Tag Archives: daily life riyadh

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.

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Excuse Me, Are You One of Us?

Sometimes, when the sun is shining and you are on vacation, you decide to grab your stuff, finally put on that swim suit again and go finish that English reading assignment by the pool. But as it so happens, you end up doing something completely different instead.

I did manage to get my things together and make it down to the pool, but just as I lied down and tried to continue reading Top Girls, I heard Russian being spoken, which happens to be my native language. I hesitated for a bit, but when some of the women got off the table and passed by me, probably on their way somewhere, I looked up and said “Dobry den!” cheerfully, which is Russian for “Good afternoon”.

One of the women stopped, looked at me with surprised eyes and asked, “You speak Russian?!” and then she added something that is a very typical Russian expression which people use when they want to make sure that the person in front of them is their countryman/ woman. She asked: “Are you one of us?”

I nodded happily and she encouraged me to join their table. After a little bit more hesitation, I got up and walked over to the table. The other ladies seemed to be overly happy when they realized that I was “one of them” and within seconds we were already introducing each other. To my surprise I learned that some of them were from Belarus just like me. Apparently I am not as lonely here as I thought.

“You are lucky to live on a compound”, a woman from Ukraine said to me, noticing that I was dressed in my swim suit and not in regular clothes like them, since they came over for the coffee morning sales.

“Why? Don’t you all live on compounds, too?”

“No, we live in houses in town.”

“So…your husbands are Saudi?”, I asked with a tiny trace of disbelief in my voice.

All of them confirmed that, that was the case. I asked them how they find it, I personally never met a westerner, or in this case east European, who is married to a Saudi so I got myself into something interesting indeed.

“It’s great”, one of them said. “They are just like our men after all”. At this point I should note that every time a Russian or Ukrainian person refers to something or someone as theirs or ours, he or she means that it is Russian or Ukrainian or generally east European, or “just like east European” in this case.

Then, all of a sudden, there was one of those moments that are extremely amusing to me, but at the same time they leave me speechless. Kind of.

The Belarusian woman turned to me and asked: “So, what’s your husband’s nationality then? I assume since you live here in Riyadh, he’s Saudi.”

I do have to admit that this is generally a legitimate question to ask a foreign woman in this country. I mean, why else would a woman be here, right? But even though I totally understand that, all I could do was shake my head slowly, with confusion written in capital letters on my forehead, trying very hard not to laugh hysterically.

And here comes the best part:

“How old do you think I am? Honestly. I don’t have any issues with age or anything. Just curious about what you think”, I answered.

The woman looked at me for a little bit (not knowing anything about me, except for my name), and then said: “Hhm I am pretty sure you must be 30 or something”.

That is actually what she said. I kid you not she did. Thirty. I am scared to think how I will look like once I actually turn 30. When I told her my actual age, she swore to me she said that because of the hat I was wearing. Apparently.

Now, I can imagine that some people will wonder why I am actually writing all this down. See, the aim of this blog is to show that life in Saudi Arabia is not as terrifying as most of us believe it is. So there I was, sitting with my country people, listening to their stories and honestly they sounded very happy to me and this time the positive impression does not come from me alone.

They go out together, they travel and some of them even work here. The Ukrainian lady noticed my sceptical tone when I asked how she found it to be married to a local and said it was just fine really. “There’s our Harley standing outside of the compound”, she added. Even in Saudi Arabia women get to sit on motorbikes. They obviously don’t drive them  by themselves but at least they kind of own them.

Some of them wish to live on a compound, where you can walk around uncovered and go to the gym and to the pool and that is all understandable, but honestly, they just seemed to me like any other east European married woman would. We were just sitting there, talking about all kinds of stuff. About Russian food, datchas (this is how we call houses and land that we own on the country side), vegetable gardens and here and there I heard a familiar cuss word. Because in Russian language we just happen to casually use them here and there.

What can I say? It’s a small world. And life can be beautiful anywhere on the planet. Just as a Lebanese lady told me yesterday (who was also convinced that I must be married and surprised to find that I am not), life here can be interesting. You just have to make it interesting.