Monthly Archives: February 2012

lost in translation …

I couldn’t help but giggle when I saw this sign in front of a construction site:


Prince Salman was the Governor of Riyadh for almost 50 years. Late last year, he was appointed Minister of Defense, following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Sultan. I don’t know how long this sign has been up there, but you’d think that someone somewhere would be concerned about the messaging associated with such a prominent member of the royal family!



What a nutty day it was yesterday, in terms of weather. I went out for a walk with camelman around the neighbourhood. Not a good idea. It was super windy and the wind was whipping my abaya around my legs. I was wearing short pants underneath, so occasionally my abaya would ride up and reveal (gasp!) my bare calves. (I’ve only been here a week so far and already my modesty threshold has risen.) The worst was when we were on the sidewalk beside a busy road and cars would toot their horns at us as they drove by. Also, I couldn’t for the life of me keep my hijab scarf around my head with that wind. Its ends kept slapping camelman in the face so finally I just wrapped it around my head like a cocoon and tied its ends around my neck. To heck with style – I just didn’t want that scarf flying off into the wind!

It turns out that wind was a precursor to a bigger storm to come. Not one hour after we came home from the walk did we see this scene down the street:

It was a veritable brown-out and the sand was blowing every which way. Thank goodness we were in the car by then. Then, of all things, the rain came. Blowing sand and dust combined with rain makes for one muddy car!

hijab fashion

You might remember from an earlier post that I am just a bit clueless about hijab style and maintaining a decent hairstyle underneath the veil. As with women everywhere, I try to get styling clues by observing the women around me.

Unfortunately, I find that there tends to be little variety in the way the women in Riyadh wear their hijabs, at least from my observations so far. Mostly it is all black, perhaps with some subtle decoration along the edge of the material. Some women have abayas and matching hijabs that have more colorful patterns along the edge or down the back – in Riyadh, at least, it seems that these styles tend to be favored by the non-Saudi women (e.g. from other Arab countries, or Westerners).

So I’m always fascinated when I watch talk show or news programs from the other Gulf countries (especially the UAE) where there are female hosts wearing a hijab. To me, they look so glamorous! There are lots of examples on the internet of the variation in hijab style and fashion across the Middle East – e.g. here’s a screenshot of Google Image results for ‘hijab fashion 2012’:

The color and variety of materials illustrated here is so refreshing compared to the plain black I see all the time on the streets of Riyadh. It looks like they have reams of material wrapped around their head and it is draped just so. It’s not just the color and patterns, but also the shape and volume that makes the style. I always assumed it was just the hairstyle underneath the hijab that made the stylish shape, so I was astonished when I stumbled across these instructional videos revealing the ‘style secrets’ of wearing a hijab! (The first one is narrated in Arabic, but it speaks for itself; the second one is in English.)

Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

There’s an interesting sign above the baggage carousels at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The sign very politely asks you to declare if you have certain items of interest to the customs inspector. I am always slightly bemused, if not a little nonplussed, not so much by the actual items, but by the order in which they appear:

First on the list: video tapes, films, and audio recordings. I assume they mean x-rated videos or messages (political?) disseminated by cassettes (which really dates the sign too). Some of the items that follow are pretty standard, like drugs, currency, and commercial goods. Others, like sculptures, alcohol, and pork, reflect the religious regulations here.

But what caught my eye is the fact that it’s not until the very end of the list that fire-arms and ammunition appears. I would have thought that in terms of a country’s and its citizens’ security, this last item should be a priority for the border officials to check!

As I alluded to above, I think this sign reflects policies and practices from an earlier era. I have yet to be questioned by a customs official, or seen anyone else being questioned or having their bags searched. Camelman says they used to be much more strict and would hand search people’s luggage more often. Nowadays, before you can exit the terminal, all your bags have to be put through an x-ray machine, which is manned by a bored-looking officer. So maybe they are not as worked up about finding those contraband materials (except, hopefully, firearms and ammunition).

go girls go!

Today several newspapers are reporting on a call from Human Rights Watch to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics this summer unless a female athlete is included in the delegation.

As usual, the focus is on women’s rights in this country, and rightly so. But I think this also brings to light other important issues around health and wellness that affect all sectors of society.

First, about the girls – there has never been physical education in the school system for girls. Thus a basic culture of physical activity and sport participation for girls does not exist yet. There are few, if no role models for young Saudi girls to participate in exercise. And it all starts at home, as we all know. If the previous generation of women didn’t grow up participating in exercise or sport, it’s more difficult to instill a cultural expectation for these activities for their daughters. Let’s think about that before we even consider the opportunities for female participation in elite competitive sport.

There is a movement among some scholars and government authorities to promote and implement physical education programs for girls in the school system. I know this because I have been working with some faculty at King Saud University who have been closely involved with this process. But it’s a slow process and they are facing lots of roadblocks and objections from different sectors of the ruling factions here. However, at a workshop I recently attended at King Saud University, I was encouraged to hear many of the male faculty, including the Rector of KSU no less, speak of their support for stronger engagement and participation of females in physical activity and sport.

I should note that it’s not as if the rest of the population are highly engaged in exercise and physical activity either. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of diabetes and obesity – statistics no doubt related to limited exercise and physical activity among the population, coupled with changing dietary and other lifestyle factors. There is growing awareness of the importance of exercise in health and wellness here, as in the rest of the world, but there continues to be a challenge in providing diverse opportunities to participate in physical activity.

Even Camelman finds it challenging to locate good places nearby to go for a jog outside, but he usually makes do with running around a swath of empty land near Ad Dir’iyah or just around his own neighbourhood. The only thing he has to deal with is the jeering honks of drivers passing by, who seem to find him amusing. But there are growing opportunities. In the 3 years since I’ve been traveling to Saudi, I’ve noticed an increasing number of fitness centres, including a Curves gym  in the female-only section of the Panorama Mall. There’s also a place called (of all things) the “Pregnant Woman’s Walk”. (No, it does not refer to the specific gait pattern of a pregnant woman!) This is a place where there is an especially broad sidewalk around the perimeter of Prince Sultan University, giving you a good 4 km of uninterrupted walking/running.

So back to the issue of the Olympics and the participation of female athletes: are there even any Saudi female elite athletes who can compete at the world level? Let’s get some gym classes going for the girls first!