Tag Archives: majlis hareem

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.

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.

Wednesday night, girls’-night-in

Every Wednesday night, to start off the weekend, my mother-in-law hosts a dinner for the women of the family. It’s like a girls’-night-in, but without the wine and chick flicks. Her daughters and daughters-in-law are the regulars, along with their daughters and pre-teen sons. The men have otherwise gone out (escaped?) for the evening. Everyone gets dressed up (think fancy blouses and floor-length skirts, although hemlines have been slo-owly, slightly rising over the past couple of years) and the party gets going at around 8:30 or 9 pm. To be honest, I have been to, perhaps, only a handful of Saudi homes for such dinner parties, but from my experience, they all follow a typical format.

The evening begins with Arabic coffee (light coffee flavored with cardamom) and a whole assortment of pastry sweets, chocolates, and meaty, fresh dates. Quite delectable. And I love the idea of having dessert before dinner. Dinner is usually served about an hour later, around 10 or 10:30 pm, and it might be something like this:

You definitely will never go hungry if you are a guest in a Saudi’s home! This was the first girls’-night-in party I attended and to show appreciation for the guest of honor (who was me that evening), my mother-in-law had a feast of a whole lamb prepared – see if you can spot the lamb’s head in this photo. It was great (the food, not the head). Growing up in an Asian household, I only knew of plain rice. The rice here is flavored with fragrant spices, including cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon bark, and dried lime (loomi). The lamb meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and soft. Good thing that the sweets were served before dinner because there is definitely no room for dessert after these feasts.