Tonight I feel like writing, so I will continue with my tale of Saudi, although it will be much diminished by the fact I didn’t write contemporaneously. I’ve been back for about a month now and it feels like I never left the UK and I was never able to speak Arabic.
Saudi is a mixed bag of a place really. I felt like everytime I made a judgement about something or someone, another thing would happen which would tip that feeling on its head. As I mentioned, we were living in an apartment, seven of us, and having a rather hard time of it. I’ll perhaps explain why in a future post. But on top of all the underlying stuff, there was also a lot of practical stuff that we were finding hard to get our heads around. Like the fact that we couldn’t cook there and so had to buy expensive and fattening take away foods (this is before we discovered dhal and naan for 80p that would last us two meals), and that there wasn’t any crockery, or a washing machine, and that there was no loo roll.
One day, the bell rang and one of us opened the door to someone who described himself as from the ministry and he was just here to say hello and see how we were all getting on. He was speaking in Arabic and one of the more fluent guys from the apartment upstairs had come with him to translate. He seemed like quite a sinister guy really. Beady, searching eyes, slightly contemptuous look on his face. He was smiling but it didn’t seem to go beyond his lips. He had a toothpick which he would use occasionally, and then rub his tongue on the back of his teeth.
We said obviously the polite stuff about the course going well (it wasn’t), and that Saudi life was much better than reported (it wasn’t) and that the teachers were all lovely (they were), and then he asked us if our digs were ok. Obviously we all fell upon him explaining that we weren’t really set up here and could they possibly give us some more money so we could actually buy some food from the supermarket. He slowly backed out of the apartment as we were saying this stuff to him, and mentioned in Arabic that he’d see what he could do and could we make sure that when we go out, ALL the girls wear a headscarf and be respectable please.
And the next day he was down in the lobby, and the day after that he was down in the lobby too. We were convinced that he was spying on us and making sure we weren’t going out to places we weren’t supposed to. That weekend, when most of the group had gone to Makkah, me and two others, including the one non Muslim girl, stayed back. We saw him again in the lobby after coming back from dinner. He swooped down upon us and asked why we hadn’t gone to Makkah with the rest of them. It was my job to talk since the others weren’t so confident and I made up something about looking after C, who wasn’t allowed to go. He kept on insisting that we should have gone, and he was going tomorrow with his family and would we like a lift? He couldn’t conceive of any reason why we girls wouldn’t go to such a sacred space (idiot) and was very insistent. Then he said he wanted to introduce us to his wife who was here too, and to have a chat with him. Would we come with him please? The three of us looked at each other, alarmed at the idea of this man proposing to take us to his unknown hotel room to have a chat. C, in particular, who was already sensitive about her treatment in the country as a non Muslim was especially worried about being cast into prison, but we thought on reflection it was better to go – after all, it’s unlikely that anything would happen to us since we were there with Oxford Uni.
It turns out he was staying in the same hotel as us and his whole family were there for the week because it was their summer holiday and that’s why we saw him so often. He disappeared for a bit while we spoke to his teenage kids, and then came back with Al Baik (it’s a fried chicken place and is disgusting but the Saudis love it). We said no to the food since we’d already eaten, but we sat with him for about 20 minutes while he tried to persuade C that it was perfectly safe for her to go Makkah and Medina and no one would question her about it and it wouldn’t be a problem – especially if he, as a ministerial aide, took us with his family. So he wasn’t spying on us and he was actually quite friendly (Later he was less friendly, but that’s another story.)
In fact, if there’s one thing the Saudis know how to do – it’s hospitality. As long as you’re rich and from a European country and preferably white, they will treat you very generously. If you’re poor, they will still treat you like a human, I guess to some extent. In theory anyway. There weren’t many poor people I saw on the street (I believe begging is illegal and harshly punished), but the ones that were there didn’t look too shabby. One of the things that a teacher told us is that Saudis are extremely dignified people. They will never beg, even if they are very poor. No Saudi would ever be caught on the streets and so it’s mostly migrants who are busking (not surprising, given the few rights they have). But she said all the poor will be fed and clothed. She seemed slightly contemptuous of the idea of people coming to her country and giving a bad image of the nation to foreigners. She herself embodied this idea of Saudis being too dignified to ask strangers – in fact, all of the Saudis we met (not many, it has to be said) had an enormous amount of pride. It’s a thing that is well worth knowing – the best way to make a Saudi do anything, is to make him/her feel like to NOT do something is to lower them/their country in your esteem. You don’t need to go overboard with it – just a subtle, “oh I was expecting this and it didn’t quite work out that way”, or, “oh you don’t do things like this here? Well that’s not the way we do things in our country.” Whether it’s shame, or just a desire to please/be hospitable, it tended to work.
Next time: The Saudi notion of freedom, vs governance
Bonus: Pic of me near Taif