Monthly Archives: July 2011

Saudi women – between yesterday and today

I reflected a couple of posts ago about my induction into camelmum’s circle of trust. While that was a significant step forward for my social standing among the family, I was actually more struck by the amazing generational divide represented by the women in the hareem that evening.

Imagine a large living room with sofas lining the perimeter. Large coffee tables are situated in the middle of the room and smaller side tables positioned between every 2 to 3 seats. Arabic coffee and dates are abundant, and large platters full of chocolates in fancy wrapping are served. When the guests enter the hareem, they first circulate among all the women who are already there, greeting them with handshakes and kisses on the cheek. The closer you are to the person, the more kisses you get. The older women, the matriarchs of their families, are the first to be greeted, followed by the person sitting next to them and so on until the round is complete. Then they choose a seat, generally according to their age group. Naturally, once everyone has arrived, a generational grouping is evident across the room. At the far end of the room, furthest from the door, sit the matriarchs. These are the women of camelmum’s generation – her sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins, and maybe an aunt or two. Next are the women in their forties and fifties, mixed in with us thirty-somethings (camelmum’s daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces), followed by  camelmum’s older grandchildren (the teens and twenty-somethings). The little kids (both boy and girls attend) are typically running around the house.

The generational divide between the groups is evident even by their appearance. Most of the matriarchs have a thin black scarf wrapped around their hair, even though there are no men around. I think this signifies their respect to each other and status within the family. They might have some henna adorning their fingernails and hands and their style of dress is typically more conservative and traditional (long, floor-length cotton dresses). Next the 30-50-somethings have got a bit more modern-style clothing – silk blouses and long skirts, or something along those lines. The younger generation sport more modern clothes, from shops like The Gap; jeans, t-shirts, and shorter dresses (although generally still below the knee).

When I look across this hareem, I am amazed by the societal change across the last 60-70 years represented by these women. Camelmum, and the women of her generation, would have gotten married when they were very young – around 14-16 years of age – invariably an arranged marriage, perhaps to a first cousin or more distant relative. Perhaps they had their first couple of children when they in their teens. They probably didn’t have much schooling and may still be functionally illiterate. But they worked hard for their family and raised hard-working, studious kids. Infant mortality rate was high too (even in 1976, after camelman was born, it was high at 90 per 1000 births); camelmum herself lost 5 out of the 11 babies she gave birth to. They would have witnessed the immense change brought on by the rise of the oil economy in Saudi Arabia. Camelmum grew up in a small village called Al Ghat, about 260 km from Riyadh. Her sister, who still lives in Al Ghat, can remember when the Canadian engineers (from Bell Canada) came to install the telephone lines there and when electricity was hooked up to her house.

By the time her kids were growing up, all of camelmum’s sons and daughters had the opportunity to attend university and even study abroad (for the boys), thanks to the growing wealth of the country. All of my sisters-in-law completed university, although they were generally relegated to becoming teachers, social workers, or administrators. Marriage trends were changing too, with  the age at marriage slightly increasing (all of camelman’s sisters and sisters-in-law got married when they were between 18 and 25 years old). Once they became full-time mothers, though, it was generally accepted that they stop working to stay at home and raise the kids, an attitude, I should point out, that is still not unheard of, even in some present-day western societies.

The really interesting jump is evident with camelman’s older nieces, the ones who are just starting university now. I watch them interacting with each other much as  young women in the West do – with their iPhones, sharing photos and the latest jokes from the internet and videos from Youtube, talking about Facebook, recent blockbuster movies they watched in Dubai, and the latest fashions and wonders of MoroccanOil. These bright young women are all in university, studying science, dentistry, pharmacy, and related fields. One of them is attending Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University – a huge new university (complete with its own monorail system) aiming to be the largest female-only university in the world. They have ambitions to go on to graduate degrees and even go abroad to for post-graduate studies – and most tellingly, all this with the support of their parents. Ask them about marriage and they brush the topic aside. No time to think about it – education and career comes first!

As for the little girls running around the house, singing and chattering on about SpongeBob SquarePants – well, I can’t even imagine what their futures will look like, but am sure it will be open to even more amazing opportunities.

camelman: AKA donkeyman

When we’re in Saudi, camelman thinks he’s a donkey. Consider this: since I cannot drive myself or even go out for a walk around the neighbourhood by myself, I am completely dependent on camelman to cart me around. Whatever my whim, camelman is at my beck and call.

courtesy of

When I need to renew my exit-re-entry visa (so I can return to Saudi the next time), who goes to the visa office to line up for hours on my behalf? Camelman. When we tried to get a 1-year multiple re-entry visa (difficult to get, unless you have wasta), who went to the majlis to speak on my behalf? Camelman (but it was all for naught). When I have a craving for Mama Noura shawarma, who goes out to fetch the take-out to satisfy my appetite? Camelman. When I need to get out of the house for some exercise, who takes me out for some air? Camelman. When I have an appointment at the university, who delivers me? You betcha – camelman! All this while he has to juggle his own work schedule and social engagements.

Life of a Saudi guy = donkey work.

How much more efficient Saudi life could be if only they allowed women to drive!

Speaking of donkeys … beware the ‘meat’ option next time you are on a Saudi Airlines flight:

Steve Austin

If you talk to any Saudi man of a certain age, you might be surprised at his enthusiastic nostalgia for Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. Yes, despite the fact that there were only 2 television channels for a long time (KSA1 and KSA2), there were evidently opportunities to catch some popular US television series. Whereas I like to reminisce about Arnold and Willis from Diff’rent Strokes and the Huxtables from the Cosby Show, camelman gets very enthused about Steve Austin and the Incredible Hulk. I gather it was a rare treat for him to see these programs; the content on KSA1 or KSA2 was otherwise devoted to religious programming and the daily comings and goings of the royal family.

You can get a taste for what that would have been like if you tune into KSA1 or KSA2 these days. My favorite program on KSA2 is the daily news broadcast (in English). Check out this clip of it (particularly the first 8 minutes or so) and you’ll see what I mean:

This is state-controlled media at its best.

It’s no wonder, then, that when satellite dishes were introduced to the kingdom about 20 years ago, they sprouted like weeds on rooftops across the country. Almost overnight, television went from just 2 channels (that were state-controlled) to upwards of a 1000 channels from across the world. Saudis now had an opening to the wider world and, boy, were they watching! It is estimated that upwards of 90% of Saudi households own a satellite dish, even though satellite dishes are technically illegal in Saudi Arabia. Everything was available: US television shows, CNN, BBC, networks from Africa, Asia, Europe, and yes, even porn. And perhaps most importantly – Al Jazeera and other Middle East based media networks. The ratings for KSA1 and KSA2 must have plummeted. Now if you turn on the television in Saudi, you can keep up with Oprah’s favorite things (even her last show was broadcast the same day it was in North America), watch the Late Show with David Letterman (at 8 o’clock in the morning), and get up-to-date with all the latest celebrity gossip on Entertainment Tonight.

Still, if I want to know who greeted the King when he arrived at the airport, or who the Minister of Defense spoke to on the telephone this afternoon, nothing beats the intrepid reporting of KSA2 for me.

the circle of trust

The system for social invitations in Saudi is more complicated than I thought. This topic became of interest to me because of the realization that a recent party hosted by my mother-in-law symbolized my induction into the broader invitation-inclusion circle among camelman’s extended family members (the “circle of trust”, if you like). Of course, the significance of this party completely went over my head. I didn’t even know I wasn’t formally in the wider circle of trust yet. Good thing I’ve got a cultural interpreter (camelman) to guide me through these things.

Camelmum hosted a party in my honor several weeks ago. It was a bigger event than other parties she’s had in the past. She invited all the extended members of the family – so not only her daughters, daughters-in-law, cousins, aunts, and nieces – but to the far reaches of the extended family –  the matriarchs of the broader group of distant cousins. She went all-out for the food too. She had a 3-meter buffet set up in the courtyard, featuring ‘dhabiha’ (a whole roasted lamb), which is a must-have for any proper party, and an extensive assortment of salads, main dishes, and desserts. I thought she just wanted to have a bash with all of her friends. But it was, in fact, an event to signify my joining the family as her daughter-in-law. This event was 3 years after the fact, not because it’s taken her this long to accept me into the family, but because of our unique situation of living in North America. We weren’t considered ‘settled down’ yet, with all our back and forth trips between Vancouver and Riyadh. She’d hoped that we’d actually settle down in Saudi Arabia, but I guess after 3 years, she realized that wasn’t happening anytime soon and time was passing by. Also, we didn’t have our wedding in Saudi, and normally such a party would occur after the wedding and the new couple established in their own home.

So now that I have been formally introduced to all the extended family members through this party, it appears that my social status has changed somewhat. I have now been officially inducted into the extended family invitations list. To the extended family, this means that along with camelman’s other sisters-in-law, they need to remember to invite me to major family functions, such as weddings, holiday parties, ‘estraha’ parties. Looks like my social calendar for future visits to Riyadh will be much busier. At the same time, I am also now in a position to host parties of my own when the occasions arise. Given that I have yet to host a proper Wednesday night girls-night-in bash, I sure hope that camelmum will teach me how to roast a whole lamb. Or at least give me the phone number for the best dhabiha take-away in town.

I am in.