Saudi Arabia: Chapter 1

by Phoebe Blyth

 

...because everyone asks us "what's it REALLY like?"

This morning, I left the compound without my husband for the first time. I covered my clothes and skin with a black, floor length cloak, which I'm required by law to wear whenever I'm in public. I have no driver's license or insurance, so I can't go into the city, or to the cafe, or even to the grocery store, unless a man drives me. It is oppressively hot during the day, and we are surrounded by constant construction noise from the building project behind our house. You have to strategically time everything you do off the compound, because all businesses close at prayer for 45 minutes, and prayer times change each day. A fine, ochre dust gets onto and into everything, and the air is so dry that my skin and lips are permanently cracked. We spent a small fortune on excess baggage and visa fees, and we have been through bureaucratic hell and back, trying to get our dog into the country. 

All of these things are true, but this is not the truth of our life here. 

I was apprehensive about our move - who wouldn't be? Riyadh is arguably one of the most conservative cities in the world; the capital of a country whose views on women, religious power, sexuality, and, yes, even dogs, are the very antithesis of my own. I had no idea what I would face coming here, and whatever it was, I would be facing it alone: I was scheduled to arrive a full 18 hours before my husband, as we were required to fly from different countries. Having read what I had read, and heard what I had heard, I steeled myself for an uncomfortable experience as a lone, white, western women entering the Kingdom at 3am. I had purchased the loosest, least offensive clothes I could find; covered my hair; made up my face, and assumed the "don't fuck with me" expression which I had worn when dealing with taxi drivers or strangers on my previous solo travels. 

I was utterly taken aback by the smiling, obsequious treatment I received at the customs and immigration desks. Men made eye contact with me, and asked me friendly, chatty questions about my travels, and everyone was far more welcoming than they had been when I had arrived in America for the first time! When we drove through the heavy security at the compound gate, I was too tired to properly take it in, but later I noticed the barbed wire atop the 20ft high concrete wall, the solid metal road blocks, the security check booths, and the gunmen... Ours is an expat-only compound, and they don't take security lightly. 

It's been an adjustment living here, but not such a difficult one as I had thought.

One of the perks of international teaching is that some schools, like ours, will provide housing. Our house is cool, comfortable, and way too big for the three of us (including dog). When we moved in, it resembled a hotel suit - all the walls and furniture were an inoffensive, bland, beige colour. We have since bought lots of plants, rugs and cushions, and painted a few of the walls in brighter shades of red and blue... when you live in the desert, the last thing you want in your house is the colour of sand. 

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Everything here is in a constant state of construction. We have come to think of it as "no finish, only build". The Kingdom is not as rich as it once was, and a lot of expensive infrastructure projects have stalled midway through. The compound and school are located outside the city, and are surrounded by a sea of rubble and garbage. It's incredible when you consider that Riyadh itself is an utterly man-made oasis, made possible through sheer power of will. When you drive on the ring road past the universities, on the outskirts of the city, you catch glimpses of the sheer vastness of the desert stretching out beyond the buildings and highways.

Driving here is a nightmare. The historic declaration that the King would be lifting the ban on female drivers was celebrated by many (although not the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan expats who make their living driving women around), but the thought of getting behind the wheel here is daunting. Road safety is not a high priority, and the roads here closely resemble a bumper car ring at a fair. Giant pot holes mark most of the intersections outside the city and on the side streets, and lane markers are about as common as bacon sandwiches. God I miss bacon. 

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Just like all pork products, alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom, as are cinemas, live music performances, and theaters, so the options for entertainment are eating out, and going to the mall. The malls here are enormous: shiny and cavernous, filled with American and European brands. Any store selling women's items (lingerie, swimwear, makeup) displays a sign at the door saying "family only", meaning men cannot enter unless they're with their family. There are no changing rooms in most clothing stores - women either buy clothes and try them on in the mall bathrooms, or they take them home to try and return if needed.  Everything closes during prayer time, so if you are caught inside the mall, you'll see people sitting against walls, sipping from take-away cups, chatting with their friends, waiting for the stores to reopen. There's an app for the ever-changing prayer schedule, so you don't get caught waiting at checkout with a cartful of defrosting groceries for 45 minutes.

Eateries are a mix of knock off and legitimate American fast food chains (Starbucks, Burger King, Buffalo Wild Wings, Five Guys, Shake Shack, and Dunkin' Donuts are all within five minutes of the compound); local fast food places (which are usually men-only); and higher end restaurants, which usually have separate entrances for "family" and "single". Sometimes these restaurants have curtained off booths so that families can sit in privacy, and women can remove their face coverings. 

The vast majority of Saudi women in Riyadh wear not only the required abaya (a black, neck to toe, cloak-like covering, that all women must wear in public over their clothes) and head covering, but the niqab, which leaves only the eyes exposed. Having my bust measured in Victoria's Secret by a woman in full niqab was a bizarre experience. Expat women, like me, are required to wear the abaya at all times outside the compound, but the rules are vaguer when it comes to the head covering. 

Life on the compound is a kind of strange, retro, suburban throwback. Since it is expat only, most of the Saudi laws and customs don't apply. Women drive on the compound. There is a cinema, and swimming pools, and no-one is covered. People have "tea" parties, where they drink homemade "infusions" (some more realistic than others). The population is overwhelmingly dominated by young, white families. The speed limit is 20kph, because the streets are filled with small children and teenagers walking, riding bikes or scooters, or playing soccer. Kids stay out past dark, hanging out on the play equipment, in the gym, or by the pools, and their parents aren't worried because, really, where would they go? It's hard to get up to much trouble when there are armed guards at every entrance.

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Living in the same compound as my students and their families certainly takes some getting used to. I go to the gym at 5.30 to avoid running into my kids while I'm sweating in shorts and a tank top. I am a little more considerate of what I wear when I walk the dog. I try not to overdo it on "tea" if I know I have to walk home...

The easiest part of this whole experience has been the people with whom we now live and work. We are here amongst some of the most welcoming and open minded people I've ever met. As well as the natural level of bonding that happens amongst the cohort of "newbies" who arrived with us, we've become close to colleagues who have been here two years, five years...ten years. It takes a certain kind of person to decide to move here - particularly with small children - and the school employs a certain standard of teacher. That said, we are still unsure why we were offered this job, or why we accepted, knowing as little as we did. All we know is that we are so glad that we took this risk.  

We may only stay here two years, we may stay longer, but one thing is for sure: you never know the truth of a place until you live there.