Christmas in Riyadh

by on December 23, 2010 · 4 comments

in Culture, Riyadh Calling

Dear All,

On December 23rd, it’s Christmas in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Damn year is just about over. New year, renewed contract or new contract, new job or back to fixing houses and part time teaching and hoping I’ll be able to get the brakes done soon. When is that payment due? Oh hell.

Funniest place. This is Christmas Day for us in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Parties are planned. Afterall, pretty hard to kiss grandama, hug the kids, make the lady happy, have a drink and a nod with your friends when you can’t quite stretch the 10,000 miles in between.

So you party. You get together with compatriots, people you’d hang out with where ever you found them. The people who make it worth while and bearable to be here. The people who’d be on your list back home. You laugh, you (Yes, Martha.) drink, and, unless I misunderstand myself, I’ll actually be flirting as best I can. Shouldn’t be I know, but there you are. That part doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas, Or, maybe I’m just as full of bullshit as everybody else; probably am. At least, I can report this: among humans, males seem to desire the companionship of females. This conclusion is based on the observed number of behavioral displays apparently designed for no other purpose than to assure interaction.

Anyway, as I said, we celebrate today because on Saturday, the real day, it’ll be a “regular” Monday for us. By that I mean two things: 1) regular as according to the work calendar, and 2) us is everyone who celebrates Christmas in even the least dogmatic sort of way. The day will be the start of another, I hope, unremarkable work week. Of course, for most of us, it will not be a “regular day” at all. It’ll actually be Christmas Day. Something here about taking the boy of out of the country, but not being able to get the country out of the boy. It’s Christmas Day, dammit, and we don’t want to be at fucking work!

We want to be with our friends, family, loved ones, sharing happy times and remembering all those whom we consider to be parts of our family, our culture, our life. We want to sing the songs we know. We want to make the toasts we know. Reexperience the rituals we know. Recall times past. It’s important to us. Why should we not?

So, we do the best we can. We party. Here, I have gone to an Outta Here party, two going-away parties, and two embassy parties.

Outta Here was first and resulted in me getting well rocked and losing my camera, plus causing unknown damage to my personal reputation. The first going away party was small, quiet, in an apartment on a compound, and arranged by the departee.

That was the evening I stumbled across real evidence that someone in Riyadh has a still and that was also the first time I saw a Saudi woman unabayed, sans abaya. In fact, I saw two. Anyway, nothing special there.

The second going away party was The Night so far. A fellow compatriot Mike Burden went home after a truncated stay. It is said here that when an expat arrives, he or she is given two buckets: one for money and the other for shit. When a bucket is full, it’s time to go. Mike got a fairly well along with the one, but the money bucket was first filled, and he went home to his woman and his dog and his pub and toward some kind of as yet undefined personal satisfaction upon whose creation his mind is actively at work. I like Mike.

Anyway, for his going away, a small group of us went to a compound. Shots and doubles with ice led to a departure of which I have little memory and during which I again, apparently, tried unsuccessfully to make conversation with a woman. In the morning I was surprised to see my passport on the desk. The embassy parties are all fluff. It is, admittedly, good to see women in heels and dresses dancing. Doesn’t span every culture, but pretty wide spread. Certainly, American. Otherwise, pretty expensive and generally upscale. A little too tight for me.

On the dark side, here are two incidents which reveal the pressure to supresss our cultures. These pertain to western culture as represented by the four English language dominant countries of Australia, the USA, Canada, and England.

In the first instance, a Canadian teacher named Murdoch was sitting at his designated desk in his designated ready room, engaged in some sort of quiet activity and singing softly to himself. He was interrupted by newly-arrived teacher, a skinny white guy from Texas named Bob who, though in receipt of no more credentials than the rest of us, has already secured an elevated position vis a vis the rest of us teachers.

Bob told Murdoch, in so many words, that it is culturally inappropriate for him, Murdoch, to sing. Muslims find it offensive, he was told. Music is forbidden in this culture. You, Murdoch, can’t, or at least shouldn’t, do it. Well, westeners here uniformly respond with an extended digit to this proposition. But, Bob, is rising in the system. Hmmm.

The second instance involves an young Brit named Harry. Students have four big tests in a year: Semester 1 mid-term and final and again for Semester 2. Teachers have two big tests each year: Semester 1 Observation and again for Semester 2. Of course, once you get past the first one, it gets easier. So far, I’ve had a bad result and a middlling one. Third times the charm. Anyway, during Harry’s observation, he lost three points out of a possible 150, for saying the word “Christmas.” Huh?

I add that Bob is now doing Observations, though he’s not the guy who did Harry’s observation. Hmmm.

The funniest thing: it’s all bullshit to the students. Most of them love music. They know many western stars, but have their own (I hate to say it) Middle Eastern blend. It isn’t bad, many of the notes are right there where you want them to be. The rhythms are sometimes hard to find, and the voice can get a little too high for my ears, but still the reason it spreads is obvious even to one not of the culture of the place, as long as one is of the culture of music.

Secondly, they are not frightened by the idea of learning about other cultures. No more eager than a kid anywhere would be, but equally unfearful. Well, somewhere sits a man making decisions about how it will be, and this is his choice now.

Went again today to the coffee shop near Ring Road to meet with students for open conversation. They showed up; 14 of them. The shop owner, Garni, wasn’t there again when we arrived. He said he’d be open last Thursday at 10:00. I took that to mean that if I showed up there at 10:00 last Thursday, he’d be there ready to sell coffee, but he didn’t show at all. This week, he showed up about 11:00 with a look of confusion on his face. Two guys were already out on a food mission, his garden furniture was rearranged to suit us, and we made trash; he sold one cappucino. Oops! I talked to him. Turns out I misunderstood his intended meaning last time we spoke; this is a special event to him, normally he opens at 11:00 on Thursdays. Well, it went well today and it will happen again; I guess, I’ll have to call him next time.

Anyway, the day worked out; we talked, smoked, they advised me to quit, laughed when I said no. They asked questions. I answered. We laughed. A big bag of falafals showed up along with cans of soda. I ate a croissant and had the one cup of coffee Garni sold.

But, the other thing about today: it is a day for inclusion, probably, the best one in American culture for such a thing. We don’t have to salute the flag or be happy with our lot. We aren’t required to remember great men (could we have a Vonnegut Day or a Lennon Day?). We can really get along remembering and embracing only some simple ideas (no, it ain’t that Christ was born on this day and it is the day upon which our own personal salvation began): that mercy is good for us all, that kindness really does work, that forgiveness takes away a lot of pain, that laughter is good, that sharing is good. That’s what Christmas is to me.

So, when I first received a spoken invitation to the potluck at expat Larry’s, I was glad until being informed that my room mate, Cole, was not invited. Hmmm. Let it pass and moved on, until today, the day. Now, I’m thinking, it isn’t right. I know why the invites went the way they did. The guy’s a pain sometimes. God hates him. That’s a lot of pain. Still, it’s Christmas. So, I asked a couple of questions and made an offer and got back answers that removed some objections, at least enough to partially include Cole. Up to him now. So, better than nothing and takes me off the hook.

So, back to payin’ my money and takin’ my chances.

Merry Christmas to all; even if you don’t want to hear it,


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

nunya December 23, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Merry Christmas to you Mike :)


Sherif Mamdouh December 24, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Hello Mike ,
Merry christmas to you.
Please i wanna know there is any parties for the next weekend or any celebration.
i wanna join it please i will be so happy.
Sherif Mamdouh


JMW December 25, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Sherif, hi. Thank you for your wishes. I am sorry to say I kept my ears closed this year and attended no parties or celebrations. Best wishes to you. Mike


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