Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Corrections on Some Misconceptions!

Living it up in the desert

Yesterday marked the end of my first month in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I don't know where the time has gone...As they say: time flies when you're having fun! I'm enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, exploring the city with my husband, checking out malls and outdoor art sculptures, cooking, and meeting new friends.

My first pink Jeddah sunset at the Red Sea!
A blue sky, a fancy car, palm trees, and sunshine! This is the life! 

This is perhaps a more exciting (read: less academic) post than my last, but I hope it will be equally informative on the culture of Saudi Arabia. You see, over the past two and a half weeks since I last posted, I've learned so much! This is mainly the result of my making friends (thanks to DH's friend K for introducing me to his friend's wife S...and to S, for introducing me to some of her friends!). Here, as everywhere, the best way to make friends when you're "new" is through people. 

Even before I arrived in Jeddah, DH's good friend from work, K, mentioned that his friend's wife S is also a teacher and invited me to contact her with any questions about the workplace here. We added one another on facebook, and when I arrived she was kind enough to give me a  phone call to welcome me to the city. She and her husband invited DH and I, along with the friend who introduced us, for tea. We went about two weeks ago, and they have a beautiful home, mashallah! Though they're not Saudi citizens both S and her husband N grew up in Saudi Arabia, so they have a lot of knowledge on the ins and outs of everything in this country. 

A typical Jeddah mosque.

S prepared a lovely spread of food, and after some lounging and conversation in the living room we all sat around the table to S's homemade pastries, sandwiches and mini muffins. We chatted and enjoyed the company a lot. It's nice to have another couple with whom we can spend time and, luckily, DH gets along with S's husband as much as S and I hit it off. 

Trying out the famous Al-Baik!
Later in the evening--after we "passed the tea test" (that way if we didn't all get along, they could send us home and no one would be suffering all evening long haha)--we were invited to stay for dinner. The guys went out to pick up some of Jeddah's FAMOUS Al-Baik for my official "cultural inauguration." Al-Baik is kind of like KFC, but MUCH more delicious, and, I'm sure much greasier. The spicy chicken, fries, garlic sauce, hummus and bread were worth the stomach ache! 
The famous Jeddawi Al-Baik!
Five times a day, all stores are legally required to close for salat (prayers) for about half an hour. On more than one occasion I've seen huge lineups of men waiting to get into Al-Baik following salat. The restaurant is just that popular...and for good reason! Here's a quick clip of a local Al-Baik reopening after prayer. I hope you find it as entertaining as I do!

People in this country are pretty passionate about their food and Arabs are known for their culture of hospitality. Though I have yet to be invited to a Saudi home, I can see how the culture--and people living here--are warm and welcoming. For instance, we were invited to dinner at DH's Syrian friend's place last evening, and his wife made a delicious meal, and served tea with mint leaves after dinner. Mmm! 

S also took me out to the Mall of Arabia last week and she, being such a gracious hostess, took me to dinner at a lovely Lebanese restaurant. She made sure there was more than enough delicious food, and exemplifies a warm and welcoming host in this wonderful city.

Cultural clarifications...
When S and I were out shopping in the HUGE Mall of Arabia (Canadians: think 5 Eaton Centers big; it's the largest mall in KSA with over 300 stores, plus lots of restaurants and an amusement park), she mentioned she'd read my last blog entry and that she wanted to clear something up about the culture. I was excited to hear this, since I'm always eager to learn more about this country and how things are done here. Whenever I present my observations, I'm a little nervous that I'm getting it wrong, so I'm VERY happy when someone steps up and clarifies things for me! I'm here to live and to learn! 
Laughing in the Mall of Arabia :)**
Since S grew up in Saudi Arabia, I take her advice and knowledge seriously. So imagine my surprise when she said that DH isn't always on the ball with his ideas about how things are here (sorry, my love)! In all seriousness though, how could he possibly be expected to know about social norms for women in Saudi Arabia when he's been here for two and a half years on his own as a single man. (I blogged here about restrictions single men face in this country.) It's a completely segregated society, and he's had little (if any) chance to really interact with women. His workplace is all men, and restaurants and public places have two sections: "family" and "single men." So, I'm learning that nothing is as simple as it seems. 

Back to the story now... So, if you recall my last post about my "inappropriate" laugh in the medical center waiting room (see the "Discovering spaces of equality" section in this post:, that's what I'm about to address. So we're out shopping and S says that she read my blog. She hopes I don't mind her saying, but DH is wrong about some things. In reality, she continues, it's completely fine and acceptable for a woman to laugh aloud in public. Of course women shouldn't be going out of their way to interact with unrelated men, but they can still speak and laugh ! So there you more ridiculousness (yes, I can call it that now that I know it's not true LOL)
Laughing away
Another point I've received clarification on: when we're in the grocery store, I was initially saying "thank you" to the guy who would bag our purchases. DH mentioned that's not really culturally appropriate here, so I stopped, feeling like a snob. The other day when I was would with S and a couple of her friends, one of whom is Saudi, I found out that it's not wrong to thank someone in this context; rather, I just have to avoid being overly friendly. It's acceptable to say a small "thanks" without smiling or looking "interested" if that makes sense. 

"Ahmad, How's your sister?"
There are, of course, social expectations about behaviour and how women and men should speak in one another's presence. The most evident example I've seen so far comes from DH. Last week, he was busy creating an exam for his work with the university English department. He submitted the completed exam and instructions to his director. One question read something along the lines of the following (the red is his director's comment):
Circle the correct form of the subject:
(3) "Ahmad, how is your brothers / sister?" Socially inappropriate; change. 
You see, in Saudi Arabia, men ask about one another's "families" by asking how their brothers, fathers, nephews, uncles are, NOT how their mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts are. Asking about a friend's sister would be socially inappropriate because it might be interpreted as an attempt to show romantic interest in a woman...and in Islamic culture, there is no "officially" sanctioned way of dating.
the Red Sea at sunset
Until next time...
I could continue writing, but DH is about to get home and I'm going to make sure his lunch is ready! He went to Mecca early this morning for Umrah (a pilgrimage that takes place outside of Hajj season) and I'm sure he's starving by now!

As always, feel free to post comments, questions, or observations below. I'd love to hear if there are any topics you'd like me to write about! 
One of many outdoor art pieces along the Jeddah Corniche.

**Photo credit: Susie of Arabia
Since one needs to be discreet taking photos in public places here, it can be difficult to capture everything I write about and see that I want to share here! Accordingly, I'll from time to time need to borrow photos from other sources....

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Cultural Lessons: Modesty, Speech, and Values

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty...And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms..." Quran 24:30, 31 
Adapting to Saudi Culture
I knew that in coming to Saudi Arabia I would have to adapt to many cultural differences. Not only do I clearly stand out because I am a white Westerner, but I stand out because I am a woman. In Canada—even in multicultural Toronto, where, as my friend pointed out she and I, as white women, are minorities every time we step onto the TTC (Toronto's transit system)—I blend comfortably into the crowd of multicultural faces and bodies; here in Saudi Arabia, however, I stand out. Yes, there is multiculturalism in the cosmopolitan city of Jeddah. But, I'm learning, cultural behaviours, actions and dress are highly influenced by where you are (or live) in the city!

Trips to some Malls!
For instance, last week, DH and I went to the other side of town to Rawdah District where I met up with a friend on Christmas Eve. On our way home, we stopped at a mall to run some errands, and there I was shocked to see women walking around without their heads covered, abayas slung casually over their shoulders not buttoned up, and nonchalantly walking around almost as though they were back home. 
Alandalus Mall, Jeddah
Compare this to a typical trip to our local Alandalus Mall. There, it's rare to see anything more than a woman's eyes. Women wear their abayas properly (i.e. buttoned up), cover their heads, and wear niqab (face cover--see photo below). Some women don’t even show their eyes, opting to instead wear a thin veil over their entire face! DH tells me—and it's not difficult to see—that we live in a very "Saudi" neighbourhood, literally among the locals. Women in Al Naseem District are outwardly conservative in their dress, and do as the above passage instructs: they "guard their modesty" and do not put their bodies on display.
Saudi women shopping
Where do I fit in?
I find myself, a white Canadian woman, in the midst a bit of an identity crisis. How am I supposed to dress? Act? Express myself when out in public? In the busy, multicultural Rawdah District, I'd feel more than comfortable to leave my hair uncovered, and speak up for myself, and walk with my head held high. In my neighbourhood, though, I feel as though I should be more guarded. Not because I'm afraid, but because I'm trying to be attuned to what would be most respectful to the locals. Though a resident of Saudi Arabia, I am, after all, a visitor.

At times, though, remaining constantly respectful is difficult! I'm used to speaking up for myself, having a voice, and making sure I'm heard. Not in an aggressive way, but just in a way that demonstrates I'm equal, I'm here, I'm heard. I'm not a militant feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe women are—and should be!—equal to their male counterparts. 

I struggle to find the ways in which this society allows women the equality I have set out to explore. Saudi Arabia, in the western media, is notorious for "mistreating" women, and subjugating them as "second class citizens." Although I sometimes struggle to see female equality in the culture, I am not convinced that it's nonexistent. I'm determined to see past my personal struggle, cultural adjustments and challenges, and to find the ways in which Saudi / Arab women, or women who are living, as myself, as residents in this country, are independent, assertive, and strong social forces.

Discovering spaces of equality
I have two experiences I'd like to share that relate to expressions of female identity and voice in Saudi Arabia. I'll start with my first "outing" in Jeddah. The morning after I arrived and was finally able to sleep a few hours after my long journey, DH took me to the university medical clinic for my medical tests I needed for my residency card, or "iqama." I put on my abaya, covered my hair, and got into the car. Once we arrived at the clinic, I followed DH in, and was surprised that nothing inside was segregated! I was expecting separate family / singles entrances, waiting areas, and line ups. Okay, I thought, I'll just follow DH's lead here. He checked me in at the female counter (check-in, at least, seemed to be separate), and they sent us to a doctor down the hall. He filled out a requisition for some blood tests, and pointed us toward a waiting area. There, we got a number, and went to sit down. On our way to the seating, DH said something funny and I laughed aloud. A couple of men in thobes and gutras (the traditional Saudi dress for men) stared at me. DH whispered, "women don't laugh loudly in public." "Are you serious??" So, some experiential knowledge of the culture I definitely didn't read about! (And trust me, I've done tons or reading over the past 2.5 years that DH has been here). 
Waiting room
We then sat down quietly. I was, at this point, a bit unsure about how I was supposed to be acting in this non-segregated waiting area and started to cry (wondering whether it is acceptable for women to cry in public)! DH was kind and comforted me during my first small bout of culture shock. Other women were sitting with their husbands, and no one seemed to be talking or doing much else than staring at the numbers on the screen waiting for their turn for blood work. We might attribute this either to the culture (of female silence in public?) or simply the fact that we were in a medical center and people are generally a bit more subdued in such an environment, even in Canada.

On second thought, maybe in Canada we shouldn’t laugh loudly in a medical center anyways. Think of the poor person waiting to be tested for thyroid disease, or some kind of frightening, life-changing ailment.

Beyond the silence…Under the abaya
It wouldn’t be fair if I left you with only the negative image of me crying in the university medical center waiting room feeling silenced by the culture. As promised, I will now share a second scenario where I met and spoke with a young Saudi Arabian woman during my 8 hour stopover in Abu Dhabi.

When I disembarked from my long 12 hour flight from Toronto at the Abu Dhabi airport, my first stop was the washroom. There’s nothing like a real washroom after being on an airplane for so long! I’d decided in advance that it would be a good idea for me to don my abaya upon landing. DH wasn’t sure how I’d find it waiting alone in the UAE for such a long time and I figured it would be best to draw as little attention to myself as possible.
Abu Dhabi Airport
I was standing at the washroom mirror fixing my makeup and hair when a woman walked in in her niqab (face covering) and abaya. She proceeded to also freshen up, and changed into a black Saudi abaya. I figured there was a good chance she was also headed to Jeddah. I smiled at her and she said hello. I asked her if she just got off the flight from Toronto and she said yes, her husband is studying in Canada and she’s been in Waterloo with him for about 6 months now. They were on their way back home to Riyadh (the capital of Saudi Arabia) for winter break. As we spoke, she skillfully wrapped her hijab and niqab and I thought I might ask her for some help with my own scarf. I am seriously troubled at making mine look good and stay on. It either stays on and looks terrible, or looks good for about 10 minutes and then slides off my head!

She was kind enough to help me out, and we spoke a little bit more before exchanging numbers and heading our separate ways. This might sound a little bit silly to those of you who live (have lived) in Saudi, but for me, this was my first time speaking to a "real" Saudi woman. Outside in public, local women might seem unapproachable, guarded, and silent, but among other women it seems that things are the same here.
Freshening up...
For instance, my building is usually pretty quiet, and it was an entire week before I even saw another woman in the hallway. When a man other than my husband enters the apartment, it's custom (read: properly befitting a woman) to stay in the background and not be seen. Especially since in a woman's own home she's "uncovered" (not wearing her abaya!) The other day the satellite guy came to do the installation, and I was stuck in the back part of our apartment for a couple of hours. Interestingly, even the apartments are constructed in such a way that the "family" area is in the back, and the "guest" area (washroom and sitting room / living room) are in the front right near the entrance. Reminds me of Rensissance English homes: the woman is always in the most "protected" space inside, far from the eyes of prying male strangers, never near the windows. 
That said, imagine my surprise the other day when I heard women laughing loudly from down the hall. Lots and lots of women laughing, making celebratory noises and carrying on. Ends up there was a wedding or bachelorette party of sorts, and the women were gathered together. So, my lesson: in public, be quiet and look away from strange unrelated men. In private, be loud, noisy and carry on as usual in Canada. Well...kind of! 
Tentative conclusions…
Ultimately, I think my meeting with the lovely Saudi woman I discussed earlier, coupled with my own experiences I’ve described above, merit some interesting analysis. Women are to act one way when in public—especially in relation to the opposite sex—but in private, I don’t know that North American and Saudi cultures are all that different.

Here, the family is the bedrock of society. All it takes is a short drive through any area of Jeddah to realize that this culture is centered around the family, its comfort, its enjoyment, and preservation. The relative silence or quietness of women in public, I might safely conclude, is connected to the preservation of the family. Going back to my opening passage, both women and men are, in the Quran, called to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” Indeed, I am surprised at how respectful men are in this part of the world. Yes, people stare at me because I’m clearly not a local, but there are no cat calls, no rude or suggestive gestures, and not once has a man attempted to make direct eye contact with me.
Family picnics and fun along Jeddah Corniche
Sure, there are stories about Saudi men in Canada the western world running after white women and trying to deceive them, but when in Rome… So far, my experience in Jeddah has been at times challenging, but more than anything, it’s been enlightening. Cultural barriers are breaking down, and I’m seeing that there are many, many things that the west might learn from a culture that embraces life, family, and faith.