First of all, I want to thank this busy young wife and mother and relative newcomer to the Magic Kingdom for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview on my blog.
Let’s start with a little background about your personal life, education, heritage, and profession.
I am a 34 year old Canadian woman and am married with 2 young children. I have a background in child development and education and have been teaching for over 10 years. My family has a mixture of cultural influence. My husband is from Pakistan. My mother is originally Russian and my father is originally from Tunisia. I grew up in Canada.
Have you lived in any other countries and how well-traveled are you?
I traveled primarily to Europe and the Middle East during the earlier years in my life (18-24 years old).
How long have you been here in Saudi Arabia and what brought you here?
I am a revert to Islam and coming to Saudi Arabia for me and my husband was not related to any job but rather was a decision we made for deen (religious reasons). We decided to make Hijrah for the sake of Allah (swt) and came here primarily to live in an Islamic environment. It is exactly one year since I moved to Saudi Arabia.
Did you have lifestyle expectations before coming to Saudi Arabia and if so, has it been as you had expected?
Yes, I expected to live in a model Islamic society that adheres completely to Islamic rulings. No, I can’t say that this is exactly what I have encountered. Although there is definitely the religious aspect of living here, which is wonderful, there are also many draw backs that contradict Islam that I wasn’t expecting. The racism for one thing is something that really bothers me. Also, there is the aspect of not being able to drive, which is completely NOT Islamic and really makes no sense to me at all. Other than this, I find this society to be very dependant rather than independent which for me is also very hard since in Canada I used to do almost everything by myself. I also find the facilities for children and women very poor. There are almost no pubic parks or libraries and practically nothing to do with children here other than go to amusement parks which are in malls.
What have been the most challenging adjustments for you living in the Kingdom?
I think my most challenging adjustments would have to be the inability to drive, the cultural differences and the apparent lack of facilities for children and families. I also have to admit that lack of language has been quite a barrier as I don’t speak Arabic and on average very few people here speak English so on a day to day basis, it is challenging to interact with others.
As a Muslim convert, has moving to Saudi Arabia been satisfying spiritually? Do you think being Muslim has made your experience living here easier?
I would have to say that overall there are many blessings living in a Muslim land. The blessings of not being involved with open fitnah (like watching half naked woman walk around the malls) and celebrating Eid and Ramadan together as one nations are truly incredible. Overall, I am satisfied with the life here spiritually and living so close to the Kabbah is a true blessing and a real gift.
Your husband is dark-skinned Pakistani and you are a light-skinned Westerner – has this presented any special issues for you as a couple here in KSA or for your husband in particular?
Yes, this issue is somewhat problematic here in KSA. My husband tends to be treated like a second rate citizen. He is an investor here in KSA and is well-educated and self employed so he is required to handle legal issues pertaining to businesses, and he seems to encounter many challenges along the way. Anything from getting a drivers license to dealing with the government (SAGIA-Saudi Arabia Government Investment Authority) poses a problem. He often gets the run around, and it is clear from the way people speak to him that they are not tolerant of his appearance - being dark.
It seems that he is in a stereotyped category where the majority of people here who are from the same culture are actually uneducated and poor, so he is thrown in with the same class and as such treated very badly. It is unfortunate to begin with that poor people here (who should receive the outmost kindness and consideration) are treated in such an ill mannered way, astarfirallah. Kindness and compassion were second nature to the Prophet salllallahu alyahim wa salam and these are the very things in the KSA that infuriate me the most. The Saudis, who are direct descendents from the Prophet (sallallahu alayhim wa salam), seem to have no compassion and tolerance for fellow human beings simply because they are less fortunate, when they should be the MOST compassionate and understanding of people, as this is the birth place of Islam.
When my husband and I walk together, we get odd stares and even at work, people are puzzled when I tell them that he is from Pakistan. In their eyes I can see the hidden question lurking: ”But why!? Why would you marry a Pakistani?” I have friends from all walks of life. Some of my Somali friends here in KSA have experienced far worse treatment. One sister told me that when she picks up her kids from school each day (she is black and her husband is a white American and the children are white/blond), she is confused for a maid. When the children at school found out that she is the mother, they started making fun of her daughters. The girls were tormented at school and they eventually left to go back to the USA because of this. She didn’t want her children growing up without values and to be bullied throughout life because she came here for exactly the opposite reason: to have her children develop Islamic values of kindness, fairness, appreciation to God, but she found exactly the opposite.
What changes would you make that would improve your existence here?
I think that the only things we could do here is to try to stick together and find facilities and programs to better ourselves. I started working here because I was literally going mad sitting at home all day with the kids. In Canada I was able to go to the library and take the kids to ‘Gymboree’ and ‘Moms and Tots.’ I was also able to join a women’s gym, go shopping on my own and have weekly gatherings with other Muslim sisters. Here, women do not travel anywhere alone and I am not able to drive which makes it very problematic to be independent. Also, there are no quality programs for children here so we spend time mainly at home or in the malls, which is very boring to say the least. Since coming here I joined a parenting group to meet up with other westerners and I started working full time.
One day, down the road when Allah subhana wa t’ala provides more I would love to open some sort of quality childcare program for children here. I am also now thinking about having a kids arts and crafts class in my house for parents (free of charge) to allow my children to interact with others and also because I am very artistic and love creating things. I do crochet and sew but I gave this up here due to time and energy (which I don’t really have now) since I am a full time mom as well as having a full time job - I have no nanny or housekeeper. I am always trying to find other things to do here to keep busy and make me happy.
What have you found surprisingly pleasing to you and/or alarming or bothersome?
I find the deen aspect very pleasing and being so close to Makkah is a true blessing. I mean how many people can claim to be able to pray a salah at Masjid Al Haram whenever they want. Each prayer is equal to 100,000 prayers and that alone is a wonderful blessing. I find the lifestyle here a bit bothersome because I am used to being more independent than I can be here. I also find that “status” here is very important and that bothers me a lot.
I hate to admit this but for the first time EVER in my life I had a thought that I am “very glad I am white,” astarfirallah. I remember thinking that and I felt ashamed because I NEVER ever felt that way before, and I am married to a dark man so it made me feel so much worse. This feeling only came about when I witnessed firsthand the treatment my friends undergo each day here and I was thankful in my heart to Allah subhana wa t’ala for making me white and thus making it easier for me to live here. This is such a sad realization and I am truly ashamed for even thinking it but this is what springs up from within as we are human beings and are often selfish in our views.
How do you feel about being a woman in this society?
I honestly feel that I was more empowered and independent as a woman in the west. Overall I feel that women here are generally selfish and spoiled. Working outside the home, taking care of a house and two babies all alone here (no nanny or housekeeper) puts me in somewhat of an odd category, as it is very uncommon for a woman here to actually take care of her own kids, work, cook, clean etc..
I once had a conversation at work with a Saudi girl and she was inquiring about my kids and family and I mentioned that I had no nanny or housekeeper. So she asked “Who does the cleaning and mopping?” It was on the tip of my tongue to be sarcastic and say “A little fairy appears each night to clean my house with her magic wand” (as it was such a dumb question) but I thought I should be more polite, so I told her, “I do. I mop every day.” She looked at me and I thought her eyes were going to pop out of their sockets and in a loud stern voice she said “You mop EVERY DAY!?” She had this look in her eyes like “OMG, what are you - a maid? Why do you mop your own house?” I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.
Another incident with my current job was when I spoke with the secretary about her kids and found out she had a 5 month old and a 3 year old. I asked her if she was ok being away from her baby and how she juggles work and home duties - because here I am, stupid me, thinking of the sleepless nights and feedings and crying. I was admiring her for being able to do all of that and work. Then she told me “Oh I really enjoy my kids and it’s so great to be a mother.” I don’t think I spoke like that when my babies were 5 months old. I was more like: ”I need sleep” and “oh my god how many poos can such a little thing produce?” I can’t claim to have really ‘enjoyed’ my 5 month old. So I said, “Wow, that’s great.” Then I thought “Wait a second! Who is taking care of the 5 month old while she is at work?” and I asked her and she said “the Nanny.” I asked “You have a Nanny full time?” and she looked at me and said “Of course!” and then she added how much she loves “playing” with her kids. I laughed so hard and thought: “Sure! I would also enjoy my kids if I didn’t clean, cook or change a poopy diaper all day and all I did after a hard day’s work was come home to cuddle and ‘play’ with them.”
How easy has it been to make friends with any Saudis and what is your general impression of the people here?
I haven’t had much experience with Saudis other than the women I work with and I found them to be quite cordial and very nice. I work with a very young bunch of women (all under 25) and they are open minded and progressive in their views. Of course they are also very pampered as well and have maids and housekeepers. They are all upper class from “good” families and none of them actually need to work. They work for their own “pocket money” and are quite classy in their appearance at work. My co worker brings her NANNY to work so she can clean our classroom, and others have personal drivers, nannies and housekeepers to tend to their every need. If they want a coffee at work, they simply make a phone call and a driver delivers a coffee and Danish. The ladies are all into “brand names” (Gucci shoes, Louis Vuitton or Dolce and Gabbana bags) and I have never seen them repeat an outfit at work even once. It is as if their clothes are disposable. Another fascinating thing here is the shoes and how each outfit has to have a matching pair of shoes, jewelry and bag. I feel like I am working with Barbie most of the time, lol.
My general impression of the society is that classes and status are very important. Everyone’s house must look as though they have millions and who you associate with is also important. It seems that Saudis prefer socializing only with westerners and other Saudis. Also, the treatment of the “working class” is very bad. I used to witness the maids at work being called for every little thing; even to carry employee bags to their cars. In general this is a very materialistic, money spending society.
I think that for me it was easy to make friends with Saudis because I am white and Canadian but I know that my friends, who although are also Canadian but are black, have a very hard time here. I also see this from my own husband.
How do your own personal values compare with your impression of Saudi values?
My personal values involve compassionate, fairness, equality, good manners and a positive attitude. I don’t know much about “Saudi” values other than what I witness first hand but from what I do observe, my values are very different. Generally I find this society more laid back and requiring a lot of patience to deal with things on a day to day basis. I also disagree with the way people of lower means are treated, like Bengalis, Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos and Asians. They are very hardworking people and seem to take on the hardest and lowest paying jobs. I also find that they are oppressed and abused in these roles and I have a real issue with that.
I know Saudis are very hospitable people, but are they hospitable to the lower class as well? Maybe some are, but I cannot say for sure what percentage. Generally I see that if you are wealthy and come from the west, you are treated well and with respect and even envied; but if you are from Asia you are mistreated and looked down at.
What activities have you and your family been able to enjoy together since you arrived?
To be honest, I haven’t really done much in terms of entertainment since we moved here. I tried taking the kids to a public park once but that what the first and last time I did that. The garden was filthy with cigarette buds and garbage and I was forever removing glass and other sharp object from my 2 year old’s hands. Also, there were no swings or playground equipment and only patches of dry (and pretty nasty) grass. I don’t even think it should have been called a park.
We normally spend time in the mall. I have been to the “beach” here once and that was also a place I may never visit again. The sand was also very filthy and my son was digging up pieces of bones and cans from the sand using his shovel. He thought it was great but I was very disgusted in the overall condition of the beach and how dirty it was. Other than Makkah and Madinah (which I found to be very clean and beautiful) I haven’t really been anywhere else.
Do you think KSA is a good place to raise children?
Yes, regardless of everything else, one of the reasons we moved here is for the benefit of the children. I wanted my children to have an Islamic environment where they could benefit from speaking Arabic as well as learning the deen. Although education in Canada is free and of very high quality, it is also heavily influenced by Christian values and I didn’t want my children to be subjected to celebrating Halloween or Christmas at school. Also, I wanted my children to interact with Muslim friends and steer clear of alcohol and drugs which are quite common in high schools in the west. I probably wouldn’t be thinking this way if I were a black woman, as my children would have possibly been tormented at school on a daily basis. I know people who teach at some very well known schools here and what they witness is horrific to say the least. Children who come from Sudan and Pakistan (even if they are children of westerners) are treated very badly. Other children refer to them as “Sudani” and “Paki”. They just call the kids that way at school like “hey Sudani boy” and “Paki boy” and they make fun of them all the time. I might have considered home schooling my kids - if they were dark - like many of my friends are doing here.
What things do you really appreciate about living in KSA?
I appreciate being close to the Kabbah, Makkah and for being in a Muslim land where you can wear an Abaya comfortably and not feel like an outsider. I chose Islam consciously and willingly and this is the place to be for a practicing God-fearing Muslim.
Would you like to add anything else that we didn’t touch on?
I want to say that regardless of all the negatives, my husband and I decided to come here for deen (the Islamic way of life). We were not sponsored in by a job but rather he is self employed so we have the freedom a lot of people do not - like being able to stay as long as we want and buying property and opening a business. We both left very successful careers in Canada for the sake of Allah and I am really determined to make it work.
I pray that all our suffering here will be rewarded by Allah swt and I have to admit that there is not a day that goes by where I don’t miss Canada and still view Canada as my “home”. We are planning a trip back this upcoming summer and I cannot tell you how excited I am and how much I am looking forward to going back. I hope one day I could feel the same about Saudi Arabia and “miss” coming here and living here in the same way. That would truly mean it has become my new home.
Thank you again for being so candid and for taking the time to answer my questions!