‘The academy invites you to watch our World Human Rights Day celebrations: part of a 100-year-old tradition in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’
“What do you think of my English? It’s good, right?”
A strikingly attractive Saudi woman peered over my shoulder as I read through the leaflet she’d created. Her Jessica Rabbit figure was squeezed into a much-too-tight pencil skirt, ridiculously high heels and low-cut, silk blouse, like something out of a Ralph Lauren ad. The contrast to the dark, covered up figure I’d seen in a veil just seconds earlier was startling. I couldn’t quite believe it was the same woman.
This was the bright and vivacious Amani, a colleague I would later come to love almost like a sister. She introduced herself to me as the head of the marketing team, though I eventually discovered there was no team – just Amani. Amani was the kind of woman who would give you the shirt off her back. In fact, she once did just that, after a colleague complained of not having enough money for nice clothes, leaving herself in nothing but a strappy under-garment for most of the day. The more religious members of staff had stared at her exposed skin in obvious disgust, with mutterings around the room of astaghfirullah (an Arabic expression of disapproval, asking Allah for forgiveness).
Amani didn’t give a f**k, and that’s precisely why we became friends.
“Your English is great. Just one thing though – is that part about a 100-year-old tradition in Saudi Arabia true?” I asked.
“OMG no!” she replied, chuckling. “Habibti (an Arabic term for ‘my love’), it’s marketing, so it doesn’t have to be true. It’s, like, totally okay to do that in marketing.”
Amani pointed to an Advertising Fundamentals certificate on the wall and beamed with pride. Apparently certificates were all the rage here. I imagined job interviews were more like certificate showdowns. I’ll see your Management 101, and raise you Management Advanced. Boom.
“Is that what the course taught you?”
“No, of course not!” she responded. “Look, a good marketing strategy is one which sells the product, without actually drawing attention to the truth of the product, which is…well what is anyone’s truth really, if not a lie concealed in the truth? Y’know what I’m saying?”
I had absolutely no idea what she was saying.
“By the way, what do you think of my vocabulary?” she asked. “I have so many words y’know? I like to watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. It’s good for my emotional growth and personal development. I mean, I can relate to Kim. She’s just a normal girl underneath that sex tape, like me – like all of us. Inside, she’s hurting, y’know?”
I nodded. I’d never watched the show. I was shamefully uninformed about Kim Kardashian’s emotional well-being.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked.
“About the Kardashians?”
“About my vocabulary!” she exclaimed, laughing.
“Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful.”
“Well, your culture is your brand, y’know? It’s like I always say, hope is not a strategy.”
Amani had a habit of randomly quoting entirely irrelevant marketing slogans in conversation. It was her way of making those around her think that she knew exactly what she was talking about, and while you knew it was all pretty much bullshit, her enthusiasm was infectious, and endearing. You’d often find her in the middle of a group of rapt listeners, conveying her words of wisdom. One day many years later, Amani would come to surprise me, and everyone else around her, in a way I could never have imagined. But that’s a story for another time.
“Okay,” she said, business-mode taking over. “Let’s go down to the auditorium and watch the human rights presentations. Time to show the Ministry of Education that we are the best academy ever!”
We made our way downstairs and sat at the back of a huge lecture theatre, with some nervous and confused looking students lined up at the side of the stage; all, notably, black.
First up was Nouf, a beginner level student with little to no English. The shy, 17-year-old girl came from a poorer part of Riyadh which housed, what a Saudi teacher once labelled, ‘urbanized bedouin’. Projected out to the audience from her PowerPoint presentation was a picture of a young boy, covered in flies, with distended stomach, staring up at the camera. The corner of a UNHCR logo was partly visible in the top, right hand corner.
“Welcome my presentation. I am Nouf,” she began, faltering slightly as she looked out over the 200-plus members of the audience. “This…Africa. People from the Africa.”
Ms Amal, the director of the academy, was standing nearby, nervously urging her to continue. Ms Amal’s bosses, her bosses’ bosses, and some of their bosses (hierarchy is a big thing over here) were all watching the performances that day.
Nouf looked at her notes, stumbling over what to say next. The room filled with an awkward silence and I had to suppress an urge to go up and help her. I remembered my own fear of speaking out in public when I was in school.
“And what part of Africa is your family from Nouf?” asked Ms Amal, smiling and looking down at the Ministry officials seated in the front row.
“My family?” asked the girl, looking perplexed.
“Yes, your family. What part of Africa are they from?” she asked again, adding a quick, whispered Arabic translation.
“From Saudi Arabia.”
“Yes, but I mean before that Nouf. Well anyway, you are so brave.”
Nouf stared at her blankly.
Ms Amal continued, “And is this a picture of your family? It is so sad.”
“Not family. Africa…”
“Yes, Alhamdulilah (Praise God) your family are not in Africa anymore. Okay, thank you Nouf for a wonderful and informative presentation on your home. We welcome you here to the Kingdom, and of course to our academy.”
It was the least wonderful and informative presentation I’d ever had to watch.
The audience started clapping and Nouf was quickly shooed off stage, looking like she had no idea what had just happened. I took a long shot guess that Nouf wasn’t, in fact, from Africa.
Amani nudged me and I looked at her.
“Cakes!” she whispered, “One of our students makes these fabulous cakes for all of our themed days, mostly before exam time so her marks will be good. They’re amazing. Never stop building your audience, y’know? Try one!”
I looked down at the decadent, Red Velvet cupcakes with lashings of thick cream and edible stickers containing one word: refugees. No message. No slogan. Just Refugees.
“Haha let’s eat some refugees!” said Amani.
I think it was at this point I started to have serious doubts, much like the time I was persuaded to buy a clinically depressed puppy in South Korea, or when I’d thought my solid, Marks and Spencer umbrella would shield me from the elements of a Taiwanese Typhoon, or even that drunken night in a bar in Wollongong, Australia, when I’d defiantly ripped up my UK return ticket to wild applause from fellow backpackers, only to hunt around for a printing shop the next day, shamefully trying to undo my 24-year-old moment of madness.
Like each of those times, I wondered: What the fuck did I just do?
Why had I moved to this insane country? I hoped this year would go by quickly and I could be done with it, off home back to Old Blighty where I’d find a nice office job, a husband, a couple of kids, and a Vauxhall. And a dog who wasn’t clinically depressed.
But Amani’s words from earlier came back to me. Hope is not a strategy. I’d have to buck up and adapt to all the weirdness for now. After all, it wasn’t going to be for long.
Well, things changed and I’m still here, six years later. Amani isn’t, but more on that another time.