Category Archives: living abroad

The Women Who Did it

Sometimes during my stay in Riyadh I found myself in situations where no matter where I went, I heard moans, complaints and the excited voices of those who could not stop talking about how they would go home for vacation soon, listing all of the (by Saudi standards inappropriate) things they would do once they got there, in great detail.

I was not so much surprised to find that the vast majority of these complaints came from women. Not that I have never experienced uncomfortable or frustrating moments but still did I feel like the best I could do was just stay calm. I had, after all, chosen life in Riyadh over an unsupervised, carefree bachelorette’s life in Berlin myself for the sake of a new environment and now I had to pull it through for a mere nine months. So what could possibly go wrong?

The more time passed, the more I started thinking that something must be wrong with me. I barely answered a question about my experiences in Saudi when I was already interrupted by the person talking to me, telling me how my positive or neutral impressions must be wrong because there were so many other things I did not consider that were actually bad. Whether these other things played any role in my day-to-day life or whether they were even present as such, given my situation, barely concerned anyone. Only the few negative remarks I decided to voice occasionally were approved of with a nod and an “I told you so.” Since I was brought up in the belief that those older than me are wiser and therefore (almost) always right, there was not really a point in arguing.

So I just stayed seated by my table at someone’s birthday party, absently chewing on my peanuts and sipping ‘Saudi champagne’, while the woman talking to me explained how I could possibly be denied medical help and die if my male relative was not there in order to approve of the doctor examining me (a belief widely spread among westerners for some reason and supported by the one or the other interview with a foreign paramedic working in Riyadh). I still hope she did not see me rolling my eyes at her in annoyance.

Towards the end of my stay however, I did take notice of at least some positive changes in those women, who only a few months ago could do nothing but complain.

“You know what I understood now?” asked a friend of mine as we were talking on Skype, shortly after I had returned home. “I realized that I have to stop complaining and take things as they are. If I cannot find the ingredients I need for baking, I just have to use what I have available instead. Making something else if I have to.  Instead of being upset about shops closing for prayer, I should find a way to get things done around those times”, she said to me among a few other things.

A big concern for all these girls, so it appeared to me, was the fact that as a woman in Saudi you have plenty of time. If you don’t know what to do with all of it, it is not a surprise that you let frustration and anger get the better of you.

I have observed how some women discovered a new hobby and expanded it to professionalism. Starting with baking over photography to showing newcomers around town.  I met a group of eastern European wives of Saudis who, naturally feeling a bit lonely in their new residence, got in touch with other wives like them through social media and joined forces when it came to making time pass faster, be it by going on weekend trips to al Khobar or Jeddah, taking their children to the zoo, visiting art exhibits and whatever else they found.

Others were still floating in a bubble of negativity but nevertheless decided that they will probably never have such a luxurious life again and enjoyed their swimming pools,  sinfully expensive Armani pants and deadly high heels while working on their dissertations, teaching English at school or university or just volunteering where they could.

Reflecting on all the stories that these women shared with me, I would say that even though these activities seem so mundane to those who live them every day outside of Saudi, for the women on site, they are indeed little achievements. I would say that they did it. They somehow figured out how to make it through the day and if they can, I am pretty sure so can you.

Why Do You Write About the Good Things?

Those of you who have been reading my blog might have noticed that the significant majority of my articles on this blog have a positive tone to them.

Considering the fact that I have dedicated this site to live in Saudi Arabia, which is unfortunately not seen in a positive light by many people from the outside, many of my readers probably ask themselves why I am keeping a blog that talks about the positive things of Saudi Arabia rather than the whole injustice and all the other questionable things that are going on there as well.

In fact, one of my relatives who has been to Riyadh, too, asked me this question a couple of days ago after I told her happily about all the positive feedback I am getting from my Saudi and non- Saudi readers.

“You must be very talented”, she said. “I have no idea what good things there are that one could talk about considering Saudi Arabia.”

In order to clear at least some of my possible bias, let me say that I am indeed aware of the fact that there were also things during my stay in the kingdom which I did not like and did not agree with. I am also aware of the fact that certain social norms and laws seem or are very unjust in comparison to what we western people know from our societies.

My contributions on here are not supposed to be some sort of propaganda that sugar-coates literally every single aspect of living in Riyadh. Since some people may think that this is exactly what I am doing, I just want to clarify that this was definitely not the motivation for all this.

But then, some of you may ask, why am I writing down the good things instead of challenging what is not so good?

Three hours after I got on the plane from Frankfurt to Riyadh, I got into a conversation with my neighbor who later on became a good friend of mine. “I am excited about my new life”, I said. “I will finally get to know something new and will have some material to write a book about.” This is where my friend told me to be careful with what I published online while in Saudi Arabia. There are certain things which are not supposed to be discussed, hence freedom of speech is rather limited in this country as some of you may have noticed. Maybe it would have been one of my tasks, as someone reporting from this place, to challenge certain things and point out what is not so good. But given how much of such content is already out there, I really started to ask myself who would read my articles if I would just re-write the horror stories that so many before me, including the official western media, have already published? If people wanted to read about what is bad, there would be no reason for them to read my blog. They could look up all the other websites and books instead, reading what they were expecting to read: How terrible of a society Saudi Arabia is. I would not take anything away from them or deprive them of valuable information by not being pessimistic.

So I needed to choose another perspective under which I would compose my articles, which does NOT mean that what I have been writing about so far was all made up.

I knew that I could just as well have written a whole bunch of stuff about everything I did not like, about everything that made me want to pack my bags and leave for good. I could have chosen to be fully affected by negativity and spend nine months in fear, depression, cynicism and homesickness, ruining my mental health as not too little expats in Saudi choose to do unfortunately. But I did not. I wanted to tell others why it is not the end of the world to live here, taking away at least some of the fear that so many foreigners have.I came to the conclusion that looking for some positive things would be much healthier than pointing my finger at everything bad.

You see, the way we perceive things are all a matter of perspective and a matter of choice. In the case of Saudi Arabia probably even a matter of circumstances. A foreigner will have  a different view and a different story to tell than a domestic worker or a local or someone whose marriage to a local turned into a disaster or an expat stay at home mom who has nothing to do all day than look after her child and stay home. So when you reflect upon all the things I have written over the previous months you should keep in mind that this is the story of my circumstances and they are not universal for everyone.

What also contributed to the way I wrote was the fact that I had something to do every day and that the people around me were good to be with. I was lucky to be a student in Riyadh, going to class every day. I had the opportunity to have contacts with other people, not isolating myself entirely, as some other foreigners choose to do. Had I not have my classes, I would probably have turned into a sad, depressed person because there would have been nothing to keep me busy. If you have nothing to do and don’t know why you should be getting up every day, every country will turn into a horrible place, be it Saudi Arabia, Germany, Iceland…you name it.

And this is exactly why I tried to point out something good about the kingdom. Next time you ask yourself that question, remember that everything is a matter of perspective and circumstances.

Ma’a Salama Riyadh: Last Post Maybe

By the time I am writing this I have already left Riyadh and maybe even for good.

There were quite a few things happening but not as much that I could have written about up until now. Things like the last exams or prom and in the end, graduation.

I must say that  despite all of the differences between life in Riyadh and life anywhere else, I miss Saudi Arabia. I miss the call to pray in the morning, the sun that shines all day long and I miss the time I spent in school.

The day I got back to Berlin, we had about 35 degrees Celsius. That was a nice start, especially since it was relatively warm but it was still possible to breathe. But two hours later rain came down and the sky turned dark. That is how it has been here up until now and my friends here still have trouble understanding how I feel cold outside while everyone else seems to be sweating.

I feel like my stay in Riyadh has given me a lot. Maybe I can’t exactly name all of those things but I still feel like I have changed for the better and that somehow I managed to grow as an individual and as an intellectual, especially with the help of my friends. But even if I am mistaken about these things, at least I can say that my time there has given me nine more interesting and enlightening  months in my entire life and has shown me that I am not as anti social as people always thought I was.

I don’t know for sure whether I miss Saudi Arabia as a whole or if I just miss my memories of it. That seems to be something very common in us. We don’t really miss a place or a person or whatever else there is. Sometimes we just long for the memories we have of it but sometimes we don’t and sometimes we actually want to be back.

That stay abroad was quite educational, too. I have been back in Germany for a little more than a week now and I have spotted what I think were 4 Saudi women in the streets. Now that I know what an abaya is and can recognize Arabic words as them actually being Arabic and not Turkish as I used to believe, I noticed that there are quite some people from Saudi Arabia here in Germany. However, they still can be from another Arab place. Who knows.

And with me leaving Saudi Arabia, I guess that this may be my last post. But honestly, I hope that it won’t be and that in the next weeks and months and years to come, I will still come up with ideas for potential posts.

If you are new to the subject of Saudi Arabia and have any questions or suggestions for articles, fell free to share them with me!

And for now, Ma’a Salama,Riyadh!

Thoughts From Under the Veil

I assume that this is not a universal rule but one thing I have noticed about people is that it is always easier to make fun of something one has never experienced or something that one does not know (anything) about. If something goes wrong with the joke or someone gets offended, these people think that they can still defend themselves. All they need to do is to say: How was I supposed to know?

That is true. Most people don’t know. Usually because they never tried. But I think that those who actually dare to make serious fun of other cultures and their customs are people of ignorant nature.

As a sequel to my previous article on the issue of adapting to a new culture, I decided to write about wearing niqab as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.

Now, before all of the complaints and accusations come down on me, I am aware of the fact that my experience is not and most likely will never be, the same as the one of a local woman who covers up because of her belief.  My experiences are the experiences of a white woman putting on a face veil because of where she lives. Whether that is of any value to you or not is your decision.  I am not putting myself into a position to say that I am better or worse than any other woman in this society by doing so because I am none of the above.

I have heard western people make fun of the niqab and abaya for so long, that I started to feel sorry for the women here, even though most of them may not know what the others are saying. So, my main objective was to try and respect local norms by dressing what in this country is considered modestly as well as prove all of those wrong who, in a mean way, make fun of the way that Muslim women here dress. Bottom line is: If I can adapt, then why can’t the rest of the expats? I am, after all, not from Saudi Arabia but from Europe, hence I would be expected to join the joking but I chose not to. I am not even saying you have to go all the way into this. Just stop complaining about the basic things that are asked from you, please.

At this point, most people will ask me: But WHY are you doing this? You know that you don’t have to! So why?

Well, that’s exactly it. I actually do not have to cover my face up to my eyes. I can do that a couple of times every time I am among Saudis and if I decide that I don’t like it, I can just take it off and pretend the whole thing never happened. A Saudi woman however, would probably not have this choice and because I know what advantage I and other western women have in that aspect, I was even more encouraged to put on my niqab as a try. Temporarily of course.

Covering up is not difficult, once you learn it, it does not take up too much of your precious time and it does not hurt you physically. So, give me a good reason why someone should not at least try and do what others do? That is of course, unless you are Saudi and think that it is disrespectful for non Muslims to dress like one, in which case I want to apologize in advance. Disrespect was never the intention but the contrary. If any of my readers are Saudi women but disagree with the veil, then I respect that opinion just the same.

As I pointed out, hiding your face behind a veil, especially if you live in a country where a significant majority of women do this, is not as horrifying as western people think it is (given the fact that there is always the option to take it off again if you are white). At least for me it wasn’t too bad and am I not just a human being like the rest of you? Surely, black is not the best color to wear outside at such high temperatures, but personally for me, that was the only obstacle I faced in putting on a face veil.

The most spread rumor about the niqab is that women who wear one apparently can’t see a thing. If you happen to be one of those people, then I have a huge surprise for you. If a woman wears a niqab that leaves her eyes free (and that is the one the rumors are about, too), she can see totally fine. Just as she would if her face was not covered. My niqab met at the very border of my glasses above and below and I was still able to see everything clearly.

I tied up everything at the back of my head, placed the pins where they belonged and looked at myself in the mirror. It was quite a strange feeling at first. But not because I felt too uncomfortable about it.

When I was a little child, I saw women every now and then who would have everything covered, except for their eyes. Since I was small and the women taller than me and mostly all in dark color, I could not help but be afraid of them. And now here I was and what looked back at me out of the mirror, was one of my childhood fears. I have , at least visually become what I was afraid of. That is, if you ask me, an ironic coincidence and interesting feeling.

I did not feel uncomfortable while walking around the mall. I did not feel oppressed or anything of that sort. The world was not about to end. I was exactly like the majority of the women around me and nobody looked at me like I belong into the zoo. Men did not turn around after me like they usually would if my face or even parts of my neck were visible. After three years in South East Europe, where inappropriate comments about my appearance from men no matter what I was wearing were daily routine, that was a very relieving experience. Nobody asked questions. Nobody accused me of being dressed immodestly, hence not a single religious police officer had a reason to approach me and tell me what is right and what is wrong. I was left alone and theoretically just belonged into the crowd like everyone else.

I remember back when I had to wear a uniform to school in order to look modest and professional, some of my female teachers thought that the idea of professionalism in clothing did not apply to them and some showed up every day like they were just about to take their purse and go party at the club across the road. I do not know too sure about my peers but I was nearly offended by that behavior. I was ( and still am) young and pretty, too. Why did I have to look like a sack of potato, while some of the staff were showing off what nice curves they had? Did I not have the right to be pretty, too?

With that in mind, I felt good about the fact that due to the way I was dressed, I was not offending anyone who believed in modest clothes. Every time I am in school now and see a covered up woman walking to the cafeteria, while I pass by in my leggings and heels, I do feel pretty bad, to be honest.

So I think that just for the sake of respect and not to make those uncomfortable who would be, it is worth it to adapt to rules. It does not have to be the full cover but at least do the best you can. There will always be some people who appreciate that and is that not an awesome feeling to have, when someone appreciates something you do?

Cultural Pas Faux: Shaking Hands

Today, one of my western friends seemed to be very surprised about the fact that in Saudi Arabia men and women who are not related to each other do not shake hands, as it is, generally speaking, socially unacceptable.

I can imagine that some of you may be very surprised as well when finding out about this, so I thought that a post about this cultural norm may end up being helpful for most of you.

It is true, if a man and a woman who are not related to each other meet, under whatever circumstances because actually that is a no-go as well, they are generally not supposed to shake hands with each other. Sometimes they may exchange greetings but I am not too sure how that all works.  In this culture men and women have to be related to each other in order to interact, which is why shaking hands or expressing affection for a non-relative in public is a very rude thing to do here.

Now, that does not mean that not related men and women NEVER EVER communicate. A woman can ask a salesperson how much something costs or whatever similar talk is going on at a cash desk. A woman also has a driver whom she tells where to go etc. So as you can see, communication does take place but it is limited to very necessary or formal things.

But as you absorb this information, please keep in mind that you should never throw people all into one pot.

There are always exceptions and that applies to any description of the locals that I talk about on this blog.

Saudis who have spent some time in the west or are just generally less conservative, actually do shake hands with women. Formally, as a way of greeting them and most likely in the presence of some relatives. It also depends on the setting and not just on the person alone. I mean it’s not like the local people at my school never talk to me. In fact, the majority of my friends be it in Saudi Arabia or Germany are Muslims. So if people interact within a western environment, their behavior may certainly be a little different.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations where the men did not pay any attention to the women at all. It was as if we did not exist. So as you can see, everyone is different.

My advice would be to just wait and see what the local person does. If he is okay with shaking hands, then go ahead. If not, you should just respect that. I have been invited to a house for tea with my family once and as one of the hosts came in, he actually held out his hand. By then I was so into local limitations, all I could do, was just stare at the hand, wondering what was going on here, and then to my dad, making sure it was okay to shake hands.

I know this all sounds strange but let’s be honest, some cultures are very different from others. In Spain and France people kiss each other on the cheek, in Germany and elsewhere people shake hands and in Japan people bow. So if we are okay with these customs, why not respect the Arab ones, too?

 

Slices of Life

One day in my journalism class back in Junior year, my teacher suggested that we add a “slices of life” section to our school’s news blog but whether we actually did that or not, I can’t remember.

Basically, a slices of life section contains short things that…let’s say just happened. Maybe somebody said something very funny. If so, a journalist can write that funny quote down and here you have your slices of life contribution. Or maybe someone just did something funny or remarkable or whatever and you happen to have it videotaped. Well, you get the idea.

I have not been thinking about this type of thing up until today.

It was again coffee morning time and I made myself get up in the morning because of one of these things I have seen last time but didn’t buy.

Once I arrived at the full hall, with all the people already there, ready to spend their money on local stuff, I realized that the stand with the pictures was not build up yet and so I just kept walking around aimlessly.

I bought a lovely looking greeting card and went outside, just so I could escape the masses for a moment. Right there was a stand of a (most likely) Filipino lady, who was selling cupcakes.

“Do you want to try one?”, she asked, “don’t worry it’s healthy”.

The cupcake on the right is made with carrots and lemon. I really suggest to try making that one! Tastes delicious!!!
The cupcake on the right is made with carrots and lemon. I really suggest to try making that one! Tastes delicious!!!

Healthy cupcakes, I thought to myself. How does that work? But then the lady told me that she made them with olive oil, honey and whole wheat flour so that made sense after all.

Those cupcakes turned out to taste very delicious, so I said I would buy two of them.

And here is where I got the surprise of the day!

“Of course”, she replied and handed me the plastic box. “Help yourself”.

Then she looked at me for a moment and just as I grabbed the first one she asked: “Do you have kids??”

Slowly I put the second cupcake in the box and faced her with a smile on my face, trying to hide my confusion as well as I could.

“Kids? Oh…no, no, no. I am a student…”, I said, destroying her hopes of more potential customers from my side.

I mean I have been in a lot of situations where people thought of me as much older. I have been asked to sign petitions for Greenpeace and all that when I was 14. I have been asked if I was married because of the ring I used to wear and still do, on my finger, to keep away (Albanian) men who were very eager to ask me out for a coffee. In my previous schools, some people even thought I was a teacher but never in my life has anybody ever thought of me as a mother of children of cupcake eating appropriate age.

The funny thing is that I didn’t even have make up on today.

I celebrated my 19th birthday last week and my best friend messaged me, saying that now I was getting old. I guess she was right to some extent.

Well, at least I am smiling as I am typing this.

And while you enjoy laughing about my story, or maybe not, enjoy these two pictures I bought at one of the stands today as well.  They are a combination of digital and hand made art.  Feel free check out Arabian Moon for more amazing designs. 🙂

Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon

365 Days Around the Sun

Just to make sure that I am still around, here a little summary of my birthday in pictures.

Never would have thought I’d spend my 19th year on earth in a place like Saudi Arabia…

cake cupc geburtstag rose