Weekends in Saudi Arabia were an unexpected surprise. First of all, they weren’t on Saturdays and Sundays. When I arrived, they were on Thursdays and Fridays. That is, until one day the King changed them to Fridays and Saturdays. You keeping up? This would bring the Kingdom in line with the rest of the Gulf region’s official business days. Of course, as with most things in Saudi, there was some religious objection, but apparently the conservative opponents didn’t really have much of a solid counter argument. I like to imagine how these changes went down in the Government…
Forward-thinker: “Hey guys, should we change the weekend to Friday-Saturday? Could help the economy quite a bit.”
Religious type: “Absolutely not. Smacks of westernization!”
Friend of religious type: “What he said.”
Friend of forward-thinker: “Ah c’mon. Oman did it last month. We’re always the last on board. It’s embarrassing!”
Some other guy: “Fuck it, let’s do it. I’ll call the King.”
It changed that very same week. Sometimes that’s just how it is here. Now, if you want a visa to enter the country, or women to drive, or sports in public girls’ schools, or the availability of Starbucks Christmas-themed Gingerbread lattes (okay, I’m getting carried away but you get the gist), then settle down for a long wait, because memorizing the Quran will take less time.
My first experience of how an expat spends his or her weekend in Saudi Arabia was in the summer of 2011 which, back then, started on a Thursday. I had no friends, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It’s times like this, staring into a weekend of nothingness, that one gets overly lofty goals, like starting that novel everybody says is inside you, reading War and Peace, or memorizing all the answers to Trivial Pursuit. I’d decided to settle on a box set of Grey’s Anatomy but luckily, I was saved. Before leaving work, I noticed a group of other western teachers hanging out by the mirrors in the academy bathrooms. They seemed to be waiting for the last remaining students to leave, and as soon as they did, the teachers started whipping off clothes, exchanging long, black skirts for tight jeans and slinky dresses, high heels and low-cut tops. If I wasn’t in Saudi Arabia, I’d have thought they were getting ready for a party…
“We’d invite you,” said one of the girls. “But we’re going to the American Embassy and you need to have your name on the list already. We’re getting a taxi straight to the DQ.”
In case you’re wondering how the Dairy Queen is involved in diplomatic matters, it isn’t. DQ stands for the Diplomatic Quarter, an area containing most of the embassies, their staff, a bunch of other important people, and a few others who aren’t at all important but have money and connections to pretend they are. It’s a welcome slice of temporary freedom, kind of like a prison courtyard. Women don’t have to cover up, the sexes can mix freely, and beyond the barbed-wire walls of embassy buildings, all manner of so-called sins take place.
“No problem, have fun,” I said, feeling a pang of envy.
“Do you want to come out with us tomorrow night?” asked the girl. She was a bleached blonde American named Cassie, all tanned skin, white toothy smile and big boobs.
“I’d love to!” I replied, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate.
So, the following evening I found myself in a car with Cassie and two other girls, heading towards Tahlia, a city center street lined with Riyadh’s best offerings of restaurants, cafes, and young, promiscuous locals. My first memory of this place was of a 20-something Saudi resembling an Arab version of Tito from The Jackson Five, sticking his head out of a passing car window and holding up his telephone number on an Ipad for me.
“Be my American baby!” he shouted, as the car slowed to a crawl beside us.
The cheek of it!
“I’m not American, I’m from Scotland!” I yelled back.
A momentary look of incomprehension passed over the young man’s face before he tried again.
“Be my Scotland baby?” he asked, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ignore him, Hannah!” said the girls. They ushered me into a nearby coffee shop, and my conversation with Tito Jackson abruptly ended.
“We’re waiting for an after-party to start,” explained Cassie. “You see, the complex where we live has a rule that we need to be out before 11, because the doorman goes to sleep at that time, and then we’re stuck inside you see. But the after-party doesn’t start until 12. We’re just gonna wait here for Mike. Have you met Mike? Everyone knows Mike.”
“Um, no. I don’t know anyone yet,” I said.
“Shit!” said one of the other girls. This was Liz, a well-spoken, over-achieving Poli-Sci grad from Virginia who had a red belt in Taekwondo and shared a collection of guns with her dad. Liz had applied to the CIA four times and been rejected – something to which she held more than a slight grudge. She’d decided to take matters into her own hands and had come to Saudi Arabia to “study the enemy”. Some of the girls called her Jack Bower. Not to her face though. Nobody wanted to die.
“Our names haven’t been put on the list for the compound. Mike’s trying to get it sorted,” Liz said.
“Mike’s on it, it’ll be fine,” Cassie said, typing quickly on her phone.
The other girls nodded in unison. Mike was the man.
I looked around the cafe. We were seated in the family section, an area only for families (ergo the name) or women. Men who were on their own had to enter through a different door and sit in an entirely separate area – the singles section. Apparently Cassie had gone into the singles section when she first arrived, being under the impression that the country had a vested interest in improving the romantic lives of its young people, a sort of Government-sponsored dating system. The brazen blonde had smiled flirtatiously at the stunned Saudi men as she sauntered past their tables and ordered her drink. The surprised Filipino barista who had the misfortune of being on duty that day, struggled to explain that the single section simply meant men only, and that she’d have to leave. He informed her that the longer she was in there, the higher the risk of someone calling the religious police, and the higher the chances of him getting fired and deported for allowing it to happen. Cassie was unperturbed and, with notions of being the voice of change, demanded her sugar-free, non-fat, decaf Caramel Macchiato be served to her anyway. When the barista said she would have to take it outside, Cassie insisted on her right as a paying customer to enjoy her beverage on one of the chairs provided by the establishment, in other words, she was staying put. Cassie was going to be the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia, bravely defying the laws, having her name forever remembered on Wikipedia as the former cheerleader who changed the cultural norms of the formerly backward Kingdom. The barista hesitated for a moment. He then walked around the counter, picked up a chair, and placed it outside the front entrance to the cafe in the heat of the 43 Celsius August desert sun.
“Madam,” he said. “You can sit here.”
Poor Cassie defiantly sat out there for a full thirty minutes, face red from both shame and sunburn. No laws were changed on that day, and Cassie still isn’t on Wikipedia.
Suddenly, the door to the cafe on Tahlia swung open and an American guy who looked like a Gap advert yelled over to us.
“Girls, let’s go! Mikey’s here!”
“Mike!” they all shrieked in excitement.
Everybody knew Mike. Everybody loved Mike. Mike was the man to get shit done.
Mike was an asshole.
“Sorry for the smell in the back seat girls,” he said, as we clambered into his tank-like hummer. “I’ve got my kit back there from running Iron Man the other day. Only came second – what a loser huh?”
“Second?!” exclaimed Cassie. “That’s amazing – you came second in Iron Man!”
“Yeah, I guess it’s not too terrible. I just haven’t been able to focus on training so much because of my recent trip to the orphanage in Rwanda, and of course doing this MBA. Don’t ever go to Harvard girls – it’s hard! On top of that, my manager wants to promote me. As if I need the stress right now! But I’m probably the only guy at work who can handle it…anyway, enough about me. How’s everybody doing?”
“We are good Michael, thank you,” said Liz in her stoic fashion. “I’d like to introduce you to Hannah. She’s new to Saudi Arabia.”
“Welcome to Saudi. You need anything, anything at all, I’m your man. Most people seem to turn to me to get stuff done. I don’t know why…”
“Thank you,” I replied. It took me everything I had not to roll my eyes at this guy.
Here’s the thing about Saudi Arabia. Its expats are a mix of some of the most amazing, adventurous, and interesting people you will ever meet – along with some of the most obnoxious. Mike was the latter.
We arrived at our destination a little before midnight. It was my first time in a western compound. From the outside, it looked like we were about to enter an army training camp, with high, barb-wire walls and uniformed Saudi men with guns slung over their shoulders. We approached the entrance and had to hand over passports and residence cards. The guards lifted the bonnet of the car, looked inside, and then circled the vehicle with a car bomb detector. Mike then shook hands with one of them, and handed him something wrapped in a white plastic bag.
“Overnight stay?” asked Mike.
The guard quickly took the plastic bag, nodded his head and smiled.
“Anything for you my friend.”
Cassie turned to me. “It’s whiskey in the bag,” she said. “It’s a trade off so that Mike’s girlfriend can stay overnight. Usually guests have to leave by 2am.”
“But that guard is Saudi, isn’t he? He’s Muslim, and he’s drinking whiskey? And where did the whiskey come from? Isn’t that illegal here?” I was more than a little alarmed. I suddenly pictured myself behind bars in a Riyadh prison cell, trying to swap someone a cigarette for a swipe of deodorant and a square of Dairy Milk.
“Chill out,” said Cassie. “It’s fine. You’ll get used to it.”
The party itself was my first introduction to expat life in Saudi Arabia. Having previously been under the impression that I was going to be teetotal for a year, I naturally drank everything I could get my hands on. I did shots, danced, and played beer pong with a mix of Spanish and Italian architects, some Canadian and Czech nurses, an Irish construction surveyor, some American pilots and aircraft engineers, a French Embassy staffer, a Lebanese digital marketing manager, and an angry Scottish guy wearing a football shirt who got really drunk and started yelling vagina while jumping up and down on a trampoline in the back garden. It was just that kind of night. The next day I woke up on the couch feeling like I’d been hit by a two ton truck and then placed back on the road and hit again. The girls I’d come with were passed out on the floor next to me, all except for Liz who was sitting up and eyeing her surroundings, a real Jack Bower. The angry Scotsman was asleep under the trampoline with his shirt off.
The following day I was back at work. Ms Amal, my boss, greeted me as I entered the teacher’s room.
“Ah, our new teacher. How was your first weekend in Riyadh Hannah? Not too dull I hope?”
“Oh you know, quiet but nice. I just watched a bit of TV and relaxed.”
As I said, weekends in Saudi Arabia were an unexpected surprise.
Having experienced my first weekend here, I got ready for my first proper day in the classroom…