RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – I think most Americans have little idea of the climatic conditions here in Saudi Arabia. We, with the exception of those who have experience in small desert towns, have nothing with which to compare this environment in Riyadh. It is stark, barren, bright, superheated, and dry to the nth degree. It is unforgiving, mean, murderous, virtually without plants, animals, water or shade. Somehow, Saudi Arabs have managed to adapt to and survive in this ultra-difficult setting for, I’m guessing, 5,000 years. It seems fair to say that’s worth a tip of the hat.
Until 1960, most Saudis did not live in cities; they lived in the desert. Camels, tents, horses, goats, oases, that kind of thing. Now, only fifty years later, the sons of the city are driving Yukons, Toyotas and BMWs down freeways in bumper to bumper stop and go traffic jams toward upscale malls where they will buy the latest tools of the digital age and the most modern international and regional fashions, and they will pay with credit cards. Many will go home to substantial, walled, custom-built, three-story homes with significant floor space, big screens, intercoms, freezers, possibly, a pool or a pool table or table tennis table, sometimes, even an elevator, washers and dryers, fridges, maids and drivers. In fact, the number of years varies depending on to whom one is speaking, but it is generally accepted that slavery was legal only 40 years ago. These are big changes for any culture, any society.
It is said by local statisticians that 20% of Riyadh’s population is “poor.” By that, it is meant that they are restricted to driving Kias and Hyundais, living in small residences, and shopping at off-brand stores. Poor babies! Still, it does go to show two things: 1) poor is a relative term, and 2) seemingly, everyone wants to have someone to look down on.
However, there are truly poor people in Riyadh. For instance, one evening last week I walked to a restaurant. Almost at the outset, a non-Saudi, an older man who looked plump enough, but whose clothes gave evidence of not having been laundered for quite some time, began a conversation with me on the dark street. He spoke no English. At length, it became evident that he was asking for money. I gave him ten rials, about $2.50, plenty to get a meal. He took the bill, then gestured with his hand the number five. I decided could be telling me that I gave him too much and that he would be satisfied with five rials or that the wanted five ten rial bills. I told him, “Maffi mushkala.” That means, no problem, and left him to his own resources. Two blocks later, a skinny guy, even dirtier, and with a crutch put the bite on me. I passed him by. Another anecdote on the expressions of poverty in Riyadh is this, formerly, it was often necessary for me to go the company office for various reasons. My route there was defined as soon as I understood it and it never varied: Ring Road to Exit 11, turn left at the top of the off ramp, turn right at the Nokia sign and go past two purple crescents on store fronts, the office is on the right. Waiting at the Exit 11 stoplight, the sight of an older women begging was not uncommon. And lastly on this topic, when I lived in the Al-Markan Hotel, I ate most of my evening meals at a Turkish place nearby. Several times during dinner at The Green Olive, I was solicited by males ranging from 11 to 65, some Saudi, some not.
None of the cab drivers or students I have talked to about this has offered insight.
Only today did it dawn on me that the prophet Mohammed established a time scheme which still sets the clocks of Saudis and other Muslims to this day, 1432 years later according to the Islamic calendar. That’s one thing. The calendar begins with Mohammed’s death. So, if we can count, we can always know how long it has been since he died. As a non-Muslim, I’m not sure why we need to know that, but I do have to admit that no one has a patent on how time is marked on this planet. So, good for them.
Also, Friday is the Sunday of the West. Special day at the mosque, the weekly Friday noon loudspeaker presentation, no work, whole family get togethers as much as possible, often including the extended clan. So, I work Saturday through Wednesday, and have Thursday and Friday off.
There are only four other special days or times during the year. There is a one-day event called Saudi National Day which was established by the current monarchy. It is kind of their take on our 4th, except that virtually no one celebrates the day in any unusual way other than by not going to work.
The other three special times of the year are religious. There are two week-long events called Eid. They share the first name, but have different last names, sort of like step brothers and sisters. I’m not quite sure what the point of these two events is, but during the earlier Eid this year, one area of focus was charity. As with charity events and organizations everywhere, the expression I saw was more about PR than practicality.
As an example of what I mean: a colleague was driving us away from my place late one afternoon when we were stopped by the light turning red. As we sat in very light traffic I watched the movements of a Saudi in spotless attire. He was hustling back and forth between some pristine looking large cardboard boxes which were stacked at the corner and the cars waiting for the green light. The boxes were filled with small boxes. He was giving away sort-of box lunches. It was part of the charity emphasis of the Eid. Honestly, I think someone overbought and wanted to get rid of the excess in some half-way suitable fashion and they hit upon this scheme. We got one each, Carl and I.
So did the kid in the Escalade in front of us, the old man in the Mercedes, the two guys in the Honda, the young guy in the pickup truck, in fact, everyone to whom the spotless Saudi could manage to give them, given the time constraints – a cycle at a time. Clearly, none of the recipients needed the nourishment.
The remaining annual event is the biggest event of the year; the month long daylight fast called Ramadan. It might be an excuse to take August off. One thing is certain, August is no time to get anything accomplished.
There are no birthdays or wedding anniversaries here. There’s no Thanksgiving or Christmas, or anything like either of them. No Labor Day. No Memorial Day. No Halloween. No Kwanza. No President’s Day. No MLK Day. No New Year’s Eve or Day (Yeah, individuals pay attention to both, but there is no national recognition per se and nothing goes on downtown, no crowds, no ball dropping and fireworks.). No Mother’s Day. No Father’s Day. No Groundhog Day. What have I forgotten? Nothing but those three religious holidays and Saudi National Day.
Prayer call is broadcast five times a day, beginning at sunrise. There are a couple thousand mosques in Riyadh and each one is a broadcasting station for the call to prayer. This is one notification you can only miss by being unconscious or in a very deep sleep. On Friday at noon there is also a loudspeaker presentation for a half hour or so (Haven’t timed one yet.) by the mosque’s resident Imam. His speech is sort of a week-in-review (the Crown Prince died) or hot topic (kids shouldn’t drift) deal and not necessarily a religion-themed sermon such as one might find at the local Southern Baptist church, no text-based morality-laced parable.
One interesting thing about Islam, there’s no church hierarchy. No pope, cardinals or bishops. No home office, no central committee, no association handing down rules, regulations, interpretations, or directives regarding the practice or actions of any given mosque. There is no one with overall control of an organization of Islam. There isn’t an organization. Sort of refreshing for me.
Yet, the act of praying is quite organized. Guys stand, kneel, and bow from both positions in unison. One guy (who could be anyone) stands as a sort of single man first rank and all the others are arranged in shoulder to shoulder rows behind him. He says a line and they repeat. They all take off their shoes to pray.
Then there’s the religious police. There’s an actual official enforcement authority wholly separate from the local catch criminals and write ticket city cops. They bust or at least roust individuals observed not praying during the expected times, they close businesses that try to stay open during prayer times, and arrest the boy when youngsters are discovered kissing or holding hands. After the official religious police department, there’s a wannabe junior group of extra devout young men who at the worst can complain to someone else about inappropriate behavior, and they’re eager. These guys are always a concern in class.
The last bit of information which bears on the general topic of the pressures to conform in Saudi society is an obvious one: attire. Outside the home, this whole place is like one big school in which you can tell the males from the females simply by their attire, their uniforms. This is one area in which expat men fare better than expat women, guys are not required to wear a thobe (not even Saudis – though almost all of them do), whereas a woman may not appear in public unless she is wearing an abaya.