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....


  1. Oh, heyyy! Welcome to Jeddah, finally! Glad you're having a great time! :)

  2. Thanks for your warm welcome Nessreen!! I know--finally, right? You were right about this city--it's amazing so far :)

  3. Julie, love to here your updates and look forward to reading more. Aunt Mary.

  4. Oops, love to "hear" your updates

  5. Glad you're enjoying following my adventures, Aunt Mary! I'll be sure to keep them coming! xo