Tag Archives: student expat blog

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.

 

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Slices of Life

One day in my journalism class back in Junior year, my teacher suggested that we add a “slices of life” section to our school’s news blog but whether we actually did that or not, I can’t remember.

Basically, a slices of life section contains short things that…let’s say just happened. Maybe somebody said something very funny. If so, a journalist can write that funny quote down and here you have your slices of life contribution. Or maybe someone just did something funny or remarkable or whatever and you happen to have it videotaped. Well, you get the idea.

I have not been thinking about this type of thing up until today.

It was again coffee morning time and I made myself get up in the morning because of one of these things I have seen last time but didn’t buy.

Once I arrived at the full hall, with all the people already there, ready to spend their money on local stuff, I realized that the stand with the pictures was not build up yet and so I just kept walking around aimlessly.

I bought a lovely looking greeting card and went outside, just so I could escape the masses for a moment. Right there was a stand of a (most likely) Filipino lady, who was selling cupcakes.

“Do you want to try one?”, she asked, “don’t worry it’s healthy”.

The cupcake on the right is made with carrots and lemon. I really suggest to try making that one! Tastes delicious!!!
The cupcake on the right is made with carrots and lemon. I really suggest to try making that one! Tastes delicious!!!

Healthy cupcakes, I thought to myself. How does that work? But then the lady told me that she made them with olive oil, honey and whole wheat flour so that made sense after all.

Those cupcakes turned out to taste very delicious, so I said I would buy two of them.

And here is where I got the surprise of the day!

“Of course”, she replied and handed me the plastic box. “Help yourself”.

Then she looked at me for a moment and just as I grabbed the first one she asked: “Do you have kids??”

Slowly I put the second cupcake in the box and faced her with a smile on my face, trying to hide my confusion as well as I could.

“Kids? Oh…no, no, no. I am a student…”, I said, destroying her hopes of more potential customers from my side.

I mean I have been in a lot of situations where people thought of me as much older. I have been asked to sign petitions for Greenpeace and all that when I was 14. I have been asked if I was married because of the ring I used to wear and still do, on my finger, to keep away (Albanian) men who were very eager to ask me out for a coffee. In my previous schools, some people even thought I was a teacher but never in my life has anybody ever thought of me as a mother of children of cupcake eating appropriate age.

The funny thing is that I didn’t even have make up on today.

I celebrated my 19th birthday last week and my best friend messaged me, saying that now I was getting old. I guess she was right to some extent.

Well, at least I am smiling as I am typing this.

And while you enjoy laughing about my story, or maybe not, enjoy these two pictures I bought at one of the stands today as well.  They are a combination of digital and hand made art.  Feel free check out Arabian Moon for more amazing designs. 🙂

Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon
Design by Arabian Moon

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?

 

фотография

 

 

You Know You Live in Saudi When…

Just as I was on the plane from Istanbul to Riyadh at the beginning of this week, I started thinking about the things that make this place so…special.

Now, I know that every place in the world is special in some way or form. However, I feel like sometimes there are some things here that are just very unique in a sense of getting to know a new culture which is the amazing thing about traveling the world.

So here is a list of the things that I can think of right now. I may add on to this later.

You know you live in Saudi Arabia when…

1. You have to stop your car while on the road because a camel appeared in front of it like out of nowhere.

2. The salespeople at the watch stores offer you to buy a diamond watch like that is the most normal thing in the world to do.

3. You are absolutely familiar with the layout of the goods at Carrefour, without ever having done groceries in France before.

4. There are more Lexus cars on the street than Mercedes.

5. The majority of the cars are white.

6. Gasoline is CHEAPER than water (130 liters of diesel for 8 euros. U mad, Europe?)

7. People don’t  have to pay taxes.

8. There are so many different types of dates that you could consider them staple food.

9. You wake up for school to prayer calls.

10. The week starts on Sunday.

11. You get random calls from Saudis that think your number is actually somebody else’s number and they just keep calling you back even after they have realized that you don’t speak a word of Arabic.

12. You can bargain over the price of almost any item and not only on the bazaars.

13. You have gotten used to buying clothes without trying them on first ( a habit that I have developed. I see it, I like it, I buy it. Why waste time trying it on, right?).

14. Schools are closed because of rain.

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!!

Two Different Worlds?

After being back home for almost one week, I have realized that the so called “culture shock” got me just now and not the moment I stepped on Saudi ground back in September of this year. 

Maybe it is not a culture SHOCK really but just the definite realization that I am living in an entirely different culture now, or just different world. 

First of all, here in Germany I am obviously all on my own. I can get from A to B using public transportation and wear whatever I want on the street, nobody and I mean NOBODY cares.  I wouldn’t say that I missed this kind of freedom very much but it just has become more and more obvious to me over the last couple of days. 

I feel like the basic difference that I notice here is the freedom people have. There are gluehwein stands all over town for those who enjoy that drink, people walk around in all sorts of dresses and hair colors and boyfriends take out their girlfriends for dinner in public even before they get married. However, that sometimes becomes an extremely annoying thing as well. 

Just yesterday have I noticed how beneficial gender segregation, as there is in Saudi, can be. In Saudi Arabia, there is no social interaction between people who are not related, while in Germany wait for it…you are free to do what you want!!!

I was just sitting on the train on my way home, when a young couple occupied the two seats in front of me.  Well, despite the fact that the two were in a public place, surrounded by various strangers, they started to show off how much they liked each other. I won’t get into detail on this but just say that they were VERY enthusiastic about it. 

In Saudi Arabia I definitely wouldn’t have to suffer from such a sight and that is pretty much all I could think of until I finally got off the train some stations later.

Then came the christmas shopping. For some reason every single Berliner, including me, decided to buy all the gifts two days before D-Day. 

I was just getting something for somebody in  a bookstore, as I was flooded by a crowd of shoppers. Honestly, I felt nearly claustrophobic after five minutes.

In Riyadh, there is always a certain distance between the people in the shopping mall or anywhere else in public (unless somebody wants the tiny spot in front of you in a waiting line). Yesterday in the German shop, someone literally grabbed me by my shoulders and moved me to the side. I assume that the one or the other Muslim reader of this will shake his or her head in disbelief now. 

So yes, there certainly is a difference between the cultures. It is open to debate whether one is better than the other. One is very…”disciplined” and strict while the other one is more of a laissez-faire society.  But all in all I feel like such cultural exchanges are a good thing after all. Maybe I will learn to appreciate my “Western freedom” some more after my stay in the Middle East is over. 

 

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.