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!
Part I is here and Stephanie clears the air about this post here
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21 thoughts on “Stephanie Goes to the Magic Kingdom Part II: It’s All So Strangely Familiar”
I have never visited Saudi, but as a foreigner in a Muslim country I know exactly what you’re talking about with the staring thing. Don’t judge the Saudi’s too harshly though, as you wrote, they are probably just not used to the diversity. Here in Jordan staring can be a bit off putting at first, but after living here for a while I can say that most people are generally friendlier than they look at first glance, mostly people stare because they are interested in your story, where you’re from, etc.
Stephanie, Gracie and I (the islamwich writers) are all Southerners. We smile at everyone, so I am sure it was a culture shock for Steph. I am not sure if you are Muslim, but the smiling thing is also an Islamic custom. So going into a Muslim country where no one smiles is sad and strange. But you are right, Lillian. Curiosity can make you forget to smile or even that you are staring. And we shouldn’t take offense. Thanks for reading! Have fun in Jordan!
Thanks for bringing this up and I wanted to ask if this is your personal experience during the travel? To quote you “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.” So true and I am sorry that you had to face this nonsense but that is general and normal attitude of ARAB MUSLIMS who think all the rest are beneath their shoes, and second class Muslims because we are not ARABS.
While I don’t want to take away the attention from the main topic of how Muslims behave with Muslim coverts, just so you know that brown Muslims like those in Pakistan, India and SOUT ASIA where the countries are 99% Muslim are treated worse than dogs in Saudia Arabia and other Arab countries because we are brown, shitty and non Muslim.
Frankly there is no unity and sense of same level amongst Muslims, and this is the flaw of Islam because there is Sharia dogma clearly teaching class, race, color differences as opposed to the real message of Islam.Saudia Arabia also has a wonderful illegal immigrants population that is basically living a life of slavery there, I should know because a greater population of Pakistani labor class is there working for the white-ARAB-MUSLIM masters and get treated that Amnesty International etc condemn but we as Muslims prefer to stay shut up and hide these horrible flaws within us.
However, I stand in solidarity with you both. F*** the world!
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I agree with you bro/sis…Islam has been polluted by Arab racism. Particularly by the trash of the Middle East. No question drums are beating for the Arabia. Arabs have nothing any more. They have lost their culture, their prestige, their honor, their nobility, their presence. Now they are just worse Jahils. Like a tumbleweed going through the currents of history, they have become unhinged. From the whorehouse of the Muslim world Dubai to the trashiest, nonsense being felted out in literature, media, arts etc, the Arabs have gone to the dustbin of history.
The latest gay rights movement: coming from the Arab world.
The latest feminist trash: coming from the Arab world.
The latest “clowning of Islam”: coming from the Arab world.
The problem with this comment is that it is full of extremities. ‘They’ Hyde? Is it Us vs Them situation? You are lumping all Arabs as one homogeneous barbarians. No wonder anti arab stereotypes are flooding Hollywood and the media in your country. You are giving them that kind of information about Arabs as if that is the only available information about them. For instance the Alice in Arabia writer, paints the typical, gruesome zealous Arabs who are just ‘normal’ people because they too read Vogue. There are extremies in every race, religion, country yada yada, even America! I cannot speak for all Arabs but I can say that my husband and a number of other Arabs I know would willingly give the shirt of their backs for others. And you cannot deny Arab hospitality is topnotch. Correct me if I am wrong but I do see an anti arab premise here.
Indeed, you are right. There is no need for an us v them in Islam. Some Arabs are awesome. Some Arabs suck. Such is mankind. What we should really be against is national pride and all of it’s ugliness. Whether it is found in the Arab world, the Asian world of the Western world. No one is better that any other person because of where it just so happened that they were born, raised or what language they speak. And this kind of pride happens in all groups of people. This is what we should be against. This is what I find disgusting. My only point with speaking directly about the Arab is because I have, and a lot of people I have spoken with have, run into Arab pride that includes a sense of ownership of Islam. And that to me is especially odious and destructive to Muslims and the ummah. May Allah bless your husband and those like him for being rejecting this kind of harmful pride.
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I read that link you gave me and I also read the comments by other readers and I would like to quote some that I find addresses the issue here.
By Commentor named melanie
“SubhanAllah, there is good and bad in every culture..Allah himself says he made us different tribes so that we might know one another…Why do we make this so difficult??? After you get over the initial mistrust/awkwardness you will find so many things you never knew about!! The world is an amazing place.”
By Commentor named AbdurRahman Ibn Mas’ ood
” I’m tired of hearing us Western Muslims (especially Americans tbh) brag on about how amazing, cultured and sincere we are in the practice of our deen as compared to our brothers and sisters in the east.I know this is used as a context to help us Muslims in the West understand how important it is to not see living in the West as being a dichotomy of I’m either on this train or off it, but we need to find a way of doing it without always sounding like Muslims in the East are doing it wrong and we are somehow doing it right. Visit Turkey, Tunisia or Malaysia and the Muslim world is not so homogenously unlivable anymore.I too have spent the past 4 years in KSA not only studying Islam but also spending 20+ hours every week with Saudi teenagers, and I can tell you for a fact that even if the context is different most of the deen and life issues these kids go through are in essence not too different from the issues Muslims in the West go through.This is not to distract from the importance of the main topic being made, but simply in how we look at it.”
It is haram to mock and ridicule Wahhabi since Al Wahab is the name of Allah. This is discussed by an American Muslim scholar here
Obviously I read those comments. But that does change the fact about what I said. I hope you read my mine as well. Here is a blog that might ruffle a feather or so…
Yep, a Saudi experience is indeed quite different. Hope everything works out!
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Thanks for reading. It did, in fact, work out very well. Continue reading to see my overall conclusions about life in the Kingdom.
I also faced the same thing, from my move from the US to the Middle East. Living in Jordan first I found that smiling meant that I’m flirting and me smiling meant that I’ve fallen deeply in love with the person I’ve smiled to,if it was a man, or if it was a woman to whom I smiled to it probably meant that I mistook her for somebody else or I’m a bit loony, haha. Upon moving to Riyadh, I tried my best not to smile ( I can’t help it I’m just a smiley kind of person) because I felt like it was so strict, I had ha’ia talk to me on a number of occasions for not covering my hair and having designs etched onto my abaya so I decided that not smiling would be the best thing so that things won’t get misinterpreted. Now in Jeddah, I smile a bit more because hey, being in Jeddah and no longer in Riyadh is in itself something to smile about, but as for them not smiling back, you shouldn’t take it to heart so much, remember when you smile it’s sunnah so you smile for the sake of pleasing Allah, also it’s better to be the person who smiled than the person who never smiled back. As for the staring, I get that as well and I’m an Arab! Sometimes I think they’re staring because they’re trying to figure out where I’m from, or it’s because they’re constantly playing the no blinking game and seeing how far they can get with different players, lol! Regradless, hopefully you’ll get used to these things and remember to always fine the best in everything and when you can’t, come up with a hilarious scenario.
“they’re constantly playing the no blinking game and seeing how far they can get with different players,” SO funny! You’re awesome. I would smile at you 😀
Let me first address brother Hqas,
It is very unfair and ignorant of you to lump all Arab Muslims into one generic group of supremos. My husband is Arab, married me an Asian, our daughter is half Arab half Asian and his family are the best people I have known. I am blessed to have his mom as my mother in law. Next, I agree that SOME Saudis are really horrible human beings and the system of that country towards immigrants are un Islamic and appalling but not all of Saudis or Arabs accept this. Do you Ahmad Al Shugairi? He’s a Saudi who is actually an active promoter of true Islamic conducts especially in dealing with fellow human beings. He’s quite popular. Now I am not saying I support everything Saudi or Arab but extremity is never the answer. As to quote Janet Frame, the law of extremity demands an attention to irrelevance.
People stare. It is not totally restricted to Arab niqabis 🙂 In where I am living now, people would stare at me and my husband all the time, he’s always irritated by it but usually just shrugs it off as common occurrences. I guess it boild downs to basic human curiosity. You look different. Yes, there are thousands of others who look just like you in Saudi, thanks to Aramco etc but the fact is, you look different. In Kuala Lumpur, where I live, there are floods of European and Arab expats but the locals would always stare when a tall White man passes by amongst the crowd. You mentioned in USA, people would stare at you mainly I guess because of your hijab. It’s what people do. Look and stare. It’s annoying I know but all we can do is follow the Islamic trachings, smile at our fans and say Salam 😉
Oh on a side note, I have a question. Do converts still use toilet paper after converting to islam? What can I say, I am Curious 😉
I know people who do for a few reasons- and this is about to get a little strange so stop here if you don’t want to read this. 1. To pat dry- for people who don’t like to wear damp under garments ( this doesn’t bother some people….personally I could go either way) 2. To get “bulk matter” off prior to a wash (either with the spray thing or manually)- it is another route and can be argued maybe even a faster way to sparkly tushy. That is the word on the street anyway- hoped that helped.
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The pat dry thing is of course a must. I am curious about not using any sort of moisturizing hehehe. Most people I know use the baby wipes, I much prefer water for cleaning.
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I remember when I first learned about the water (and made Gracie buy TP for our apartment, lol). I was like, and still feel like, water is not enough. Not to be gross but since we are going there, if you picked up a piece of dog doo doo, would you just run a hose over it? It doesn’t seem like enough to me. And for that reason I like to get soap, TP, and water all up in the mix. LOL and baby wipes work well for all three. P.S. if you keep your undercarriage damp all the time you will run in to problems … yeast wise … both men and women …
Bwah-hahaha!! Isn’t that the truth. I remember the first time I found out about smiling being like giving charity in Islam- I was shocked for the same reason….because no one seems to do it! I have a long time ago given up the idea of judging someone based on the type of clothes they wear. Now I am all about manners ie. are you kind, humble, thoughtful, gentle or just plain nice (esp. to those “under” you [people living in Arab countries know what I mean]) etc… If you are wearing sunnah, but always look like you are going to eat my face, are nasty with your fellow man, or just have a negative and ugly personality….I am not buying it….no sir…I am not.
The lady in this blog is married to a Saudi. She writes on her experience living among niqabis, Muslims, Saudis, on both good and bad. This latest post of hers is a great example that sweeping generalization does not belong in any civilized society.
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In response to Mrs. B’s objection to hqas’ comment. Yes not all Arabs are like that, but to be fair she (hqas) did say “general” and “normal” not “all” or “every” Arab. Gracious, fantastic, warm, generous and even religious Arabs do exist, and in greater numbers than unicorns. However, it has been my experience and the experience of a lot of converts and non-Arab Muslims that I have spoken with that a lot of Arabs do act like they are superior Muslims simply because of their Arab-ness.
It is infuriating and shows ignorance of actual Islam. I think that the root of the problem comes in when people confuse their religion for their culture. When you see people trying to imitate a culture that you where raised in, it is only natural to feel superior because in a way the imitator is saying they think you are better (and if this happens we have to resist this urge to act on base instincts). And I think this is where some Arabs are confused (and the rest of us become infuriated). NO! we, the rest of the Muslim world, are not trying to be Arab or participate in Arab culture when we practice Islam. NO, Arabs do not own Islam, nor can they dictate how the rest of us practice it. Islam is for all of humanity. Period. Once everyone understands that and leaves this clique-ish behavior in the past maybe then, inshaAllah, we can start to resemble an ummah.
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