Riyadh Diaries …

by on February 5, 2010 · 7 comments

in Culture, Riyadh Calling


Editor: Our good friend and former OBcean John Williams moved to Riyadh – the capital of Saudi Arabia- in December for employment purposes.  This is his second post from there, something we’re now calling “Riyadh Diaries…” as some of his observations and explanations below are in response to comments readers made to his first post.

by John Williams

Burkas: Just like Ford’s Model T, you can get a burka in any color you like as long as you like black. Men’s attire ranges from white, through grays, to black, plus shades of brown. None of this traditional attire is patterned; all solid colors.

Lefthandedness: Though statistics would say a certain percentage of people will be lefthanded, I haven’t met a single one here. And, if you extend your left hand to a Saudi or touch them with your’s, they will either draw back or, at the very least, wince.

Saudis don’t complain about their culture or society: In six weeks, I have not spoken to a Saudi female. In fact, I’ve only spoken to two women who are not Saudis. One is the wife of a colleague and they live in the same hotel as me. He and I sometimes share cabs to/from school; she is also a teacher. I have said hello, good morning, how are you, etc. to her.

The other woman is a teacher who is here with her 15-year-old son. I’ve spoken to her, Reneen, a bit more and, in fact, went to dinner one evening with them and a friend named Elan. The point is, I haven’t any idea what Saudi women think. Actually, I’ve rather trained myself (self-preservation) to disregard their existence whenever I encounter them; meaning that at the malls, for instance, I walk past without even giving them a glance, much less making eye contact.

Saudi Arabia as a place to visit: For others than Muslims, Saudi Arabia is hardly considered a “destination.” I’m here for the sole purpose of earning money, and my income here far exceeds what I could expect to make in the U.S. and San Diego.

I am an economic immigrant, just like so many others from so many countries. The fact is that I will teach about 500 hours in the course of a year. I will have, probably, ten weeks off between early July and mid-September, plus two other nine day breaks. I have medical coverage; this I discount and to it I give no dollar value. It may be of some value, but my history suggests it will be virtually worthless.

I have physical conditions which could be rectified by treatment, but they are very unlikely to be dealt with. The company won’t buy me new hips, straighten my spine, or put my neck back together. Of course, if I break an arm or leg or develop a serious illness, they would give me a cast or prescribe medicine. However, my bones remain quite strong and my ancestors must have gotten every sort of disease imaginable because I was last sick more than ten years ago. My eyesight is deteriorating, but they won’t do anything about that either.

I will be compensated for my teaching with roughly $55,000 tax free. Some of this comes in the form of living expense allowances and a small portion in airfare. I can’t make that kind of money at home. What I make here may help us keep our house (whether that’s the best idea we could have is another issue). For Muslims, though, Saudi Arabia is a destination.

On to other things: The hotel I’m in, the Al-Markan, provides wifi and television. The wifi is so inconstant that I’ve taken to calling it the intermittentnet. The range of channels on tv includes only two English language channels (more, or course, are available if you wish to pay for service – something I am loathe to do; and the net can easily be improved, also by expenditure – again, ditto.) I’d almost spring for better wifi if just for the radio, but, so far, just can’t get myself to do it.

One of the English language tv channels is only partly English, the rest is Arabic. The other English language channel has nothing but movies. Occasionally, there are good films on this station (personal taste is always a factor here). I’ve seen “Get On The Bus,” a Spike Lee film, “Two Jakes,” “Training Day,” and a Bruce Willis film I liked. But, the balance are not just forgettable, they are, for me, virtually unwatchable.

To give you an idea, since leaving San Diego in mid-December last year (today is January 31), I’ve read fifteen books, most recently, “Homage to Catalonia.” What a great book! If you have military experience and have not read this Orwell personal narrative, I recommend it very strongly. It is very rare in my experience to find myself in the pages of someone else’s book (“On the Road,” Kerouac, “Soldiers Home,” a short story by Hemingway, and this one.) Beyond the personal attraction, I found the political analysis instructive – those who know me well will, probably, attest that I am not particularly astute in this area.

The work environment can be taxing. During my first couple of weeks, teachers were getting fired at a frightful pace. My current room mate, not the most retiring or reticent guy you could meet, was fired this week. Schedules are printed, emailed, then superseded by hand written sheets taped to the Resource Room walls and the sign-in counter or mere announcements made to those who happen to be present in that room.

There are copiers, but, until the last day of the just ended semester, they didn’t work. Final exams included a listening portion. The CD player in the epodium in my room wasn’t discovered to be nonfunctional until minutes before the exam began. During the semester, the epodium in my room stopped accepting the password I had been using. That lasted a week until, one morning and without any update from anyone, I suddenly did need a password after all.

Training to administer the tests followed the two-week review period during which teachers were to prepare students for the exams. Much of the information revealed during the training would have been quite useful to teachers during the review period.

At the training for the listening portion of the tests it was announced that there were not quite enough copies of our scripts to go around because, at the time they were copied, only 400 sheets of paper were available. Whiteboard markers were issued once and we were restricted to one each. Well, … if you’ve taught, some of things will not be unfamiliar to you.

To anyone and everyone whose hummus I have ignored at a potluck: Oops! Won’t do that again. It’s become a daily side dish. And, my pants are getting tight around the waist.

Gotta say something about the jitneys (small, poorly maintained buses, with dilapidated seats, and rusting paintjobs, whose middle of the side doors are always open, as are any windows which will open) here.

On the roads of Riyadh there are private cars, commercial vehicles (construction), a few police, company buses, what appear to be MTA types of buses, cabs, and lastly, the jitneys ridden by the workers, the laborers, the Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Indians who do the dirty work. Most locals refer to the cabs, all compacts mostly made by Toyota or Hyundai, as limousines; that is how we get to and from school.

But the jitneys are the most interesting and fun to ride. Neither the drivers nor the passengers even pretend to speak English (they know as many words of English as I know of Arabic – I don’t pretend either). They smile. They get a kick out of me, in my sports coats, flagging the jit down from the side of the road, hopping on board and saying “shokran (thank you).”

Without a common language other than signs and facial expressions, we still manage. A cab ride to the restaurant, the Green Olive, run by Turks, is 5 rials. The jitney is 2 rials. The ride down was easy, after I could get one to stop. Nobody else was on board and the driver was, uncharacteristically, a Saudi. He seemed pleased that I am an American.

The ride back was a hoot. Having waited until my creaky hips would get me across the road without adorning the hood of a speeding Ford Fairlane or any number of SUVs, I waited until I could see the dim outline of a jitney coming down the street (he didn’t have any headlights, at least, if the had them, there weren’t on – not all that uncommon here).

I flagged, the driver downshifted with a roaring backfire and stopped (almost) quite close to where I stood. I hopped. The just about full bus looked at me and wondered. I paid. They wanted to know if I knew what I was doing, where I was going. I did. I named a couple places: Azizia Mall, Hyper-Panda. They nodded.

The driver, characteristically, looked like you could see him during the evening news on a mountain trail with a Kalashnikov or RPG while a journalist told you how things were going in a war zone. Wild looking, hairy. He wanted to know where I was from, too. He, too, seemed pleased by my nationality. To answer their wonder as to why I was on the bus, I answered “mushkala (meaning “problem”) and slapped my hip. The riders nodded and repeated mushkala smiling.

This place is not all bad.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Sparling February 5, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Would sure like to know the reaction you get if you mention the Bush family. Of course the Saudi man in the street may not know, this could be strictly a Royal Family thing.


Gary Ghirardi February 6, 2010 at 10:21 am

In Caracas it depends which line your waiting in.


Tariq Al-Damouk February 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm

1-main reason no left hand is used in Saudi (or maybe most of eastern cultures), is that it is reserved to certain activities, i call this distribution of management

2-i agree that saudi arabia is not a tourist friendly distination, it has never been to all of its written history, howver, there are many “hidden” gems that are worth looking out for, maybe it is worth also to know why is it still very important to muslims, try reading Qur’an , you will be surprised to find the many common messages between it and the bible, even the old testament.
3-Saudi women to be ignored, to a great extent: i agree, however, once you come in touch with the few of them, you will be very intrested to find out how intresting thinkers they are, apart form what the local culture applies to them, you will be amazed to fine that there are still strong and open thinkers still exsist here after all of this marginalization
wishing you a pleasant stay.


JMW February 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Hi. Re your points: 1. I’m aware of the function reserved for the left hand. 2. Also, I am aware of the the reason Saudi Arabia is a destination for Muslims, and intend to read the Qur’an. 3. My social circle isn’t such that I have had an opportunity to meet any Saudi women. My only assumption about them is that they, like people everywhere, fill the spectrums of all the qualities that humans possess.


JMW February 6, 2010 at 4:54 am

Among the people I meet, colleagues at work from around the world, no one has said anything good. Generally, considered in strongly negative terms.


Dave Sparling February 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

I am not surprised, I never saw boy George holding hands or kissing any common working Saudi citizens.


Sunshine February 9, 2010 at 7:29 am

Your words and views of the country you currently call home are fascinating. I really enjoy reading your observations in a country not only geographically distant from all I have ever known, but are worlds apart from my cultural, social, and spiritual experiences on so many levels.

Your experiences give me reason to ponder my own life and its freedoms here in the U.S. Thank you, John, for helping me appreciate the little things I enjoy each day without much thought. Simple pleasures like wearing bright colored clothes in my own eclectic styles (although with age and gravities effects, I must admit modest has earned its place in my wardrobe), Also, I haven’t given much thought about making eye contact with passers by, either men and women, and offering a smiling or simple ‘good morning’ in their direction, or stricking up a conversation with any one of them. I can not, no – make that will not, take these simple pleasures for granted any longer.

And while I respect the cultural differences in our respective towns, I know for certain that the Morality Police in your town would want a few words with me whenever I went outside…ah, the joys of livin in OB.


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