I hope you don’t mind me emailing you, but I wanted your opinion about my situation. I am a 28-year-old American woman and I met a Saudi guy I really like. The problem is he wants to go back to Jeddah once he's done studying here in the US and he wants me to go back with him. I want to know from your experience if I would survive in his different culture and community. Also, how hard is it to adapt to this new type of culture and living situation? I am also used to working a lot of hours and focusing on my career and my concern is if I did go to Saudi Arabia, I would not be able to find a job since I do not speak Arabic and would lose all the skills I have worked so hard for. Also my other fear is if he was working all the time and gets back into the swing of his normal life there, I will be lonely and just get lost in the shuffle and not be able to find my own thing like I have in America. By the way, I am Catholic and this is obviously a concern for him as he would like to have Muslim children, which I am not opposed to. What would be your suggestion regarding the difference in religions? I would truly appreciate your opinion and answers to my questions. My boyfriend and I are at the point in our relationship that if we break up it is going to be very difficult or impossible for both of us so now we have to deal with the reality of the differences in our cultures and the best way to make it work. Also I didn't mention that him staying here is not an option at all.
Thanks - M
Dear M -
I don't mind at all that you emailed me to ask questions - I wish that years ago there would have been someone I could have asked many of the same questions you have. I'll try to answer as best I can, but my situation may be different from yours and from other women who are in relationships with Saudi men.
I cannot tell you whether or not you will be able to survive in this culture and environment. Many women that I have met have been here for 20, 30 or, incredibly, even more than 40 years. Most of those women have converted to Islam, live in villas where they can spend some time outdoors if they choose, have maids and drivers, have raised their children here, and are able to travel freely. Many of them also work, usually in education or the medical field. As far as not speaking Arabic, I haven’t encountered much a problem with it since just about everyone here speaks some English. In fact if you are a native speaker of English, you would have no problem finding work in a school or tutoring English. Some women have carved out their own niche, in art or photography or such. Obviously I cannot speak for all Western women who married Saudis, but I get the distinct feeling that most of these women would actually prefer to live somewhere else if given the choice - but they have tolerated this place out of love for their spouses and children and have tried to make the best of it. And looking back, if asked if they had a chance to do it over again, would they? I truly think that the majority of women who have married Saudis and moved here would likely say "NO!" - if they were being perfectly honest.
The expat wives of Saudis all have different situations and circumstances. My husband and I lived for thirty years in the states, and the thought that he would ever want to move back to his homeland was far-fetched because that's what he had always led me to believe. The first decade or so of our relationship, my hubby wasn't particularly religious, but that eventually started changing. Even living in the states, there were times when I found it difficult to be married to someone from such a different culture and religion. This was especially noticeable after our son started school. If there was a school function, parent-teacher conference, a band concert, or a sporting event my son was participating in that interfered with prayer times - and almost inevitably they did - I usually ended up going alone and often felt like I was a single parent. Honestly I began to resent it and wasn't happy about it, and I felt cheated for myself and my son. I felt that God shouldn't mind if you did your prayers later if you were attending a function where you were showing support for your own child. But my husband didn't see it that way, and his prayer times almost always won out.
There were other times when I felt cheated, like around holidays that I was used to celebrating. Never being a deeply religious person myself - I consider myself spiritual but shy away from manmade interpretations of religions - what I always enjoyed most about, for example, Christmas, was the fluff and the spirit of the season - the lights, the music, the decorations, the smells, the foods and special treats, hearing from old friends, the generosity toward those less fortunate, the sentimentality of remembering Christmases past, the joy of giving, the smiles on people's faces, the children's excitement in anticipation of the big day. As years went by, my husband withdrew from participating in any of the preparation or the festivities. This applied to other typical holidays too, like Easter, Halloween, or the 4th of July. When we were invited over to friends' homes, if they had a pet dog, my husband would either refuse to go or insist that the dog be locked away. Muslims are taught that dogs are filthy animals, and my husband has been deathly afraid of even the smallest puppy since I have known him. I know that in America some women call themselves "Football Widows," when it's football season, the wives feel like widows because the husbands are totally focused on football games. Well, I started feeling at times like a "Muslim Widow,” for lack of a better term.
Adapting to this new life and new culture has definitely been an exciting learning experience, which is not to say that it has been easy. I honestly think that moving here is much easier for Western women who are NOT married to Saudis and who come here to work for a specific time frame, live in compounds where activities abound, and have very busy and full lives, with many more opportunities to enjoy all that this place has to offer than I have had. Life inside the compound walls is much like life in the West. There are parties, sports, classes, more freedom for women to participate in sports and to form friendships, and a sense of community that you just don't automatically get outside those walls. But on the flip side, many of them have never been inside a Saudi home and they don't develop friendships with Saudis, so even though they are living in Saudi Arabia, they are in reality living in this little protected bubble and not really experiencing living in "the real Saudi Arabia." Being married to a Saudi and living in an apartment building or a villa is a whole different story. I haven't really been able to join clubs and develop friendships with many ex-pats whether they live in compounds or not because of my transportation limitations. I have to rely on my husband to take me where and when I want to go, and you can imagine what a problem that can be. And everything revolves around prayer times - everything comes to a halt then and every business shuts down for prayer times. When you live out among Saudi society, it is so very different from the Western way of life because the Saudis are so very private and men and women do not mix socially. This is one of the worst things for me that I dislike about being here. To come from an open society like America, and then suddenly you are expected not to speak to men, to dress like a nun and cover your hair, and where you can socialize only with women, and you are not free to come and go as you please... it almost feels at times like you are in a prison of sorts.
For me, there are very few activities, few friends, and lots of boredom. I have described my life now as just an empty shell of what it was before moving here. There are days on end when I don't see the light of day because I am stuck in this flat with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to take me anyway. Not being able to just go outside for a walk or to get some fresh air or to work in the garden is a big problem for me because of where we live. Doing things here on the spur of the moment is not an option any more. Fortunately I have a friend who invites me to do things with her once in a while, and she usually is able to send her driver to pick me up and take me back, so I don't have to ask my husband for transportation. One of my hobbies is photography - I would love to be able to just go out when I want to and take photos, but I can't. Usually I have to settle for trying to capture photos from a car zooming by, so for every one good shot I get, there are at least 50 that are just too blurry to use. Thank God for digital technology! In the more than two years that I have been here, my husband has taken me out specifically to take photos on maybe three or four occasions, not nearly enough to satisfy my desires. Even then though, I always feel rushed because of the bad traffic or because it will soon be prayer time, and there are many areas of the city I have not had the chance to photograph yet.
The first few months after arriving here, my husband went out quite frequently in the evenings several times a week, often until 2 or 3 am. That has tapered off to where now he might only go out like that once or twice a month. I don't really mind, as long as I am able to spend time with my own friends also maybe once or twice a month too. We are both older and not into partying like we used to when we were younger. I do feel lonely many times and I do feel that I am lost in the shuffle and left out. When I first arrived here, I guess I was somewhat of a new novelty and I was constantly invited by various family members or other women to do things with them. But now I guess the novelty has worn off and life has become a humdrum routine with far fewer invitations. I don't feel sorry for myself and I am glad that I have hobbies and interests that I can keep myself busy with, but for me there is just not that much to do outside or inside these walls and it gets old. If I were younger, I would probably be demanding more and having hissy fits over the general lack of activities and boredom. I love my husband's family here and they have been very good to my son and me, but when the only outings we go on just about are to visit family all the time, that too gets old.
As far as my son being raised as a Muslim, I am not opposed to my son being a Muslim, as my husband wishes. But this is his department and his responsibility. My husband started taking Adam to Islamic classes in the states when he was younger, but that didn't last long. Consequently my son doesn't embrace the faith wholeheartedly like my husband would prefer. The Saudi schools here indoctrinate the students into Islam. So from an early age, the kids learn about the religion and are totally receptive to it. But taking an American teenager who has no real understanding of the religion and plopping him down in Saudi Arabia and expecting him to just swim with the fishes doesn't work. If you're planning on embracing Islam and giving up your religion, I'm sure that will make your husband and his family happy. Good luck with that. But I would recommend doing it before coming to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis' version of Islam is not how Islam is practiced in most other Muslim countries.
Many of the Saudi men who take Western women as their wives change once they get back to the Kingdom. My husband has gotten much more jealous and protective of me since we moved here. And he has gotten much more conservative and thinks that the way things are done here is the law of the land and should not be questioned or challenged - a far cry from his rebellious youth when we first met. Despite having spent thirty years in America, now he seems to be even more conservative than many men who have been in Arabia all their lives! I don’t know if he is just trying to overcompensate for being away for so long, to prove to his family and friends that he is still just as Saudi as he ever was or what. I was a very independent woman in the states and now he often makes me feel like I cannot do anything on my own without his approval or direction. This is not the same man I married.
I remember what it was like to be that young and idealistic, madly in love and feeling that I would follow him to the ends of the earth, if need be, just so we could be together. That no matter where we were, we were in love and we would be happy and nothing else mattered. But the reality is that it takes a whole lot more than love for a relationship to survive, especially in this country. And now, I find myself asking, “Why couldn’t he have been from almost any other country in the world besides Saudi Arabia? Why not Morocco, or Italy, or Australia?” Things would have been so much easier…
I think one of the hardest things to do is to maintain who you are and to be true to yourself once you move here. You will be expected to change and adapt to life here, but losing your identity - those things that make you YOU - is a mistake that I think many Western women who come here make. The way I feel is, if my husband had wanted a Saudi wife, he could have easily married one. Instead he fell in love with me, and just because I am now living on another continent, doesn't change me inside as to who I am. It is very difficult to maintain respect and appreciation for this totally different culture and way of life when there are things you may not agree with or understand. And sometimes it's hard to find the right words so you don't sound like you're complaining or criticizing or offending. I try my best to understand the way they do things here, but it is not easy because it doesn't always make sense.
I hope this has helped. I have tried to be as open and honest as I possibly can. It's no bed of roses coming here. I don't know that there is any one perfect place to live - there are pros and cons to everyplace I guess. It took me a long time to adjust to life in South Florida too - and many people consider that place paradise!
Good Luck to you in whatever the future holds for you.
Best Wishes and Warmest Regards -