Four months in to my contract in Saudi and I am still adjusting. Of course, some things are easier to adjust to than others. I can’t honestly say that I like it here. I don’t really hate it either. I feel a sort of total ambivalence towards living here as there are no real highs or lows to report. There is just the persistence of being. I imagine minimum security prisons are the same way.
That being said, here are some things that are different compared to other places I have lived.
- Total segregation of the sexes in public. Men and women who are not married or related are prohibited from interaction except for the act of shopping. Since no women work in retail, the employees of every store and mall are male. In restaurants there is a separate counter for women and men. While I have gotten used to the segregation in many ways, there is something strange and unnatural about only being around men 24/7.
- The concept of a national dress code. Saudi men wear a white garment called a thobe. It looks like a long sleeve button up dress. It is often accompanied by red and white checkered head scarf. In a world where men and women are kept apart and the men wear a garment that looks a lot like a dress, I often find my western awareness confused and uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that some of the softer Saudis often play with their headscarves and flip them in a way that a woman might flip her hair in the mirror before going out or the way she twirls the ends while engaged in a flirtatious conversation. It is not just the Saudi men who have a “dress code.” The women are not allowed to leave the house without wearing a hijab and an abaya. These two pieces combine to totally obscure everything except a woman’s eyes and shoes from sight. Some even wear a veil that covers the eyes.
- Lack of public entertainment. Movie theaters, live music, bars, clubs, and other typical meeting places are banned here.
- Lack of music. For the most part, one does not randomly hear music in Riyadh. Shops don’t have a soft music background, cars don’t usually have the radio on, and tv and commercials are devoid of music. No jingle and no jangle.
- A desire to be first. Driving or being in a vehicle is a daily risk in Riyadh. There are traffic rules, but they are more often broken than followed. It is not uncommon to see a car speed to overtake another car then brake to make a right or left turn. The need to get in front of another person outweighs the need to make safe and legal traffic decisions.
- Arrogance. Here is one where Saudi and America have a lot in common. If you ask any Saudi what the best country in the world is, they say Saudi. Just like Americans often say ‘Merica, fuck yeah.
- Imported work force. I am only here because I teach English to Medical students. I am thankful for the job and opportunity. The rest of the workforce is just like me, imported. It is rare to see a Saudi doing some sort of work. The doctors, chefs, teachers, drivers, cleaners, nurses, construction workers and others are all from other countries. In fact, except for my students, I know more people from Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, or Bangladesh than I do Saudis.
- Shaking hands. It is a common Saudi cultural practice to shake hands every time you see someone. Maybe I am overly sensitive, but I don’t like that much physical contact with people. Every day at the start of class, my students shake hands and attempt to shake my hand. Well, they used to until I told them that I don’t like shaking hands every day. Now a few of them will offer a fist bump, which I find much better, but I still don’t want to do that every day either.
- Prayer times. Saudis are Sunni Muslim and therefore pray 5 times a day. The first prayer happens just before dawn. I can live with this. However, the last 4 prayers are throughout the day. Every business shuts down for 30 minutes at each prayer. This makes accomplishing anything during the afternoon virtually impossible because things are closed around noon, then again around 3, and again around 5 and again around 6:30. It is amazing that anything gets done at all.
- Things not getting done. There is no concept of customer service or efficiency here. Things just take a long time and when they do happen, are not always done correctly. And since no one wants to take ownership of a mistake, it is hard to get anything fixed.