Saudi Women: The Next Generation

Men, religion, and tradition has an upper-hand on how things are run in this country. A lot of topics almost seem pointless to question “why”. It just simply is…

In a previous post, I talked about my goal of raising free-thinkers.. Not to the extreme.. but just enough that the ladies learn to have their own opinions. So far…so good 🙂 In the 2 months that I’ve been here, my classes have gone through 3 projects to develop this. And I’m realizing how much of a new concept this is to many.

      1. Debating: My girls seem to have never been taught to argue their point of view. In a country where 100% of its Arabs have the same religion, where nothing negative can be said about the government, and even no point in debating the dress code.. I can clearly understand why. They had a difficult time with the concept of debating; how it can evolve from its starting point, how it’s not planned out with the opposing team, how you can predict and plan for the other team’s comeback. Although they initially broke all of these rules, at least they came up with, in conjunction, some pretty valid points. What made it a success though, was the teams’ realization that the audience (rest of the classroom), their friends who they could’ve sworn thought the same way as they did, challenged their opinion. This whole time, I assumed the debate would take place in the front of the classroom. This was a pleasant surprise 🙂 The flow was natural.. unscripted.. under control…genuine opinions… and best of all, in English! I’ve done my job, and they made me quite proud 🙂
      2. Problem-Solving: I won’t say that all of the ladies are spoiled… but pretty much! Because many Saudi women don’t work in this country, they are given allowances..some pretty hefty allowances. Ask anyone of them what their hobby is, and the answer is “shopping”. It’s not uncommon to have personal drivers and housekeepers. Heck, I even have one. Therefore, there’s not too many problems that these women have the experience of solving. So we chose broader topics like pollution, obesity, and having too much free time (something they know plenty about). Although solutions were as simple as “recycle”, “exercise”, .. the success was for them to think of more hobbies besides shopping during their free time. The presenters came up with a nice little list. Whether they will do it or not is another question..
      3. Dreaming: I’m a huge dreamer!! These ladies were not. So yesterday, for our storytelling unit, I wanted them to fast-forward 50 years and write their autobiography. This was sort of in the style of a “vision board”. Everything you can possibly want for your life, from your dream job, to the names given to your future children. Here comes the confusion. For a few devout Muslims, dreaming of their future seemed pointless since it’s solely dependent on Allah. As a Christian, I can kind-of understand this. Many folks try to figure out their purpose, and totally skip the One who actually gave you one. It’s like trying to understand a new invention, but asking everyone around you, besides the actual Inventor or the manual… BUT outside of all of this, one can still dream. I don’t believe we’re merely puppets. We were given a brain and motivation for a reason. By the end of the exercise, ALL of the ladies had detailed descriptions of their dream husbands, what they’d teach their children, and how many rooms are in their future homes. They elaborately and passionately expressed their hopes of law school and degrees of political science… Although, there is only one batch of female law graduates in this country, I’m am almost certain that one of mine will be next
      4. Today, marks the graduation date of Saudi women lawyers 🙂
        http://www.alriyadh.com/en/article/644734/print

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You live where??? Saudi Arabia?!

I just realized that the entire time that I’ve been writing on Saudi Arabia, I’ve never given a proper introduction about the city I live in, Riyadh… Riyadh is the conservative capital, almost directly in the northern center of the country. Contrary to popular belief, its urban inhabitants do not go to work by camel, nor are they totally ignorant to western ways. The streets are bumper to bumper with foreign taxis who break every driving rule that you’d find in an organized city. Here, you will only find a man behind the wheel, and the occasional 12 year old driving his mother to the mall, which also explains the craziness in the streets.

The Arabs of Riyadh range from Pakistani, to Emirati, to African. There’s a rainbow of complexions, wide variety of hair textures, and all shapes and sizes. I assumed that the personality of Saudis would be very dry, and I blame media for this misconception. However, the college-age crowd that I teach are very giggly and immature. I’ve found most of the older Saudi women to be incredibly friendly and giving. They are all close-knit to their friends and family. And once you’ve made your way into one of these categories, you’re always taken care of.

Family, shopping, and religion make up the life of these people. It’s very simple… and makes me realize how us foreigners strive for so much to keep us happy. Some may say that the Saudi way of life is quite backwards… Yes, it’s very different.. and no, it’s not something I’d like to live in for more than a year.. But, if it’s all that they know, it works for them, and they’re the ones who will be raising their next generations in it.. I guess a passer-by’s opinion of the place, doesn’t count for much.

The religion of Saudi Arabia is Islam. This is seen in everything a Saudi does, from the 5 daily prayers, to throwing an “Inshallah” (Christian equivalent of “Lord Willing”) in their casual conversations. For nearly 30 minutes per prayer call, shops shut down, waiters take a break, and you even get locked into the grocery stores and restaurants. Time is very precious for non-Muslim foreigners here, because of this!

The weather, so far, has been a little iffy. There’s been a weekly rainstorm with the most booming of thunders. Within 15 minutes, the city is flooded, due to the lack of sewers. With the piles of puddles combined with 90+ degree weather, you can imagine our problem with mosquitos. There’s an occasional sandstorm, and it makes for an awesome sight! This is almost always followed by rain, to clean the city and clear the air. Another one of God’s awesome solutions to our problems.

Most of the royal family lives within Riyadh, which plays a part in why it is more conservative compared to the port city of Jeddah. This family is quite extensive, spanning into the thousands since multiple wives and an abundance of children isn’t shunned. It is likely to have a prince or princess in the classroom.

The laws of Riyadh can be quite strict, which is why the city is considered a hardship. Men and women outside of the family, are almost always segregated. Women wear black-based abayas. Coverings may be a little more enforced in comparison to other cities. Music in public is outlawed. The mentioning of pigs and dogs, the picture of a woman’s face, or pop culture references are not allowed in the classroom.

The food is a great mix of the Gulf countries. You can find Saudi kabsa (a mix of meat, rices, and spices), Turkish shawarma (meat wrap w/ veggies and sometimes french fries), and various Yemeni dishes. A lot of dishes include chick peas/hummus and rice. A popular Saudi snack consists of dates (my new fave, but oh so high in sugar!) and Arabic tea. Of course there’s also your Burger King, McDonalds, Applebees, and Krispy Kreme. Two things you will not find in this country is pork and alcohol.


Is This What Armageddon Will Look Like?

Today has been an eventful day.. As I was heading out to the desert for a hike there was a light sandstorm, followed by a blinding rainfall. It’s flooded every week I’ve been here, so far. The weather had turned our convoy around, which was upsetting since I needed a break from the city. One of the old ladies in my car says, “Here… have some chocolate”. To my surprise, Vodka-filled chocolate. These sneaky Irish.. That didn’t quite make my day as she hoped, but thankfully my friend in a car far ahead called me about the perfect weather at the meeting point. 

This hike was at the Graffiti Rocks, an archaeological event that I’ve been looking forward to. So after relaying the phone call and casting a vote.. we turned back around and gave the weather another try. Once we arrived, it was absolutely gorgeous! The sky was the clearest blue, that I’ve seen so far here. Not a cloud visible in the sky, yet the sun was not beaming strong at all. These trips are the highlights of my weekend, being able to congregate with foreigners from all corners of the world, hearing all the languages. All the women can’t strip off their abayas fast enough. All the kids can’t wait to break out in a run.

The landscape this week was different than the other locations. Instead of the rocky ground, that pounds your joints by the end of the hour hike.. this one was black rocky mountains, sitting on top of a soft red, beachy sand. Beautiful contrast. For these grounds, you have to venture out a little further from the city.

It was a difficult climb, so the smartest move is to step on the same secure rock as the previous climber. From a distance we’d probably resemble a trail of different colored ants. At the top of the mountain, we find many mounds of rocks, which happens to be ancient tombs. I guess that’s easier piling rock, instead of digging 6ft in this terrain.

We leisurely work our way down the hill with a Spaniard family behind us, which gives my roommate and co-teacher the opportunity to practice their Spanish, and for me to ease-drop on the French clique in front of us. I hate the amount of French language I’ve lost along the years. At the bottom there’s long, flat sandy ground. Enough to make a runner break out into a sprint. I told my crew to go on ahead a little, solely for this purpose. It was short run, but sweet.

We come to a rest stop, where water and oranges are waiting. This is where we got our first glimpse at hieroglyphics. I interpret it to be a man riding on a camel. Then, directly above some fool defaced the rocks w/ initials. How in the world can someone be so naïve to add their modern marks to an ancient site, I have no idea! But it sorta pissed the anthropologist within me. We climb up another difficult hill to see graffiti of camel, antelope and maybe some sort of bird.. along with perhaps an ancient language that actually looks like Korean. Awesome finds!!

Hash Guy is at the bottom of the hill cooking sausages for 200 hungry hikers. The line goes through the parking lot. Some families are out on their beach towels and lawn chairs, around their private campfires. You look up and see the ship-shaped kite blowing, with the clear blue sky in the background… Then, we hear a yell… Some guy’s telling everyone to get down from the rocks and start packing up. We look to the left, and there’s a HUGE sandstorm coming over the hills. Imagine the movie “Twister”…

Everyone’s taking pictures and videos.. I’m one of these crazy ones, who wait til the last moment as well. So we jump into the car, and the storm basically chases us. The cloud looks so thick, that you could imagine the thing picking up our car and everything in its path. We decide to sit it out on the side of the highway for an hour, while the entire sky goes black. It eventually clears a little, and we start inching our way back to the city. By the way, I’m now typing this in the car, as we drive 10mph. Needless to say, it has been quite an interesting day.

Update: So apparently the storm traveled the 100km (60ish miles) to the city..I had my apt cleaned RIGHT BEFORE I left… Spotless! And I return to a thin layer of red dust on literally everything! Grr

6 Things I Learned from Living Abroad


6) How to distinguish needs from wants

If you’re a fan of the television show “House Hunters”, you will often see potential buyers go through long inventories of things that they need, like a hood over the stove, a jacuzzi to fit 5 people, a shower with a mountain view. I have down-scaled my “must have” list, after some of my travels. The basic American appliances that I have in the U.S. has slowly made it to my list of luxuries. This was realized the moment I arrived in the congested city of Seoul, S. Korea; where there was an odd absence of bathtubs and ovens in apartments. The memories of my spacious country bathroom, was now being compared to the ability to use the bathroom, shower and brush my teeth in the sink.. all at the same time.

Here in Saudi, when someone told me that I’d have to fill my washing machine by pan, pull the machine to a hole in the middle of the floor, drain it, and then hang dry.. I made sure that a conventional washer/dryer unit was added to my list. It’s the simple things that you miss the most, when everything is foreign to you. I no longer will assume that another country’s definition of a “need” and “want” is the equivalent to my own.

5) Your survival instincts come into play

Before leaving the US, I’ve often been asked.. “Do you know anyone out there?” “Can you speak the language?”.. “No?!? Sooo, how are you going to get around??” … You just gotta figure it out! We are all primitively programmed to fight for our survival. I’ve learned this best in Saudi. The 1st three days in the KSA, I lived off of cold pita bread and rice. I saw not one soul who spoke English or could direct me to something familiar. Each day, I inched a little further down my road, counting buildings and turns, so not to get lost. I took down as many taxi numbers as possible, so at least someone could direct me home. I immediately befriended the hotel staff, so that they’d felt comfortable loaning me money if things got tight. Survival! Without a lick of Arabic…. ‘Whatever higher power you believe in’ always seems to work the immediate things out. You can always figure out the details later..

4) At the same time, you’re never truly alone

There’s 100 English teachers on my campus. All of them came with the same expectations (or lack thereof). All with the same frustrations. All having the same questions… Outside of the school, there is the occasional English speaker; the taxi driver from Pakistan who wants to practice through conversation, the Filipina nurse who understands your homesickness, the Saudi woman who wants to soak up all things American. You start to realize that maybe running off to a new country, a new job, and a new culture… is not such a new idea.

3) You Start to Define Yourself

There are so many titles that one can take on these days.. Democrat/Republican, Gay/Straight, Christian/Atheist. However, quite a few people have a hard time defining why they feel so strongly about these titles. When you live in a country that challenges these labels, you start to see where on the spectrum you fall. Plus, you’ll have a firm example to back it up. Being in a conservative, Islamic country makes me realize how much of a liberal Christian I am.

2) Life should not be all that stressful

There’s a time to work, and there’s a time to play. As an ESL teacher abroad, you finally have ample time to pick up a new hobby, start and finish a book, choose whether or not you want to have a social life, or even be random and attend a ‘camel beauty contest’… As an expat, in general, you have a totally different itinerary from the tourists. Somehow, I’ve managed to experience various activities from having a few cookouts in the middle of an Arabian desert, to digging for fossilized seashells and desert diamonds (http://www.ehow.com/info_8127431_desert-diamonds.html). You no longer check out the city on someone else’s schedule and course. You tend to make your own fun, and it ends up being a way more interesting story to tell.

1) See life through someone else’s eyes

Yesterday, I was watching a music video on MTV. The American singer spent the whole video in a swimsuit. There was no pool, ocean, or water of any kind present. This sorta bugs me. It is one of the reasons why my greetings in Korea often came to “So, can you sing or dance like Beyonce?” or “Are you Obama’s sister?” And they are dead serious, in asking! In Saudi, out of the 5-10 English channels, these were also the American examples portrayed to a conservative country. I have seen some coverings to the extreme (women not showing an inch of the body, including eyes). Under these all-black coverings, I’ve always imagined two types of women: one who was very timid, or someone expressionless. Going against the stereotype, my students, the ladies under the veil, are some of the most outspoken, confident and dramatic girls I’ve ever met..