On Saudi notions of freedom

I just looked back at my last post but three and realised I had promised an update about Saudi notions of freedom and government responsibility.

Really it all can boil down to the way they view the seatbelt.

Our main Arabic teacher had found out through some not very hard work that we weren’t having a great time in Jeddah. Stuck indoors all day it wasn’t that we weren’t allowed to go out – in fact, the university had generously provided us with a mini bus and the freedom to explore. It’s just that the various delights that might have been on offer to single females were not accessible on the English speaking internet and the men who worked at the apartment complex just looked at us blankly.

So she ordered us to be ready one evening, and then took us on a tour of the various areas that we might later be interested in exploring by ourselves. We went to the more traditional souk areas, she took us to her favourite bakeries and bookshops and she introduced us to women’s hour at the gym. Marvellous stuff. Her driver was a tireless and patient man – probably Indonesian or Malay – who did not wear a seatbelt. Dr Fareeda also did not wear a seatbelt. Yes, she knew that to wear one might reduce the risk of injury or death. The government knew it too but they would never legislate that one had to. She had a right not to wear one. She had a right to choose. The safety device is available to use if necessary, but equally if someone didn’t want to and they died or killed someone else, then that is their free choice. Both to not wear a seatbelt, as well as to get into a car in the first place.

The Saudi behaviour on the road is a pretty good analogy of what their attitude to being governed in civic life is – ironic considering how much of their personal life is governed by religious or quasi religious rules.

They do not like rules or regulations governing their freedom of movement, especially within what they might consider to be their personal space. They will also take responsibility for their own actions and if someone dies not wearing one, they will consider it an act of God, not an act that proves something in public life needs to be changed.

Very few people here wish to rock the boat by seeking extra laws, even if it might mean fewer deaths. Perhaps because there are so many personal restrictions, it might be going just a tad too far to stop them driving like no one is watching.



And another day

Where I’m publicly shouted at in front of everyone. Really, it’s totally unnecessary. I am so over this place.

T, I need you to remember this feeling of abject uselessness, total shiteness, utter incompetency and sheer patronage. You’re not the only one who’s felt that in this place, and that just confirms that you never want to work here again. And maybe you want to stop this whole thing altogether in fact.

Remember this when you’re poor and desperate. No money is worth this feeling.

A continuation of Saudi

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



By all accounts Jeddah is a different beast to the rest of Saudi. I was warned beforehand that I would have to wear a scarf and an abaya, which I fully expected, and that it would be quite restrictive for women, in that it would be hard to go places without a driver or on your own. But they said it would be better than the very conservative capital Riyadh, or Dammam, for example.

In truth, Jeddah does have areas which are more cosmopolitan. I’ve been told by many people that women don’t need to wear the headscarf – and I’ve seen a few, usually Philipinnos, who don’t – but the abaya is always essential. It’s pretty tough not to wear it though, because it’s such an established practice that you look very much out of place if you’re not.

There are 14 people in the group learning Arabic, split evenly between men and women. The women all stay in one three bedroom apartment near the University, and it’s pretty tough. We’ve been thrown into each others’ company, and each other personality quirks, something terrible.

The problem stems from the fact that we’re all completely new to this city, we don’t know our way about to go anywhere interesting, and also that in order for us to go out and do anything we need to be in at least a pair. It means we’re stuck in the small apartment for quite a bit of the day, being bored or just lacking in space.

The Saudi women we’ve met here say it is entirely possible for a female to travel alone – to the mall for example (because where else is there to go?) – but in practice it’s harder. One of the girls here is not Muslim – so I’m not sure if it was because she’s clearly a white foreigner or that the custom is stricter than they admit – but she tried to get a taxi on her own and three successive taxis refused to take her.  We haven’t bothered trying since.

I’ve been to Makkah twice now, and have done Umrah both times, and jummah once. We’re extremely privileged because it’s the closed season, so there are no international pilgrimage visas being authorised. It means the Haram has relatively few people, and when we went, there were only a few thousand people in total, and maybe only a hundred or so doing tawaf around the Kaaba. Unfortunately the Saudis have razed the town to the ground to make way for hotels and expansion and it makes Makkah a particularly soulless place (outside the Haram, I mean). But perhaps because I’m not staying in the hotels or anything, I didn’t see the miles of malls that were said to line the outside of sanctuary. It seems they are only inside the hotel complexes, and since we didn’t need to stay overnight, I didn’t see anything that was particularly consumerist or modernist and that made me very happy.

Inside the Haram, despite the numbers of people, it’s calm and calming. Unfortunately I didn’t quite feel the overwhelming sense that some in the group did – the Kaaba is something I pray towards, and not to, for instance – but I was happy to be there. In amidst the bustle of people it’s fairly easy to focus the mind just on God, and lay out all your prayers before Him. But I didn’t feel the connection to the Prophet or the history in the way I thought I might. It’s all marbled over, and even the safa and marwa mountains are glazed over or behind perspex walls (understandably so, given the sheer number of attendees). I wish I had done more prep beforehand – but you are called, when you are called, I guess.

We are due to go to Medina next weekend and this I am very much looking forward to.

In the meantime, the Arabic itself is ok. We are going over stuff I have done before, so I am considerably ahead of the rest of class, and it’s stressing me out a little. Although useful in getting me back to speed, I want to get beyond just the basics of the language and be able to speak with greater fluency and nuance. I have bought a collection of children’s bedtime stories from the Jarir bookshop, and I’m doing quite a lot of independent study to push myself. I have to remind myself that this is a free course and it’s an immense privilege just to be in an Arabic speaking country with nothing to do except learn the lingo.

The children’s book I picked is a pretty good and I have been reading a story a day from it, and it does seem to be getting easier as I go on. It would be naive to think I could become fluent by the end of the month, but I do hope that I can at least get beyond asking the price of fish.

Last day in Turkey and a new adventure

As predicted I was incapable of finishing my record of my Turkey trip in a timely manner, which is very frustrating for me since it was probably the best part of the trip.

I ended up going back to one of the restaurants recommended to me by my friend and since it was crowded found myself soon joined by two American girls. I got talking to them and it turns out they’re not like your typical Muricans, but one was the co-founder of a charity that sends aid to Syria via drones, while the other was French American and this fabulous engineer from MIT. Both had only met the night before in their hostel, and as I had been in Istanbul a little longer than they had I gave them some advice, we got talking and soon enough I was asked to join them. Such cool girls who were a good 5/6 years younger than me at least, and yet had accomplished so much. We ended up visiting the cisterns, and having tea in one of the cafes near Topkapi Palace overlooking the Bosphorus. I disappeared to have lunch with someone else I had met, but then came back in the evening to watch the sunset over the river from one of the prime rooftop cafe bars. As it turns out I was a little late for the sunset, which I was very sad about, but it was cool catching up with them nevertheless. Then the French American got in touch with one of her old engineering colleagues who was Turkish, and we ended up having tea and ice cream on Istiklal street with him.

I do like the Turkish and Bosnian versions of Islam, it’s got to be said. So much warmer and familiar than elsewhere. Anyhoops, I ended leaving them at about half past 12, getting slightly lost in the midnight downpour but eventually arriving home at about 1am. That was a close shave.

The next morning I walked under the bridge from Kadakoy to Eminonu and was greeted by real Turkish tourist hospitality. I didn’t realise this was a ploy at the time, but it became fairly clear early on. There are fish restaurants that line the underbelly of the bridge and the first chap that I came across invited me in quite charmingly to free tea, to just sit and watch the world go by. Of course, I said no, but he seemed so hurt and offended that I relented and sat for the shortest time possible before I left while smiling and taking his card.

Big mistake. Every single other restaurant, and there were about seven, then proceeded to stop me every time I passed them to invite me in for tea, and even a free lunch, or a free dinner, or a night out. They all got progressively more outlandish as I passed each restaurant and it took me a good 45 mins or so to walk to the end. Madness.

I met with Jessie and Alix again and we hung about for a bit before I needed to head off to catch the plane home. We’ve made plans to stay lifelong friends, and hopefully go to Iran next year.

Anyway, the reason it’s taken me so long to fill in the rest of the trip is largely because of my last Bosnia trip. Third time I’ve been in as many years, although this time I went on a commission. This is the result and it took a blumming long time, I’ll tell you:

And now, what’s coming up next is perhaps the biggest adventure of them all. Six weeks in Saudi Arabia. Utter madness and I don’t quite know how it all came together. I can only conclude that it was perhaps fated for me to go, because really things fell into place quite easily and without much effort. I’ll be living in Jeddah, and while it’s a studying trip and not a work nor holiday trip, I’m sure it will still be filled with adventures of some kind or other.

Of course, it’s going to be difficult to blog about, what with all the restrictions and hand chopping and blasphemy laws etc, but we will see.

Boxing with Erol

I think it was purely for my sake that a friend had travelled to Istanbul a mere month before and by the sheerest luck happened upon Erol. She met him in his tiny tiny stall in the bazaar, told me he was a legend and that I must go to him before anyone else.

So when I finally decided to head to the Grand Bazaar he was obviously the first person to try and see. I wasn’t holding out much hope, especially when I saw the size of his store, but he was a lovely lovely man.

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He was so pleased to see me when I told him that my friend had recommended him, and he said he remembered her, and she was a sweet girl. That anyone who was a friend of hers was a friend of his. He dealt with a couple of customers but gave me a cup of apple tea while I waited and then proceeded to tell me about his business. He is the owner of the Ali Baba brand and despite appearances, very many stall sellers who come to buy his wares wholesale. In fact, he’d been in the business for 30 years and loved it. He is the most humble person I ever met in Turkey and extremely generous. He also told me that he was meeting this American lady, Lauren, who had become his friend over the past 16 years of visiting Istanbul and that I should meet her too. She and I were alike apparently, in that we liked to wander alone. He mentioned that she had asked to see his boxing lesson that evening and since I was feeling cheeky, I thought I’d ask too. He said he’d be delighted, so once the bazaar shut at 6:30, he took us to this out of the way little place, where the Turkish 5 time champion took them on a gruelling 1.5hour training session. It was quite exciting really, as there were some rather good looking guys there, and they were also excited to hve some foreign females watching them. Unfortunately the battery on my phone died and I couldn’t take any good pictures. This one will have to do.

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He then took us out to dinner and gave me lots of excellent advice about Turkey, said if I ever needed him he was a brother to me. And that if I wanted to marry anyone I need only say the word. He had fixed up a number of people in his time, and some of them were still happy.

It’s probably my first day in Turkey that I didn’t feel properly lonely – I’d met an actual Turk who was hospitable and kind and genuinely welcoming. I’m sure a lot of them are like that, but Goreme is full of people who work the tourist trap and they’re designed to treat you in a very specific business minded way. Erol was so genuine, he felt like an uncle. I think if I ever wanted to come back to Turkey and live there he’d probably be able to help me out.

With the Tories in full control of the government, I definitely see the appeal in moving abroad. I’m not at all partisan and think most parties are absolute rubbish – but nothing can bode well from this current set up. I forsee hard times for anyone who dares to be other than healthy, white, educated and wealthy.