Devil is in the Details

Assignment 2 (Revision: 11/15/15): Direct Observation

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This is not my flat, btw (lol). But is along my scenic route.

Before I leave the serenity of my heated flat at 6:30 am, Saturday morning, and rush out into the crisp desert air of Saudi Arabia, I say a prayer.  Not to get me through the seemingly endless workday, or a prayer to keep the attention of SMS addicted students, but a prayer that I safely make it through the unpredictable 15-minute adventure to the university.

Jumping into the dirt-speckled taxi, I’m greeted by my old driver, Uncle Ahmed. “Good Morning, Zahrah!” .. My name is Ashley. However, Uncle Ahmed insists that a name must hold a meaning, and “from an ash tree” wasn’t good enough.

“You moat (dead)?!”, he asks. I apologize for my lateness. I wipe out a circle of condensation from the window to peer out. Uncle Ahmed uses his sleeve on the windshield and rolls down his window to see from a different angle. We teach him about the defrost button and he instantly lights up in amazement of this new invention.

We first pass a playground that holds abandoned balls, bottles, and bags from yesterday’s attendants. The cement football/soccer courts sit on the grounds of an old mosque, making it a temporary babysitter during prayer calls. We come to a median at an unnamed street, which would require a right turn, followed by a U-Turn. However, we always make the left onto possible oncoming traffic, until the break in the median. The motels along this street are identical, besides the unique designs of gated windows that encase its inhabitants. Guarding the door, one of the cleaners is occupying a set of airport benches.  Adjacent, a dusty old couch decorates the motel’s outdoor seating area.

We are now approaching what we call “the road of death”, a road left unnamed by city planners. We see our first hazard at the corner construction site, where foreign workers lift a spin saw to the 3rd story of the structure, by tying the handle to a rope. Piles of debris stretch carelessly out into the street.

Facing another mosque, we turn right. It’s pretty much a straight shot from here. The challenge is to navigate an unmarked road of perhaps 3-lanes, unpronounced speed bumps that we brace for by memory, and the absence of signals at crossings. Unbothered, the driver of a sputtering moped speeds past us, using a tightly wrapped scarf as his helmet. Our 65-year old driver slowly makes his way down the street, in comparison to the 20-somethings and occasional 14-year-old driving his mother to the store. Recycled, round trash receptacles line the road. Most of the trash misses the bin by mere inches, while one is used to contain a fire for the chilled workers.

A row of lively, green palm trees peek out from the stone fortress of a private villa. In contrast, outside its walls, it neighbors large piles of dusty rubble and stray cats.  Meanwhile, within the taxi, there’s a burst of conversation between my British co-workers “Oh, I hope my students don’t ____”, “Oh My Allah! Did you just see that ______?”, “Just 4 more weeks, ladies, until we _______”. I spend less time chiming in, and mentally prepare for the dreaded road ahead; the 4-way, 3-ish lane intersection without stoplights. Most of us have learned of common courtesy in driving school of how to execute this in a 1-lane, turn-taking, setting. However, patience is not applied here. We are now sitting in the center of a myriad of angry drivers, who clearly voice themselves with their horns and gestures that are universally understood. My driver gives back the same look and yells a stream of Arabic. One full year in Saudi and the extent of my Arabic is knowing how to say, “You crazy, mentally ill person” with fluidity.

Uncle Ahmed’s horn gets him through the traffic, and I can convince my heart to stop racing. The rest of the scenery helps, as everything else is predictable. We will always pass the smaller men’s only shops with unrushed patrons taking in their Arabic tea and breakfast foul. The cluster of pre-teen boys dressed in their crisp white thobes and checkered scarves always pick up a Pepsi from the local gas station on the way to school. And I delight in seeing rare English, as we pass the golden arches of Mickey D’s and a pharmacy, simply titled “Pharmacy”.

We have one more intersection, but thankfully this one comes with a traffic light. The very second it turns green, starts the blaring of every car horn, including ours. After the driver to our right, makes a left-hand turn, we’re in the clear. We make our final turn onto the backroads of the school, passing Arabic graffiti and a pink villa that stands out among the brown city. We hop out the taxi to join the dozens of veiled women in long, black abayas. A student greets me at the door. She smiles with stunning eyes and lavish accessories. I’m pretty sure it’s Ghada.

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10 Ways to Survive the year in The Kingdom

After announcing my move to Saudi Arabia, I received disapproving shaking of heads, uneasy looks, and plenty of “are you sure??”s. With 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, being Saudi .. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little nervous as well. Movies, like “The Kingdom”, which reenacts the compound bombing of 2003, didn’t help ease anyone’s nerves. So, kidnappings and bombings were what I was looking out for. Little did I know, that these worries are the furthest down on the list. My list is in order, of least often –> often, of what I see foreigners getting deported, arrested, or hassled for.

  1. Negative Talk: Put 100 female teachers together during 6 hours of idle time, and see gossip spread like wildfire. Don’t say anything, unless you don’t mind it shared 10 times over. Voicing your dislike the company can get you fired, if spread to the wrong person. Also, prepare to have your students test you with this question.. “Teacher, do you love our King?”.. The answer is and should always be “Yes”. People have been reported and/or arrested for voicing their opinion otherwise. Thankfully, the Saudi king is actually a good guy and has done quite a bit to advance the Kingdom, making this an easy question to pass.
  1. Contraband: Before you step off the plane and onto Saudi soil, you will see “Illegal drugs = death”. Kind of seems like a late warning, if you ask me.. It’s not like the smugglers can simply turn around. You can find alcohol in a few brave private residences. But getting caught can mean deportation or getting arrested, and possibly receive lashes. Watch “Locked Up Abroad: Saudi Arabia”. Other things not allowed into Saudi, are pork, vanilla extract (it has alcohol in it), and bulk religious items. My Bible was actually confiscated and I had to tuck away my cross.
  1. Gender Mixing: Unrelated men and women are not allowed to gather in this country, except for in a few secure places. I will say that many foreigners have gotten away with this rule. However, it would suck to be the exception.. as one of my friends has spent a few days in jail by doing so. Conservative Saudis are quick to report any suspicions.
  1. Walking Alone: One thing that us foreigners cherish, is the freedom to go wherever you want and however you want. You do not have that freedom here. Walking the streets, in general, is just not done in Riyadh. So a foreign woman walking can bring trouble. Before knowing this, I decided to get a nice workout w/ an hour-long walk home. Fully cloaked from head to toe, I counted 73 honks and 3 men pulling over to offer money. From then on out, I had to put away the “do what I want” “Strong black women”.. I bought a treadmill and took taxis.

  1. Drifters: The latest problem with walking (even in groups), is dealing with Drifters. These young teenage drivers make a game out of getting as close to the pedestrians as possible, without hitting them. A few suck at this game, leaving a few of my fellow teachers injured and/or shaken up.
  1. The Muttawa: Also known as the “religious police”. You will often see these guys parading around the mall advising or harrassing (depending on point of view) females. They don’t have the power to arrest or enforce any laws, but being big men yelling in Arabic, is sometimes enough to intimidate a few. Their actual job is to remind people of the cultural and religious rules of Saudi. They usually pick out foreigners to cover their hair. But you may know the Muttawa from the incident of the womens school on fire. They were locked inside of the burning building because they were uncovered, and unpresentable to public. The latest news were Muttawa attempting to kick a women out of the mall for wearing nail polish.         
    http://www.batangastoday.com/saudi-woman-with-nail-polish-refuses-to-leave-hayat-mall-argues-with-religious-police-video/22730/

  1. Taxi drivers: I know I said in #7 that it’s not the safest to walk, and to take a taxi.. but not any ole’ taxi. When you find one that you trust, it’s a smart idea to take his number as your personal driver. In many parts of the world, foreigners (or American women) are stereotyped to all be “easy”. Therefore, some of the younger drivers think it’s ‘cool’ to have an American in the back seat. He’ll whistle to the young drivers at the stoplight next to him, do the money sign (which is the same in every language), and then ask you to smile …. Or you’ll get some drivers who don’t like foreigners at all, and simply get frustrated with your English/broken Arabic  directions and drop you off on a strange corner in the middle of the night. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but you can see that it’s getting closer to my #1. To avoid all of this, just have a few good drivers handy.
  1. Standing Out: Single foreign females stick out like sore thumbs. First of all, unlike many Saudi women, we don’t have male chaperones. So this kind of makes you a target for unwanted attention. Being alone, having your hair uncovered, even doing a slight jog to get into a closing store will get you stares. When walking outside, covering your hair could eliminate maybe a quarter of the attention. Wearing a niqab can play in your favor too. Basically.. when in Saudi, do as Saudis do.
  1. Words/Topics to Avoid: If you can teach in this city and country, you can teach anywhere. The limitations we have, makes getting your point across quite a challenge at times. If you’ve read one of my previous posts “Things not to say in a Riyadh University”, you’ll see a lengthy list that can easily get any teacher to slip-up. Some students lure you into these topics. And sometimes it’s totally your fault. “Like, duh, what were you thinking, talking about birthdays???”. I’ve accidentally hit these topics a few times. Thankfully, my students love me and let it slide 🙂 Some teachers aren’t so lucky and get reported. This goes on your record, and if done enough could be a reason to be let go.
  1. The unexpected: The #1 thing that I fear in this country, are accidents. Everyday on the way to school we cross a 3-lane, 4-way intersection that has no stoplights. We go over about 10 unmarked speed bumps. The lines to designate the lanes are faded to no avail. There’s a random trough of a bulldozer sitting in the middle of the road. Construction workers lifting an unprotected spin-saw 3 stories, using a rope tied around the handle. Right-laners make left turns. Metal pipes blowing hot steam onto the sidewalks. Jumping over boulders, ditches, and puddles when it hasn’t rained in weeks…All of these things have no warning signs before you reach them. The “Final Destination” series, should have been filmed here.  To sum it up.. Safety is not #1 priority, so constantly be on alert!

The real-life ‘roadrunner’. Ostrich running the streets of Riyadh, a few months ago..