Category Archives: student blog

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. 🙂

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: “People in Riyadh are open-minded but the laws are strict somewhat”.

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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?

 

Ahlan Wa Sahlan to Riyadh!

It was a chilly day in September and my alarm clock was ringing at quarter to nine. My spacious room in the basement was nearly empty. The one suitcase packed, my almost ancient backpack looking like it would explode from all the things in it and my long, black skirt, that my grandmother sewed for me just for this occasion in one day before I left Belarus, were all lined up along the wall.

I felt just as I did three years back when I was moving away for the second time in my life but only this time did I anticipate it like a little child anticipates its birthday gifts the next morning.

When you move to a place like Riyadh, there is one thing you really need to be good at if you want to survive it there. You have to be patient and believe it or not, this whole patience thing already starts at the airport of your home country or from wherever you are starting your journey. So there was me in my black, floor long skirt, black T-Shirt and a knit jacket that my hosts convinced me to put on before I left just so I didn’t freeze to death on the plane. That alone may cause some suspicion or at least curious looks from the people around, especially with that monster of a suitcase right next to me.

Then come all the formal travel related questions.

“Excuse me, are you traveling to Riyadh for touristic reasons?”, asked the man behind the check in desk, visibly irritated. Looking at my non- German passport, he also tried to make sure that I spoke German, which was strange, given the fact that I just greeted him without any accent.

“No, not for touristic reasons”, I said in fluent German. “I am visiting my parents and going to school there”, I added.

“Do you have a visa then?”, he asked suspiciously.

I asked him to take a look at page so and so in my passport and with that he had to leave me alone but apparently there are so little people traveling from Berlin to Riyadh, that he didn’t even know how to enter me into the system. I already started to think there must be something wrong with my entrance permit and felt my blood turn cold inside my veins. My self -control skills were required even before I set foot on Saudi ground.

About two hours later however, I was already on my long march through Frankfurt airport, trying to find the right gate. One of the myths about Saudi Arabia that I have been reading about online was busted right after I was through the security check point. In front of me, there was a British lady, already in her abaya and with blond hair. I had restrained myself from dying my hair blond again during the summer, thinking that blond hair was forbidden in the kingdom. Well, here was to ahead of time research on the internet.

Once you have mastered the “hiking” on Frankfurt airport, and whoever has been there will know what I mean by hiking, finding the right gate to Riyadh is not difficult at all. You just have to keep looking for women in abayas or men in thobes.

Abayas, or even burqas as such, were nothing new to me. I spent part of my childhood in the Muslim district of Berlin and saw many such women on the street on a daily basis. When I was a little girl, I was afraid of the women in their black cloaks where all I could see were their eyes, and now I was going to live in a place where the majority of women look like that. In that moment I had to think about what ironic turns life can take sometimes. Ironic, that’s what it all was really.

What did grab my attention however, was the male clothing. There may be women in burqas in Germany but don’t expect to find a man in a white robe somewhere on the subway. That robe wasn’t just white. It was shiny white or super white. Whatever you want to call it. How much detergent has to be used to keep it THAT white? I mean seriously?

The flight to Riyadh was something that seemed awfully long. Sometimes five hours can seem like an eternity, even in the comfortable seats of a Lufthansa plane, while watching Night train to Lisbon on the screen in front of you, while you are being served something to eat every now and then.

When half of that eternity seemed to be over, I was confronted with an uncomfortable surprise. Filling in entry cards. Generally that is no big deal but it sure becomes one when you find yourself several feet above the ground and your pencil is somewhere in your gigantic suitcase. Dear people who ever want to fly to Riyadh, don’t forget to bring a pen on board. You’ll need it.

“Excuse me, do you have a pen I can borrow?” I asked the stewardess that was just passing by me.

“I am sorry Madam, I have only one and I can’t give it to you.”

Ready to panic, I started looking around to see whom I could ask for a pen or just anything to write with.  Here is where (at least part) of myth number two was busted.

“Do you need any help?” asked me the man in the seat next to me, looking concerned. As it turned out, that man was Saudi. According to my research, he wasn’t even supposed to look at me but there he was, asking if I needed help and doing that in an absolutely normal, respectful tone. Lesson two for the day: Saudis don’t always treat women like they are absolutely worthless.

Two hours before we landed, the stewardesses were going around, offering drinks and snacks. Some people were going for a brandy before the cabin crew announced that we would reach Riyadh shortly, reminding us that the possession of alcohol and drugs was strictly prohibited in the kingdom and results in capital punishment. Oh the irony again, I thought to myself, looking at some Saudi men finishing off their brandy.  Right in that moment, when we were about to land, I felt fear rise up in me for the first time in months. All of a sudden I realized that this was it. I was about to land in one of the strictest countries in the world, whose culture was nothing like mine. I was afraid because in that moment I realized that I had no idea what I was going for and that not knowing sent cold sweat down my back.

With the filled in entry card and my passport, I walked down the halls of King Khalid International Airport. It is not too big but the interior made me feel like I was inside a concert or theater hall in Belarus, with all its neat walls and bright lights and all.

When arriving in Riyadh, there are several passport check points at the airport one can go through. The main three that one should be aware of are the one for people that come in for the very first time and the one for people who are returning. If you happen to be a man coming back with your wife, there is also a family checkpoint.

The newcomer line is the longest and probably the slowest one as well. When you finally get there, the person behind the desk will take a picture of you and take your fingerprints with some fancy, electronic device. Many Saudi men, and especially the ones that are in some sort of authoritarian position seem to just love to boss around and let you know how important they are as opposed to you.  As difficult as it seems, just let it pass, especially if you are a woman. Also, make sure that you get a stamp and a number on your entry visa. This verifies that you entered the country. Sometimes the people who work at the airport just forget to do that and that will make it impossible for you to leave the country later.

Trying to get used to all the thobes and burqas around me, I was looking for my suitcase and seemed not to be able to find it. Under some mystical circumstances my baggage ended up on the conveyor of British Airways, even though I was flying Lufthnsa all this time. Thanks to the Pakistani worker who showed me and carried the bag to the exit. If I had any Saudi money on me, I sure would have given a tip.

The air outside was warm, even though it was September, so that my choice of clothing was just right, and I thought to taste the dust in the air.  With my parents right next to me, the taxi drove to what was now my new home, through the dark streets, passing by various expensive looking cars and road signs labeled in Arabic. I did not know yet where exactly I was going but I sure was on my way to a big, cultural adventure.

 

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!!

Two Different Worlds?

After being back home for almost one week, I have realized that the so called “culture shock” got me just now and not the moment I stepped on Saudi ground back in September of this year. 

Maybe it is not a culture SHOCK really but just the definite realization that I am living in an entirely different culture now, or just different world. 

First of all, here in Germany I am obviously all on my own. I can get from A to B using public transportation and wear whatever I want on the street, nobody and I mean NOBODY cares.  I wouldn’t say that I missed this kind of freedom very much but it just has become more and more obvious to me over the last couple of days. 

I feel like the basic difference that I notice here is the freedom people have. There are gluehwein stands all over town for those who enjoy that drink, people walk around in all sorts of dresses and hair colors and boyfriends take out their girlfriends for dinner in public even before they get married. However, that sometimes becomes an extremely annoying thing as well. 

Just yesterday have I noticed how beneficial gender segregation, as there is in Saudi, can be. In Saudi Arabia, there is no social interaction between people who are not related, while in Germany wait for it…you are free to do what you want!!!

I was just sitting on the train on my way home, when a young couple occupied the two seats in front of me.  Well, despite the fact that the two were in a public place, surrounded by various strangers, they started to show off how much they liked each other. I won’t get into detail on this but just say that they were VERY enthusiastic about it. 

In Saudi Arabia I definitely wouldn’t have to suffer from such a sight and that is pretty much all I could think of until I finally got off the train some stations later.

Then came the christmas shopping. For some reason every single Berliner, including me, decided to buy all the gifts two days before D-Day. 

I was just getting something for somebody in  a bookstore, as I was flooded by a crowd of shoppers. Honestly, I felt nearly claustrophobic after five minutes.

In Riyadh, there is always a certain distance between the people in the shopping mall or anywhere else in public (unless somebody wants the tiny spot in front of you in a waiting line). Yesterday in the German shop, someone literally grabbed me by my shoulders and moved me to the side. I assume that the one or the other Muslim reader of this will shake his or her head in disbelief now. 

So yes, there certainly is a difference between the cultures. It is open to debate whether one is better than the other. One is very…”disciplined” and strict while the other one is more of a laissez-faire society.  But all in all I feel like such cultural exchanges are a good thing after all. Maybe I will learn to appreciate my “Western freedom” some more after my stay in the Middle East is over. 

 

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! 🙂

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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? 😉

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. 🙂

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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.