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..

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The Abaya

The first question I’m asked by family and friends after they found out where I was going.. “Do you have to cover up??”… Yes, I do have to, wherever a man is present. In the KSA, women can only be uncovered around other women, her husband, and their family. So basically, all of these clothes I brought for whatever occasion will never be seen accept at work (my all-women’s university) and when I am in foreign-friendly areas (desert hikes and compounds).

The abaya is a long cloak, that is traditionally all-black. But you will often find today’s abayas with different material, designs, colors and sparkles on the sleeves and the base. As a non-muslim foreigner, this robe is the only strict requirement to wear in public. The niqab, is a piece that covers the face, besides the eyes. I am not required to wear this. However, it seems to be quite helpful during this sandstorm season. Covering your hair with a scarf or hijab, is less enforced for non-muslims, but I’m sure you’re more respected if you don’t go against the grain. Everyone carries a scarf just in case they are approached by the muttawa, the religious police.

There’s always going to be a fuss about it. But as extreme and restrictive the abaya may seem to some, it’s quite easy to get used to. Out of all of the factors that contribute to daily stress, this attire is the least of my worries. Yet, is the main thing people want to know about. The language and the segregation, is the big adjustment! My roommate actually remains covered behind the locked doors of our apartment, which probably makes me look like a heathen in my loungewear. I’ve seen some pretty cute abayas.. and I already own 4 (3 I’m in the process of getting altered) and a 5th one being designed. I’m thinking about putting a modern/Latin spin to it 🙂 ..

In the compound, I was actually ordered to remove my abaya.. In public.. It almost felt like they asked me to remove my shirt. Last week, I went out into the desert “uncovered” and even though it felt GREAT for the sun to hit my skin..Strangly, for a second, I felt naked in front of all of the western men. Of course I got over that though, and enjoyed the rare moment. But this lets me know that perhaps the Saudi women, who have been covered all of their lives vs. my two weeks, welcome this conservative attire.. instead of seeing it as a command. Through their perspective, being uncovered in public is kind of like that question, “have you ever dreamed that you were naked on stage?”