Category Archives: living in saudi arabia

Service Denied

I came across something on my Facebook feed today that sparked in me a new load of thoughts that may keep this blog going.

There was a video about how a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia had denied service to women and asked for their drivers to get the coffee instead.

Dear haters and critics out there, I don’t want to proclaim that Saudi Arabia is a paradise for women (not by comparison to other places, in my opinion).  I know that finding yourself in a situation where you can’t even get a cup of coffee just because you are a woman sucks. No matter how minor the issue is, it’s just not a nice thing to experience.

The video I saw made the wrong impression that women are now generally banned from entering ANY Starbucks in the ENTIRE country. As someone who has spent some time in the field of journalism, seeing this twisting and omission of facts, makes me want to roll my eyes as far as possible.

My further reading on this ban revealed that the women have been banned from entering this one particular Starbucks because the wall that separated single men from single women or women with their husbands, collapsed and therefore women could not enter the place until the issue was resolved. That is something the makers of that video apparently chose to ignore. I have no idea how such a wall can collapse and why it would do so but the absence of a separation medium as a reason to not allow women in sounded like a realistic explanation.

The average Westerner may think that setting up physical barriers between men and women in 2016 is absurd and I agree with that. It is a matter of principle to be offended by the fact that someone is not allowed to do something based on gender. But it should also be said that if gender segregation is a part of Saudi daily life based on religion and tradition and if Saudi society thinks that they want to keep that up even in 2016, then, dear haters and critics, I doubt that there is anything we “civilized modern people” can do about it by raging on social media. So just save your energy for more important things that your discontent can actually have an effect on once you add a pinch of action to it. Something like climate change or the waste of still edible food or Trump becoming president of the United States!

Some of you may argue that if there was no separating wall in that Starbucks, then why not just leave the men outside and let women in?

Good idea! For the sake of a change of scenery in the media coverage on what happens in Saudi Arabia, let me tell you that while women are banned from only one particular section of a shop, men can sometimes not enter at all unless they have a woman who accompanies them. Not to mention whole floors in malls or entire shopping malls as a whole that are reserved for women only.

There are quite a number of shops in Riyadh that have “Family Only” written above their entrances. In that case, a man who is on his own, will not be allowed inside the shop no matter how much he wants to get in.

That might not sound like a big deal to you (but to be honest, being banned from one single Starbucks while there still thousands of others out there should neither, in retrospect), but sometimes it also becomes an inconvenience to Saudi and non-Saudi men alike.

I remember having a conversation with a young man from Uzbekistan who had come to Riyadh for work. He had a wife back home and because in Riyadh you can find all sorts of fancy stuff not available in some other countries, he decided to go to the mall and get some cosmetics or perfume for his wife. The place where he had seen a potential gift however, was a “Family Only” shop. So he had no choice but to think of something else to get her. Something that he could get at a place where men were allowed inside.

So you see, if you are a man and you want to get an item that is more oriented at women or if your wife sends you out to get that something for her, chances are you just won’t be able to get it, unless you find it in a shop that is open to everyone.

I expected to find a reverse situation when my friend and I found ourselves at a ZARA MEN store. I assumed that since this was a store that only sold items for men, my friend would not be allowed in to pick a shirt for her husband. On the contrary! No one said a word about our presence. The staff was even kind enough to ask whether we were looking for something specific and if they could be of any help.

From the posts of a fellow blogger in Riyadh, I gathered that when little children attended organized gym classes for toddlers, or play dates or whatever it is you call that, there are cases when only the mothers are allowed to attend with their kids.

So, if you are (rightfully) going to pose the question of how come women are denied things just because they are women, then, for the sake of the bigger picture you may also ask:

Why should a man not be able to buy his wife something he wants her to have just because he is a man and has no other woman to come along with him? How come a father can’t accompany his own kid to some pastime activity just because he is a man?

The fact that men are allowed so many other things put aside because inequality is a matter of principle, isn’t that all a bit unfair despite being a minor issue? Especially if you are a man in that situation? But I guess no one has ever thought about that, right?

 

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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!

The ‘Women May Not Walk on the Street Alone’ Myth

I have noticed that a lot of the people who are new to Riyadh, including me at the very beginning, are convinced that women are not allowed to leave the house alone, meaning that it is also not allowed for them to walk down the street without male company.

That is a very widely spread –I am tempted to say cliché on the internet when it comes to doing research on this country’s social regulations.

Yes, there are certain rules in this country that appear strange to the western world. Yes, some of the regulations here are strict and YES, it does take some effort to adapt to the local customs but that does not mean that there is some sort of… TOTAL control going on.

When I first told my Saudi friends about the whole “I may not leave the house on my own” thing, they were probably laughing at me in their heads, saying that this rule is just a myth.

In fact, I do go to malls on my own. So today I thought why not just go for a walk in the street and see what the whole drama is about? What’s the difference between a mall and a street after all?

So this afternoon I put on my abaya and my headscarf and went outside. I am actually not obligated to cover my hair, unless the religious police sees me and tells me to do so. But quite frankly, I have nothing against hijabs and if I am outside in the street on my own, it is probably for my own good not to attract anyone’s attention and Saudi Arabia is really a place where you don’t want someone’s attention in the street.  So the least I can do is prbably just look like any other woman here.

Well, guess what! I went outside for a walk and nothing terrible happened to me, Alhamdulillah! It is okay to be on the street as a woman. Be it with or without the male guardian. I have seen women walk down the street alone all the time. Who knows, maybe I was just lucky today but I mean I passed by so many people, if it really were forbidden for women to walk alone, someone would have notified the police for sure and I would have been in trouble, probably not writing this right now.

The problem with being a pedestrian here is not whether you are allowed to be one or not but whether you can find any pavement to walk on. Riyadh reminds me a lot of Prishtina sometimes. With all the cars parking wherever there is a spot, making it almost impossible to walk on the street and all the small shops with apartments above them.

As for my neighborhood, there is lots of construction debris and cars on the streets. As well as many small shops, like a Sugar Sprinkles store and even two shops selling thobes that I did no dare to go into because there were only men inside. Then, there were also a lot of shop spaces just standing there empty, before I got to a row of residential homes that look a little bit like some houses in Spain, except that the ones here are fancier decorated and have the color of sand.

I even found a shop that sells Arabic sweets and various plates of different chocolates and cakes and ice cream, you get the idea, right?

DSC03235 So I obviously went inside and bought this delicious box of sweets. Since I showed up with my hair covered, I have been addressed by the salesperson in Arabic and he had a relatively surprised expression on his face, when I asked him to please repeat in English.

By the time the prayer calls sounded from two or three mosques at the same time, I reached the end of the street, that led to a traffic light on a street filled with driving cars. Since it would get dark soon, I turned around and walked back to the compound. And here another interesting observation:

As I approached the end of the street and was ready to cross the road, a  car that was approaching stopped as the Saudi driver saw me coming closer, letting me cross the street. I was astonished. Based on my prejudices towards Arab men’s views on women, I would not have been surprised if he would have driven faster, making things difficult for me.

Ladies, if you really want to go outside and buy something in that store down the road, there seems to be nothing wrong with doing that. Your main concern will be actually finding a road to walk on without having to watch out for cars.

However, I should also note that it is very important to have an ID with you. Actually your iqama is best. You don’t want to appear too lost when being outside alone. It may happen that a mutawa or police officer approaches you if you look like you got lost and asks to identiy yourself.

Red Rose Contraband

Red lips sofa by Salvador Dalí. A souvenir from Barcelona and flowers I got last summer.
Red lips sofa by Salvador Dalí. A souvenir from Barcelona and flowers I got last summer.

Many people who decided to live in another culture and who have done research on the internet before moving to their new home, may have found that some things ended up being different than expected upon arrival.

There are quite some things that appear strange about Saudi Arabia as well. A couple of months ago, I read that smart phones and (Barbie) dolls are banned in the kingdom. Once I found myself in a mall and on the street however, I saw smart phones that are even fancier and more expensive than the ones back home in Germany and buying a doll for you daughter is really not a big deal here. You can even get Barbie dolls in a headscarf and abaya no problem.

What did prove to be true however, was the ban of Valentine’s Day.  So I guess that herewith I will have to disappoint all of the westerners who were hoping to continue their Valentine’s habits in this country.

Anything red is forbidden on this day. Yes, even for non- muslims. If you plan to leave the house on February 14th, make sure you are not wearing anything red or have anything heart-shaped on you. The mutawa are especially attentive on this day and if you get caught, you will most likely be arrested.

Flower shops here are absolutely breath taking (that from the perspective of a woman). The first time I got a glance at the inside of a flower shop in Riyadh and saw all of the different types of flowers, my eyes became the size of Oreo cookies and were shining like Swarovski jewelery on a sunny day.  On Valentine’s Day however, you won’t find any red roses in there, unless you have some special connections and like to live dangerously.

So basically, for all the history knowers out there, red roses on Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia are like tomato ketchup in the German Democratic Republic. Not a good thing that you would usually buy under the table if you thought you needed it.

I have heard about quite some Saudi husbands who got flowers in advance, got them from embassies or bought them in the back rooms of shops. Sounds romantic at first but then, if you think about it, why being nice to your spouse only once a year on only one particular day? The year has 365 days after all.

This is where I remember a point made by one of my professors about  year ago. Be nice, act like a gentleman every now and then (any other day than Feb. 14th) and you won’t need to worry at all. Makes your life much easier instantly and gives the gesture much more meaning, doesn’t it?

On Prom Dresses and Strange Opening Hours

My grandfather, whom I unfortunately never got to meet personally, always said that you can have several wedding dresses, as you can get married several times, but you will only have one single prom in your life.

With that in mind, and because I really needed a reason to leave the house, I found myself at one of Riyadh’s shopping malls, which I usually visit like museums because pretty much everything sold there is out of my price range, to look for an evening dress.

One thing that you may notice about malls here, is that they are full of women. It is the women who do all the spending while men are, for the most part, responsible for making the money, driving their wives to the malls and carrying their shopping bags.

Men are the people who usually take a seat somewhere in the corner while their wives are searching for a new dress to spend the money on and in a lot of cases the man can come in handy because let’s be honest: Who else would hold up that poor, little dress in the perfect position so that the woman can take a picture of it?

Absolutely no offense here. Just describing what I’m seeing. Honestly.

Even though Riyadh may have some interesting shopping opportunities, there is one problem with it for the average Western person: Most shops don’t open until circa 4 p.m. Once they open however, you may enjoy being the consumer of goods and services until midnight or even later than that.

For the most part, Riyadh has all of the stores you can find in the United States or other Western countries. The catchiest thing for me though, given the special occasion, were the dresses and not only the normal, but the traditional Saudi dresses, too.

Abayas may be plain black but the other traditional dresses, the ones that are worn on special occasions like weddings or other gatherings are, in my opinion, absolutely breathtaking. According to my research, chances are that these are just female thobes (Dear Saudi readers, you are most welcome to correct me here). They are long, wide and have long sleeves but they have so many different colors and patterns on them, I would have worn one of those to prom if that wouldn’t be totally ridiculous and if our theme would already not have been set to The Great Gatsby. I mean it.

The “normal” dresses are just like the ones you can buy in Turkey and here they cost somewhere between € 200 and € 500 (original price in Saudi Riyal). All of those shops, one next to the other, reminded me of the Albanian bazaar in Skopje, that sold jewelery and wedding dresses.

Instead of revealing all the details about how I couldn’t find anything, let me just tell you about some things to keep in mind when shopping or doing groceries. Many stores are labeled as “for families only”. That means, that if you’re a man, you won’t get in there without your wife or other female relative. The same thing applies to some cash desks and cafés.

Then, there are also the prayer times. If you happen to be inside a grocery store when the call to pray goes off, you may stay inside the grocery store and keep shopping. In fact, you don’t have any other choice than that if you don’t leave before the prayer starts. In other, smaller shops you will be asked to leave.

What most people who don’t pray do is go and get something to eat or to drink. There are some remarkable food courts in the malls here, so you probably won’t get bored. Chances are I will cover my demand on Cinnabon rolls for the next couple of years within the next few months I have left here.

There are extra rooms that are meant for prayers but don’t be surprised if you see people pray in front of shops or just somewhere in the hallways. Pass by, don’t walk in front of people while they pray, as that is considered disrespectful and don’t laugh.

And with that said…enjoy spending your money! 🙂

 

Everybody Loves German Tourists

The time has finally come where I  got myself to sit down and write about the one road trip I was on in Riyadh, which is now several months back.

It was one of those days when we had guests from abroad and as we all know, guests want to be entertained and are all excited about seeing something of the place where they just landed.

Even though I have lived in Riyadh for a little while now, I was just as curious as the newcomers. As much as I like this place, what is there to show people?

Well, several kilometers and palm trees later, I knew at least part of the answer.

On our way to a place called Diriyah, we passed by something that looked very much like some archaeological place with very old leftovers of buildings.

DSC03078

Trying very hard not to fall over the hem of my abaya, I got out of the car and held my camera ready. Just in that moment I noticed a board, letting me know that stepping onto that ground was not allowed. So the rest of the group and me took some quick pictures and were ready to get back into the heavenly air-conditioned car, when one of the people I was with, was addressed very friendly by a group of young Saudi men in white and brown thobes.

They did not pay much attention to us women but treated all the males like they have been the closest friends for decades and have not met just a second ago.

“I am an archaeology student”, said the one with a camera around his neck. “Don’t you want to come along and take a look at this? We will show you.”

“What about the prohibition sign?”, asked our guide.

“Oh no worries…it just stands there but nobody cares really.”

And so, we got a guided tour through this small part of Riyadh, somewhere on the highway, surrounded by beautiful and ancient mosques.

DSC03089After a couple of minutes, a few more Saudis joined us and this time with a group of little kids. The children greeted us with bright smiles and enthusiastic handshakes, talking at us in Arabic. All we could do is smile back, not understanding anything they were saying. But there is one quite amazing thing about children, they don’t really care where you are from or what language you speak, somehow they still manage to communicate with you and have a lot of fun doing that.

It reminded me of my first few months in Germany as a little girl, when I met another girl on the playground. She spoke German and all I knew was Russian and a few bits of English but we still became quite good friends for the day, Esperanto or not.

By the time we saw everything there was to see, the Saudis wanted to invite us to have tea with them. I feel like they may have been a little upset when we kindly denied the offer, continuing our sight-seeing trip.

But as it turned out, we still got our tea a few more palm trees later.

Several kilometers northwest from Riyadh, we reached a reconstructed village called Diriyah, which used to be the capital of the first Saudi dynasty and is now, believe it or not, a UNESCO heritage site.

DSC03119

Just as we parked our car and were ready for a walk among the ancient buildings, we were noticed by some locals. As it seems to be the norm here, we were immediately invited to join them for coffee and dates and this time it was quite uncomfortable to reject, so we followed them into what I would call a typical Saudi style house made of stone.

We found ourselves inside a large, cool room with a red carpet and pillows on the ground. In Saudi Arabia, you have your tea or coffee not at a table but, after taking off your shoes,  while sitting on the ground with everyone else.

First we were served Arabic coffee, or qahwah, a yellow and thick substance with cardamom and all that in a small cup. Out of politeness, I forced myself to finish it off in one, fast gulp. Then came the two types of dates, the dry and the not dry ones, then the tea and water. Every time I finished my cup of coffee, I was served another one immediately and I hardly spit out the core of a date, when I was handed the full box again.

“So where are you from?”, asked one of our Saudi hosts, who spoke some bits of English.

“We are from Germany.”, said one of the people in our group.

No matter how bad a Saudi’s English is, the word Germany will always be understood and welcomed with visible excitement.

“Ah Germany! Mercedes!!”, said another Saudi.

A man who has been standing in the background for a while and didn’t speak anything but Arabic, pointed his finger at the ceiling, visibly all happy to show us Germans something we must approve of. By looking closely we saw an energy efficient lamp. Yes…Germany has spread its roots certainly everywhere…

By the time we felt like we would explode from all the coffee and dates, our hosts decided to show us around the house.

Forget about Western architecture. This was something completely different from the family houses or even apartments in Europe or the United States. Everything in this house was probably constructed by hand and of stone. The few furniture items seemed quite antique as well, except for the fridge and leather made water bottles tha looked a little like small bags hung down from the ceiling.

But the highlight of this place was waiting for us in the next room, the date oven.

DSC03100

If any of you were wondering how dates were made, they are stored to dry in one of those “ovens” like the one above. Depending on how long dates are stored, they can either end up tasting dry or a little more juicy.

After we had to promise to come back for a visit as soon as possible, we said our farewells to the Saudis and continued our hike in the November sun, which was quite warm given the fact that it was fall and my black abaya, absorbing all the heat it could get, did not make it any easier to survive without an AC.

The place was nearly empty and we were the only Westerners in this big open air museum. Looking at empty rooms that used to be schools or served living purposes, we passed by several men in thobes and women in burqas, some of them looking at us like we belonged in a museum ourselves.

So at the end of the day, not being able to look at dates anymore, I again learned the lesson that there is always something interesting about a place if you only look close enough.

You Know You Live in Saudi When…

Just as I was on the plane from Istanbul to Riyadh at the beginning of this week, I started thinking about the things that make this place so…special.

Now, I know that every place in the world is special in some way or form. However, I feel like sometimes there are some things here that are just very unique in a sense of getting to know a new culture which is the amazing thing about traveling the world.

So here is a list of the things that I can think of right now. I may add on to this later.

You know you live in Saudi Arabia when…

1. You have to stop your car while on the road because a camel appeared in front of it like out of nowhere.

2. The salespeople at the watch stores offer you to buy a diamond watch like that is the most normal thing in the world to do.

3. You are absolutely familiar with the layout of the goods at Carrefour, without ever having done groceries in France before.

4. There are more Lexus cars on the street than Mercedes.

5. The majority of the cars are white.

6. Gasoline is CHEAPER than water (130 liters of diesel for 8 euros. U mad, Europe?)

7. People don’t  have to pay taxes.

8. There are so many different types of dates that you could consider them staple food.

9. You wake up for school to prayer calls.

10. The week starts on Sunday.

11. You get random calls from Saudis that think your number is actually somebody else’s number and they just keep calling you back even after they have realized that you don’t speak a word of Arabic.

12. You can bargain over the price of almost any item and not only on the bazaars.

13. You have gotten used to buying clothes without trying them on first ( a habit that I have developed. I see it, I like it, I buy it. Why waste time trying it on, right?).

14. Schools are closed because of rain.