As a newcomer, I have observed that Saudi Arabia is a very interesting place - a land of stark contrasts and confusing contradictions.
For example, in an area of new and elegant walled villas in the city, the neighboring empty lot is, more often than not, filled with rubble and garbage. This doesn't seem to bother the residents because no one takes any steps to improve it. One can see sights like this all over Jeddah. My husband Adnan told me that when there is new construction, the debris is just hauled off the lot and dumped at the nearest empty lot. I wondered out loud about how unfair that is to the empty lot’s owner, but Adnan said that somehow, because everyone does this, it all evens out eventually. There are some of the most modern and amazing structures here that I have ever seen, and right next door might be a garbage and rubble-filled lot, or maybe a 500 year old crumbling and decaying building.
Or out in the country, there might a lavish walled villa in the middle of nowhere, and just a short walk away, people are living in tents in the desert. And even more interesting is that the tents may have TV antennas and cars parked outside. There is such an interesting - and sometimes odd - mix of the old and the new, the elegant and the decrepid, the haves and the have-nots.
There seems to be little in the way of planning and zoning or code enforcement. Parking lots - when you are lucky enough to go to a place that has them - have tight spaces, narrow lanes, and are very crowded. Parking here seems to be an after-thought. Cars are haphazardly parked wherever, and many times, cars are double or tripled parked, blocking traffic lanes. Every day I see cars driving the wrong way on one way streets or divided boulevards. The main reason for this happening is because there are so many one ways and divided streets with sometimes no way to make a u-turn or left turn for quite a distance, so everyone resorts to driving on the wrong side of the street.
The materials and designs used in construction are oftentimes obviously top of the line, elegant and intricately detailed, and rooms are decorated with gorgeous chandeliers and amazing ceilings that I have never seen the likes of anywhere. The outside walls of many buildings are completely tiled or are covered with beautiful stone or even marble. Even the sidewalks and entire courtyards are totally and beautifully tiled. However, the workmanship can be sloppy or unfinished. In our apartment, for example, I am still trying to get off splatters of paint, stain, grout, and "I-don’t-know-what-else" that are all over the floor tiles and baseboards. And there is this white paper that is glued all the way around a dark wood doorway molding that I am still trying to get off. Plus, I have had to take a razor to the wall tiles in the kitchen and all the bathrooms because the workmen didn’t clean off the grout properly as they were working.
Music is another subject that is really confusing in Arabia. But what makes it even more confusing is that music is a much disagreed upon subject here and this is because even Islamic scholars cannot agree among themselves. Consequently, some people in Arabia believe that music is “haram” or forbidden by Islam, and others feel that music is "halal" or allowed. There are confusing passages in the Koran that at one time seem to condemn music and then there are other passages that appear to condone it. Meanwhile, TV here has dozens of Middle Eastern music channels.
Even my husband confuses me about Islam's view of music. When we first met, Adnan absolutely loved music, collected many albums, could even name really obscure artists, and constantly listened to music. But now, he has made a 180 degree turnaround and even tries to discourage our 14 year old son's naturally inherited love of music, telling him that it is a waste of time. Adnan's mom and sister also both believe that music is haram (bad). One of our young adult neices even declined to attend a wedding because there was going to be music and dancing. It makes me wonder: why would there be music and dancing at a wedding anyway when it is supposed to be forbidden?
I have read that music is bad because certain types of music are sexy, alluring, or evil, among other things. Dancing is also considered inappropriate, yet the Middle East is where Belly Dancing originated. And still others believe that only certain musical instruments are acceptable. Many people here, like my husband, consider music as basically a waste of time. Yet verses from the Koran are always sung, and prayers are sung, and this is ok. To me, this is a form of music. To many Muslims, even beautiful classical music is bad. I can understand how they might consider rap music, heavy metal, or songs with vulgarity and wrong messages in them as bad...but beautiful classical music? I just cannot be convinced of this way of thinking. And I cannot help but feel badly for the people who have been convinced that all music is evil and wrong - because, being a lover of many kinds of music myself, I know what they are missing out on, and sadly, they don't.
Despite all of this, satellite TV here is loaded with dozens upon dozens of channels that are Middle Eastern music all the time. I am amused watching music videos of men singers dressed in their full traditional garb, swaying, winking, dancing, and moaning. And then, there's the heavily made up Middle Eastern women - who are supposed to be modest - making videos exposing their cleavage in snug fitting attire, batting their false eyelashes directly into the camera, tossing their hair and their hips around in very suggestive movements and overtones, wiggling and jiggling to the beat. Stores here are loaded with Middle Eastern music CDs and videos. If this type of stuff is plastered all over TV and in stores, then why do I and all the other women here have to wear the abaya out in public? I don't get this.
Here in Arabia, certain Western ideas have been readily embraced, while at the same time, they have fiercely held on to many traditional, and archaic, customs as well. They definitely pick and choose carefully what they wish to accept or reject. Technology and architecture are state of the art here. But Western influences, especially social and moral attitudes and behaviors, have been unquestionably rejected.
Another area of confusion for me is women wearing makeup. Women here are not supposed to attract the attention of other men, hence the abaya, the hair covering, etc. Yet out in public, many of the women, even those in veils, wear tons of eye makeup. Most women seen on TV here wear an obscene amount of makeup, so much so that many of them look plastic (think Tammy Faye!). I went to my first Saudi wedding (read all about it in a previous chapter) and most of the women wore lots of makeup. Adnan's mom Tata apparently told him to tell me to stop putting on makeup when we go out because I will attract too much attention from men and I should only wear makeup for other women, like at a wedding, or only for my husband. Proper women - good Muslim women - do not want to attract the attention of other men in public. I have noticed that men and women don’t really look at each other or make eye contact when they are out in public anyway. It is improper for a man to look at or speak to another man's wife. So, why then do so many women wear so much makeup if it is supposed to be unacceptable and other men aren't supposed to look at women anyway?
And, of course, there’s the clothing and hair covering thing that I also find contradictory. If the Koran says that both men and women should dress modestly, then why aren’t men required to cover up like the women? I even keep my hair covered whenever I am in the presence of any of my brothers-in-law, even though Adel saw my hair when he visited us in America, but now it’s not acceptable. I can remember seeing Moslem families at Disney World in Florida on a hot humid summer day, with the father comfortably dressed in a tank top and shorts, while the mother sweltered in her black abaya and headscarf. How is this even remotely fair or justifiable?
Most people here are extremely polite and courteous and mind their own business. But just get those men behind a wheel (remember women cannot drive here), and it is pure mayhem and aggression, constant horn honking, cutting other drivers off, and total disregard for normal driving rules. My husband tells me that women aren't allowed to drive here for several reasons. One reason is for their own safety. In the big cities here, driving is very stressful because of all the traffic, the lack of traffic enforcement (I haven't seen any tickets being given out, much less any drivers pulled over by the cops), and the fact that the drivers here do virtually anything they want with no regard for others. Another reason, Adnan says, is because the men drivers would find it too distracting to see women behind the wheel and it would cause more accidents. Another possible explanation is because women aren't really supposed to go places without their husbands, although this is not necessarily the way it really is here. In fact women aren't supposed to be in a vehicle without a male relative, yet taxi cabs do a flourishing business here because women aren't allowed to drive, and many families employ a full-time driver to take the lady of the house out wherever and whenever she wishes.
The people here in Arabia cherish their kids, but to date, I haven't ever seen one baby in a car seat (although I'm not saying that all parents here don't use them) or one child buckled up with a seat belt. Kids ride standing up, jumping around the car, hanging out the windows, or even driving on daddy's lap! Adnan says this is "freedom," even though it used to upset him if we saw something like that in the states. Of course adults don't buckle up here, hence they don't buckle up their kids. I feel like we may be the only people here who buckle up at all.
The Koran encourages Muslims to take care of and have respect for their bodies, and it forbids Muslims to indulge in things that are harmful to the body, like alcohol, illegal drugs, or smoking. But so many people smoke here, and from what I understand, there are people who do drugs here as well. To me, this is hypocritical by just picking and choosing what they want to follow from the Koran and discarding what they don't want to adhere to. Hmmm, I wonder how many of the religious police smoke?
And one last thing for now that I don't quite get: portraits of people (like family members) are not displayed at all around the home here. Soon after I got here, I was told by Tata not to hang any family portraits on the wall, and to not have them in frames on a table or displayed in any way. I could remember learning years ago from Adnan that Muslims do not wear likenesses of people or any creature that has eyes, like on a T-shirt or a hat. It is forbidden, partly having to do with idolotry and possibly having to do with "evil eyes" or such. Ok, I can understand that and accept it. But what I don't understand is: why is it ok then to have huge photos and likenesses of the King (and other high ranking members of the Royal Family) plastered everywhere, on buildings, inside buildings, on signs, on billboards, on advertisements, etc.? Isn't this some form of idolotry?
I could go on and on, but I think that's enough to ponder for now. It all just seems so confusing and contradictory. I just don't get it!