Monday, January 21, 2008

Land of Contrasts & Contradictions

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!


  1. I think it’s wonderful that you have pointed out the contrasts without being critical – just “confused”. Human nature and cultural bias would have one viewing these differences as “wrong” – I sense here it is a conversation.
    That said, I am concerned at some point you may find them difficult to accept and live with, as the differences are very unique from
    your own US culture. However – for now they are curious things encountering along the way. It would be interesting to hear what
    Adnan is feeling about being home after so many years away? Is it “just like riding a bicycle” or is it somewhat difficult to go back
    to ways he knew long ago? I believe he probably feels both – but as a man, in a man’s culture, it’s his concern for how you are doing that is the real concern….
    I am a little worried (paranoid) about your public admission in the blog (and photo) of doing the forbidden driving and dressing as a man… perhaps you would be mildly chastised…but I don’t know how big of a “haram” that is as far as punishment. My friend who lived in Saudi said she hoped you would not be discovered doing that as the punishment could be severe.
    Keep writing. This is so fascinating. Best to all of you!

  2. Not knowing much at all about the country and the customs, I really found this story to be fascinating. I envy your opportunity to experience such a drastic change. I'm sure it is really hard to follow all the rules without having the opportunity to question them or make any changes. I would think that part of living there would be extremely frustrasting - especially for us American women who have a mind of our own and have NEVER been afraid to use it or express or views . . .
    I hope you are well and happy. Please continue to send your blogs - I really look forward to them. Take Care and God Bless You!
    Love ya - Tina

  3. Very interesting to read your observations of the culture and its contradictions. Keep writing - I look forward to each new chapter.

  4. While living in Saudi, I too felt confused at all the contradictions. I never came to terms with them.

    As to riding in a taxi, it wasn't allowed for ONE woman to go somewhere in a taxi alone; it had to be at least TWO women riding in a taxi.

    As a Western woman living in Saudi, I did not have to wear the face or head veil. However, I did have to wear the abaya when I went out of my Western compound and I had to carry a hair covering in case the religious police hit me on the legs with their sticks and told me to put it on.

    One of the things that I learned, as a Western woman living in Saudi, was to bite my tongue until it bled to keep myself from saying things or reacting in a way that would have immediately caused not only myself but my working husband to be expelled from the Kingdom.

    Kristie Leigh Maguire

  5. Susie, there's a new game sweeping the internet. It's called MeMe'd. I've tagged YOU and linked to your blog from my blog, Kristie Leigh Maguire's Internet Highway. Here are the rules of the game. I hope you play along. :)
    Kristie of the U.S.A.

    The Rules of MeMe'd:
    Link to the person who tagged you. Post the rules on your blog. Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself. Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs. Let each random person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their website.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Very interesting; I also wonder how your husband has been re-adapting to Saudi Arabia after having spent so many years in the USA.

  8. My husband was ready to come home and has picked up right where he left off. The only thing that really rattles him here is the horrific traffic.

  9. Hi Susie,

    I saw your comment at Nzingha's and have been enjoying reading your blog. I came to Kuwait 16 years ago for work, and eventually became Muslim and later got married here. I've been to Saudi many times (in fact, we just got back last week), and I'm glad that you're showing people a side that they usually don't see - i.e., that there are regular people there who live and work and visit family, and enjoy themselves.

    There are various reasons for the contradictions, and it would take a long time to discuss them all... But in a Muslim society, there are things that people do because they're Islamic, things that are cultural but thought to be Islamic just because their family's always done them, and things that definitely aren't Islamic.

    For example, smoking is considered either haram (forbidden) or disliked, depending on the scholar. Usually, strictly religious people don't smoke, but many others do.

    Most scholars say that music (except drums) is prohibited, for various reasons. Many people listen to music anyway... A wedding put on by a religious family might not include music, and religious women might avoid going to weddings which have it. (Reciting Quran is very different from singing, though.)

    Women shouldn't wear makeup and tight clothes in front of men (except certain unmarriageable relatives). There might be satellite channels which show heavily made-up singers all day, but that doesn't mean it's OK Islamically.

    Women are allowed to wear kohl on their eyes, because it's considered to have medicinal benefits. Some of them think that since that's allowed, then they can wear eyeliner and mascara, etc. - because they never actually learned what the ruling is and why (or they don't care).

    Many scholars say that photographs and portraits are forbidden except when necessary for IDs, etc. They do not think it's OK Islamically to have portraits of kings and princes everywhere, but they may not feel comfortable saying so.

    Many people think that whatever is done in Saudi is according to Islamic law (maybe because just about every news article about Saudi reports something that's done and then says that Saudi follows Islamic law, even if what's being reported is totally against Islamic law). In fact, some things there are Islamic and some aren't. It's difficult sometimes - but very important - to distinguish between what's Islamic and what's cultural.

  10. To Ann -
    Thank you for your input and explanations regarding several topics I brought up. I appreciate your taking the time to address them. You have been here so much longer than I and have developed understanding where I am still in awe and wonder.

  11. Hi, I just read part of you blog and it is quite interesting. As a western muslim I have raised the same questions/contradiction you have when seeing and experienceing Islam in KSA. What I suggest you do is accept that we are all human who do wrong things (sin), and not to compare individual sins to islam. If the religious police smokes it is their business. They are doing wrong, end of story. We are not perfect. It is not Islam that is wrong or contradictory, just mankind.

  12. To Anonymous -
    Thanks for writing. I do accept that we are all just human - I have just always had a problem with people who have "holier than thou" attitudes, no matter what religion they might be. My big problem with the Mutaween is that they are the "judge, jury and executioner," yet they don't have to answer to anyone except Allah, which is the way I feel it should be for everyone. What does it say about a religion that needs religious police who intimidate and force its followers into submission? I would want to follow a religion and its teachings because it is my choice. I don't agree with having religious police - who are human after all - to make sure that people follow the religion. It minimizes for me how wonderful Islam really is - Islam shouldn't need or have religious police if it is such a great religion. Doing so belittles the religion itself.

  13. I'm new to your blog, Susie. I've lived in the UAE and Egypt, so I can relate to certain elements of your blog.

    One thing I noticed from post to post is your use of the word "Arabia." When living in the UAE we always shortened it to "saudi" which the English speakers pronounced like "Sow-dee," and I presumed this was taken from the Arabic "Saudia." The word "arabia" conjurs up Ali Baba and other tales. My father used to use it to describe my life life in Sharjah, UAE 10 years ago. He said people in work understood "Arabia" but many at the time hadn't heard of the UAE.

  14. I've happened upon your blog through a couple of other blog links. Your comments (and insight) are truly amazing. I've read several entries and although it is past my bedtime I can't quit reading! I am a bit surprised that you have converted to Islam after reading this particular entry. I'm anxious to read more.

  15. Welcome to my blog, Cairo Gal and Soapy Mom!
    Thanks so much for commenting. I'm glad to hear that you are enjoying what you have read so far.
    As for referring to the country as just "Arabia," years ago when I met my husband in his rebellious youth, he was adamant about calling it just "Arabia," so I guess I got into this habit because that's what he preferred.
    And regarding the conversion to Islam, I wouldn't say that I have wholeheartedly embraced it, as there are many things I do not know, understand, or agree with at this point. We'll see...

  16. Thanks for your post. As an American muslim woman living in the US I find the numerous contradictions of the nation's stated morals, and values versus the people's behavior. I think that this is just a case of an outsider noticing what wouldnt be noticed if you were a native. I want so badly to live, and raise my children in Saudi Arabia that at times it makes me cry. I don't see any of the laws of Islam as restrictive, but civil and moral. I feel lucky as a muslim woman living in a non-muslim nation to have Islam. Nonetheless I find your words quite interesting, and I get nostalgic reading them. Keep asking questions, and dont be afraid to think outside of your box.

  17. Hi Americana!
    Welcome! I think this country is a great place to raise kids. I just know how hard it has been on my son moving here at age 14 though. The culture shock and difference in his quality of life has been very difficult. If we had moved here before he started school I think it would have been much easier for him at this point in his life.
    I agree with you that Saudi Arabia is more civil and moral than the USA, but Americans who have never been here would have a hard time believing it just because of their limited knowledge.
    Thanks so much for your comment.

  18. Oh, Susie...I sincerely sympathize with you... Being a woman from such a different culture and coming to live in Saudi Arabia is really tough...
    we lived in America for a few years, and when we came back, my mother (though a Saudi) took a whole year to adjust!
    I have an explanation for everything you have discussed here, but I wonder why doesn't your husband explain these things to you?
    I might translate this post if you don't mind (keeping your name ananymous if you wish)'s very sad that we Muslims and Saudis don't give enough support and explanations to the new and/or non-Saudi Muslims ... on behalf of all Saudis and Muslims...forgive us...and may Allah forgive us for not portraying our religion the right way...
    but just put in mind that Saudi Arabia is NOT Islam...and like many Christians, many Muslims are not good followers of their religion..


  19. Susie... is it just me or do I detect a certain... utter weariness in the cultural differences and resentment of your role as a woman there? My heart goes out to you as from reading your blog... as open minded as I am... I dont think I could ever accept the cultural differences as a woman were I to move from the US to KSA.

    Ive lived in 3 different countries as a teacher and in each of them I saw my status decline as a woman... I have heard your tone in my own voice when i was just... tired... and wanted to come home. As much as we try to be culturally relatavisitic there are just times you got to think, no thats just plain silly... and call it the day.

    I hope you are laughing long and often for humor is the only way to deal with such monumental change...