5 Quirky, But Not So Quirky, Things About Living in Saudi Arabia
It has been exactly one week, since my arrival in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While I am still gathering myself from jet-lag and the obvious lifestyle changes, there are a few aspects of the culture that have caught my immediate attention.
Before arriving to Saudi Arabia, I intentionally avoided over-saturating my mind with the negative commentary regarding the culture and people. I wanted to arrive with a clean slate, in order to be as unbiased about the experiences to follow.
Similar to my preparation for expat life in S. Korea, I armed myself with basic knowledge about the does and don’ts of daily life, the alphabet, numbers and basic phrases like,
shukram (thank you)
in’shAllah: a phrase meaning God-willing, often used like hopefully, perhaps, maybe etc. For example, “My friends’ flight will arrive tomorrow night, around 9pm, in’shAllah.”
Other than this, I arrived to the desert with the basics: an abaya and a smile.
In terms of overall noise level, the places I’ve visited, are relatively quiet; well eerily quiet in comparison to my spicy Miami. When walking the halls of my job, the university students maintain a low volume hum, very inaudible close conversations. The girls glide around with their abayas half-drawn, displaying the latest teen fashions of logo shirts, see-through shirts and wedged sneakers. Even in their hipness, they remain subtle in their mannerisms, always keeping their voices at a low level.
The same goes for the shopping mall. What I found even more intriguing about the shopping mall is that there is no background music. Nothing to hype of the shoppers, no musaq in the elevators and no blaring jingles in the food court. Even in the halls of the mall, the patrons’ voices are low keyed, never to hear a screech or yelp, not even in the distance.
- Men and Women: Be Sure to Mingle Correctly
The law states (not verbatim) that men and women are not to converse, unless they are related. So basically, ladies, a random guy coming up to you asking for your number is illegal and frowned upon. And vice versa, no matter how good looking he may be-and believe me, there are temptations. But there is a slight contradiction to this rule, when it comes to receiving service in the stores.
For the most part, the jobs in the shopping mall, grocery store and public offices are held by men. The men are not only Saudi but hail from nearby locations like Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, to name a few. So when you need directions, a shoe size or help opening a bank account, you will in fact have a conversation with a man, and usually a friendly man. For obvious reasons, they are usually quite helpful and willing to engage in small talk – to a degree.
What I notice is that it is very important to maintain a healthy distance from the men during these conversations. We never want to appear flirtatious or teasing in our conversation. From my understanding, if this behavior is seen by the religious police (muttawa), reprimand will soon follow. I personally have not seen the muttawa, but have heard enough stories that I should be on guard, if they are in the area.
- No Pictures
Be careful. It is highly advisable to take not of locations where pictures are not allowed –there are many. However, it is not uncommon to see local girls taking selfies and group photos with their friends. For the most part, it seems that many of the novice photographers are expats, travelers and foreigners.
- Numbers are Not Numbers
It is going to take me a while to get used to reading numbers. The numeric system is a group of symbols, so I carry a handy chart in my wallet. I also carry a quick monetary conversion chart because seeing the price of 35.00SAR for a pack of razors or a canister of coffee, can seem quite overwhelming.
- Limited Entertainment
As much as I hate to make blanket statements, at first glance, it seems that people are a bit bored. I knew that there were very few places for entertainment, but it is quite evident when visiting the malls and supermarkets, that shopping is the main past-time for women.
Conveniently, many malls and supermarkets are under the same roof. Because women are not permitted to drive, it makes sense that they’d be chauffeured to these destinations where they can spend time shopping, like killing two birds with one stone. Since, Riyadh is not a pedestrian friendly city, it is uncommon to see people walking around and communing out of doors. (This is probably the most intriguing aspect of the culture, so I will definitely explore this is future posts.)
*DISCLAIMER These are first glance observations (which will probably change), they are my opinions (so I’m not interested in being contradicted, corrected or inundated with obscure diatribe) and I am not a political activist nor am I interested in making social/political changes within a country where I am simply a visitor—wouldn’t want anyone coming to my home and voicing opinions about where I should put my furniture or how much salt I should keep in the cupboard.