Stephanie Clears the Air About Her Saudi Arabia Experience

Stephanie Clears the Air About Her Saudi Arabia Experience

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.

So, here goes . . . and here’s hoping this clarifies a few points left unanswered from these posts

 

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.


So I married a Saudi

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.

Hospitality is second to none

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.

Blending In:

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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Stephanie Goes to the Magic Kingdom Part II: It’s All So Strangely Familiar

Stephanie Goes to the Magic Kingdom Part II: It’s All So Strangely Familiar

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

Oh, those Saudi Malls

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

Can you guess what this is?

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.

STARING.

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

What is she? American? Muslim? Some strange hybrid!?

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

Can’t a fish just live in the trees in peace?

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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Stephanie Goes to the Magic Kingdom

Stephanie Goes to the Magic Kingdom

Howdy, dear readers. It has been an exciting week here at islamwich! Firstly, because snowball stands have reopened in the New Orleans area after an off-and-on winter, and I (Corbin) have had one too many.

Secondly, because Gracie Lawrence was accepted to a PhD program and promptly left the continent. Don’t worry, she’s a busy lady but she will be back to islamwich and to her PhD program.

And lastly but not least-ly because, islamwich is welcoming a new blogger to the team. Her name is Stephanie, she hold a Masters in English (impressed yet?!) and she loves long walks off of short precipices … But let’s let her introduce herself in the third person:

Stephanie Siam, a native of Mobile, Alabama, converted to Islam approximately a decade ago. Currently, she resides in stephanieMuscat, Oman, with her husband and daughter, where she teaches English in the Foundation Programme of the country’s top university. When in the US, she can usually be found navigating between Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, as these are the four corners of her heartland. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing and spending time with her family doing various activities. Her intention is to share her perspective on being a non-Arab Muslim living in an Arab Muslim world.

And now it is time for you, dear readers, to snuggle up to your laptop and a cup of tea and hear the tale of how Stephanie unwillingly became a Saudi … kind of.

Stephanie writes:


(To the tune of “Party in the U.S.A”)

I hopped off the plane at DMM

With an abaya and the hubs in hand

Welcome to the land of religious men

Whoa, am I gonna fit in?

Jumped on the bus –

‘Cause I’m not allowed to drive –

Look to my right, and I see a Camel Crossing sign

All the drivers so crazy

Transportation’s so dangerous

So I put my hands up

And say a little prayer

The butterflies fly away

Sayin’ takbir, oh yeah

Make du’a, like yeah

When I put my hands down

And take a look around

I know I’m gonna be okay

Yeah, residentin’ in the KSA

Yeah, residentin’ in the KSA

Okay, so I’m not exactly a songwriter. But it embodies those first feelings I had when the conversation my husband and I had several months prior to this event (the one that began, “Why don’t you try to get a job in Saudi?”) culminated in the three of us – me, my hubby and our then 2-year-old daughter – landing in the middle of nowhere with nothing but some luggage and curiosity.

But before we go on, I want to share with you about how we got there in the first place.

After I finished grad school, I became a stay-at-home mom, and I tried to take on that personality of Domestic Diva – the one who cooks and cleans all day and greets her man at the door with fresh makeup and gorgeousness to spare. But it’s not me.

For dinner we’re having repressed emotions. And quiet desperation for dessert.

And, honestly, being a SAHM isn’t me, either.  I have a lot of respect for women who do stay at home and raise the children and cook, clean, launder and look fabulous at 5 pm for their husbands. It made me lazy, overly tired (read: depressed), and I felt like I was failing as a wife.

I had been trying to learn Arabic in my free time (when I wasn’t busy being lazy?), but it wasn’t coming along as I expected. We were living in Florida, which is pretty insanely uncomfortable for me in general – plus, I am a hijabi, so just tack on another fifty degrees of perpetual grumpiness because I hate heat. I wanted to work, but I had no idea where to start. I had no contacts, and I had few friends.

Then one day, when my husband’s friend-slash-business partner was over for a visit, he mentioned trying to find a job in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. At first, the idea was almost a joke. When we got married, it was practically understood that I had no desire whatsoever to ever live in Saudi Arabia. My husband, a Palestinian-by-blood/Jordanian-by-nationality Arab, wasn’t exactly keen on the idea either. But ever-the-open-minded, he said, “Just try it, and see what happens.”

Me: Okay, but I’m not moving to Saudi Arabia.

Hubby: Yeah, yeah, I know . . . let’s just see if they offer you a job . . .

Me (going back inside from our screened-in back lanai): Okay . . . but I’m not moving to Saudi Arabia.

So, I applied for a job, and they wanted to interview me. I got up at some awful hour of the night to be waiting for the Skype call. The interview lasted approximately 3 minutes.

Husband (calling to me in the living room while still asleep): Was that it?

Me: Yeah . . .

Husband: I don’t think you got it.

Me: Ya think?

We went on with our lives, and I continued being a SAHM. I put the idea of working in the Middle East out of my mind, half relieved that we wouldn’t move to Saudi and half dejected because they weren’t interested.

Then out of nowhere, a few months later, I get an offer by email asking me to join the university as an instructor. Shocked, and duly unimpressed by the length of my interview, I sat with the hubby and shared the news.

Husband: I’ll ask (friend) if that’s a good offer.

Me: But we’re not moving to Saudi Arabia, right?

Husband: No, no . . . I just want to see if it’s a good offer.

Me: Okay, but we’re not moving to Saudi Arabia, right?

And he asked his friend, who told him it was a decent package.

So, we’re sitting outside one night after dinner, and we’re talking about the offer. I’m joking around about the likelihood of us ever moving to Saudi, and he’s talking about other countries in the Middle East where it might be nice to find work.

Husband: What do you think if we try it out?

Me: Try what out?

Husband: Saudi  . . .

Me: Are you kidding? You want us to move to Saudi Arabia?!?!

Husband: I mean, I don’t want to force you. I was just thinking it would be interesting to  . . .  try it out.

Me: But what if we don’t like it? It’s a two-year contract.

Husband: If we don’t like it, we’ll come back.

Me: But what if I don’t like it?

Husband: I’m not going to stay somewhere you’re unhappy. If you don’t like it, we’ll leave.

Me: Yeah . . . (I think it over for a few minutes, ever-the-impulsive) Okay. Sure. Are you sure?

Husband: Why not?

Me: And if don’t like it, we’ll leave? We agree on that here? Absolutely?

Husband: Of course, insha’Allah.

Me (most likely cocking an eyebrow): We’ll leave. . . . ? . . .

Husband: . . .  if we’re not happy. Yes.

So began the back-and-forth of paperwork and emails and negotiating that, eventually, led to us arriving in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in the near-middle of the night. Luckily, my husband had a family member whose husband was also working at the same university I would be teaching at – different campus, of course. They gave us a warm welcome and some food, and the husband helped us get settled in our apartment, which wasn’t as bad as I expected.

And that is the beginning of our two-year residency in the Magical Kingdom.


Click here to find out if Stephanie likes the Saudi life,  if the camels will obey the crossing sign we saw in the beginning, or if she will dress like a man just to get a driving fix. Click here for the continuation

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