Written by Stephanie Siam
First, let me apologize. This is NOT the Hysterical Woman Syndrome post that was last promised. Insha’Allah, I will get to that next time (and I did. And that is here). Instead, I decided to respond to the comments and questions left on my previous post. As they appeared, I read them . . . and after a few, I realized it would be easier if I created an open-letter type response.
My Saudi Expectations:
I can see why many may consider the previous post to be a little negative or pessimistic towards the Saudi culture or country, in general. I mean, hey, I start out by saying I NEVER, EVER wanted to go there. How can one make that decision without having any real knowledge about a place?
Here’s some backstory:
Waaaaay back in 2004, I married a Saudi and remained in this tumultuous marriage for 18 months.
Through it all, I also garnered some information about Saudi culture and mindset. This particular Saudi considered himself “modern”. We sat with other couples (older than us, mind you), he cooked (for himself), and we split costs 60/40 (mostly he paid 60).
But he told me about Saudi, and he tried to teach me about Islam – despite not wanting to be married to me (long story for another post, so stay tuned). So, he had that going for him.
My best friend – and sister by another mister (brother/mother, pun, ah . . .) – was ALSO Saudi. And she was the ANTITHESIS of anything Saudi you could ever dream of – or so I thought. Until I moved there and learned she was pretty run-of-the-mill, modern-day girl (a few years younger than me). She also introduced me to Saudi mindset and culture.
So, I didn’t exactly move to Saudi without any knowledge whatsoever. I may have had prejudiced notions based on other peoples’ opinions, but I had a basic taste of what to expect:
1) No driving for me
2) An abaya would be necessary
3) It was hot … always
4) Everything closes during prayer times
5) There’s no pork – anywhere
6) Family is the cornerstone of civilization
Saudi Arabia Reality:
My other observations were made once I actually hit the ground running in the Kingdom.
It’s important to understand that several generalizations about Arabs can be considered correct.
For instance, in my history of knowing Arabs from all around the world – from different countries – of different ages – I’ve noticed that it is difficult – nay, near impossible – to find one who considers time important.
Except when it comes to salat.
Otherwise, time is fluid. Party starts at 8? Great, I’ll be there around. . .10:30. Class begins at 10? Is 10:20 okay to show up? I’m getting MARRIED! Come to my WEDDING! It’s at 9 pm! (But I won’t arrive until 1 am!!!)
Secondly, Arab hospitality is second-to-NONE on God’s green earth. There is no such thing as dropping by for a quick cup of coffee.
If you come for coffee at 11 am, you’re lucky to leave after dinner at 8. And the order of events, and the steps and. . .oh, it’s so exhausting to a Westerner who understands, “No, I don’t want anything,” as meaning, “No, I don’t want anything.”
However, the hospitality is usually localized to one of two kinds of people: a) Bedouins (in the country) or b) people who know you (in the city). You’re not really going to find a stranger at the supermarket invite you to their house for dinner. But you WILL find a stranger in the desert invite you into their home to sleep, especially if you’re a weird foreigner (hasn’t happened to me personally, but I’ve heard tales).
But, to each the good and the bad.
What the West gets wrong about Saudi:
Of course, many (probably most) generalizations are wrong.
- Arabs are not inherent terrorists.
- They are not ignorant. While many may be uneducated, their knowledge of life far surpasses anything I know on most levels.
- They are not scary. But their driving is.
- They are not out to destroy the West. Indeed, they embrace the West and its traditions in many capacities.
- They are not hell-bent on forcing others to conform to their ideals.
Ah, the concept of “blending in”.
It’s been mentioned that I should not feel weird being stared at because I am different. I should note my husband, who is only a shade or two darker than I am, was not stared at. He is clearly not Saudi Arabian, yet he seemed to blend just fine.
The idea of staring seemed less to be about confusion or interest in “different”, and more of a lack of manners. When a person glances at me and looks away (in America or otherwise), I consider that interest or curiosity. When a person plays the “no blinking game”, as noha called it, the intent seems to be intimidation and rudeness. THOSE are the prying eyes I want to poke with a pencil. But I don’t. Because I usually don’t have a pencil with me. Ha.
Frankly, gracielawrence and Corbin say it best, and I fully support their comments:
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 […] are not trying to be Arab or participate in Arab culture when we practice Islam. […] Islam is for all of humanity. Period. Once everyone understands that and leaves this clique-ish behavior in the past maybe then, Insha’Allah, we can start to resemble an ummah. – Corbin
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 […] – gracielawrence
And finally, Toilet Paper:
I was raised using toilet paper. I know many Arabs were not. Once I was introduced to the water hose, or watering can, or bidet, I just didn’t find myself clean enough without it. But I don’t like walking around with the feeling of freshly-peed pants. So, I supplement with toilet paper. As do most of the female Muslimah converts I know.
In the end, I want to say my overall conclusions about Saudi were totally positive. In fact, had my job been a better place to be, we might have extended our stay. Unfortunately, my university and position there were ruining my health. I was truly going downhill on a bicycle with no brakes, and we had to get outta there.
Sure, there were negatives. There were annoyances. And there were things that made me want to pull my hair out and slap people silly (which, yes, I refrained from). But overall, the positive far outweighed the negative in terms of what I EXPECTED before ever moving there.
We had the chance to go to Medinah and Mecca for Umrah, alhumdulillah. We visited Riyadh a couple of times. I rode some camels. I ate some camel (and then made wudu’u). And I even drove a car. Up the street. By my compound. With the guards smiling and waving.
Ultimately, what I learned was:
Don’t have expectations. If you do, you’re only going to be let down. If you don’t, you can ALWAYS be pleasantly surprised.
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