“No man, no drive”

It was six months into my time in Saudi Arabia, and life was a little less difficult than when I arrived.

I was used to dressing like Harry Potter. I had adjusted to the segregation, the heat, the dust, even the creepy fruit vendor telling me that nobody eats candy when it’s not been in the wrapper – ergo, cover the fuck up.

I knew I’d made progress one day when my taxi – which had no seat belts and smelt like a backed-up, stagnant sewer on a hot, tropical day – drove past an area famous for beheadings. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror with a big grin full of saliva and not so many teeth, licked his lips and said “Chop Chop!”. Now, the old me would have tried to jumped free from that taxi immediately, with visions of being skinned alive by Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. But the new me simply ignored him, covered my face with my headscarf, and blocked it all out. To be fair, there were plenty of other days where I’d be sunbathing by the pool, sipping coffee in my favourite French restaurant, or shopping in an air-conditioned mall. It wasn’t exactly the life of a war correspondent in Afghanistan or a field worker in Sierra Leone.  I was an English teacher living in Riyadh. It was a bit shit sometimes, but not that shit.

However, there was one thing that constantly caused me acute distress, and that was the monthly student presentations.

I’d sat through literally everything from rabbit cage designs, to the benefits of breathing, to the imminent zombie apocalypse, to the story of Saddam Hussein’s life from his dog’s perspective. The final straw was listening to one girl talk about how special her best friend was, which would have been fine except…

“She is always in my fart. My fart beats to the sound of her beautiful voice and every time I feel my fart, I think of her. She is and will always be in my fart.”

“It’s HEART sweetie – HEART.”

It was time to change things around so I could start avoiding presentation time. My great idea was to have a debate instead, and what better subject to discuss with Saudi women than the driving ban – a topic specifically chosen by the girls in my high level class.

‘Okay girls, those of you who are for the notion that women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, sit on the left of the room. Those who don’t know, please sit in the middle and those who are against the idea, please sit on the right.’

I finished my instructions and waited. Nobody moved.

‘Come on, ‘ I pleaded. ‘We only have 55 minutes. Let’s get moving!’

The girls got up and hesitantly took their places, all except Latifah and Ayah, who were already happily seated on the left. It was a minute before I looked up and realised that almost everybody had moved to the middle.

‘Ladies! This is a debate and I really don’t want you all to be sitting on the fence on this subject. This is your chance to give an opinion on women’s rights in this country and make your voice heard, even if it’s just in the classroom.’

Ghada looked around in confusion.

‘There is no fence here teacher,’ she said, eyes wide with confusion.

I sighed.

‘I don’t mean an actual fence. Girls, you asked me for this topic for today, so you obviously want to talk about it, right? Let’s have a great discussion! Maybe you can change someone’s opinion with your words!’

Still nobody moved.

‘Okay, if you all sit in the middle, you will lose marks.’ I said.

The class immediately mobilized, some girls heading to the right, others hesitantly joining Latifah and Ayah on the left. A few stayed in the middle.

‘Great,’ I said. ‘Now, who would like to start?’

‘Me!’ shouted Latifah, her hand shooting up in the air.

‘Okay, go ahead.’

‘Right, girls,’ she began. ‘As you all know, it is very difficult relying on a driver all the time. My family’s driver is Raj, who is from India. Let me tell you about Raj. He is nothing but a lazy dog! He sits in the car just eating rice, farting, sleeping and smoking. He’s always late, sometimes he goes away with no permission and he drives like a crazy man! Last month Raj crashed into McDonalds drive-thru!’

‘Okay Latifah,’ I interjected. ‘What is your point exactly?’

‘My point is…Raj must go!’

‘So, you’re saying that women should be allowed to drive because it would make their lives easier?’ I asked. ‘That’s a good start to the debate…’

‘Teacher, I don’t know about other people’s lives! All I know is that we need to replace Raj!’

‘Okay, but we’re talking about women driving here. The subject isn’t Raj.’

‘Was he hurt?’ asked Maha, a timid girl sitting on the right.

‘Was who hurt?’ asked Latifah.

‘Raj, at McDonalds drive-thru,’ she replied.

‘Yes, he went to hospital,’ said Latifah, ‘but he came back after two days so we did not suffer his absence much. We were okay, praise be to God.’

‘Which drive-thru?’ asked Ghada.

‘Girls, please let’s stop talking about Raj for a second. The topic we are debating here today is whether or not women should drive,’ I interrupted.

‘I‘ll see your point, and raise you another,’ said Khadija.

‘What? This isn’t a Poker game, Khadija. Just try to respond to what Latifah has argued, and we’ll say that she’s arguing that it’s inconvenient for women here to have to rely on drivers.’

‘Okay. Yes, Raj indeed is a problem. He should be removed. But we cannot be responsible for doing the driving ourselves because, well, we are just too emotional,’ Khadija replied.

‘You are not serious!’ cried out Ayah from the left of the room, throwing her arms up in the air.

‘I mean, if the drivers on the road are crazy, maybe we cry and feel afraid. Then we stop the car because we cry. But we don’t tell the other cars that we will stop, you know, because we are crying. Then, well, then we are going to hospital… just like Raj!’

Ya Allah, that is ridiculous!’ shouted Ayah. ‘You will learn how to drive, just like women in all other countries do, and you will learn how to avoid bad drivers and be careful. Women in Kuwait don’t cry in the car!’

‘My father told me that they do, and they crash, and that is why Kuwait has such a small population,’ muttered Ghada.

‘I would like to raise you all for a minute, if I may,’ interrupted Abrar, speaking for the first time.

‘Why is everyone speaking like this is a Poker game?’ I asked.

‘Teacher, I’m sorry. What I want to say is that new evidence shows that driving damages our ovaries, like football. It is the way we sit in the car. It rolls back our pelvis, and we would find it harder to have babies that way. And if we do have babies but we drive a lot, maybe our babies will be severely disabled or have learning problems. I think this is important. We know this from a world-renowned reciter of the Quran, Teacher. He is a very clever man, Mashallah. He tells us to put the mind before the heart and emotion, when considering the driving issue.’

Ya Allah Abrar, seriously, where do you read your information?’ asked Khadija. ‘The pelvis is not rolled back! It is rolled up! How could it possibly roll back from the driving position? It rolls up!’

‘Khadija is right. Sheikh Al-Luhaydan has studied anatomy, because he is in fact a psychologist when he is not studying the Quran, and he said that it rolls the pelvis up and creates birth defects,’ said Zain, over in the left. ‘However, I don’t know if I want children actually, so I would like women to be allowed to drive, and I support the notion.’

‘He’s not a psychologist; he’s a judge,’ said Fatma.

‘You don’t want children Zain?!’ asked Khadija, her head rearing back a little in surprise.

‘Not really, no,’ Zain replied, nonchalantly. ‘Is that so horrible?’

‘You do realise that most Saudis, especially women, are too smart to believe such a ridiculous statement, don’t you?’ chimed in Nora, from Ayah’s grouping.

‘I don’t care if you believe it or not – I don’t want children!’ proclaimed Zain.

‘I’m talking about the damage to ovaries Zain, not your views on children!’ she replied. ‘If it were true that our ovaries are damaged when driving, do you not think that some other psychologist, or judge, or Sheikh, or whatever else he claims to be, would have known this by now? Women have been driving for years and years in other countries, and I have never read a report on a mysteriously high number of defected children in countries with the highest number of female drivers. It is absurd!’

I smiled. Nora was one of the most charming and intelligent students I had ever taught, and she took time out of a busy career in business management to improve her English at the academy. One of the most frustrating aspects of Saudi Arabia continues to be the high number of smart and ambitious women who are prevented from contributing to the economy, although it’s gradually improving.

‘Getting back to the point, everybody,’ intervened Abrar. ‘Whether the pelvis rolls back or up, it is certainly dangerous for women’s overall health to drive cars. That is an undisputed fact. I think it is undisputed, but nobody is sure.’

‘That is the opposite of undisputed,’ I said.

‘If I may, I’d like to say a few words that my group has prepared for this debate,’ said Ayah, standing up.

‘Go ahead,’ I said.

‘There are many reasons why women should be allowed to drive. Firstly, there is no legal, judicial or Sharia reason why women cannot drive. It is simply tradition that forbids us this right, not a written law. Many women are supportive of the idea now, like Manal Al-Sharif, who was filmed driving in protest and who many now recognise around the world. But it is not just these brave and smart women; it is also some Saudi men, and more than you would expect ladies. Very recently, a young Saudi man posted a short YouTube clip showing his daughter how to drive, because he said he wouldn’t mind her getting a driver’s license. There are also influential figures such as Prince Al-Waleed, who finds it embarrassing that his country still forbids women this right. Raha Mubarak is a Saudi woman famous for being the first female in our country to climb Mount Everest, and Hanadi Al-Hindi has been praised for becoming this country’s first female commercial flight pilot. She can fly a plane, but she is not allowed to drive her car home after work, because that is, apparently, when she might get dangerously emotional. Girls, do you see the lack of logic here?’

‘Where is Mount Everest?’ I heard somebody whisper from the back of the room.

‘It’s nice to hear about the achievements of Saudi women rather than always reading in the foreign media about the inequality they face, Ayah so thank you. Can anyone respond to her on the opposing side?’ I asked, looking around the room to the girls on the right.

‘I have a response, ‘ said Nadia. ‘Why can’t we look at the positives of our lives here, like what you just said teacher, because really – we are diamonds! We are treated with far more respect in this country that in most others. Men safely transport us from place to place while we have the luxury of time to do other things like read or talk to our children in the car. We are not expected to work, so we have more family time. We are not expected to dress to show our skin so that men may be attracted to us, and we do not have to worry that we will be instantly divorced once our husband gets bored, as is the case in so many other places. We are provided for here, our dignity is protected, as well as our safety, and we live comfortable lives. Yet all we do is complain that we want more. Ladies, shall we move to Afghanistan or Pakistan, our close neighbours, and compare our lives to those women? Would we still complain after that?’

‘I agree with Nadia,’ said Salma, sitting to her right. ‘Women in the west seem to have trouble even finding a partner to marry and staying married. Here, if we want to get married, our families can usually make it happen, and we are more likely to stay together and work at it. I know that is not really anything to do with driving, but I am agreeing with the point that people do not know the good parts about our lives. I think we are lucky here.’

The girls sat there in silence for a moment, before Ayah again got up to speak.

‘Nadia, and Salma, do you know how much domestic abuse goes on in this country, especially outside the cities, without anyone being punished for it? Do you know that a man can get a divorce by simply obtaining a document of his decision to do so, and that his decision is just ‘from his heart’? Yet, if a woman wants a divorce, she must prove that the husband has actually done something wrong first. The woman’s decision to divorce is called Khula, which means to ‘take off’. This makes it sound like she’s abandoning the marriage, in English. Women are not respected in this country, Nadia. They are possessions, sometimes treated with care, and sometimes without. We are not the lucky ones!’

‘Girls, have any of you in this room ever been hit by your husband?’ asked Nadia, angrily.

The girls hesitated for a moment before quickly shaking their heads from side to side.

‘Of course nobody will admit it here!’

‘No, it means that their husbands are good men!’

‘Actually Ayah, there is a new advert on the television that tells us to report any abuse from our husbands and not to be afraid to do so. People say that it is having a great effect. I am not saying that it does not happen, abuse I mean, but the country is improving here,’ said a girl seated next to Nadia.

‘Not fast enough!’ shouted Ayah.

Before I could calm everyone down, Ghada stood up.

‘Ghada, sit down!’ hissed Fatma, her older sister.

‘I want to talk about my father,’ she said quietly, ignoring her sister.

‘Go ahead Ghada,’ I said.

‘A few years ago, I was in the car with my father, and we were going home,’ she began. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, he started grabbing his arm and his face turned bright red. He was having a heart attack, and I didn’t know what to do.’

Fatma’s eyes started to tear up, but she didn’t stop her sister from speaking.

‘It was just me in the car, and no other cars were on the road, and I didn’t know the number to call for the ambulance. We don’t really use them much here.’

She continued.

‘I knew how to drive because sometimes we are allowed to drive in the desert. The hospital was so close by, and I knew we could get there. I ran around to his side, pushed him to the passenger seat and jumped into his place. I started driving to the hospital. I was so scared that I would crash.’

‘You see, you were emotional! You crashed! This is what I was saying!’ said Khadija.

‘No, I didn’t crash the car. But I didn’t make it to the hospital either. I was arrested by Muttawah, that’s the religious police teacher, in the middle of the road and taken to jail before I could get there.’ she replied.

There was a collective gasp from the class, and Fatma took hold of her sister’s hand.

‘Your father,’ said Latifah. ‘What happened to him?’

‘He was taken to hospital and he is okay praise be to God, but at that time he was unconscious and the only person who could sign the paper for me to be released was my father. So, I had to stay there until he was better. My uncle could have come for me, but he was embarrassed and thought that it was very wrong for me to drive.’

‘But that is crazy! Your father would have died!’ said Ayah.

‘I know, and I do not regret doing it, but at the same time I can understand both opinions and so it is hard for me to sit anywhere but the middle. It is possible that Allah does not want us to drive and maybe I have to trust the Sheikhs who advise us against it. I don’t know…’ said Ghada.

‘Our lives are too difficult like this!’ said a voice from near Ayah. It was Bushra, a normally shy girl who was fairly new to the class. ‘What about the new law that may come into place next year? My father’s boss is on the Shura Council and he told me that we may be banned from hailing taxis for safety reasons in the future. What are we supposed to do? Stand there and phone for a driver and just hope that he is available? And why are they making this new law? They are making it because we are constantly at risk of being harassed by taxi drivers once inside the cab. But we could fix all of this if we are just allowed women to drive!’

‘Don’t you have a driver?’ asked Lamia, sitting on the right.

‘Not everyone can afford a driver,’ replied Bushra. ‘I can’t afford a driver or a maid. I work at the mall.’

The class went quiet for a moment.

‘I have a good driver,’ said Asia, proudly, speaking for the first time.

‘So Asia, you’re sitting in the middle, but are you happy that women cannot drive because you have a good driver? What do you think?’ I asked, trying to get the rest of the class more involved.

‘About what?’ she asked.

‘About women driving!’

‘I think, maybe, that one day Saudi women…yes…they should be allowed to drive. But not our maids, teacher! They should not be allowed!’ She finished her statement with a sharp fist to the table, like a judge in a courtroom calling for lunch.

‘That is just crazy,’ Al-anoud said, sitting next to her and shaking her head. ‘You cannot prevent your maid from driving if we can drive, Asia.’

‘But if she can drive, maybe she will escape!’

‘Escape?’ I repeated. ‘Are you sure that’s the right word? She isn’t a prisoner in your home. You mean leave?’

‘You should make sure you keep their passports. That’s what we do, because our last one escaped. But she was lazy so we didn’t care so much. I heard she’s living under a bridge in Mecca now,’ said Maha.

‘Teacher, please don’t listen to them,’ said Fatma. ‘Not all of us think like this. Our maid has been with our family for more than twenty years. She is free to go whenever she wants, but she really is happy with us and we love her.’

‘I’m not saying our maid isn’t happy!’ Asia exclaimed. ‘I’m just saying that she cannot leave without our permission, that’s all. So, obviously she must not have access to our car, or permission by the Government to drive.’

‘If the laws changed,’ said Ayah, coming back to the conversation, ‘that right would have to be given to women of all nationalities, God willing.’

‘Girls, do you know what I did once?’ asked Oula, speaking for the first time while at the same time scrolling through her Twitter feed.

The class looked at her like they’d forgotten she was there. Oula rarely spoke, and was absent most of the time. When she was in class, she was deeply engrossed in social media.

‘If I really need to get somewhere, I simply dress up like a man,’ she said.

The class looked at her skeptically and Maha shook her head in quiet disapproval.

‘Now, I would like to add some information that Twitter and Google have kindly provided to me,’ she continued.

‘Ok go for it,’ I said.

‘Firstly, women cannot be said to be more emotional when driving, because in countries such as the United Kingdom, their insurance actually costs less than men’s insurance because they are less likely to crash. Not just in the UK actually, other European countries also believe that. I also just read that Saudi has one of the very highest death rates on the roads. That’s compared to the rest of the world. And yet they are all men driving here. It’s probably not linked, but it’s a coincidence. Secondly, gynecologist Mohammed Baknah, a highly respected Saudi doctor says that scientific studies have not proven that driving has bad effects on women’s chances to have babies. I tried to look up rolling pelvises but only came up with a Pilates website which isn’t much help. Thirdly, I’m not sure we can trust the words of this Sheikh because he also criticizes social media quite a lot but has his own Facebook page. Seems a bit of a contradiction there. Says here it’s run by his fans, but it looks like content written by him, so who knows? Ghada, sitting on the fence means not being sure which side you’re on and kind of being…what’s the word…neutral. It’s not an actual fence. And Mount Everest is…er…wait a second…it’s in Nepal. Oh and lastly, Raj is doing fine everyone. I know this because I just searched for him on Twitter under #Raj #India #Driver #Riyadh and he has an account! Maybe he was tweeting when he crashed into McDonalds. I’ll ask him. Right, are we done here?’

With those words, the sound of the alarm on my phone rang out, signaling the end of the lesson and another completed day in a Saudi classroom.

 

 

The Sisterhood

I’m writing this post having just watched a documentary about the ideological battle between a dogmatic mosque in Pakistan and a prominent education reformer who is re-energizing the anti-extremist movement in Islamabad.

Don’t worry, I almost always follow this stuff with clips of burping baby chimps riding around on pandas in China, or something to that effect. Helps keep the mind nice and balanced!

Back to Pakistan – there was nothing especially unique about this documentary, but part of it was a little disturbing. A boy of about ten years old was filmed shouting out a hate-filled, memorized script about sacrifice, jihad and martyrdom, wearing an almost comical look of forced fury on his young face. Upon completing his lines, he then instantly morphed back into the innocent child that he is, a shy but proud smile on his face. His eyes quickly glanced over at his teacher, the Imam, for a nod of approval. The Imam says that he hopes the young boy will devote his life to waging war, and the boy smiles hesitantly. It made me wonder which side of him, the furious or the sweet, would win out one day. When you live in the west, it’s hard to see more than one side to a person featured in the media.  An extremist is an extremist, and you can’t really imagine that there may have been a time when that wasn’t the case, or that there may be a possibility for that to change. They’re just a name that you can’t pronounce or relate to in a newspaper or on television. When you live in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, every day is filled with surprises and contradictions and I’ve yet to meet someone whose views haven’t been altered slightly in some way from living here.

That brought me back to the first time I encountered a group of women to whom we called ‘the sisterhood’, and a member of that group called Fatima.

After a few weeks of teaching at the academy in Riyadh, I’d learned that there were more or less three different groups of teachers, albeit with a few exceptions, as there are anywhere.

First up were the westerners, working in Saudi mostly for the money and adventure, and the weekend parties. They’d infuriate our Yemeni guard by stumbling in at four in the morning reeking of home-brewed alcohol, flashing uncovered legs and high heels, and making far too much noise. Yep, I was a member of this group. I didn’t really think about how risky it was – I was having too much fun. At 30 years old, making bad choices was something I had a serious talent for. An incident with the religious police six months later would change my perspective somewhat but I digress…that’s a story for another time.

The second group was made up of Arab teachers, mostly from Syria, Jordan and Egypt. They drank Turkish coffee like it was water. Many a night was spent chain-smoking, laughing, clapping and dancing to famous 90s Arabic songs in someone’s living room. It’s this group I have to thank for teaching me how to dance Egyptian-style, for increasing my daily tobacco intake to where I developed a frog-like croak (not my finest time), for gaining expert knowledge of the world’s best skin-whitening creams (not many Scottish girls can say that!) and for learning step by step how to prepare for wedding night consummation.

The girls were a fountain of knowledge in this area.

The third group was ‘the sisterhood’ – six teachers from the UK, Canada and the United States, most of whom recently converted to Islam, but one or two who were born Muslims. They wore abayas (the long, black robe-like garment that all women are required to wear in Saudi), but their abayas were a little different from the rest of ours, styled in such a way as not to show the outline of the shoulders, hanging directly from head to feet. Like black Russian dolls that fit inside one another and each decrease in size – they were all different heights but the tiniest one, who probably had to stretch to reach my shoulders, seemed to be the leader, and she scared the shit out of me. She was like an angry chihuahua, barking at anyone who got in her way.

The sisterhood always sat at the back of the school bus, in the row behind mine, and each day on the way to work they engaged in a detailed conversation about rules; rules being followed, rules being broken, new rules, old rules, rules that were no longer rules, rules that should never have been rules, rules that were written and rules that weren’t, rules that were rules yesterday but not today, rules that weren’t rules but totally should be rules, and rules that were set in stone.

Not the most thrilling of conversations, but when I wasn’t busy watching clips of baby goats on YouTube, I’d listen to some shit about rules.

“Why are you blowing on your tea? You shouldn’t alter the temperature!” said sister one.

“What are you talking about?” asked sister two, the one caught illicitly blowing on her morning beverage.

“It’s haram (forbidden) to blow on something that is too hot – or at least it’s makruh (disliked), I think.”

“No,” chimed in sister three. “That’s only if she makes a sound when blowing. If there is no sound, then it’s halal (allowed).”

Sister two nodded and said she’d try to be quiet.

“I can still hear you blowing – haram!” said sister one.

“Look, can you wait for your tea to cool down? Or better still, avoid the problem all together by making your tea cooler. Don’t boil the kettle to maximum,” said sister three, oh-so-wise.

I imagined a new topic for a Buzzfeed article: How to avoid making religious mistakes while consuming your morning beverage – 5 top tips!

 I couldn’t help but tune into these morning advice sessions.

Sister two looked like she wanted to say something, then obviously thought better of it and agreed not to blow on her tea anymore. Nobody brought drinks to work after that.

Another morning…

“I heard something from sister one about you, and I don’t know if it’s true,” said sister four to sister three. “It’s like, totally okay if it’s true, I’m not judging you…”

I smell some passive aggression coming…

Sister three looked alarmed. “What did she say about me?”

“She said that when you went home to London, you took off your niqab (face veil) when the plane landed in Heathrow because you thought it was fine to show your face at that time. That means men in the UK saw your face. Is it true?”

There was a long pause before she answered.

Sister one how could you tell? So not cool…

“I did show my face, but I’ve always done that. I mean, ever since becoming Muslim I’ve only worn my headscarf. I wear niqab here to respect the rules of Saudi Arabia, but I don’t think I have to do that at home,” said sister three.

“Okay, that’s fine. Of course it’s your choice whether to follow Allah’s desires or not and nobody is judging you if you choose not to do what he wishes, if you think it is more important to reveal how you look,” sister four responded, smiling.

“I think there are different interpretations to what is expected…” sister three started to say.

“Sure, sure,” said sister four. “As I said, you have to do whatever you feel is best for you…I guess. We’re disappointed but we understand and we’re not judging you.”

Like hell you’re not!

“Well, what about gloves?” asked sister three. “Some people out there say that Allah wants us to cover all of our skin, and that could mean hands too. But you choose not to do that and I don’t judge you for that.”

Yeah, you tell her!

The next day all the members of the sisterhood got on the bus wearing gloves.

Yet another morning…

“You cannot always see the actions of those brave soldiers in Syria and Iraq as extremism. ISIL could actually be…misunderstood,” whispered one of the sisters to another.

It wasn’t quiet enough for the Arab teachers and one of the Egyptian girls stood up.

“You guys are nuts! Absolutely crazy! That is not Islam!” she yelled.

An argument broke out on the bus and I quickly went back to watching Jimmy Kimmel prank kids at Halloween.

“Don’t listen to their bullshit,” said one of the Arab teachers that afternoon, a cigarette in one hand and her seventh Turkish coffee in the other. “What those girls are talking about is not the Islam to which we follow. Most of them are new to it and they’re taking things way too literally and misinterpreting.”

The two groups had little time for one another, and back at that time, I had no idea where my own views lay because I didn’t understand enough.

“Sister five, did you buy some new kitchen utensils for your apartment? I saw a box of stuff on your counter.” asked sister two one morning.

“No, I got them from my neighbor because she’s leaving,” answered sister five.

“Who’s your neighbor again?”

“Lizzy.”

“You know she’s not even Christian. She’s an unbeliever. Apparently.”

“What…like an atheist?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, you should give her that stuff back. You don’t want to use it.”

“Okay yeah.”

What did pots and pans have to do with anything?!

 I do remember one of the members of the sisterhood well, because I got to know her after more than a year of working there. Her name was Fatima and she was British-Sudanese. The rest of the sisters had turned against her after an argument about…well I’m guessing it was about a broken rule.

She was forced to sit beside me one morning, probably as punishment. I remember reading something on my phone about Kim Jong Un blaming the Americans for a local power-cut in one of North Korea’s cities, and she commented on it.

“He’s totally brainwashed, and his people are brainwashed too,” she said. “It’s sad, because they don’t have a mind of their own.”

I nodded and said nothing. It took me about a full minute to decide whether or not to open Pandora’s Box.

I opened it.

“I imagine the North Koreans might find you and your friends to be a little brainwashed too. I mean, it depends on your perspective doesn’t it?” You’re fucking crazy too! Is what I wanted to say.

“You think we’re brainwashed?” she asked.

“Well, in the same way you think the North Koreans are incapable of choosing how to live, I can’t help but overhear some of your conversations and it seems very similar. You fight over what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and you all seem to judge each other. You might have a mind of your own but can you use it in the way you want?” I said. “It doesn’t always seem like you can.”

“We just help each other that’s all, by choosing the right path to be closer to Allah. You can’t understand if you’re not Muslim.”

“Fair enough,” I answered. I didn’t really know what else to say and I wasn’t keen on starting an argument with the Judging Jennies behind me. The sisterhood wasn’t my only name for this group.

I didn’t expect Fatima to sit beside me again but she did, and she never seemed to speak to the members of the sisterhood anymore. I wondered if she’d been excommunicated and I tried to imagine how it had happened.

“You disobeyed our rules Fatima, and for that you must sit beside the westerner who listens to our conversations, the one with the coffee stain on her abaya who watches baby animals on her smartphone.”

“Who?”

“The one with the chipped nail varnish who comes in drunk at weekends and sometimes snorts when she laughs.”

“Oh shit, her! Fine, okay.”

After a while, Fatima and I started making conversation and talking about work, life back in the UK, previous jobs and other kinds of vanilla topics.

One day she said she was thinking about getting married. It was the first time she’d ever talked about something bordering on personal. She explained that she’d never met him and had only seen his picture, but that he was a good Muslim, without any previous bad behaviour and was devoted to God. She’d spoken to him on the phone a few times and he was okay.

“Is he fun to talk to?” I asked.

“Um…” she hesitated, pursing her lips in thought. “I suppose…I mean…not really, but he’s a good man.”

“He’s not fun?”

“He’s…no, not at all. He’s a little boring. But…”

“So you’re thinking of spending the rest of your life with a guy who bores you?”

“Well that’s not the most important thing in a partner,” said Fatima.

“No, I guess if you get bored with him, you can always call those girls for a bit of fun,” I said, gesturing over to the black canvas of Russian dolls and their chihuahua behind us. They weren’t talking this morning and sat staring straight ahead, motionless.

Fatima burst out laughing. It was the first time I’d seen her really crack a smile.

A few days later, Fatima took off her gloves to apply some hand cream. She didn’t put them back on and instead pulled at her abaya sleeves to keep them only half covered.

The day after that, she got on the bus wearing an abaya that outlined her shoulders.

A few days later, she took off her face veil – her niqab.

I’d never seen Fatima’s face up close before. She uncovered at work of course, but she was always in her classroom and I never really saw her much. She mixed in different circles and was never on break at the same time as me. She was very pretty, and I saw that she was actually wearing mascara. I never once commented on her changes, for fear of drawing unwanted attention to them. The last thing I wanted was for Fatima to get embarrassed and change her mind! I was too scared to even compliment her new appearance, although perhaps I should have.

I think the biggest turning point came when, one sweltering day in July, I was looking out the window at the usual bleak, dusty environment when I saw a seriously good-looking Saudi man step out of his car and start to cross the road. He looked like something out of a Ralph Lauren advert – and it was rare! But what was even more surprising than this walking Adonis, was the fact that Fatima whistled and held up her hand to give me a high five. At first I thought she might be waving at him! I stared at her hand for a second.

“Don’t leave me hanging girl!” she said, with a big grin on her face.

I returned her high five and started laughing. I’d never seen this side of Fatima before and it was a moment I never forgot.

Fatima and I never became friends exactly – we only ever talked on the bus. We never spoke outside of that twenty minutes every morning, and we never debated about who was right and who was wrong again after that first conversation.

I don’t know if Fatima ever married Mr Dull because she left our school after the summer break and moved to another part of Saudi Arabia. I hope she’s making her own choices and determining her own path, without pressure from other people to conform. I want the same for my Saudi students, but that’s a whole different challenge.

I don’t know what happened to the rest of the sisterhood.

They’re probably around somewhere, talking about rules.

Now, about that incident with the religious police that I mentioned…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet my students

Ten years ago, when I moved to Korea, my friends and family said it was famous for cherry blossom trees, spicy soups and barbecue. When I thought about moving to Spain, they talked of beaches and Sangria, Paella and parties, and when I was leaving for Brazil, they told me to enjoy the carnival but watch out for pickpockets.

When I said that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, it was as if I’d said I wanted to sell off some minor organs on Amazon.

“You’ll die! You can’t risk it!”

“Um…nobody does that.”

“Is that even a thing?”

When I explained that there were actually many expats there, working for good money and living a pretty decent life, they quietly listened to my arguments and adjusted their responses to provide some more thoughtful and considered feedback.

“I heard about some Saudi woman who forgot to put the lid back on the toothpaste. Her husband tried to have her stoned! Just saying…”

“You’ll never get a tan if you’re all covered up.”

“Have you thought about being a dog food tester? My friend makes a shit ton of money with that and he doesn’t have to relocate.”

But not everyone was against it. My aunt, for example, had a slightly different reaction.

“Oh it’s such a lovely wee place. Did you know that in Ramabam…” (Yes, you read that right) “…Muslims don’t eat or drink for a month! A month! Talk about good genetics – we’d never survive!”

The truth was, despite my reassurances that I knew exactly what I was doing and that I’d be totally fine, I felt exactly the opposite both on the day that I landed in Riyadh, and on that first day in class. In front of me were twenty young women, some smiling, some bored, some looking like they’d walked into the wrong room, and one with resting bitch face. It flustered me.

“It’s nice to meet you ladies. I’m Hannah, and it’s my first day teaching here at the academy.”

“Welcome,” said a few of the girls. At this point most of them were smiling, which helped calm my nerves. Except resting bitch face. She just wasn’t coming round.

I opened my PowerPoint presentation for the first activity. Something I liked to do in all new classes was to put up a few pictures of things that are part of my life, and ask the students to talk about them. I showed them the first slide and pointed to a picture of a globe and a suitcase, meant to show a love of traveling; a nice, easy introductory task.

“So what can you tell me about this picture? How do you think it relates to me?”

“Teacher, are you Muslim?” asked a student in the center of the room, completely ignoring the picture. Her name was Abeer.

When I first mentioned the name ‘Abeer’ to my sister over the phone, she laughed. She’d had a wild theory that it must have originated from some unfortunate miscommunication at the hospital – some exhausted father’s impulsive response to the nurse asking ‘what would you like’ while filling in the birth certificate.

“Ha!” she laughed, “he just wanted to grab a cold one from the fridge and now it’s one of the most popular names in a teetotal country!”

She didn’t stop there. When I told her that I was going to a party at a place called Al Yamamah Compound on my second weekend, I’d had to listen to “Yo mama!” being bellowed over the phone in between bursts of laughter. But this was nothing. My best friend had once endearingly asked me to explain more of the back story on Osaka Bin Laden and the Talisman after Osama had been killed by the Obama Administration. Gotta love my friends and family.

But back to Abeer. Originally from Jeddah, Abeer had moved to Riyadh for her father’s job, and was markedly less conservative than some of the other girls. I hesitated at her question and she asked me again.

“Are you Muslim teacher?”

“Er…no,” I replied. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was here.

“Do you have a husband?” she continued. Her questions were straight to the point, but she was smiling and I found that I liked her.

“Nope. Just me,” I said.

“Boyfriend?” she asked, grinning wider now.

At this point, even resting bitch face started to smirk a little, more from watching me squirm.

“No, no boyfriend.” Wasn’t that on the list of forbidden items? Shit, five minutes in and I was already breaking the rules!

“Well, listen to me teacher. I will tell you something. Don’t marry an Arab man – they’re not that good!” she said. Immediately some of the girls started objecting in Arabic while others were laughing. There seemed to be some disagreement among the class and resting bitch face spoke up. I should tell you at this point that her name was Ghada, but we’ll continue calling her resting bitch face (or bitch face for ease of reference since it wasn’t just when she was resting) – I never did come to like her. Yes, it’s a terrible thing for a teacher to say of one of her students, but it’s true. That girl was trouble.

“What she said is not true! Saudi men are good men,” she said. “My fiance saved the Quran.”

Saved the Quran?” I asked.

“Saved the Quran, Alhamdulilah (praise be to God),” she repeated. There were soft whispers around the room of the word Mashallah (what God wanted has happened). This is always uttered when someone speaks of something good happening, like having had children or getting married, getting good grades, or even complimenting somebody for looking nice. It is generally used a lot, and it’s normal to me now, but on that day, I hadn’t a clue what was going on. It sounded profound.

“Saved the Quran…from what?” I asked.

Just like the smile in the Mona Lisa, where it looks like she’s either just been told a really good inside joke, or that she’s about to kill you in your sleep (at least, that’s how I always interpreted that particular painting), I couldn’t read this girl’s expression.

“He saved it!” she said, rolling her eyes at me and letting out a deep, impatient sigh.

Sudden images ran through my mind of a man hurling himself through burning fire-balls to rescue the holy book, but instead of probing further I decided to wait for more clarification.

Saved,” she repeated. “When you are on a computer and you want the computer to remember your work and you ask the computer to save. He did like this with the Quran, but the computer was his head.”

“Oh, you mean he memorized it,” I corrected her. “Okay I understand.”

“That’s what I said. He memorized. I said that.”

“Well ‘save’ is used a bit differently. What you’re describing is to memorize something,” I said.

“No, my mother told me that save is the correct word. That is what I will use.”

“Well, your mother isn’t quite right but that’s okay, it doesn’t really matter. I understand what you’re saying.”

She fixed me with an icy stare but thankfully said nothing. Note to self, don’t insult the students’ mothers on the first day of class.

I wasn’t in the habit of arguing with students in situations like this because usually it was just the result of embarrassment on their part. Besides, it was my first day and I wanted them to like me. I decided to continue with the PowerPoint activity, pointing to a few pictures about Britain to show where I was from. I’d chosen an iconic shot of Princess Diana next to the Taj Mahal, a picture of a cup of tea and a Union Jack flag.

“India!” someone shouted, like it was the right answer in a tough TV game show.

“Oh Princess Diana!” exclaimed Nora, sitting next to Abeer. “I am love her!”

Nora was a sweet young girl who begged the school to let her into the same class as her best friend, Abeer, although she really should have been placed a few levels lower in beginner English. Most of the time she mixed up her words and understood very little of what was going on, and that was only in Arabic! But she always smiled and laughed as if everything was as clear as day, and took constructive criticism on the chin. It was always the students who had an ability to laugh at themselves who really held my affection, and I had a particular soft spot for Nora who was often teased for her lack of common sense. She once decided to go on a carb-free diet and gave up her ultimate favourite food – cheese. It wasn’t until six months of this sacrifice had passed that Abeer informed her cheese wasn’t in fact a carb and that she needn’t have given it up. Nora was in tears most of that day, and Abeer ordered her a Quesadilla to cheer her up.

“Teacher,” Abeer interjected, “did you know that Princess Diana had an appointment to become Muslim the day after she died? That is why the Queen killed her.”

Before I could start to debunk this piece of information, Nora gasped and covered her mouth with a look of horror.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed.

“No Nora, I really don’t think it was the Queen who killed her…” I started.

“It was,” said Abeer.

Nora looked around the classroom at her peers and then back to Abeer.

“Diana died?!” she asked, quietly.

The class erupted in laughter and Abeer rolled her eyes but then looked over affectionately at her friend.

“Yes, Nora. Everybody knows this in the whole world! The WHOLE world! The Queen killed her, but she had to do this because Diana broke the rule of England. She cannot be Muslim if she is an English princess.”

Some of the girls nodded in solemn agreement, as if reluctantly accepting that this was standard practice for any British princess considering Islamic conversion.

“Teacher,” asked another student. “Why did Charles marry this ugly woman Camilla after that? She is not beautiful.”

“Okay firstly,” I began, trying to get back to the original point, “I really don’t think you should believe everything you hear. The Queen probably didn’t murder Diana. I think it was just an accident. The paparazzi was chasing her and…”

“Paparazzi! You like Lady Gaga, teacher? She make this song,” said Nora, with a massive grin. She’d quickly gotten over the death of Diana.

I used this as an opportunity to change the subject of discussion back to the topic of the lesson.

“I do like Lady Gaga,” I replied, “and do you know what else I like?”

The girls waited for me to finish.

“If you look at the pictures on the board, you can try to guess!”

Thankfully, the girls started discussing the pictures and the rest of the class ran relatively smoothly.

After the lesson, I went to join the other teachers in the staff room. Cassie was slumped over a table in the corner, lazily reaching into a cereal box and grabbing handfuls of dried cornflakes while her eyes were half-closed. Jack Bower was beside her reading her new book Seduction and Subterfuge, and a few of the other teachers were napping on couches and armchairs. Nobody was working, which was unsurprising in the heat of August in this country. The air was stifling. Suddenly the director, Ms Amal, walked briskly into the room with a clipboard and pen and looked around at the sleeping teachers. I expected a flurry of movement but instead, it seemed like there was a concentrated effort on behalf of everybody to pretend they were out cold; sudden loud snores and eyes being squeezed tighter. Even Jack Bower was in on it.

“Right…er…who is available now to cover a class for a teacher who is absent today please?” asked Ms Amal, without much authority.

The room was suddenly silent, apart from the awkward fake snoring. Apparently Ms Amal was once overheard saying to a colleague that the one thing she’d never do is wake someone up from a deep sleep. She thought it was rude, and as an acute Insomniac herself, couldn’t bring herself to do it. The staff instantly capitalized on it. I hadn’t known that at the time.

As it was my first week on the job, I hesitated. I didn’t want to cover a class I hadn’t prepared for, but I didn’t want to create a bad first impression either.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Right, excellent Hannah, thank you. It’s a private student who has asked for extra tuition as she has exams coming up. Nice and easy,” she said.

“No problem,” I replied. I followed Ms Amal back down the hall into a small classroom at the back of the school, and immediately regretted my decision. Sitting there, smirking in Mona Lisa fashion, was resting and active bitch face from my previous class. I endured two painful hours that I will never get back.

After that first day of teaching, I learned the tricks of the trade…

Upon hearing your boss’s footsteps approaching the staff room, play dead.

Despite there being a lengthy list of forbidden topics in Saudi Arabia, students will push for you to break those rules.

Always say Mashallah after complimenting someone in the Middle East.

Cornflakes don’t actually require milk. Cassie proved that.

Don’t assume that everyone in the world has been told about Princess Diana’s death.

*  *  *

Despite my fears about moving to Saudi Arabia, I was beginning to find it more enjoyable by the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekends in Saudi Arabia

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope is not a strategy…

‘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?”

“Sure.”

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.”

“Right…”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Kingdom

“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.”

My first week in Saudi Arabia

“World Human Rights Tolerance and Acceptance Day – a day when all of society are welcome!”

The banner hung prominently above the main doors to the English school, right above the ‘NO MEN PERMITTED’ sign. I wasn’t familiar with this particular international day, but I was impressed that it was being acknowledged. All of my prejudicial assumptions of Saudi Arabia were no doubt to be disproved in the coming months. I was determined to begin my stint here with an open mind – full of optimism!

“This….what?” came a voice to my right. I turned to see a sweaty looking man, half covered in what looked like either mud or charcoal, wearing Salwar Kameez and holding a battered toolbox. I took a guess that he was one of the labourers doing some work on the air conditioners in next door’s flower shop.

“It’s…um….hang on,” I said, having to look up again, “It’s…World Human Rights Tolerance and Acceptance Day.”

The man stared at me blankly.

“It’s a special day,” I continued, “where everybody is included, and…um…yeah just that.”

The man said nothing.

“Hannah!” came a voice from just inside the doors, as half a face and an eye peaked out from within. “Welcome to the academy – come inside please. Ignore that man. He’s a worker.”

“Oh, okay. He was just asking me about the acceptance sign.”

“He can’t read, he’s from Pakistan. Don’t answer him. Come inside and let’s get you introduced to your new students.”

Attempting to ignore the irony in what had just taken place, I followed her inside and watched as a sea of black fabric moved as one up a flight of stairs. It was my first glimpse of the women of Saudi Arabia, dropping headscarves into Massimo Dutti handbags while juggling smartphones and iced lattes.

“My name is Noor, and I am the asssistant director here at the academy. Here, please enjoy some Arabic coffee,” she said, handing me what looked a bit like a tiny Japanese tea cup containing orange-coloured, cardamom-scented coffee. I took a sip and instantly loved it.

“We are celebrating World Human Rights Day today, which is our own famous day here at the school that we created – that the marketing team created actually.”

“Right,” I responded, “so it’s not really a world thing, it’s an academy thing?”

“You are smart.”

I couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or whether she genuinely thought this was a shining example of deductive reasoning.

“So, what will the school be doing to celebrate it?” I asked.

“We hung up a banner, of course. And later on we will have presentations by our blackest students.”

I almost spat out my coffee.

“Right,” I said, nodding along as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

“First you will do some training on cultural sensitivity with Ms Amal, our director. She will tell you what you cannot say in the classroom. Then we will give teaching observation and then you start. Okay?”

“Yes,” I answered, “No problem.”

Noor handed me a set of papers and asked me to look over them before my cultural sensitivity training was to begin. My eyes were drawn straight to a long list of items.

PROHIBITED TOPICS:

  1. Adopted children and children conceived out of wedlock.
  2. Dating
  3. Concerts
  4. Dancing and dancers
  5. Alcoholic and intoxicating drinks
  6. Birthdays
  7. Boyfriends/girlfriends
  8. Celebrities
  9. Co-education
  10. Devils
  11. Demons
  12. Drugs and drug abuse – unless from a medical point of view for example taking aspirin for girls periods.
  13. Euthanasia
  14. Films and film-making
  15. HIV, AIDS, gays and homosexuals
  16. Magic, magicians
  17. Love: being in love, falling in love, being in love, love at first sight, soulmates…etc
  18. Any mixed gender situations
  19. Music
  20. Women moving out of home when single
  21. Mental diseases
  22. Neuroticism
  23. Unmarried couples
  24. People not dressed properly (skirts, shorts, the area between the naval and the knee for men)
  25. Plastic surgery
  26. Physical appearance changes like plucking of eyebrows
  27. Playing cards
  28. Politics, elections
  29. Psychologists or psychiatrists
  30. Religion and religious events including Christmas and Easter (only Islamic content to be discussed)
  31. Sculptures focusing on human faces such as the Sphinx.
  32. Smoking and tobacco
  33. Sexually transmitted diseases
  34. Social networking
  35. Spirits and witchcraft
  36. Superpowers and superheroes
  37. Superstitions (beliefs not based on fact or scientific evidence, connected with ideas about magic. Examples include crossing fingers for luck, the number 13, luck, walking beneath a ladder, etc)
  38. TV shows that discuss inappropriate themes (like music, dancing and sexual intercourse between characters.)
  39. Uncovered women
  40. Women driving

“Just make sure NOT to plan your lessons around these things and you will be fine,” said Noor, and with that she walked quickly down the hallway to her office.

So began my first week in Saudi Arabia…