“So, tell me Hannah, what do you know about Saudi Arabia?”
Ms Amal smiled at me from behind a large, mahogany desk; the type of which you might find in an exorbitantly-priced law firm. Behind her, an array of certificates were neatly displayed on the wall with various achievements listed: Strategic Planning, Leadership for Women, Time Management, and one with which I assumed to be an unfortunate typo, How to Think Inside the Box.
I thought for a moment about how to answer. In truth, I’d done very little research. A month ago, I’d been planning to go and teach in Spain, a life of beaches, sun, and Sangria on my mind. But as the global recession had recently rocked the Spanish economy, there were no jobs to be had. Instead, an advert for a lucrative position in Riyadh, complete with free accommodation, pool, gym, and no tax, had caught my eye. Who could say no to that? After a slightly weird visa process involving various bodily fluids and a pregnancy and HIV test, I had arrived less than two weeks later. During that time I’d managed to find and purchase an abaya (think of a long, black, Harry Potter style cloak – something every woman is required to wear), watched a few amateur YouTube videos about the Gulf, and scurried around the shops looking for what I thought were ‘Muslim’ clothes. My suitcase was soon packed with long, dark skirts, polo necks and loose, long-sleeved tops. Sexy! And books. Lots and lots of books, just to perfect my frigid schoolmarm look. After all, there was no mixing of men and women allowed, no alcohol, no driving, no nightclubs, no cinemas, no music, no concerts, no theaters….no fun.
I would work hard for a year, save up a ton of money, and read. I’d be rich and book-smart on my way back to Heathrow, with something only few 30 year-olds could even dream of nowadays – a place on the UK property ladder! Okay so running off to the desert was perhaps extreme, but I once knew someone who’d donated an organ to fund a down-payment on a house – at least I wasn’t that girl!
So was I excited to come to Saudi Arabia? Hell no! I’d read all kinds of scary things on the Internet – like the fact that you couldn’t look a man in the eye (not true), that you had to give up your seat on the bus for a man (not true – there are no buses), that there was a shortage of swordsmen due to the high number of executions (I think that might be true) and that a hand is cut off each week as punishment for stealing, leaving Riyadh inconveniently littered with chopped off limbs and a high number of pissed off garbage men complaining about the unfair workload (okay I didn’t really read that but my imagination had started to go wild by that point).
Thanks to having such inaccurate assumptions, my arrival at King Khaled Airport had been less than smooth. First, I’d naively joined a group of Indian drivers sitting on a carpet near the immigration queues, unaware that I was surrounded only by bare-foot men, sharing their prayer mat. The queues were long, we were right at the back, and I genuinely thought the carpet might have been for comfort! I was whisked away by a stocky, bored-looking security official who put me directly at the front of the line. Only, at that point, I realized my passport and visa were back on the prayer mat. I ran back to the previous place, awkwardly holding up my abaya to avoid a rolling penguin scenario, located my documents, and was right back at the end of the damn queue. The same security official shook his head the way one might with a unruly child, and once again escorted me to the front, one hand hovering near my elbow, the other scratching his crotch. After a short wait I approached the immigration desk with my eyes directed firmly at the floor, like some timid little creature. I wasn’t about to break the ‘eye-contact rule’ on my first day in the Kingdom! The officer politely asked me to look up so that he could check my identification. I glanced up, peered left and right as if I were undergoing an eye test, then looked back down in a split second. As my idol Will Ferrel once said, I appeared more suspicious than a nun doing squats in a cucumber field. After a few more minutes studying the marbled floor, the man welcomed me to Saudi Arabia and told me to enjoy my time here. That’s when I went to baggage claim to discover that my bags refused to come to such a place and were still hanging out in London.
“Well,” I said to Amal on that first day at my new job, “I think it’s a wonderful and intriguing country and I can’t wait to see what it has to offer. I’m really so excited to be here.”