As an opener, I am going to borrow Mike’s statement on Saudi Arabia.
Welcome to Saudi Arabia. Please Turn your watches back 500 years
I think that’s pretty right on. Make a note, however, that this is not a statement made to imply anything negative, it is rather a funny emphasis on what is “different”.
The region in which modern Saudi Arabia stands has an ancient and rich history, but the country itself is relatively young. As recently as the late 1950s, Saudi was basically a large sand sea with multiple rivalries between desert-dwelling clansmen. Some 60 years later and thanks to oil money, the Saudi Arabia of today is a rather “modern” country(I put modern between quotes for a reason), with a number of bustling urban centers in Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province with its booming economy pushing the country to soon being officially recognized as a developed country. A quick primer for those of you who never visited the Kingdom:
- Women in Saudi cannot vote, drive, travel or be in a public place without a male companion (sibling, relative or husband). They have to don the black abbaya (?????, the “Abbaya” “Hijab” and “Burqa” are three different things) covering them from head to toe (in certain relatively relaxed cities, like Jeddah, women can expose their face and sometimes head)
- Gender segregation is a rule in all areas involving social congregation, even fast food joints. Restaurants, cafes, banks and other establishments usually have two separate entrances:one is marked “Singles” (as in “single men) and the other “Families”
- The practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited (except in a few compounds were expatriates work and reside).
- Public cinemas and theater performances are prohibited (you can buy DVDs of foreign movies though)
We can have the conversation on what elements make a country “developed” (is it purely economic, for instance?) and whether this applies to Saudi or not, and another lengthy one on the Kingdom’s various policies and policies on the treatment of expatriate workers, especially from certain countries, and the Wahhabist clergy history and its relation to violent Islamist groups. But I’ll save all those interesting conversations to future posts where I can have the opportunity to bloviate with a drawn out treatise on the subject (or maybe not). For now, I’ll just talk about how it is always amusing to see American women donning the “abbaya” and my experience with diving on Saudi’s side of the pond.
Part of the work of an international university rep (like yours truly) includes paying visits to high schools to meet with college counselors and students. Visiting some international schools in Saudi can sometimes be a rather intense experience. many schools have gate fortifications reminiscent of a scaled down version of the entrance to a small military base: serious-looking armed guards, an armored personnel carrier, (seen near in a couple schools and embassy compound in Dhammam in the Eastern province) and mono-directional tire-piercing spikes. If you haven’t seen this before, it can be mildly intimidating. These measures- while appearing to be exterme at first sight- are there for good reason though. On Wednesday, we had a school visits to one such school in Jeddah which also happened to be in the vicinity of an embassy compound. A rep with our group was innocently filming the entrance to the school as our bus was ushered in, knowing nothing of how this seemingly docile act really irks the armed and bored Saudi sentries. That got us into some (minor) trouble. A very aggravated guard came up to our bus and asked for the camera-toting rep to come down from the bus and provide visual confirmation that the incriminating footage has been deleted. Being the only Arabic speaker in the group, I intervened and trying to convince the unhappy guards that the “pictures” were deleted. One guard took the camera away, couldn’t turn it on and handed back to me demanding that I switch it on and delete the pictures. It was of our good fortunes that the Saudi guards were not very gadget-savvy, as the camera was an old one that used video tape, and a couple weeks’ worth of trip footage was about to be confiscated and lost (including good footage of turtle beach). Me and the other rep played the dumb tourists for a couple of minutes and they finally got even more bored and let us go.
We went into the school and did our thing, and later that evening we had a 4-hour fair at a local college where the opening ribbon was cut by a member of the royal family. Mike and I had a brief exchange of views on the required “facial and physical aesthetics” of female royalties, the details of which I will refrain from disclosing here for various reasons.
The next day was an optional trip to the Red Sea for some diving and snorkeling. I thought it would be cool to do some diving on the other side of our Big Salty Pond. We went to dock near a mansion-lined marina complex and boarded the dive boat. Most people snorkeled, and Mike, Dave (a school counselor who was so cool to organize this trip for us) and I did two dives. The first one was at a dead reef bereft of the vibrant marine life characteristic of the dead sea (it was still cool though, I’ll take warm water and good visibility anytime), the second dive was at a wreck site known as “Marbles”, named so becuase it is basically a mid-size cargo ship with a load of marble plates. This was a good dive. We swam through and under the wreck and took a boatload of pictures with Mike’s underwater compact Olympus.
And that was it. Most of my trip mates flew home that night and I flew back to Cairo the following morning. All in all, it was a good trip. Good work, good company and good fun..what more could you ask for? (lots more, I know )