and his dog, as I was almost running down the street on Alexanderplatz. 

So yeah, it was all hectic. I called up my best friend to tell her I’d come by and say good bye to her. I ran home to the other end of Berlin to get some of the things I would leave with my BFF before leaving and ran back to her house in the muslim district of Berlin.

And then there was the thing I hate to do the most: packing a suitcase. Don’t get me wrong. Traveling is absolutely awesome but packing sucks. Especially when you have only 20 KG available as you fly from Berlin to Frankfurt and then to Riyadh.

My job was to get everything that I possess into one single suitcase and that in less than 24 hours, in fact even less than 12. I was up all night packing and unpacking clothes, shoes and other belongings. That was definitely an amazing day and a stunnung experience but as of now, every time I get to chat with my Saudi friends or when I just walk up and down the souq or whatever, I know the trip was worth it. ūüôā