Riyadh Calling …

by on March 2, 2010 · 5 comments

in Culture, Riyadh Calling

by John Williams

I’m now nearing three months in Saudi Arabia. Much of what I’ve already said remains unchanged.

However, I have learned that the characteristic black outer garment the women here wear is called an abaya, not a burka. I’ve also learned that is only worn when a woman wishes to go out in public. It isn’t worn around the house. Further, it is rather like your mom saying, “Don’t forget your jacket!” Except, of course, in this case the women are not told by their mothers, “Don’t forget your abaya!”, but by their culture.

Additionally, I’ve also learned that how much face a woman shows in public is decided by her husband. Some are allowed to (or is it directed to, I don’t know), show their entire face, quite nun like; others show just the eyes; and others show nothing of their faces at all, black from head to toe.

I’ve also learned that thobes, the characteristic attire for men, can be purchased in subtle pinstripes as well as in solid colors.

And, I have met a couple of left-handed Saudis.

Still haven’t spoken to a Saudi woman, but I did make eye contact one time. That was about two months ago while food shopping at the HyperPanda across Olaya from the hotel I live in.

As I’ve already written, daily life is partitioned by five calls to prayer and that shops close for a short period to allow for it. While my now-departed former room mate, Joseph, and I were doing our initial stock-up shopping trip immediately after moving in, we were caught in the market by evening prayer.

The technique for weighing fruits and vegetables is different here than it was at the Keil’s in Clairemont where I used to shop before taking this job. There are no could-be-accurate little scales distributed throughout the produce section of the store, and the checkout stands don’t have scales either.

Here, you bag your selections and take them to a weigh station where they are weighed and a printed label is put on the bag. Consequently, the checkout clerks do nothing but scan, take money, and make change. I had picked up some potatoes and onions and was waiting in line to have them weighed when the call to prayer came.

Unintentionally, I looked around and made eye contact with a woman also waiting in line. I guessed she was in her mid-50s. There was fear in her eyes. I have no idea what she was thinking at that moment, but we both immediately turned our heads and broke that split second of unapproved contact. I have no doubt that because I am Western (and, of course, tall, dark, handsome, and as buff as an old guy can be – only a joke; I am, in reality, not tall, dark, handsome or buff, though I am a relatively old guy) many of the women I pass in the stores and malls check me out. But, there is never any contact.

I have been reading an English language daily newspaper published in Jeddah, an old port city on the Red Sea. At some point, I hope to collect and organize stories of interest relating to the role of women in this society and some of the other aspects of this culture which I find noteworthy. As a “for instance,” I submit these short synopses of some recent articles:

General Interest: A Jeddah man was convicted of practicing magic and sentenced to eight years in jail and 800 lashes. The article didn’t go into detail about what he had done, but it was black magic not the here’s a coin out of my ear sort of thing.

My first thought was, “Really? Jailed for practicing magic?” My second thought was, “800 lashes? How much of him would be left after 800 lashes?” Unless we’re talking wet-noodle, there wouldn’t have been much of him to put in a cell afterwards. There’s been no follow-up story.

Women: Another story concerned a sister and her two half-brothers. While the patriarch of the family was alive, he gave his consent for the woman to marry. She did and proceeded to have three children with her spouse. According to the reports, the marriage was a happy one.

However, on the death of the father, the woman was left some property which the half-brothers coveted. In an effort to disinherit her they brought suit in court to have the marriage annulled on the basis of the husband being from an inferior tribe, a fact that had not been disclosed at the time of the proposal.

Weird enough at those levels alone (that the half brothers would have standing in the matter and the concept of an inferior tribe), but even more surprisingly, they were successful in their suit. The divorce was annulled. The family was split up. The woman had to leave her husband and home and take her children with her. The husband had to stay in the house by himself. She refused to move in with her half brothers (big surprise). Ultimately, the decision of the lower court was overturned on appeal.

Also, women who were shopping for lingerie agitated to discontinue the practice of men only as sales clerks. It was said that the women were uncomfortable giving their dimensions to the men. It seems that it may happen, though not yet, that women will be allowed to work in those jobs.

In another story, a man was allowed to withdraw a proposal of marriage he had made after his mother and the mother of the bride had concluded their initial arrangements when, upon finally seeing the face of his intended bride, he discovered she had a beard and was cross-eyed. However, he was not allowed to recover the more than $100,000.00 worth of gifts he had given the would-be bride and other members of her family.

Then, a cleric here in the Kingdom issued an opinion that anyone who advanced the idea of co-ed education should be put to death. His idea has been generally pooh-poohed, but there has been no flood of outrage. Following reports have suggested he’s prone to making out-dated interpretations of cultural norms.

Lastly, it seems that women attorneys will soon be allowed to advocate on behalf women clients in certain matters, e.g. family court and divorces.

I’m getting no western based news to speak of. The wifi in the hotel is terrible (so bad that I’ve renamed it the intermittentnet), but the biggest story here is about the high ranking Hamas member killed in Dubai.



{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Goatskull March 2, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Geeze, do you get a drink? Living there you must need one sometimes no?


Goatskull March 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I met to say, how do you get a drink there?


nunya March 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Saudi Arabia is fascinating to me but definitely from a distance.


OB Joe March 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

All John’s observations of how women walk in a second class position in Saudi Arabia, are extremely interesting but they shouldn’t make us feel too superior a culture, as we look here at home and find a 17 year old high schooler murdered and probably raped and thrown in a shallow grave alongside Lake Hodges, allegedly by a local male who has harmed other young women in his past.


fstu March 4, 2010 at 9:13 am

interesting read


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