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A Thank You Note to YOU!

Dear readers,

it has been a while since the last time that I have been active on this blog. In fact, I am surprised that even during the months of my return to Germany, there were still one or two occasions on which I had enough words in order to leave them on here for you to read. Each of my returns to this blog has indeed been a pleasure for me. It’s like coming back to something that once has been a piece of myself, and would I not love writing down my impressions so much, I surely would not have said this now.

And yet, despite my absence and this blog being just the remains of my (rather limited) observations, there are still several people visiting it every day. I did not know how many people would come across this when I started publishing my articles. I thought that this website would just be sitting here, discovered only every now and again by the one or the other poor soul. But now here I am, checking the statistics every day and seeing how my words have been read by more than 30.000 people and counting.

Today I thought that it was finally time for me to come back and thank all of you, whether you are new or old readers or whether you are Saudi or not, for being my virtual guests day in day out since the appearance of this blog on the internet.

I did not start writing all of these posts because I wanted to become famous or anything of that sort. I wanted others to read what I had to say about a place so little people have access to. Read, take in the words and maybe even think about them for a moment or two before they went back to watching the news on the same place I was writing about.  The fact that there are so many of you who keep reading, or at least visiting seems to show me that my intentions worked and I am very happy to have you as my readers.

I also want to thank all those of you who don’t just read all of this but  contact me personally. All of the comments and E-Mails I have received over the past year have indeed been a pleasure to read and answer.

Thank you for the praise, the encouragement,  the questions and criticism some of you have shared with me. I did not think that I would ever make it this far, even though in the big picture it is just a tiny step in the whole wide world of possibilities and achievements I have yet to get to.

I hope to keep hearing from you as I am, after various encouragements from my readers, turning all of these notes into a book made of my old and new thoughts, impressions and ideas about living in Saudi Arabia.

I wish I was able to write all of this in Arabic for my Saudi visitors to read as well, but my Arabic course has only covered the very basics so far. 🙂

Well, I might be gone by now but the doors to my thoughts and impressions shall remain open to you at least for a little bit longer.

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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! 😉

 

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 Glühwein 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.

 

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!

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.

 

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!!

How NOT to Starve on Istanbul Airport When Returning Home

There’s no place like home.

Now many people would probably be “upset” with me for making use of this cliché that pretty much everyone is tired of hearing about by now. Well, I understand where that confusion comes from but you have to admit, especially if you are an expat who is moving from place to place in constant intervals, that there is nothing more satisfying at least once in a while, than coming back to a place where you feel you belong to.

And so with that sort of feeling I woke up this morning to get through my “day before departure” routine. Make some breakfast, do groceries so that the people who stay behind when you leave don’t have to starve to death and eventually pay a visit to the German Embassy’s Christmas party where you end up being surrounded by diplomats talking about politics but at least you get to listen to some German Christmas songs, more than half of which you have never heard in your entire life.

And then came the packing.

I love travelling more than any other activity but honestly, packing a suitcase sometimes becomes equivalent to taking an IB Physics test without having studied for it. At least this is how it feels for me and I haven’t taken physics since grade eight.

This time however, there was not much to pack as there are three suitcases waiting for me at home. So I threw in all of the souvenirs that I have “harvested” over the past months, hoping with all my heart that the Hershey’s chocolate won’t melt and the rose water bottle wouldn’t break and ruin not only my favorite sweater but also the several packages of dates.

Shortly after I found myself at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, getting my way to the entrance through an enormous crowd of Paki and Indian passengers.

From that point on I really started to feel like one of the main things that I have developed during my stay in the Kingdom is a sense for patience. The waiting line for the check in was awfully long and the people behind the desks took their sweet, sweet time. Then you have the people that try to squeeze themselves in front of you because there is this TINY little space between you and the person in front of you and pretty much everyone believes that this spot is theirs.

After what seemed like ages even after I tried very hard to keep myself awake on a Snickers bar and a bottle of water (because that is all you can get for 10 Saudi Riyals), I could finally board my flight to Istanbul which I spent in a painful sleep, because plane seats are the least comfortable place to sleep on earth, especially when you wake up in panic because the crew wants to know if there is any doctor on board and all you can think is “Holy floskies, I guess that’s it. We’re all gonna die now…”

And then you arrive in Istanbul and realize that you are about to starve. And so what do you do? You can either go and try to get your money exchanged into the local currency, or you pay a visit to the duty free shop(s) and try some of the Turkish candy there. Because guess what, it’s free to try it.

So I ended up walking up and down the small “bazaar”, trying all sorts of Turkish Lokum, feeling the hunger in me vanish with every single bite. That feeling was so awesome, I couldn’t restrain myself from buying a few packs of that candy.

As I was driving down the streets of Berlin a couple of hours, and a nice breakfast later, I immediately felt like it was only  24 hours ago that I left my second hometown for Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It really and literally did feel that way.

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? 😉