Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bonnie's Oxymoronic Day in Saudi

When I first arrived in Saudi the people I met all informed me at one point or another that they had no friends who were, in fact, Saudi Arabian.  I suppose it made sense.  Many Saudi people tend to stay close with their families and consider their brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and parents to be their circle of friends.  It seems they’re not so motivated to meet new people, because they don’t really need new people for friends.  On the flip side, the expatriate compounds do not allow Saudi born people into them.  Mainly because Saudi people are considered, as a whole, to have conservative views and, well, Saudi-level conservative practices aren’t typically the norm at compounds and these compounds would prefer Saudis with conservative perspectives to not witness this in case complaints ensue.  The same goes for expat events like parties at embassies.  Saudis aren’t allowed in because conservative Saudis wouldn’t be happy with what they saw (No, there are no orgies or cocaine snorting happening.  Well, not the ones I’ve been to anyway. There are just a lot of men and women mixing and talking and not an abaya to be found.).  This makes for a very difficult time if an expat such as myself wants to meet people from Saudi Arabia.  With no chance to mix with them and have a proper conversation, I was limited to the odd smile (or at least smiley looking eyes due to the niqab’s blocking effect) and maybe a word or two at the grocery store.

Not meeting Saudi born people for myself bothered me.  All I ever heard from so many people here, especially when I first arrived, were negative things about Saudi Arabians.  They’re lazy, they’re angry all the time, they’re judgmental, they have a sense of entitlement, they mismanage everything, etc. etc..  But I craved conversations with the local people.  I was super curious to know more about what they thought of all this.  Maybe they could explain why so many expats look at them this way.  Maybe they could give me a new perspective that crushed these opinions and showed me that Saudi people are nothing like what those who haven’t met Saudis think of them. 

Like always, if you’re a patient person, what you wish for comes to you and I eventually began making Saudi friends.  And they are fantastic.  So fantastic, in fact, that I didn’t really care to know what they thought of how other people viewed them.  To be honest, I’m not even sure they care about what other people think of them because these Saudi friends o’mine are just too chill to bother wondering about those things.  One cool Saudi and his friends stand out as of late.  His name is Hamza.

I was due to be working in Jeddah for about ten days.  I would be there for a weekend so my friend, Asam, got me in touch with Hamza who lived in Jeddah.  Now, you have to keep in mind that, while my Saudi born friends are really great and relaxed, as I mentioned earlier, there are actually Saudi people who are super conservative or at least haven’t had much experience outside of the conservative ways of the country.  Makes sense, really.  How else could the country still have laws forcing women to wear abayas and not allowing women to drive and also place cultural and societal pressures upon women to cover their faces if people didn’t still agree with these ultra-conservative practices?  So, when Asam (who is a male for those not familiar with the name “Asam”) told me he had a male Saudi friend for me to get in touch with I was a little apprehensive.  Male-expat to male-Saudi contact can be pretty normal, but put a girl into the mix and conservative views, or even new-to-the-liberal-world perspectives (picture a guy who hasn’t been around any girls outside of his conservative family and then finally meets a girl who he is not related to and who happens to be really friendly to him - it can become very awkward very fast) can get in the way of a nice time.  Asam assured me that Hamza was not that kind of Saudi guy and so I sent him a text.

Wow, am I glad I contacted Hamza.  Have you ever heard the phrase, “Necessity breeds invention?”  Hamza’s life is the reason that phrase was created.  He knows how to have liberal fun in a conservative country (Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) and Hamza was more than happy to share his inventions with me in an entire day of activities that he had planned.  What was first on the itinerary Hamza put together for Bonnie’s Oxymoronic Day in Saudi?  Going to the beach.  Yes, I wondered why we would bother with a beach visit considering I would have to wear my abaya, in the sand, under the sun, with raging humidity.  Hamza assured me, I could wear what I want at this beach.  It turned out Jeddah has private resorts on the beach and we went to one.  It was an adorable spot with a small sandy beach that was sheltered in a small man-made harbour with high stone walls that jetted far out into the water.  Boats couldn’t even come into the harbour if they wanted because there was a significant sized reef at the end of the harbor that made the water too shallow for a boat to get through.  Add that to the oodles of bright yellow signs with red writing severely stating “NO PICTURES OR VIDEOS” and you have a beach where women who typically show very little skin to very few people can be comfortable wearing a bathing suit if she wanted to.  That equated to me being surrounded by men in everything from speedos to wet suits and women in everything from full abaya and hijab, to burkini, to board shorts and t-shirts, to one-piece swimsuits, to bikinis.  Me?  I wore a bikini.  Nothing subtle about this girl.  Sand, sun, and a bikini in Saudi Arabia? Yes, it is possible.  Yes, I was happy.

I didn’t think my life could be any cooler than being at the Red Sea, on a Saudi Arabian beach, in a bikini, and not worrying about some Mutawa (religious police) getting red faced and belligerent in a major freak storm.  That was until Hamza pulled out his shisha (some of you may know it as a hookah).  It may be hard to believe, considering that I have lived in Saudi Arabia for almost two years and on a compound where shisha smoking is the norm for almost every resident, but I really hadn’t tried smoking a shisha.  Just like I say when I tell people I hadn’t tried any illegal drugs until I was 22 years old, I just wasn’t interested.  It never occurred to me to, as travel-book author Kristin Newman says, “Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it.” Which, in Saudi Arabia, is to smoke shisha.  Luckily for me, Hamza not only loves smoking shisha, he loves to teach people all about it.

I bombarded Hamza with questions about the shisha while he set it up; where does the tobacco go; what is different about this tobacco and cigarette tobacco (it’s just tobacco, no other crappy poisonous things mixed in); why does the smoke smell so good (because dried fruit and herbs like mint are mixed in with the tobacco); how does the charcoal make the tobacco smoke without actually burning it (it sits on top of foil that sits over the tobacco and heats it up, so it’s really just steam that you breathe in); how would we incorporate smoking marijuana using this wonderful contraption (Hamza just laughed at this question)?  Finally he had the shisha ready and handed me the long pipe, mostly to try the shisha out but also possibly to stop me from asking more questions.  I placed the tip gently on my lips like all the people I’ve seen smoking shisha before me, and breathed in.  It tasted like a minty fresh cloud had entered my system and it was wonderful.  Apparently the flavour of tobacco we were smoking today was grape-mint.  A few more tips on the smoking procedure from Hamza later and I was a regular shisha smoker and thoroughly enjoying myself. 

It was enjoyable not because there was any real effect on me from the shisha smoke itself, but because of the whole experience.  Shisha smoking is like drinking a glass of red wine.  The parts are greater than the whole.  Red wine in a plastic cup is a waste of good wine.  It needs the round glass with the slender, long stem.  You need to see the redness of it swirling around, smell it as you bring it to your lips, hear the delicate chink of the glass as you place it down on the table while you gently swallow the tasty fermented grape and feel it create the tiniest buzz of pleasure as it enters your belly.  The whole process creates a feeling of peace and refinedness.  You feel a little more special somehow. 

Smoking shisha is like this.  At a restaurant you have a “shisha man” delegated specifically for all things shisha.  He brings this long, skinny, multi-piece contraption with an odd shaped water-filled glass bowl at the bottom and a ceramic cup containing the tobacco at the top covered in foil with tiny holes in it.  It sounds ridiculous but it looks exotic and distinguished.  The “shisha man” takes the pipe and attaches the flexible tube end to the shisha and passes you the end with the long, stiff pipe. Then you lean back in your chair, cross your legs, place the pipe gently on your lips and breathe in, feeling the flavour of the tobacco emanate through your mouth and into your lungs.  It’s almost sexual (at least for a girl).  When you breathe out you do it gently with a relaxed and open mouth and just let the lovely smelling smoke leave your body in a wave that caresses your face.  After a while the “shisha man” stops by, carrying hot charcoal in a small, often intricately designed, metal bucket with a long handle.  You know he’s there before you see him because you can feel the heat emanating from his bucket.  He replaces the old burned out charcoal with fresh pieces and places them carefully along the edge of the foil covered ceramic bowl.  It makes you feel cared for and gives you a reason to smile and say thank you to someone on a regular basis.  It’s such a relaxing thing just sitting back, breathing in tasty smoke from an sleek pipe.  You feel like a “cool kid,” almost jazzy, like an Arabian hipster but actually rad rather than pretentious.  Like I said, shisha isn’t just smoking.  It’s an experience.

Hamza took me shisha shopping for my own shisha later in the week.
With that shisha experience under my belt it was time for me to meet another Saudi friend, a super cool guy and a good friend of Hamza’s.  Hamza and I needed a place to get cleaned up after our day of sun, sand, and sea so he phoned his friend, Omar, who lived nearby to ask if we could use his shower facilities.  Omar was not home, but as I was coming to learn, Saudi people drop everything to help a friend out, especially a friend who has a guest with him.  So, Omar left whatever it was he was doing and came home to let Hamza and I rinse off the seawater and sweat we had bathed in all day and have a little visit.  We arrived to find Omar waiting outside his apartment building in full Saudi attire: thobe, shmagh, agaal, and designer aviation sunglasses.  There was a time when this outfit kind of freaked me out.  I blame it on media bombardment back home creating a kind of Pavlovian effect and conditioning me to equate negative “stuff” with traditional Middle Eastern attire.  Luckily, there is such thing as behavioural extinguishing, and living in Saudi shifted me from getting a little freaked by guys wearing this outfit to me thinking they can look kinda sexy in it.  (Side Note:  I plan on buying a few of these outfits to take home with me; maybe have a late night fantasy or two with any future boyfriends that come along.  If anything, the clothes will be fun to have around for costume parties.  I hope that doesn’t offend any of my Saudi friends.  If it’s any consolation, I have an ulterior motive in that having friends wear the outfit will bring back fond memories of fun times in Saudi).


On the way to Omar's after our fun day at the beach

All cleaned up and feeling refreshed I settled in to one of Omar’s sofas and chatted with the guys.  Let’s put this into perspective here.  We, all three of us, are single.  We even have to carry special ID cards called an iqama that, along with other information, indicate our marital status for officials to confirm this.  I am a female, Hamza and Omar are male.  We are not on a compound.  We are in Saudi Arabia proper, where apartment buildings as well as sections in restaurants are designated as “Single” and “Family.”  Women are not allowed in the “Single” areas.  Single men are not allowed in the “Family” areas. Me being present in a Saudi guy’s apartment is something I had figured I wouldn’t experience, not because of not being able to meet Saudi people, but because it just isn’t allowed.  But, what the Mutawa don’t know doesn’t hurt us, and so here I was hanging out at Omar’s and having a fabulous time talking with my new friends.  Hamza patiently translated much of our conversation because Omar knows a small amount of English and my Arabic is limited to about five words that are not in any way useful for conversation (I am not proud of this).  The guys asked me about my mountain biking adventures which they may have regretted because, as any of my non-biker friends who have gotten me on the topic of mountain biking know, I won’t shut up about biking back home in British Columbia once I start.  Many videos, exaggerated hand gestures, and showing off of scars followed and then it was time to go shopping for abayas.  Yes, Hamza is so amazing that, when I mentioned I needed a new abaya, he offered to take me shopping as part of “Bonnie’s Oxymoronic Day in Saudi.”

One of my fantastic girl friends from Riyadh, Haya, has frequented Jeddah on regular occasions and recommended a souq (market) that would offer myriad abayas at fantastic prices.  Haya’s recommendation did not disappoint.  I had talked about abayas in a previous post when I had an abaya custom made.  That was back when I was new to Saudi and didn’t quite understand the importance of having multiple abayas for multiple occasions.  At this point I had three abayas: the crappy one I bought in Ottawa before I moved to Saudi and now used when I was bound to get dirty, like when visiting a camel farm; the one I got custom made for me with my friend, Munira’s, help but then realized it is WAY too fancy to wear as an everyday abaya but way too hard to put on and take off when I’m dressed up for a formal event and have my hair done (I had it made so that it goes over my head to put on…lack of foresight on my part); and finally the one that I wear essentially all the time and is functional but oh so NOT exciting or nice in any real way.  Yes, I realize I just said that my shapeless piece of black material that I put on my body to cover my womanly shape from the piercing eyes of men is not exciting.  Stating the obvious, I know.  But the women here in Saudi know how to pull these abayas off with serious style.  I am enamoured with their grace and class with which they wear them.  I’m even tempted to begin wearing my head scarf because that sucker actually pulls the whole ensemble together.  So, since my new motto is to “do the thing your supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it,” I wanted to rock this abaya thing and get some style mixed in to this black wardrobe of mine.

And, in Jeddah, it is in fact possible to find an abaya with style.  I have heard Jeddah referred to as the “Paris of Saudi Arabia.”  While it’s definitely not Paris, it is more relaxed than Riyadh and other parts of Saudi I’ve visited and people have acceptance for individuality, especially with how women dress.  So I rarely see women wearing the full-face covering niqab and there are always women walking around with abayas of super cool designs and colours.  I wanted a blue one that gathers at the waist and makes me look elegant.  I told Hamza this and he took it on as a mission to help me find exactly that.  Keep in mind that I come from a small town where the guys I know work in the forest or at a copper mine and ride mountain bikes and snowmobiles for their entertainment.  I grew up with a coal-mining dad and my brother worked in the oil field.  I can honestly say I have never met a guy who likes to shop.  Then I met Hamza. 


Hamza was the opposite of every guy I had ever shopped with (unless I was shopping for bike parts).  This man actually likes to shop, and so the oxymoronic experience of my day continued.  He talked with the clerks about what I was looking for and had them pull out one abaya after another and hang them on display hooks.  He held the abayas open and helped me put them on; he adjusted the abayas on me and asked for new sizes; before I could even veto the ones I didn’t like, Hamza stated to the clerks “la” (“no” in Arabic) and re-explained what I was looking for; and when I expressed that I liked something he said, “Whatever you like.”  It was so much fun.  We went to three abaya shops, even though I thought an abaya I found in the first shop was very nice.  Hamza wanted me to be sure and encouraged me to go to more shops.  Then a clerk pulled out a lovely blue abaya covered in a simple and elegant lace with a drawstring creating sweet gatherings of pleats around the waist.  I put it on and heard Hamza say something in Arabic that I didn’t understand but could tell it meant he greatly approved.  I looked in the mirror and it really was exactly what I wanted.  Before I could even say so, Hamza had me take the abaya off after which he walked to the counter, talked to the clerk, who put the abaya in a bag, and only then did I realize that Hamza had just bought the abaya for me.  He was expecting my protest and stopped me when he said, “You deserve all of what I am doing for you and more.  You are sweet and kind and have a bright heart.  Omar thinks so too. Please, this is a gift that I want to give to you.”  Now that’s the best way I have ever been told to be quiet and say thank you.  Thank you, Hamza!

On the way to dinner in my new blue abaya

It didn’t end there.  Since I had gotten the perfect abaya as a gift I thought it wouldn’t hurt to buy myself an abaya that was a little more extravagant.  I had seen the Saudi princesses wearing abayas that are made of tons of material, flowy, and only clasp at the top but the excess material keeps things discreet; like a fabulously designed cape with armholes.  They looked so regal and I wanted that.  So, off Hamza and I went on the search, in the same way we had looked for my perfect blue abaya.  We went to five different shops and when I found what I wanted I was really excited.  It looked so amazing when I walked around in it, flowing and moving in the breeze my steps created, and it was such an indulgence for me.  Hamza was delighted that I found what I wanted and insisted he buy this one for me too.  

This is where I paused and wondered.  I had had an experience when I first arrived in Saudi when a man was buying things for me and insisting on buying more.  At first it was sweet and I thought he was so kind for the help he was giving me.  But it wasn’t long before it became awkward and a little creepy, especially when he was adamant about buying something he wanted me to wear that I had said I didn’t want. “But you will look sexy in it.” he had said.  I later discovered that this was the way men in his society pursued women and I, not being aware of his culture’s flirtation practices, didn’t pick up on it.  It ended up being a big reason why I lost my friendship with this person and I was so sad about that.  As you can imagine, I was flashing back to this when Hamza insisted on buying my version of abaya luxury.  Something was different about this situation with Hamza, however.  He was so sincere in his generosity and seemed to find great joy in gift giving.  He reminded me of my best friend, Malgosia, who just loves finding something that her friends will appreciate and buying it for them.  Hamza also knew why I was protesting - he understood my culture and how I wouldn’t be used to such grand gestures of generosity - and so assured me that I could pay for anything else that I wanted to get (except for anything at a restaurant, he insisted on that being a gift to me as his guest as well).  And so, Hamza gave me my second abaya as a gift and I got to experience the supreme generosity that is a sincere part of Hamza, and I believe part of the Saudi culture.

We left the abaya souq with me feeling completely excited about my new abayas and fully humbled to be in the presence of someone so generous and kind.  I was also starving, as was Hamza.  So to dinner we went where Hamza paid and I abstained from protesting and instead expressed gratitude.  Then Hamza happily told me he had something else he wanted to show me.  We drove to a building in Jeddah where we ascended up eight floors to a rooftop restaurant.  I was tempted to ask Hamza if he had been scrounging around my psyche because it seemed he must have known of my love for eating and lounging al fresco and how sad it made me that, in Riyadh, there were minimal restaurants (outside of compounds) to sit al fresco and feel the openness of the outdoors while socializing.  Even worse, the family sections of restaurants actually have each table sectioned off into curtained or walled-in rooms.  This, to me, defeats the purpose of going out to eat.  In my opinion, if we’re going to go somewhere to eat where we’re inside a room and cannot people watch and gain a sense of existing amongst fellow human beings who are not our immediate friends and family then we might as well stay home and order food in. 

So, when Hamza and I stepped out of the elevator and onto the rooftop patio I was elated.  We were seated at the wall where we could look out over Jeddah and see it’s nighttime skyline.  Soon a shisha was by my side and drinks (non-alcoholic of course; Hamza had been making this day atypical of my usual life in Saudi, but he was not a miracle worker) were ordered.  I was contemplating how fantastic my day had been when two of Hamza’s friends showed up.  Saad (pronounced “sa-ad,” not “sad” as in unhappy), a smiling guy who works at the airport and likes to help his friends get extra baggage onto their flights even if it means he gets into trouble (are you seeing a pattern of generousity amongst these Saudi folk?  I know I do).  Zayna, Hamza’s other friend, is completing her Masters in Biochemistry and works at the hospital when she’s not studying.  I wanted to talk more with her about her research but our chatting about the fun I had during the day got in the way.  Zayna and Saad were followed shortly after by Omar, no longer in his traditional Saudi attire but still as friendly as before.  We all quickly got to talking and laughing.  I watched the guys carry-on with each other, as guys tend to do, and tease Zayna making her sweet spirit shine through her smile.   Through lots of Arabic, Hamza encouraging those who could to speak in English, and me testing out the few words I knew in Arabic, we chatted and laughed and I discovered new and wonderful friends.  

Enjoying the rooftop

You would think I would end my blog post there but Hamza just continued on with treating me to another happy surprise.  Earlier in the evening, during my mountain biking conversation with Hamza and Omar, I had talked about my best friend, Megan, and how she had been the one to introduce me to the biking world.  I had told them how much I missed her, and even more than usual on that day because it was her birthday.  Hamza took note of this and made an arrangement with the wait-staff at the rooftop restaurant.  So, just before our already fantastic evening was ending, I heard a pop-rock version of the “Happy Birthday” song playing over the sound system and noticed the entire wait-staff bouncing over to our table with a sparkler burning bright on a piece of chocolate cake with “Happy Birthday, Megan!” written in chocolate syrup on it.  Hamza arranged it so I could celebrate my best friend’s birthday even though I was a world away from her. He recorded the entire thing and I sent the video to Megan straight away.  She was delighted.  It was all so sweet and special and unbelievably thoughtful.  

Megan's cake

So there we all were, on the Jeddah rooftop; me the pale-skinned, blue-eyed Canadian chatting, laughing, and eating Megan’s birthday cake with the kindest, friendliest, and most beautiful Saudis that I had been supremely blessed to meet.  I couldn’t have asked for a better day and I have Hamza to thank for that.

In Joy,

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