Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Impressions of a Canadian Ex-Pat

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!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Family Picture

Read My Interview on AMERICAN BEDU!

I am honored to announce that I have been interviewed by my friend and fellow blogger, CAROL, also known as AMERICAN BEDU.

AMERICAN BEDU's blog provides invaluable information about living in Saudi Arabia - thought-provoking educational posts. Carol gave up her lifelong diplomatic career when she married her Saudi husband several years ago. She has lived and traveled all over the world and has a great understanding of people and cultures.

A short while ago I did a post asking for prayers for Carol and her husband, who are in a battle for their lives as they each simultaneously and courageously fight cancer. In the face of her illness and her exhausting treatment, Carol continues to blog. She is a remarkable woman and a true inspiration.

AMERICAN BEDU also featured an interview with my son Adam (Captain Kabob) several months ago, offering a transplanted teenager's viewpoint about living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I'd like to thank Carol for the distinction of being interviewed on AMERICAN BEDU.

I hope you will click over now to AMERICAN BEDU to read my straightforward interview.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Dangerous Cultural Extreme?

There are many unusual and sometimes bizarre cultural occurrences in Saudi Arabia that make the news here on a daily basis. Today I read about a medical emergency at an all-girls’ high school here in Jeddah. The incident involved a student who had an epileptic seizure which was witnessed by several other students who promptly fainted. Medical assistance was summoned.

Now let me just interject here that there are no co-ed Saudi schools here beyond about age 7. In girls’ schools, all teachers and administrators are also female, and in boys’ schools, the teachers are all male. This is because of the strict societal norms here of segregating the sexes in social situations.

Apparently four all-male paramedical teams from four different local hospitals rushed to the school, only to be turned away by the female principal because she wouldn’t allow men in her school. The principal demanded that an all-female team be dispatched.

About an hour later, an all-female rescue team did arrive at the school and was allowed access to treat the female students.

This incident reminded me of the girls’ school fire in Makkah in 2002 when fourteen girls perished after being locked into the burning building by religious police on the scene who refused to let the desperate girls out to safety because their hair wasn’t properly covered according to Islam.

Maybe this latest incident wasn’t a clear-cut matter of life-or-death, but it was a medical emergency involving several students. So at what point does this strict interpretation of cultural segregation of the sexes become too extreme, dangerous and senseless? What is more important – saving a life or enforcing a cultural rule that could result in the loss of life?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Comparing Arab and Western Youth

A fascinating study published by Burson-Marsteller, a world reknowned public relations firm, examined cross-cultural views and attitudes by comparing Arab and Western youth ages 18-24. The results were interesting and enlightening and highlight both the differences and similarities of young men and women in a variety of aspects. The study took place in September of 2008, surveying and interviewing some 1500 youth in these six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan. Only 300 youth from the West (100 each from USA, United Kingdom, and Germany) were surveyed for comparison in this study. Topics of research included Culture and Religion, National Identity, Lifestyle, Technology, and Globalisation. For more specifics about the study's criteria, click here.

The following list contains some of the key findings of the study taken directly from their website:

1. Western youth are generally pessimistic about the future, while Middle East youth are optimistic: Just 34% of Western youth feel that things in their country are heading in the right direction. In the Middle East, youth are considerably more optimistic, with 52% arguing that their country is heading in the right direction.

2. Religion is enormously important to Middle East youth, especially when compared to their Western peers: Some 68% of Middle East youth say that religion defines them as a person, compared to just 16% in the West. Asked to name an influence on them and their outlook on life, 62% of Middle East youth listed religion, compared to just 38% of their Western peers.

3. National identity and traditional values are extremely important to Arab youth, but not for their peers in the West: 9% of Arab youth say that the loss of traditional values and culture is the greatest challenge facing the world today, a sentiment a statistically insignificant percentage of their Western peers agree with. Likewise, Arab youth generally very strongly agree that their national identity is very important to them, while Western youth view the same as only moderately important.

4. Arab youth generally admire political, religious and business leaders, while Western youth do not: Asked whom they look up to, 30% of Arab youth cited government leaders, compared to just 9% of their Western peers. Likewise, while just 5% of Western youth said they looked up to religious leaders, 31% Middle East youth claimed admiration for the same group. In the economic space, 29% of Arab youth look up to business leaders, a sentiment shared by only 5% of youth in the West.

5. Family and friends are equally important to Middle East and Western youth: Precisely 64% of Arab and Western youth say that their family defines who they are as a person, with both groups citing family as one of the most important factors in this area. The two also agree that friends are among the key determinants in defining their identity, with concurrence from 57% of Western youth and 61% of their Arab peers.

6. Arab youth want to make a difference, while Western youth mostly just want to get ahead: 11% of Arab youth say success means being enlightened spiritually and 34% say it is making the world a better place – compared to 5% and 12%, respectively, in the West.

7. Arab and Western male youth have very different opinions about gender equality in the workplace: 79% of Western male youth believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace, while just 58% of their male counterparts in the Middle East agree. In striking contrast to the attitudes of their male peers, 73% of female Arab youth feel that they should have equal opportunities for professional advancement.

8. Consumer and lifestyle habits of Arab and Western youth are strikingly similar: Young people in the West and Middle East indulge in similar activities, use similar technologies and have similar lifestyle habits. Both spend the majority of their disposable incomes on going out and shopping for clothes/shoes. Both groups constantly worry about their appearance.

9. Global brands have transnational appeal among Middle East and Western youth: Despite some differences, young people view many brands with similar levels of warmth. The top brands for young people in the Middle East include Nokia, Sony, Toyota and Toshiba – all of which have similarly high favourability levels for the West.

10. Europe is the top desired travel destination for both Arab and Western youth: 74% of Western youth and 49% of Arab youth would be interested in travelling to Europe in the future. Both groups would also be interested in travelling to North Africa – including 35% of Western youth and 21% of their Arab peers.

Here's a presentation that further highlights more specific details about some of the study's key findings.

And here's a Press Release about the study and its findings.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Saudi Arabia Needs Its Own Rosa Parks

Ihave been reading this fascinating book by Gail Collins called When Everything Changed, which follows the women’s liberation movement in the United States from 1960 to the present day. As I read along, it is strangely comforting to realize that it really wasn’t that long ago that women in America were treated like children, like property, like second class citizens, and as unimportant and unproductive members of society – much like the contemporary women of Saudi Arabia. There are so many similarities in the plight of Saudi women of today compared to American women just fifty short years ago. When you consider that Saudi Arabia is quite a young country - a unified kingdom only since 1932 and relatively underdeveloped until the oil boom of the 1970s – I guess the fact that the status of its women is still seriously lagging behind the rest of the world makes it all a little easier to swallow - although anyone coming here from a more liberated society would understandably wish for it to speed up a bit.

A part of the book revisits the 1950s Civil Rights Movement. When I read the pages about Rosa Parks, I thought to myself that Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks achieved iconic status as the spark that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for refusing the order of an Alabama bus driver to give up her seat on the public bus to a white person or face being arrested. Mrs. Parks was not the first black person arrested for doing this - but for several years the NAACP had been searching for the perfect person to advance the movement and she happened to fit the bill to a T. Always possessing an air of dignity, Mrs. Parks was a middle-aged seamstress, of impeccable character and manners. Her own husband was terrified for her safety and begged her not to agree to be the test case for this landmark case. As a result of her simple act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks was the catalyst that unified the entire black community to protest against racial discrimination – and the rest is history.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.

This strict Muslim country imposes severe restrictions on its women – physically, socially, legally, and in marriage. Everything here seems to favour men and impede women. Every woman has her own mahram – a male guardian who has legal control over every aspect of her life, which in effect relegates her to the status of a child. Women in Saudi Arabia are restricted in their movements, while men are free to come and go as they please. Women cannot drive. They must be accompanied many places by a male member of their family. They must have permission from their male guardian to leave the country or travel. They are restricted from participating in most sports and from riding bikes, and while grotesquely hairy overweight men can go swimming in public wearing just swim trunks, women are not allowed unless they are Islamically covered from head to toe.

While the percentage of Saudi women enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Saudi Arabia is a whopping 70% compared to men, working women in this country account for a mere 5% of the work force, and that number likely includes foreign women workers. This figure represents the lowest percentage of women working in any country in the world. Saudi women cannot attend school or work without the express permission of their husbands or father or legal male guardian. Plus women here are restricted from working in many fields and are also prohibited from working side by side with men, with very few exceptions.

Saudi women face unbelievable discrimination within the Saudi legal system. They are forbidden from testifying in court (reasons include that they are too emotional, forgetful, or unreliable!). Saudi women are always somehow blamed when sexual offenses are committed against them. Divorce can easily be obtained by husbands against their wives, while women must go through difficult legal wrangling to obtain a divorce from their husbands.

“Sexual Apartheid” is a term that has been used to describe the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. There are many other areas where women are discriminated against here in Saudi Arabia - too many to mention in this post. One problem in advancing women’s rights here is the lack of organization, and I believe that apathy also plays a role. Many women here would never dream of standing up to their husbands or fathers and resign themselves to the lives that their guardians allow them. Many Saudi women seem perfectly content with their lives of leisure, shopping, cooking and making babies. But what about those who want more? I’m not advocating a revolution. But I am in favour of allowing women opportunities to do more with their lives if they wish and to be given equal freedoms as men - which most women around the world now take for granted - instead of being held back, forbidden, prohibited, and restricted from the most basic rights.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.