Category Archives: riyadh

Guest Post:24hrs in Riyadh- Female Solo Travel in Saudi Arabia

Yes, you read it correctly. I did actually put the words Saudi Arabia, female¬†and solo travel next to each other and I am just as excited about that possibility to occur as some of my readers may be confused. ūüôā

For a blogger or a writer of any sorts, there is nothinng better than getting in touch with his or her readers. Since I started this blog, I have received many  E- Mails from Saudis and internationals, journalists and PhD students, filled with praise for my work or questions regarding my experiences in Saudi and of course some occasional, inevitable criticism.

If any of you are reading this right now: Thank you very much for your time, you are what keeps my work going. I love you all, even my critics!

A couple of months ago, just as I was pacing in front of the lecture hall before my first exam of the semester, I received an E-Mail from Kiera, a lady living in Dhahran who asked me what I would recommend for a short trip to Riyadh. I stood still for a second. Traveling alone in Saudi? As a woman? ALONE?? That was definitely interesting! Women traveling in KSA was nothing new but the ones I knew of did so in groups of at least three in the company of their personal driver.

I immediately forgot about my exam stress as my head started filling with questions. My trip to Jeddah at the end of my stay in the Kingdom ended up not happening so I didn’t really know what to tell her. I admired her decision to take a trip to Riyadh by herself. I wished I would have had the time and the courage to do the same so I did the best I could and told her about¬†things I had done in Riyadh and some of the things I wished I had done, had there been more time and more opportunities.

Today, I am beyond happy to share her story with you! To give you a taste of what awaits you, here’s my favorite quote so far: ‚ÄúPeople in Riyadh are open-minded but the laws are strict somewhat‚ÄĚ.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

The Saudi Souvenir Checklist

Every time I go to a new place. and especially when I am fascinated by it, I always try to get something from there that I can keep as a souvenir. But when I am talking about souvenirs, I don’t really mean things like key chains or T- Shirts that say something like “I ‚̧ KSA”, and if I were to buy something that has “I ‚̧ KSA” on it, it would probably be some sort of hand made art. like a typography poster or something.

I personally am more into things thar are (more or less) unique for the place where I am. Something that has not been mass produced in a way that I could buy pretty much the same thing in souvenir shops all over the world and the only thing that would differ would be the name of the city or country.

I have this little list of things that I would get for myself before I leave, which as I realized will be very soon. In case you are still thinking about what sort of things you’d like to bring home from here, feel free to be inspired by my ideas.

1. Thobe

2. Arabic coffee pot

3. Traditional Saudi women’s dress (not the standard abaya but the colorful one)

4.  Perfume oil

5. Incense

6. Cardamom

7. Some sort of antique

8. Arabic calligraphy art

9. Rose water

10. Jewelery with my name in Arabic on it

11. Middle Eastern style lamp

A Visual Intro to Saudi Art

Many people who have never been here and are convinced that Saudi society is backwards, often think that Saudi Arabia does not have a culture. That also includes the opinion that in Saudi Arabia there are no artists who create fabulous paintings.

For those of you who stumbled upon this post and (falsely) believe all the things listed above, let me share with you my favorite painting exhibits from a booklet that one of my dear friends got for me today. ¬†ūüôā

I know that taking a picture of a picture is probably not the best thing to do, but that is all I have. Enjoy nevertheless!

And before some of you start wondering: No, it is not only men who do art in this country. There are also some paintings by women which I will upload later.

So as you can see, Saudi Arabia is NOT as backwards as you thought it is!

DSC03351
Saudi Colors is an exhibition organized by the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia.
Artist: Abdullah Hajji
Artist: Abdullah Hajji
Artist: Abdullah Al- Rasheed
Artist: Abdullah Al- Rasheed
Artist: Sa'id Sa'id Shahrani
Artist: Sa’id Sa’id Shahrani
Artist:  Saad Al- Melhem
Artist:
Saad Al- Melhem
Artist: Saad Al- Melhem
Artist: Saad Al- Melhem
Artist: Sami Albar
Artist: Sami Albar
Artist: Balod Albalod
Artist: Balod Albalod
Artist: Abdo Fayez
Artist: Abdo Fayez
Artist: Mohhamed Benten
Artist: Mohhamed Benten

To Adapt, or Not to Adapt, That is the Question

Why would the average person move to Saudi Arabia? For many it is all about the luxuries, such as cheap gasoline, luxurious houses and a good salary. But unfortunately,¬†many of those people don’t think about the differences between this country and the country of their origin. In the end, they realize that in order to have a happy life here, one must adapt to the local customs and rules. However, by the time they learn that it is almost too late to change their opinion on the place or sometimes people just chose to be ignorant.

If you are one of those people who think western society is always right and everyone should do as it says with no exception, I suggest you stop reading right here. If you really want to know what will await you once you come to Saudi Arabia and if you are willing to face these challenges, please be my guest and read on.

After again having to listen to western people complain a few hours ago about how terrible they find it to live here with all those “restrictions”, I think I should share a fact that MUST be considered before one decides to move to live here.

So, if you think that you cannot adapt, or if you think that you don’t want or don’t have to live with things like heat, dress codes, social limitations, absence of public transport, pork and alcohol, then DON’T MOVE HERE!!!!!!

Because if you do so, without being able to cope with these things, your life here will be miserable and all you will do is complain about how bad you have it here all day and feel like you wasted a large portion of your precious time, while annoying those who are actually trying to make the best out of their time here, including the locals.

When it comes to living abroad in general, I would say it is all a matter of attitude. You have the choice between being open-minded and ready to explore something new, or you can choose to be ignorant and pretend like you are not a guest in someone else’s country but still “at home” where things go your way. I find this an interesting country. But this is because I told myself that I will make it interesting for me and that I will find things that will make my stay worth the time. So in the end, it is really up to your motivation and interpretation. If you want to have a great time here, you can achieve that!

I really don’t mean to be rude with this post or anything like that. I created this blog to help people have a better understanding of Saudi Arabia and give advice for future expats where I can. So, since this whole adaptation thing seems to be a big deal for most people, I think that it should really be made clear that Saudi Arabia is not like the western society. It is a country with its own culture and its own rules. It is us, the foreigners (including me) that have to get used to the local people and their rules while we are in Saudi Arabia, not the other way around. I am not a patriot and never have been but¬†the foreigners are guests in this country and I think it would only be appropriate to be respectful to the locals. In the end, many of them respect us, too.

And with all that said, I really hope that I was able to help you make an important life decision. As scary as some things may sound about this place, I can say that it is all not as bad as you think, so may your stay be full of new friends, adventures and life lessons! ūüôā