Tag Archives: living in saudi arabia

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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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.

The ‘Women May Not Walk on the Street Alone’ Myth

I have noticed that a lot of the people who are new to Riyadh, including me at the very beginning, are convinced that women are not allowed to leave the house alone, meaning that it is also not allowed for them to walk down the street without male company.

That is a very widely spread –I am tempted to say cliché on the internet when it comes to doing research on this country’s social regulations.

Yes, there are certain rules in this country that appear strange to the western world. Yes, some of the regulations here are strict and YES, it does take some effort to adapt to the local customs but that does not mean that there is some sort of… TOTAL control going on.

When I first told my Saudi friends about the whole “I may not leave the house on my own” thing, they were probably laughing at me in their heads, saying that this rule is just a myth.

In fact, I do go to malls on my own. So today I thought why not just go for a walk in the street and see what the whole drama is about? What’s the difference between a mall and a street after all?

So this afternoon I put on my abaya and my headscarf and went outside. I am actually not obligated to cover my hair, unless the religious police sees me and tells me to do so. But quite frankly, I have nothing against hijabs and if I am outside in the street on my own, it is probably for my own good not to attract anyone’s attention and Saudi Arabia is really a place where you don’t want someone’s attention in the street.  So the least I can do is prbably just look like any other woman here.

Well, guess what! I went outside for a walk and nothing terrible happened to me, Alhamdulillah! It is okay to be on the street as a woman. Be it with or without the male guardian. I have seen women walk down the street alone all the time. Who knows, maybe I was just lucky today but I mean I passed by so many people, if it really were forbidden for women to walk alone, someone would have notified the police for sure and I would have been in trouble, probably not writing this right now.

The problem with being a pedestrian here is not whether you are allowed to be one or not but whether you can find any pavement to walk on. Riyadh reminds me a lot of Prishtina sometimes. With all the cars parking wherever there is a spot, making it almost impossible to walk on the street and all the small shops with apartments above them.

As for my neighborhood, there is lots of construction debris and cars on the streets. As well as many small shops, like a Sugar Sprinkles store and even two shops selling thobes that I did no dare to go into because there were only men inside. Then, there were also a lot of shop spaces just standing there empty, before I got to a row of residential homes that look a little bit like some houses in Spain, except that the ones here are fancier decorated and have the color of sand.

I even found a shop that sells Arabic sweets and various plates of different chocolates and cakes and ice cream, you get the idea, right?

DSC03235 So I obviously went inside and bought this delicious box of sweets. Since I showed up with my hair covered, I have been addressed by the salesperson in Arabic and he had a relatively surprised expression on his face, when I asked him to please repeat in English.

By the time the prayer calls sounded from two or three mosques at the same time, I reached the end of the street, that led to a traffic light on a street filled with driving cars. Since it would get dark soon, I turned around and walked back to the compound. And here another interesting observation:

As I approached the end of the street and was ready to cross the road, a  car that was approaching stopped as the Saudi driver saw me coming closer, letting me cross the street. I was astonished. Based on my prejudices towards Arab men’s views on women, I would not have been surprised if he would have driven faster, making things difficult for me.

Ladies, if you really want to go outside and buy something in that store down the road, there seems to be nothing wrong with doing that. Your main concern will be actually finding a road to walk on without having to watch out for cars.

However, I should also note that it is very important to have an ID with you. Actually your iqama is best. You don’t want to appear too lost when being outside alone. It may happen that a mutawa or police officer approaches you if you look like you got lost and asks to identiy yourself.

Experiences in a Nutshell – Advice For Future Expats

From my very arrival in the kingdom up until now, I have faced some situations, or what I would call cultural lessons, that taught me something about how to handle life here, especially as a non- Saudi.

For the future Saudi expats among my readers or those who are just generally interested, here is a list of things that you should keep in mind and things you may want to do once you have settled here.

1. When boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia, make sure you have a pen with you. Unless you are Saudi, you will be asked to fill in an entry card. Don’t expect any of the flight attendants to give you one. They most likely won’t.

2. Whenever you leave the house, make sure you have some sort of ID with you. You never know what may happen. I left the compound once without my ID and on my way back in, I immediately got in trouble with the security people.

3. Even though you are leaving the compound on a bus with tinted windows to get from compound A to compound B, given that you are a woman, put on your abaya or at least have it with you. The kids on the schoolbus look at me like I am an alien whenever I do this but last month our schoolbus broke down and we had to switch buses, meaning we had to go outside. Now this is where thinking in advance pays off. Imagine the same happens to you and some Saudi or a mutawa sees you without an abaya on. Even though this may sound absurd to any westners, being dressed unmodestly is actually a very heavy offense here, so don’t risk it in first place.

4.  Be patient and considerate and don’t argue. Saudis do many things differently from westerners. Saudis for instance are not very punctual, which drives every single German here absolutely nuts. Many of them are also relatively lazy and take their time getting things done. If you ever happen to have a conversation with a Saudi, you may also notice that he or she won’t look you in the eyes when talking. Quite frankly, that last thing is something that I still have trouble dealing with but this is just the way it is. Generally speaking, direct eye contact is considered offensive. Bottom line is that there is no point in getting angry and lecturing Saudis on how what they do is wrong. It is always a matter of perspective and there is nothing you can  do, or very little, in order to change that. Just take a deep breath and get through it.

5. ALWAYS count your change. If you go shopping and receive change from the cashier, make sure that the amount you get is the right one. I have been in many situations when I got too little change back but I noticed it too late. I don’t know if this happens because Saudis are trying to be tricky or because they simply don’t pay any attention but no matter what it is, this actually happens quite a lot here.

6. If you are a woman, carry a headscarf with you. Even though you are not a muslim, the mutawa may still ask you to cover your hair just because in this country this is considered modest. Again, don’t even think about arguing with these people. That won’t be any good for you. Just put the thing on and keep walking. If you do that without any protest, you express your respect for the culture and that makes the locals very happy after all. Besides, most religious police men are very polite when they ask for something so it would be only right to be as polite in return and do what they ask for.

7. Be especially careful while driving. Despite the fact that I, as a woman, am not allowed to drive here, from my seat in the back I have a very strong impression that the driving style here is very different from driving anywhere else. Many people can’t really drive straight or have never heard of that useful thing called blinking when driving around the corner. Many Saudis also don’t look to the left or to the right but only straight ahead of them. You will also see many teenage boys or even children behind the wheel, driving their mothers somewhere. Keep these things in mind and be tripple alert while driving. It may savee your life in the end.

8. When you enter the country with a new visa, you must make sure that you get a stamp and a number on it. That makes your entry valid and proofs that you have actually entered the kingdom legally. Don’t expect the person behind the desk to know it all. Lazy as they are, they often times forget it and if both of you do, you may have trouble leaving the country again.