Monthly Archives: March 2013

Want your change? Have some gum instead.

I really hate pennies. They are smelly, fussy, and add unnecessary weight. When I lived in Switzerland, I thought it was so great that all the prices were rounded to the nearest 0.05 CHF. No more pennies and everything in nice rounded numbers divisible by 5. Of course, then I started to resent the little 5 Rappen Swiss coins that accumulated in my change purse.

But here in Saudi, they’ve done away with coins altogether. At least, that’s what it seems. You will get the odd 50 halala (cent) coin once in a while, but actually, what you’re more likely to get is gum. Yes, chewing gum. It’s just a phenomenon you see in grocery stores. In other shops (e.g. clothing, hardware, books), pretty much everything is rounded to the nearest Riyal, so all transactions involve just the Riyal bills. But in the grocery stores, they can’t round the prices for things like produce or meat, which are sold by weight, to the nearest Riyal. But they might as well.

So let’s say you are due 1.62 Riyals in change. The cashier might hand you just a 1 Riyal bill, or you might get a 1 Riyal bill plus gum. You don’t even get to choose what flavor of gum you want. And it’s not as if it’s some decent gum from, say, Wrigley’s. Instead, you get a single piece of some locally-made gum that looks like a Chiclet, but about half the size, and whose taste lasts about half a bite.

The worst are the little convenience stores. They don’t even sell things by weight, but they’ll charge, say, 3.50 Riyals for something. So you could end up being owed 1.50 Riyals in change, but again, get gum instead of the 50 halala. If you complain, they’ll say to you, “What’s the big deal? It’s only 50 halala.” Yes, but it’s my 50 halala!

It’s outright theft, plain and simple. On a case-by-base level, it seems hardly a big deal. As the cashier says, what’s a few halala? And I did state upfront how I found little coins such a bother. But imagine the money these grocery stores, both big and small, are making from millions of such transactions every year? Why should we forego our small change to contribute to the profit of these corporations? You gotta hand it to them, though. It’s an ingenious strategy. Most of us will not bother complaining about the gum. Who has the time to argue over a few halala every time we go to the grocery store? Besides, there are enough time-wasting nuisances to deal with in this country.

But what gets me so riled up is that, yet again, we are not given a choice in the matter. What if I wanted my 42 halala, or whatever, rather than a piece of gum? Why are you foisting the piece of gum on me? It’s not like Saudi doesn’t have the coins to give people proper change. Indeed, Saudi coins apparently come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 halala. (Although I have yet to see any of them, except for the 50 halala coin.) Shouldn’t there just be a rule or something that people should get their proper change? And if people don’t want to carry around a lot of change in their pocket, they could set up donation boxes for charities beside all the cash registers. At least allow us to choose what we want to do with our money, no matter how small the amount.

at the airport

Although the restrictions can be stifling, I have identified a few perks of being female living in Saudi. (Of course, some of these “perks” are likely also associated with nationality – i.e. being a Westerner vs. Saudi vs. other nationality.) Take your typical experience at the airport. Usually, the sight of the line-ups for the foreigners in the immigration area is enough to induce a sinking feeling of dismay, particularly after a long flight. But in the Riyadh airport, they usually reserve a counter for the foreign females and if you flash the right passport (e.g. from a Western country), you get whisked over there right away. Meanwhile, the lines for the male travelers who are not Saudi or GCC can extend at least the length of the hall.

(I have recently found that having a North American passport in hand has also come in handy for bypassing the airline counter lines and getting checked in at the “special needs passenger” desk, as long as I don’t have any luggage I need to check in. Hey – I don’t mind being “special needs” if it’s yet another line-up to avoid.)

Similarly, at the security area, women have to enter a separate room for “security screening” by female security officers. I put this in quotations because this involves little more than a cursory swipe with the wand, once across the front and then across the back. No metal detectors and certainly no pat-downs. When you enter the room, they are usually drinking tea, having some snacks, and checking their phone, and I often have the same feeling you get when you’ve found yourself somewhere where you’re clearly not invited. Most of the time, they don’t even bother standing up from their chair. So they swipe you from a seated position; I guess they can at least check that you don’t have anything packed around your waist – and then you’re through. Meanwhile, you would have placed your bags through the x-ray machine outside, and by the time you’re through the female security room, your luggage is waiting for you at the end of the conveyer belt.

So all in all, if you’re a woman, it’s a relatively pleasant and very quick passage through the airport, albeit with some disconcerting security practices. Yet another perk of being female in Saudi.

matchmaking, Saudi style

The other day, as I was chatting with a new acquaintance of mine, I found myself wondering, what’s her last name? does she come from a nice family? should I introduce her to so-and-so? This brings me to another sign that I have been Saudi-ized – wondering whether the young Saudi women in my circle could be a potential match for some eligible young Saudi bachelors that I know.

There’s a lot of sensational anecdotes about marriages in Saudi, such as stories about elderly men getting married to young teenage girls. While unfortunately such situations do occur, they certainly shouldn’t be considered the norm. Why such situations are allowed to happen in the first place is another issue entirely.

But here, I want to describe what, from my knowledge, happens when a young, twenty-something man or woman from an urban, middle-class family wants to get married. As you know, there is little or no opportunity for young men and women to mix (officially) as they are growing up,  and dating openly is absolutely out of the question. (There is dating, but it’s not like you can bring your girl/boyfriend home to meet the parents.) I know of a couple of eligible Saudi bachelors who have let their parents know that they would like to find a wife. Now the wheels start turning. The bachelors’ mother and sisters, and possibly aunts and cousins, will start inquiring (discreetly) about potential mates. They may have already had someone in mind (e.g. she may be a classmate of the bachelor’s sister), but need to find out more information about the woman’s family – what are her parents like? Are they open-minded? Are they nice people? What sort of work do they do? What are her brothers and sisters like? What type of family are they? (It goes without saying that the family must be tribal; not necessarily the same tribe, but belonging to some tribe. Again, that is another issue altogether that deserves a separate post.)

Of course, a young woman may even have no idea that she is under consideration by a friend or a friend-of-a-friend of hers as a potential match for one their bachelor relatives. It’s a very delicate situation for the bachelor’s side too. Saving the feelings of any “candidates” (sorry, I can’t think of a better term to use) is of utmost importance, and the topic is not even broached to her until they are very confident that the bachelor will like her. So there’s a lot of surreptitious observation of the candidates, e.g. if the bachelor’s sister attends classes or a wedding celebration with the candidate, and observing her behaviour, demeanour, and attitude in different settings.

[That being said, imagine yourself as a 20-something young Saudi woman. You may always have to assume that you are being evaluated by your friend/classmate/co-worker/acquaintance as a potential wife for their brother/son/nephew. That’s a lot of pressure – that is, if you care about getting married. Rather than go through this potentially nightmare-ish scenario, some Saudi women have chosen to focus on their careers and not get into this process at all.]

So if you’re on the bachelor’s side, once you have identified and agreed upon someone, the bachelor’s father may phone the woman’s father, and introduce the idea. In the case of one of camelman’s nieces, that first phone call then initiated months of “investigation” by her father and brothers. They knew the family was reputable, so they pursued it. They talked to the guy’s classmates, co-workers, boss – basically used all their connections and did everything they could to find out as much about him as possible. This was done as surreptitiously as possible too. (I don’t know if that’s typical, but how else can the woman’s family find out about someone in this kind of society?)  Once they were satisfied, Camelman’s niece could meet the guy in person (chaperoned, of course). They liked each other, and so continued on into an “engagement”, getting to know each other more by phone/text and other supervised visits. (Eventually they got married and so far, this process has seemed to work out successfully for them.)

This is just one example of how marriages take place in Saudi, and from what I understand from Camelman’s family, is a typical scenario among the city-dwelling middle-class. As a female, it’s basically like you’re waiting for men to inquire for you. However, I should emphasize that, at least for Camelman’s family, the women could always say yes or no about whether she wanted to even meet the guy, let alone marry him.

Unless you come from a very open family, it would be very difficult to introduce someone you met yourself to your family and be open about how you actually met them (e.g. if you met someone on Facebook or other online social network). You could potentially come up with a scheme to get around that, but if that weren’t possible, you’d be in a difficult position. Every family and every situation is different, of course, but I think that people have to start questioning whether they are harming or helping their society more by insisting on this unnatural separation of males and females, especially during their formative years. The statistics about divorce rates in Saudi, despite the very strong social and religious stigma about divorce, may say it all.