Category Archives: student expat 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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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?

Coffee Mornings, Stroller Tanks and Other Stories

What would your first thought be if you got out of the house, walked up to the street of your compound and saw dozens and I mean dozens of buses standing there neatly along the sidewalk? Mass evacuation? That’s probably what you think but no, that just means that a bunch of women from all over the city have assembled on your compound today because it’s coffee morning time.

A coffee morning is pretty much something like a bazaar that takes place on a compound and is mostly for all the expats. Sellers bring all of their stuff and people come in to buy it. You can get pretty much everything from abayas to traditional souvenirs to shawarma.

These coffee morning events can become very full. This is because coffee mornings are a woman’s pretty much only opportunity to leave her compound once a month  and interact with other women from other compounds.

The worst crowds form at the abaya stands. Since the whole thing took place where I live, I got up a little earlier and used the few minutes I had to look for a new abaya without being surrounded by several other women, who were indirectly trying to crush me between them.

I have made the discovery that there also are abayas that don’t button up in front but that you put on over your head. Dear women, if you get your hands on such one, I’d recommend to buy it. With that one you won’t have to bother about the buttons opening when you are outside. You just put it on and basta. No messing around with buttons.  In the end it looks more or less like an oversize dress even and it can also have decorations in other colors than black.  On such gatherings you can also get designer abayas, which look pretty unique and abayas made of more natural material so you don’t boil as much during the summer months.

There are also some remarkable pieces of jewelery and art you can get. The great thing about buying things in this country is that prices are always negotiable. All ou have to do is, once you show interest in an item, put on a sorry face, like you really regret that you don’t have enough money to buy it. That usually works the best and can bring you a nice discount.

As I already mentioned, you can also meet new people or realize that nationalities you were not aware of live in Riyadh as well. I heard people speak Russian several times today. I assume they are either Russian or Uzbek. In fact, the whole event today made me think of that one exhibition building in Minsk where all the bazaars take place. Something like the Middle East bazaar or honey bazaar. It was just like home, except it was not as hot as it was during my last visit in Belarus.

Let me tell you however, that such coffee mornings are not necessarily for everyone. The amount of people there is huge. If you are claustrophobic, you better stay home.

Apparently strollers are multifunctional now. If you show up there with your child, you can use your stroller as a sort of mini tank that will help you to get your way mercilessly  through the crowd. What women do here, is they just push the thing in front of them like it’s a tank going through a forest and the other people around are the trees that have to be gotten out of the way.

It’s funny to see what ” survival of the fittest” has turned out to be about in modern-day consumer society.

 

 

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! 🙂

 

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.

 

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.

The Russian Doll that Lost its Way in Saudi Arabia

So it looks like the famous “matryoshka dolls”, which are originally from Russia, are now all over the souks in Saudi Arabia. And that in its new, local, Saudi appearance. Did I just find a tiny, little piece of home in this country?

 

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