Devil is in the Details

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

DSCN3645

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.

Advertisements

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.