Written by Stephanie Siam
When I left off, I had just arrived in Saudi Arabia (read part I here)
to begin my two-year contract in a country I’d previously vowed NEVER to go to — except for the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj (and only then with very clearly made plans of day-to-day activities and contact information) …
During the ride to the compound — which ended up looking like an abandoned concentration camp, replete with barbed wire fences and TWO guard booths — I noticed Saudi Arabia didn’t look as strange as I thought it would. I mean, sure, the airport bathroom had no toilet paper and I got my first glimpse of the infamous “squatty potty”. But the scenery was rather normal.
There were cars. A mall or two (oh, the Saudis and their MALLS!). Lots of highway and shops. There was even a Holiday Inn at the
end of the street where our compound was located. It definitely wasn’t a desolate, barren wasteland that looked run-down and war-torn. In short, it didn’t look like the TV version of the Middle East. And all of this was apparent at night.
Even the apartment was better than we imagined. While the exterior compound left a lot to be desired (think: absence of landscaping), the interior was pretty nice. We scored a 2BR/1BA apartment with a living room, dining/kitchen combination and SEPARATE laundry room with hook-ups for a washer AND dryer. Unless you’ve lived in the Middle East…or, frankly, outside of most Western countries (and even in some European ones), coming across a dryer is a rarity. Turns out, the compound we were living on had formerly been a military compound back in the…..70s? 80s? Of course, all of the pipes and walls were full of asbestos, but — HEY — they were getting rid of it.
So, we get settled in, and I report to work. The university was out in the middle of NOWHERE (now picture desolate, barren desert), surrounded by sand dunes. But it was modern. And pretty to look at. And I got my own office.
As the days, and then weeks, went by, Saudi Arabia started to kind of feel like home. We went to the supermarket, and we dined at
restaurants (family area only!). We visited the Corniche (waterfront, kind of like the boardwalk) and took our daughter to the park. After we got our multiple-visas, we even left on the weekend to visit Bahrain, which was only a short (not counting the traffic through the border) drive across the connecting bridge.
But there was still one thing that just didn’t fit.
I learned quite early people in Saudi don’t smile. Okay, sure, I don’t expect Saudi men (or Muslim men, in general) to walk past me, smile, and say, “Assalamu alaikum.” But I kind of thought that, you know, being in a Muslim country, I’d get a friendly, “Salaam”, from a sister as she floats by — wafts, in her abaya — STARING.
Yes, that’s right.
If there was ONE thing I’d looked forward to when we decided to move to the ME was the ability to blend in as a Muslim. For my fellow Western-based Muslimah reverts, I’m sure there has been at least one occasion where you just wanted to be invisible.
Maybe it was 9/12 (NO, that’s NOT a typo). Maybe it was at the airport. Maybe it was just at Starbucks, drinking your coffee like any other normal person.
I remember the time (in America) I was walking down an aisle in the grocery store, and an old lady walked past me. She caught my eye, and she tried to stare me into the floor. I could have averted my gaze, stared at the floor, made a cross-eyed, googly face. Instead, I just smiled at her and kept walking.
So, there I was in Saudi Arabia, thinking, “Dude, I’m Muslim. I’m wearing an abaya. I’m covering my hair. WHY ARE YOU STARING
AT ME???” And then I decided, “Try smiling.” And I did.
And they didn’t smile back. They hardly ever smiled back. And, trust me, even though the majority of Saudi women are niqabis, you can tell when they’re smiling. But they didn’t. In fact, their stares seemed to get colder as time went on.
I talked to my husband, whose only consolation was, “Honey, you’re just lighter. They can tell you’re not Arab. It’s different.”
“What’s different?” I asked. It wasn’t like we moved to the boonies of Saudi Arabia and I was the ONLY Whitey McWhitePerson. We lived in Al Khobar. Next to Dammam. Which housed Saudi Aramco. . .that’s the Saudi Arabian – American Coop for Oil. Al Khobar was built FOR Aramco. It’s full of white people. Non-Muslim white people. Non-hijabi white people. American white people.
“They’re just not used to it. You’re a foreigner,” he said.
Confused, I sat with my friend – the OTHER Whitey McWhiteMuslimah – and discussed the irony.
We leave the US – a country where Muslims are often ostracized as outcasts because they look different or act different – and move
to a country where Muslims account for 99.9999999999999% of the population (give or take a .9999999%). And what happens? I’m stared at and regarded as strange because. . .I look different or act different (yes, I bag my OWN cucumbers, thank you very much!).
It leaves me wondering. . .where can I go to blend in? Where can I go that nobody will stare at me because I’m different? I just want
to be me. To not be questioned by others’ eyes or regarded as an “outsider”. To just be one of the crowd.
Tune in next time to see how the “Hysterical Woman Syndrome” is still alive and kickin’ in the good ol’ Magic Kingdom!
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