Tag Archives: living in 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.

Why Do You Write About the Good Things?

Those of you who have been reading my blog might have noticed that the significant majority of my articles on this blog have a positive tone to them.

Considering the fact that I have dedicated this site to live in Saudi Arabia, which is unfortunately not seen in a positive light by many people from the outside, many of my readers probably ask themselves why I am keeping a blog that talks about the positive things of Saudi Arabia rather than the whole injustice and all the other questionable things that are going on there as well.

In fact, one of my relatives who has been to Riyadh, too, asked me this question a couple of days ago after I told her happily about all the positive feedback I am getting from my Saudi and non- Saudi readers.

“You must be very talented”, she said. “I have no idea what good things there are that one could talk about considering Saudi Arabia.”

In order to clear at least some of my possible bias, let me say that I am indeed aware of the fact that there were also things during my stay in the kingdom which I did not like and did not agree with. I am also aware of the fact that certain social norms and laws seem or are very unjust in comparison to what we western people know from our societies.

My contributions on here are not supposed to be some sort of propaganda that sugar-coates literally every single aspect of living in Riyadh. Since some people may think that this is exactly what I am doing, I just want to clarify that this was definitely not the motivation for all this.

But then, some of you may ask, why am I writing down the good things instead of challenging what is not so good?

Three hours after I got on the plane from Frankfurt to Riyadh, I got into a conversation with my neighbor who later on became a good friend of mine. “I am excited about my new life”, I said. “I will finally get to know something new and will have some material to write a book about.” This is where my friend told me to be careful with what I published online while in Saudi Arabia. There are certain things which are not supposed to be discussed, hence freedom of speech is rather limited in this country as some of you may have noticed. Maybe it would have been one of my tasks, as someone reporting from this place, to challenge certain things and point out what is not so good. But given how much of such content is already out there, I really started to ask myself who would read my articles if I would just re-write the horror stories that so many before me, including the official western media, have already published? If people wanted to read about what is bad, there would be no reason for them to read my blog. They could look up all the other websites and books instead, reading what they were expecting to read: How terrible of a society Saudi Arabia is. I would not take anything away from them or deprive them of valuable information by not being pessimistic.

So I needed to choose another perspective under which I would compose my articles, which does NOT mean that what I have been writing about so far was all made up.

I knew that I could just as well have written a whole bunch of stuff about everything I did not like, about everything that made me want to pack my bags and leave for good. I could have chosen to be fully affected by negativity and spend nine months in fear, depression, cynicism and homesickness, ruining my mental health as not too little expats in Saudi choose to do unfortunately. But I did not. I wanted to tell others why it is not the end of the world to live here, taking away at least some of the fear that so many foreigners have.I came to the conclusion that looking for some positive things would be much healthier than pointing my finger at everything bad.

You see, the way we perceive things are all a matter of perspective and a matter of choice. In the case of Saudi Arabia probably even a matter of circumstances. A foreigner will have  a different view and a different story to tell than a domestic worker or a local or someone whose marriage to a local turned into a disaster or an expat stay at home mom who has nothing to do all day than look after her child and stay home. So when you reflect upon all the things I have written over the previous months you should keep in mind that this is the story of my circumstances and they are not universal for everyone.

What also contributed to the way I wrote was the fact that I had something to do every day and that the people around me were good to be with. I was lucky to be a student in Riyadh, going to class every day. I had the opportunity to have contacts with other people, not isolating myself entirely, as some other foreigners choose to do. Had I not have my classes, I would probably have turned into a sad, depressed person because there would have been nothing to keep me busy. If you have nothing to do and don’t know why you should be getting up every day, every country will turn into a horrible place, be it Saudi Arabia, Germany, Iceland…you name it.

And this is exactly why I tried to point out something good about the kingdom. Next time you ask yourself that question, remember that everything is a matter of perspective and circumstances.

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.

 

On Social Segregation: Beware of the Sections!

Yesterday my mother and I went outside (outside as in “outside the actual compound” YES, my dear people, that is actually doable here…SURPRISE!!!) to get something for lunch. Luckily for us, there are some small places near us that sell (fast) food.

However, since my mother has not been outside very much so far, she had some trouble figuring ut which of the two doors she was supposed to use in order to get inside.

Because Saudi society pays so much attention to gender segregation, it has come up with the concept of having two sections. One for singles and one for families.

So, as in our case, if you want to go and eat outside (that is especially for the fast food places) you have to make sure to go through the right door. The singles section is reserved for men (why don’t they just call it men section then?) while the family section is either for women, single or in groups, or for families.

Now, I don’t think that if you are let’s say a woman and you accidentally open the door to the men’s section, you will cause the apocalypse or something horrible will happen. But I think that would be just awkward and may cause some social discomfort since that would go against cultural norms. Besides, I can imagine that some men, especially the conservative ones, will be very confused seeing a woman in a male space all of a sudden. So let’s not upset men’s testosterone levels, ladies, by always entering either through the door that is tinted, or that says family entrance / section above it. 

Dear men, if you want to avoid hysterical screaming of hysterical and confused women, never walk into a place (accidentally or not) that has mostly women in it. They actually do start screaming. I have seen it happen.

Once I had ensured my mother that we had to go through the tinted door, we came to a staircase and went up to the second floor where a man was standing behind a counter in an empty room with some chairs and tables. That was quite a strange sight but I guess here is where the idiom other countries, other customs comes true.

Segregation does not only take place at restaurants though. You can see it in other places, too. The actual elimination of women from male places and vice versa happens at restaurants mostly. If you go to a bank there is one huge main entrance and somewhere around the building there will be a door which says ladies branch  above it but I have never been inside a bank here, so that is all I can say.

Some shops also have a families only board hanging over the entrance. That is mostly for shops that are for women like lingerie or cosmetics etc. An Uzbek man here told me that he wanted to get cosmetics for his wife but was not allowed inside the shop because he was a single male and had no female with him.  What I find very ironic though is the fact that women are allowed inside shops that are for men. Like shops that sell thobes or the Zara branch that sells male clothes (been inside there today and did not get kicked out). I have a feeling that it is the women who are being protected from men and not the other way around.

Sometimes there are also two waiting lines at fast food stands or grocery stores in malls. However, these are disregarded most of the time.  I have seen it several times that men would be standing in line under a board clearly having “women” written on it.

Those of you ladies who are sick and tired of being surrounded by men all the time, I suggest to visit the women’s sections in malls or a whole “ladies mall” all together. Places like Panorama Mall or the Kingdom Tower have a whole floor with shops where only women are allowed and men can’t see anything from the other floors because of the tinted glass all around it. In these places, the women who sell things walk around without abayas.

THAT must be the reason why some VERY desperate men sometimes put on niqab and abaya just so they can sneak in to the women’s floors to look at women in western clothes. That is what I have been told. I have not seen that transformation happen with my own eyes but based on my personal experiences at mixed gatherings I would not be surprised at all if this was actually true.

 

The Saudi Souvenir Checklist

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

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

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

1. Thobe

2. Arabic coffee pot

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

4.  Perfume oil

5. Incense

6. Cardamom

7. Some sort of antique

8. Arabic calligraphy art

9. Rose water

10. Jewelery with my name in Arabic on it

11. Middle Eastern style lamp

Thoughts From Under the Veil

I assume that this is not a universal rule but one thing I have noticed about people is that it is always easier to make fun of something one has never experienced or something that one does not know (anything) about. If something goes wrong with the joke or someone gets offended, these people think that they can still defend themselves. All they need to do is to say: How was I supposed to know?

That is true. Most people don’t know. Usually because they never tried. But I think that those who actually dare to make serious fun of other cultures and their customs are people of ignorant nature.

As a sequel to my previous article on the issue of adapting to a new culture, I decided to write about wearing niqab as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.

Now, before all of the complaints and accusations come down on me, I am aware of the fact that my experience is not and most likely will never be, the same as the one of a local woman who covers up because of her belief.  My experiences are the experiences of a white woman putting on a face veil because of where she lives. Whether that is of any value to you or not is your decision.  I am not putting myself into a position to say that I am better or worse than any other woman in this society by doing so because I am none of the above.

I have heard western people make fun of the niqab and abaya for so long, that I started to feel sorry for the women here, even though most of them may not know what the others are saying. So, my main objective was to try and respect local norms by dressing what in this country is considered modestly as well as prove all of those wrong who, in a mean way, make fun of the way that Muslim women here dress. Bottom line is: If I can adapt, then why can’t the rest of the expats? I am, after all, not from Saudi Arabia but from Europe, hence I would be expected to join the joking but I chose not to. I am not even saying you have to go all the way into this. Just stop complaining about the basic things that are asked from you, please.

At this point, most people will ask me: But WHY are you doing this? You know that you don’t have to! So why?

Well, that’s exactly it. I actually do not have to cover my face up to my eyes. I can do that a couple of times every time I am among Saudis and if I decide that I don’t like it, I can just take it off and pretend the whole thing never happened. A Saudi woman however, would probably not have this choice and because I know what advantage I and other western women have in that aspect, I was even more encouraged to put on my niqab as a try. Temporarily of course.

Covering up is not difficult, once you learn it, it does not take up too much of your precious time and it does not hurt you physically. So, give me a good reason why someone should not at least try and do what others do? That is of course, unless you are Saudi and think that it is disrespectful for non Muslims to dress like one, in which case I want to apologize in advance. Disrespect was never the intention but the contrary. If any of my readers are Saudi women but disagree with the veil, then I respect that opinion just the same.

As I pointed out, hiding your face behind a veil, especially if you live in a country where a significant majority of women do this, is not as horrifying as western people think it is (given the fact that there is always the option to take it off again if you are white). At least for me it wasn’t too bad and am I not just a human being like the rest of you? Surely, black is not the best color to wear outside at such high temperatures, but personally for me, that was the only obstacle I faced in putting on a face veil.

The most spread rumor about the niqab is that women who wear one apparently can’t see a thing. If you happen to be one of those people, then I have a huge surprise for you. If a woman wears a niqab that leaves her eyes free (and that is the one the rumors are about, too), she can see totally fine. Just as she would if her face was not covered. My niqab met at the very border of my glasses above and below and I was still able to see everything clearly.

I tied up everything at the back of my head, placed the pins where they belonged and looked at myself in the mirror. It was quite a strange feeling at first. But not because I felt too uncomfortable about it.

When I was a little child, I saw women every now and then who would have everything covered, except for their eyes. Since I was small and the women taller than me and mostly all in dark color, I could not help but be afraid of them. And now here I was and what looked back at me out of the mirror, was one of my childhood fears. I have , at least visually become what I was afraid of. That is, if you ask me, an ironic coincidence and interesting feeling.

I did not feel uncomfortable while walking around the mall. I did not feel oppressed or anything of that sort. The world was not about to end. I was exactly like the majority of the women around me and nobody looked at me like I belong into the zoo. Men did not turn around after me like they usually would if my face or even parts of my neck were visible. After three years in South East Europe, where inappropriate comments about my appearance from men no matter what I was wearing were daily routine, that was a very relieving experience. Nobody asked questions. Nobody accused me of being dressed immodestly, hence not a single religious police officer had a reason to approach me and tell me what is right and what is wrong. I was left alone and theoretically just belonged into the crowd like everyone else.

I remember back when I had to wear a uniform to school in order to look modest and professional, some of my female teachers thought that the idea of professionalism in clothing did not apply to them and some showed up every day like they were just about to take their purse and go party at the club across the road. I do not know too sure about my peers but I was nearly offended by that behavior. I was ( and still am) young and pretty, too. Why did I have to look like a sack of potato, while some of the staff were showing off what nice curves they had? Did I not have the right to be pretty, too?

With that in mind, I felt good about the fact that due to the way I was dressed, I was not offending anyone who believed in modest clothes. Every time I am in school now and see a covered up woman walking to the cafeteria, while I pass by in my leggings and heels, I do feel pretty bad, to be honest.

So I think that just for the sake of respect and not to make those uncomfortable who would be, it is worth it to adapt to rules. It does not have to be the full cover but at least do the best you can. There will always be some people who appreciate that and is that not an awesome feeling to have, when someone appreciates something you do?

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.