Monthly Archives: May 2012

Manal Al-Sharif at the Oslo Freedom Forum

It’s been about a year since the Women2Drive campaign was launched with Manal al-Sharif getting behind the wheel of a car and driving in the streets of Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia.

A couple of weeks ago, she was honored as one of the awardees of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Here is the video of her talk in Oslo:

Although relatively short at only about 15 minutes, I found her speech to be very compelling and providing real insight into the foundations for what is going on now in Saudi society. (And I’ll never listen to the Backstreet Boys in the same way again!) Also not to be overlooked is the fact that here is a Saudi woman not only showing her face, but having it broadcast all over the Internet. She is trailblazing a path for Saudi women in more ways than one.

I also found it interesting that to-date, there have been so many ‘dislikes’ vs. ‘likes’ on the YouTube page of her video. Obviously it seems that there are yet to be many battles to be waged on many fronts here.

Riyadh Higher Education Conference and Exhibition

Every year for the past 3 years, Riyadh has hosted an enormous international exhibition and conference on higher education. The main goals are to build relationships and collaborations between Saudi and international universities. It also serves as a ground for international universities to recruit Saudi undergraduate and graduate students, with both sides no doubt wanting to take advantage of the generous King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Most if not all Saudi universities are in attendance and are represented by elaborate booths, such as the ones pictured here:Dammam University even had a waterfall set up in front of it, which caught the eye of some future students:

In addition, I was amazed to see that there were more than 400 universities from all around the world in attendance. Certain institutions were invited as formal guests of the Ministry of Higher Education, and as such, these institutions got to send three delegates who were flown first class, put up in the very new, very ritzy, Ritz Carlton Hotel, and got to have their booths on the red carpet-lined main corridor of the exhibition hall. Our university was one of the Ministry’s invited guests so we got a prime location for viewing the activities of the exhibition. This included being subjected to the barrage of people, security, and TV cameras who followed the Minister of Higher Education everywhere he went when he was at the exhibition on the first day to open the activities.

All the universities were organized by country and certainly it looked like the major areas of interest for prospective Saudi students were the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Japan had a strong presence too.

And tucked away in a far corner of the exhibition hall, I was pleasantly surprised to find a university from as far-flung a place as Azerbaijan. (I wonder how many international students they manage to recruit to Baku?)

But perhaps the most interesting (most alarming?) booth was the one for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, also known as the religious police (mutaween), or ‘haia’ (arabic for ‘commission’). They were planted in a prime location right in the heart of the exhibition hall.

When I first saw them listed among the list of Saudi institutions, I thought that maybe they ran a sort of religious police academy? Perhaps a religious university? But no, they were there to promote virtue and prevent vice. Indeed, I heard from some of the delegates from other Canadian universities that they had been going around the exhibition on the first day to let all the foreigners know that women should cover their hair. As such, I found myself in the surprising situation of giving these women mini lessons on how to properly wrap their scarves around their head. Seems like I’ve come a long way since the days of my two-slitted head coverings!

how to gain 7 pounds in 60 days …

… it’s easy – just move to Riyadh.

Yes, that’s right my friends, you might notice that I will be a bit pudgier around the edges next time you see me. So now that I’ve put it out there, no need for any polite inquiries (“Hmmm, there’s something different about you, Camelgirl … did you change your hair?”).

My weight has pretty much been steady for the past several years. I would say I am just average in height and weight – a standard US size 8-10 (sometimes I fit size 4 – vanity-sizing at its best!) Is that average nowadays? I’m not sure.  Anyway, most people who know me know that I really enjoy good food and meals are one of the highlights of my day. For the most part, I have been able to get away with just exercising maybe 3-4 times/week.

This strategy clearly has not worked for me in Saudi Arabia. Since coming here 2 months ago, my pants have been steadily and definitively getting tighter on me. I am still averaging about 3 workouts per week , but clearly the Saudi lifestyle has had a significant impact (despite sweating it out around the Pregnant Woman’s Walk). I can identify several factors at play here:

1. Eating late. Dinner time averages at around 9:30 pm here. Then it’s bedtime shortly after (hey, I need my 9 hours!), so instead of burning off the calories by being up and about for the rest of the evening, my food is being happily stored away somewhere safe … like around my hips. (See also #3 below.)

2. Dinner preceded by dessert. Although an excellent idea in theory, it does not bode well for the waistline. As you may know, it’s traditional to serve Arabic coffee and dates when you have guests come over. Nowadays, it is also very fashionable to serve chocolates, mini cup-cakes, squares, and other delectable sweets alongside the dates. It’s irresistible.

Of course, following dinner, there’s the usual dessert buffet too.

3. The ubiquitous housemaid. Most households (and I’m talking about just your standard middle-class Saudi family) have at least one housemaid who, as far as I can tell, works all day, 7 days a week. Note that this is a practicality more than a luxury for most, given the size of people’s homes and families, as well as the (im)practicalities of everyday life in Saudi (e.g. the traffic, women can’t drive, shops closing for prayer time 4 times a day …). We have a lovely, cheerful lady from Indonesia working for Camelmum. She is pretty busy, cleaning the house, doing laundry, washing the dishes, preparing meals, mopping the floors, sanitizing the bathrooms, dusting the furniture (amazing how much fine dust accumulates here)  … I have to admit to being a bit spoiled by it. And even when I’m cooking, I can’t deny that it is nice to have someone help with the grunt work that comes with cooking, like chopping up the onions, or washing the pots and pans afterwards. All these little tasks one usually has to do at home definitely add up, and there’s a noticeable effect when you suddenly are relieved of those responsibilities. It’s no joke when people expound housework as an effective workout routine.

4. Car culture. As I’ve discussed before, Riyadh is not exactly a pedestrian-friendly city. People drive everywhere. Bike-to-work week? Walk-to-work week? Nope, won’t hear about those. And there’s no public transportation to speak of, so no stairs to climb in metro stations or sprinting to catch a bus. And on the escalator: stand left, walk right? Not standard practice here. The general sentiment seems to be that escalators are more for riding rather than for facilitating movement.

Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking. I can’t blame things completely on the Saudi lifestyle. There are definitely days that we could have dinner at our usual hour … and I suppose I could do some of the dishes and chop my own onions! Maybe my eyes are bigger than my stomach. And the pre-dinner sweets? I could say no (sometimes). Obviously I need to go to my gym more frequently, but then that would mean organizing with Camelman to drive me, but usually he has to go to work when I can go to the gym, so that means I have to arrange for another driver to take me, and then that means I’d have to make sure that I fit my other errands around the prayer times, and then … well, things get complicated.

culture shock in Zurich

I’ve had the chance to travel a bit over the past month, and every time I return to Riyadh, I experience what only can be described as the “back-to-Riyadh-reality”. This last trip was a particularly interesting study in contrasts because I went to Switzerland and Germany, landing first in Zurich after leaving Riyadh. I am not sure there could be two more different cities in the world as Riyadh and Zurich. Coming from Riyadh, with its chaotic, construction-laden, everyone-for-himself traffic and where the lines on the road are more like suggestions – to landing in Zurich, possibly the most organized and orderly city in the Western world where cars, trams, and buses share narrow city roads and no one is ever late … well, it was one of the more disorienting experiences I ever had during traveling. (Not to mention that I felt almost naked without my abaya when I first got off the plane.)

This got me to thinking about why there can be such differences in human society across the world. Obviously some differences can be attributed to differences in culture and traditions, but I think a lot also has to do with externally-applied rules and regulations. What if we transplanted some Swiss to Riyadh, or some Saudis to Zurich while keeping the same systems and regulations in place in each of those cities – how will the behaviour of the people change? I know from my own experience how much the surrounding system (or lack of one) can affect your behaviour. When I visited China a few years ago, for example, I found myself transformed from a nice, polite Canadian who stands in line with arms-length distance from the person next to me, to a person who is wary, aggressive, and stands with her elbows-out to prevent someone cutting in front. I like to think that I am generally well-behaved and courteous, but those characteristics didn’t get me very far in Shanghai. But does this mean that Chinese people are pushy and aggressive by nature, or is it the system that makes them this way? And are all the Swiss really so orderly and structured inherently? (Well, maybe they are.) But by the same token, is Riyadh chaotic because Saudis don’t know how to drive between the lines or wait their turn at the stop light? Or is it the lack of properly enforced traffic rules and regulations and systematic planning?