Tag Archives: Saudi

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?

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please leave your prejudices at the gate

As I was boarding a Lufthansa flight this morning back to Riyadh, there was a young Saudi couple, probably in their early 20s, ahead of me in line. For those of you who have flown out of Frankfurt before, you’ll know that you have to scan your boarding pass through an automated gate before you can board the plane. The young man of the couple was holding both of their boarding passes. He first scanned the woman’s boarding pass and had her go through before scanning his own boarding pass to proceed through the gate. I thought that he was a very nice, courteous young man, and then didn’t think anymore of the situation. But then a female Lufthansa agent who was standing nearby saw this, and she said to the young woman, “You are very capable, you know. You could have done that yourself!” and then addressing the young man, said, “Women are very capable of doing many things. They take care of the house, take care of the children. They are very capable! You should value her. Make sure that you treat her nicely!” Her friendly, jolly tone of voice belied her condescending and disdainful attitude towards Saudis.

Would she have said the same thing if it had been a young European couple? I highly doubt it. Why does she assume that this young Saudi man doesn’t already treat the woman nicely? If it had been a European couple, would she have labeled the man’s actions as indicative of a domineering, controlling husband, or a thoughtful, considerate husband?

Also, had this woman even been to Saudi Arabia before or bothered to learn anything else about the country besides what mainstream media would have us understand? Probably not, because if she had, she also would not have defined Saudi women’s capabilities only be their apparent ability to take of the house and children. She would have seen that Saudi women are physicians, professors, scientists, writers, teachers, businesswomen, and yes, some are homemakers – just like in many other parts of the world. Also, she obviously assumed that this young couple was married. Maybe they were brother and sister, which would have made her remarks even more inappropriate!

I think that this Lufthansa agent should stick to her job – getting people on the plane so it can leave in time – and forgo the obtuse social commentary!

gents now welcome

If you remember from an earlier post, there used to be certain hours where singles (males) could and could not enter the mall. Some relief for the shabaabs (شباب, i.e. the youth) now, since last month, the governor of Riyadh announced that single males would “not be prevented” from going to shopping malls during peak hours.

Now, the mall is probably the last place most guys I know would want to hang out, but in Saudi Arabia, where there’s not much to do, it’s the place to be. Isn’t that kind of sad? When one wants to “go out” in Saudi Arabia, you’re pretty much relegated to restaurants and coffee shops … and shawarma places  … and you could always go for a walk somewhere … or go for a drive. So it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of entertainment. Plus, in most public places, there’s segregation (e.g. separate ‘singles’ and ‘family’ sections in restaurants). So the mall is pretty much the only place where you could go just to hang out and be around other people. Plus, it’s air-conditioned.

The original reason for having the separate “bachelor” hours and “family” hours was to restrict mixing of the sexes and stem the “harrassment” of females. This, unfortunately, makes it sound like young Saudi men are only up to no good. Granted, there well may have been many incidences of a woman or group of women feeling intimidated by the antics and behavior of a group of guys, which is certainly reprehensible. But Vancouver has lots of young male Saudi students, as do many other North American cities, and as far as I know, there’s no concerns about allowing them to enter our malls! I am not trying to make excuses for anyone here, but in a way, I can’t completely blame the guys, especially if we’re talking about teenagers and especially given the context of this country. Everyone, especially young people, needs an outlet for their energy and self-expression. We’ve all been through adolescence and can understand this. But when there are such rigid restrictions (even in something as simple as going shopping), and especially as you’re growing up, reckless and inappropriate behavior is bound to come bursting out at the seams where you least expect it – including at the mall.

dining out in Riyadh

If you haven’t already guessed by some of my previous posts (and certainly those who know me know this well) – I love food and eating out. Dining out in Riyadh is certainly a unique experience:

1. Take Away: The ubiquitous take away places typically serve sandwiches and other quick snacks, like shawarma, ‘subba’ (which literally means ‘cement’ – it’s a wrap sandwich stuffed with falafel and a boiled egg, and sits like cement in your stomach – but it’s oh so good!), hummus, ‘fool’ (mashed beans), and the like. I’ve already hailed Mama Noura, which is a local favorite. Most of these places are not strictly take-away – many actually have some seating for people (i.e. males) to eat, but I have never seen one with a family section. This means that when we get a hankering for some Saudi fast food, I get to sit in the car while camelman goes in to fetch our orders. It’s not much fun for me as I am stuck in the car and miss out on all the hustle and bustle of these places. But the food is definitely worth the wait!

2. ‘Traditional’ Restaurants: By ‘traditional’, I mean that they serve Middle Eastern cuisine (most popular seem to be Saudi, Lebanese, and Turkish restaurants). Of course, there are separate family and bachelor sections. Here’s an example of the spread you can get (and before you get too excited – no, that is not a real beer on the left, just non-alcoholic beer, i.e. wheat and barley juice):

But the unique experience of going to these sorts of restaurants is that when you sit in the family section, you actually get your own room. (Yep, your own private dining room, or at least an enclosed booth, so that you’re protected from the prying eyes of male strangers.) When you need service, there’s a buzzer in the room to call for the waiter. Speaking of service, try ordering a beer. Chances are, it’ll come a bit warm, or at least room temperature. So when you complain that it is not cold enough, they come back with a glass of ice. (Iced barley juice! I know … why do we even bother?) There’s usually no music and you don’t get the usual restaurant background noise of the waiters bustling about and the din from other diners, so there’s not much ambience. As camelman says, you might as well just eat at home.

I haven’t taken many photos of the inside of these sort of restaurants, but here’s a shot of a restaurant we once stopped at when we took a pit stop at a highway gas station.

You can see some of the tables curtained off for the family section. This place was obviously a bit of a dive.

One of our favorite ‘traditional’ restaurants in Riyadh is a Turkish restaurant called Al Saraya (although it’s been iffy lately). But the hilarious thing about this restaurant is the interior decor. It’s filled with stuffed animals – but not the type you had as a kid. Imagine sitting in a family section booth, with a giraffe looking over your table. And imagine eating your dinner with these guys gleefully grinning at you:

3. Trendy, western-style dining. And finally, there are more upscale, western-like restaurants popping up more and more. From my experience, most of these places are more about presenting a trendy facade rather than providing quality food and service. The decor is very fancy and actually looks kind of lounge-y, with dark booths, moody lighting, and sometimes even a bar.

We have a hypothesis that the owners are betting on the fact that one day, alcohol will be allowed in the country and when (if) that happens, they will be very well positioned to open the first nightclubs. In the meantime, these are the venues that tend to be more popular with the twenty-something crowd. There are still the nominal bachelor and family sections, but the family sections have few booths and certainly no private rooms. Most of the tables are set up in the open and we have observed in the past several years that groups and families with young Saudi women are more willing to sit there and even remove their niqabs. Sitting at an open table in a restaurant may seem like no big deal to us, but to me, it represents another sign of change in Saudi society.

untapped talent

You have to admire the Saudis for their humor and resourcefulness in surviving the harsh reality of the desert and the society. This is what you get when you have a group of young men with no other outlets to release their energy – no dating (at least in the open), no nightclubs or pubs, no movie theaters. Just shopping malls (and I’ve explained what those are like for the bachelors), stay at home, or hang out in the desert.

Seriously, Hollywood stunt drivers have nothing over these guys. Imagine if these kids had the opportunities to fully express their creativity and imagination.

Saudi Sister Suffragette

Well it wasn’t exactly the scores of sister suffragettes parading through the streets (à la Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), but a major step forward towards women’s equality was announced today. King Abdullah has declared that women can vote in the next round of municipal elections and can even run as candidates to sit on the municipal boards. Further, he proclaimed that he will appoint some women to serve on the Shoura advisory council. The last major announcement that boosted public participation for women was two years ago, when King Abdullah appointed a woman to be the deputy minister of education.

You have to realize, though, that Saudi Arabia only had its first elections in 2005. These were for seats on the municipal councils and only males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Only half of the seats on these councils were up for grabs too (the other half were appointed by the government). Voter turn-out then was just 30%, so it’s not like the men were clamoring to participate in these elections either.

The next round of municipal elections were supposed to be held in 2009, but were ostensibly postponed to “study the previous election” and consider the issue of allowing women to participate. It was evidently considered v-e-r-y carefully as now, two years later, this announcement comes out. The timing of this announcement is very interesting too. The new date for these delayed elections is this Thursday – too late for the women to participate this time around. They’ll have to wait another 4 years to participate (assuming they keep to their schedule).

Now don’t get me wrong – I do think that this is a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia. But I also think that this is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to grab onto, riding on the back of the increasing presence of women in the media. Given the pervasiveness of internet and satellite TV across Saudi Arabia, Saudi women (especially the younger generation) have already been expressing their opinions and voices – through social media, commentaries, blogs (e.g. saudiwoman’s weblog or a saudi woman’s voice). Marching over to the local electoral station (I wouldn’t be surprised to see separate ‘bachelor’ and ‘family’ sections anyway) to stand in an enclosed ballot booth to cast your vote is a no-brainer in terms of implementing the election. (It’s not like the election will increase the opportunity for men and women to mingle, heaven forbid.) The significance is that now Saudi society will encounter the voice of millions of Saudi women (assuming they all vote) … on municipal issues.

It’s a start.

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.