Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Family in Crisis

E ducation for women in Saudi Arabia has gained tremendous importance over the past three decades or so. Prior to that, many women quit school to marry in their teens and raise their families. A girl’s education used to be limited to those areas specifically tied to religion, educating the female in Islamic ways so she could become the perfect housewife and mother, and if she desired, to prepare herself for a career in the very limited areas of teaching, nursing or medicine, careers which “suited her nature.”
While Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, English is extensively spoken and is the required foreign language taught in schools. Saudis have placed great importance on learning the English language, since it is used not only in technical textbooks but also in business, the military, and other careers. English is taught from elementary school on up.

Consequently, one of the jobs that native English speaking women like myself here in Arabia are in demand for now is to tutor in English. I am currently tutoring for two families, three days a week for a couple hours each session. One of the families I have been tutoring for a few months now is headed by a wealthy gold and diamonds dealer that my husband has known for over 20 years. The mother manages their large home and takes college classes at a local women’s college. The family has a total of five daughters, but I only work with the middle three, who are 18, 15, and 12. I’ll call them Miriam, Laila, and Jasmin. All the girls have thick black wavy hair, like their mother, and large pretty brown eyes. The oldest daughter Shaza, who is 20 and deaf, goes to a special school. She always greets me with a smile and hugs and kisses, as all of the girls do. The rest of the family signs with her and I can see that they love her very much. The youngest daughter Janna, at two years of age, is quite the character and rules the roost. She is a force to be reckoned with. Most of the time she tries to dominate my time and attention before one of the maids whisks her away. Locked French doors then keep the little one out of our way, but many times she will bang on the doors and cry to be let in. Janna is already quite the clothes horse, frequently changing her outfit twice or three times during my two hour stay in their home.

Their driver picks me up each time and takes me back home for the twenty minute drive to their home. Well, actually, it could be one of the three drivers that the family employs. I believe the drivers are from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Only one of them speaks English, but he has a very thick accent so I don’t always understand what he is saying. He is actually a retired military man who gets a pension and has a wife back home and two college aged sons attending college. The reason he took this job driving in Saudi Arabia is to pay for his sons schooling. A three inch scar is visible across his right cheek, and I wonder how he got it but I haven’t worked up the nerve to ask him about it yet. He sees his family only once a year. Sometimes we don’t speak much, but other times we talk about politics or religion or how crazy the drivers are here in Arabia. During one drive he asked me if I liked music, so then he surprised me by putting on his “special” cassette tape. Let me tell you, it was just a tad surreal being driven along the crowded streets of Jeddah by a Bangladeshi driver with Joan Baez singing in the background! I couldn’t help smiling.

When we arrive at the villa, the caretaker opens up a gate for me. Inside the gate is a huge tiled in courtyard. A freestanding basketball hoop stands at one end. There are three covered parking spots for family vehicles. So far I have counted at least eight vehicles owned by the family. There are four large SUVs, including a Range Rover, a Toyota Fortuner, and a big GMC, all of which are no more than two years old, plus an older model SUV. The fleet also includes at least two late model luxury sedans and two minivans. The family employs at least 6 full time live-in workers, including the three drivers and the caretaker, plus at least two maids. I haven’t seen the entire house, but it is rather large.
I enter through a side door. Just inside is a large two story foyer with a big flight of stairs leading to the main part of the home. Most homes here have all tile or marble floors, and most bathrooms and many kitchens have tiled walls too. There is also a kitchen downstairs where a couple of maids usually are. Upstairs is a large landing where I can hang up my abaya and leave my shoes. There are also more stairs which lead to another level, but I have never been up there. The landing leads to a very large family room with a big screen TV and a comfortable U-shaped seating area comprised of plush and cushy red couches and pillows. A large red Persian carpet is in the middle of the room. A huge dining table and chairs is off on the far side of the room. There are two more living rooms off of the family room, with a bath in between. A door on the other side of the family room leads to the parents’ bedroom. And a hallway as you first enter from the landing leads to several more bedrooms, baths, and a second smaller kitchen.

One night this week when I arrived, Miriam and Laila were on the phone in another room, so I sat and talked with Jasmin for a while. Miriam and Laila came in after a while and they were both visibly upset. They sat down on the couch and both of them started crying. I asked what was wrong, what happened? They hesitated to talk to me, but the tears kept flowing. Immediately I thought that someone had died … but when I heard what had happened, it almost seemed worse than that. Finally Miriam spoke up and simply said, “Our mother is gone.” I hugged the girls as they continued to sob. “What do you mean, she’s gone?” I asked. Miriam spoke again. “She left. She moved out.” My heart sank. Soon Jasmin and even the strong-willed little two year old were crying. I let them talk as I tried to console them.

I learned that their parents were cousins. But not only that, their dad’s sister is also married to their mom’s brother, so the problems this couple is having creates a big crisis for the whole family. Dad is always working, travels a lot on business, and makes an excellent income for the family, but he’s hardly ever there at the house with his own family. Indeed in the few months that I have been going to their home, not once had Dad ever been there.

Miriam at 18 has been designated by her dad to step up to the plate and fill in during Mom’s absence. She studies full-time at a girls college and is trying hard to improve her English skills so she can enroll in a university. Her dream is to become an architect. She’s upset with her dad and one of the first things she said was, “I hate all men!” Miriam feels she is unequipped to handle managing the home, caring for her sisters and her dad, and maintaining her schoolwork. I refrained from asking any questions and just let the girls talk and cry, while I tried to reassure them that things would somehow work out. I did not discover the reasons for their parents troubles, but I did find out that it does NOT involve anything like the dad taking on a second wife. Whew! The girls kept saying that they can’t live or manage without their mom, and the baby Janna especially misses her.

Shaza is the only sister who did not cry. She was aware of what was going on and she saw her sisters crying. Miriam told me that Shaza is so strong and rarely cries. She was reading the Quran while the girls cried and talked. Of all the girls, I think Shaza looks most like her mom. Eventually the tears stopped and they managed some smiles.
 Since I was supposed to go there again the very next evening, I decided to do something fun with them that I had been promising. I brought with me all my beading supplies to have the girls make jewelry. I had already taken off my abaya and head scarf and carted my beading supplies into one of the living rooms, when in walked the man of the house. I hadn’t realized that he was at home, so he saw my hair! Good heavens! Scandalous. I was actually surprised at myself for feeling a bit self conscious about my hair being exposed. But even though I felt a little uncomfortable, I tried to act as normal as possible. It didn’t fluster him at all. He told me that he had stayed home all day because his wife was away visiting her sister. I pretended as though nothing were out of the ordinary. He asked me if I remembered meeting him back in Arizona two decades ago, and he asked about my husband and son. Another thing that he said was that his wife and his daughters were very happy with me coming over and tutoring them and that he was very pleased about it. The man then excused himself, saying that it was time for him to leave and get to work.

The girls had a wonderful time that evening. There were no tears. They each made at least three bracelets, including one that they each made for their mom too. I made a bracelet for two year old Janna out of pink beads and hearts. The mischievious little one managed to empty out several bags of beads all over the carpet before she was carried away kicking and screaming and then kept in solitary confinement by one of the maids. The young sisters were so proud of their creations. We giggled and joked around and the mood was a far cry (no pun intended) from the emotionally charged evening the day prior. We didn’t really discuss their mother, except for me asking them to tell her hello when they speak to her.

With the divorce rate a staggering 40 per cent here in Jeddah, I do sincerely wish that this couple with five lovely daughters can resolve their issues and work things out. That is my fervent hope.


  1. First of all, may I commend you for taking on a "tutoring" job and working with people to improve their English - it gets you out and allows you to share yourself - I think it is great!!! (and a lot of work) -
    May I ask? do you get paid???
    Second - I also hope they can work things out - especially with 5 daughters and knowing that divorce isn't easy anywhere on anyone. It saddens me that she would have to leave her children and am surprised the rate is that high there. I really don't know the US rate anymore but think it is even higher than that.
    Thank you for sharing "daily lives". Pam

  2. Hi Pam -
    In answer to your question, yes, I am compensated for my time spent tutoring.
    When I first met Adnan more than 30 years ago, divorce in the Kingdom was very uncommon, which to me spoke very highly of the virtues of arranged marriages. So I was quite surprised after arriving here to learn how the divorce rate has increased dramatically. Even so, divorce is still considered quite scandalous here.

  3. Hi Susie,Hope the family can work things out.Sounds like they have a lot going for them,including beautiful children who need both parents.

    Such a big house!I'd get lost!

  4. I was surprised to hear that the divorce rate is that high in Arabia. Do have an idea why it's getting that high?

  5. Hi Susie,
    Very interesting indeed. You give us so much insight of the area and it's customs. I can't think of anyone better to tutor than you.

  6. Hey Susie, thnx for your sweet comment on my Blog:-D

    Anyways, I just wanted to add my two cents about why the divorce rate in the Gulf has become high. There are a number of factors but the main one--I think--has to do with the couple's religion/ideals. It's my personal experience that if both husband & wife are practising Muslims, the marriage will be happy in so many ways (I speak from personal experience LoL).

    Having known many women who are married to Saudi or Khaleeji men and are very happy, it all came down to their faith & values. Would I marry my Emirati husband if he was not a practising Muslim, but makes a high earning? NO. But thankfully, God has blessed him with a good & honest heart, so that any other factors are part of the perfect package!

    I know I may seem young speaking about marriage, me being only 20 (I married my man when I was 18), but I can assure you Susie, I have friends older than me looking for marriage advice so it must mean I do know what I am talking about sometimes! ;-D

    Insha'Allah (God willing) I will keep checking your Blog regularly, and don't worry, I will not stay gone from Blogging for looonnnnggg!

  7. I will be making an entry American City with a Saudi City, talking about Saudi Aramco, I might also make a link of your site to my entry. I will keep you posted when it is published. Thanks for the great things you're doing! Your post are all great!

  8. To Always...
    I hope things will all work out for the family too - thanks.

    To Anon...
    I'm sure there are lots of factors contributing to the increasing divorce rate here. Saudi women are now a lot more educated than they ever were before - could this have something to do with it? The fact that many couples still do not really know each other before they marry could also be a factor. Saudi men are able to get a quickie divorce by merely saying "I divorce you" three times to his wife, however this has been allowed forever. But maybe if if weren't so easy for them to get a divroce this way...
    Here's an article in the Khaleej Times from Sept. 2007 about the divorce rate of Arabia.

    Also, there was a symposium scheduled earlier this year to look into the matter, but I don't know what the results were yet.

    To Jessie - Thanks. You're so kind.

    To Aalia -
    You really are so mature and seem so wise beyond your years. Thanks for adding your comments.

    To Kinji -
    Thanks so much! Yes, please let me know about your post/article. By the way, your family is beautiful!

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  10. For some reason, it's not showing the entire link, so here's the last part of it starting with that last "/" Sorry!


  11. I just wanted to add another thought about the divorce rate here in Arabia. Since there is no mixing between men and women socially and certainly no period of dating or getting to know one another prior to marriage, I just wonder about the ability of men and women being able to communicate effectively when they are suddenly thrust into marriage. It must be really awkward, and unless one of them has the innate ability to put the other at ease, the couple might feel really uncomfortable in each other's company. Something to think about.

  12. But some of the things that you mentioned, like not knowing each other before marriage, are not new, so there's no reason that they would be causing the divorce rate to rise now.

    One thing to point out is that the couple signs a contract and are legally married, but they might not actually have the wedding party and start living together for a long time after that. If they break up during this time, that's also considered a divorce, even though they never even lived together. But sadly, it is true that divorce rates are very high.

    (Pam, I don't know what Susie charges, but native English speakers get paid very well to do tutoring.)

  13. I hope to read soon that Mom is home with her daughters, and that this whole episode was nothing more than Arab hyperbole.

    I don't know how many times I've heard angry announcements of doom and misfortune from Arabs, only to discover later on that the problem was smoothed over or forgotten.

    Insha'Allah, this episode, too, will pass.

  14. Susie,
    Very few women would leave their home, especially with so many children, without a VERY good reason. (Especially a relative!)Obviously, something major is amiss, and I hope that it's just something silly. However, some men take secret wives, so the children wouldn't know about them. And if that's the case, and the wife finds out, she and her children feel betrayed and all hell breaks loose. By the way, the couples that this is happening to are all practicing muslims, so when Aalia is 45 and her husband takes an 18 year old girl for his new wife in secret, (called misyar), I'd like to know how she would handle it. All women need to start saving for their future. My friend (whose Saudi husband took a secret wife and had a baby) told me, "If it can happen to me, it can happen to any one of you."

  15. Hello all, I came here to look at Susies reply. Molly, your comment made me laugh because it was a bit insulting to my husband and me. Because I don't think you know my husband, yet you assume he will do something beneath his character. Alhamdulillah (praise God) yes he is a practising Muslim, but it doesn't mean he is gonna do something like this when he knows it will cause me great emotional trauma. Besides, he is not the type of man to go behind my back and marry a girl. Please don't judge him when you do not even know his name.

    BTW I am a Canadian convert, and even though I accept polygyny as a part of the Sunnah, it doesn't mean I will accept it from my husband

    Maybe it's cause I hate the thought of having to share the love of my life with someone else, or maybe because I am too selfish to see him spend 3 days & nights a week in another women's house. And concering misyaar, I have never heard of any women accepting that kind of arrangement, and only a small portion of the `ulema (Islamic scholars who have studied all their lives concerning religious matters) say it is permissible.

    And F.Y.I., my husband is quite a bit older than me, which is what we both wanted in a spouse. We have talked about polygyny a few times, and I laid it out to him straight: I will not tolerate any such thing. He accepts it, and his reason is because he knows the amount of pain it would cause for me and cannot even think about hurting me that way. Phew!

    But to the sisters who do live in a marriage where her husband is married to another woman and they remain married, I honestly don't know how they do it but I admire their patience and devotion.

    Anyways back to the topic of the post, insha'Allah (God willing) everything will work out how it's supposed to be, and let's refrain from judging about this man and his family since we do not know the details behind everything.

  16. To Ann -
    Thank you for your always insightful comments. I can't imagine considering myself divorced if I hadn't ever lived together with my husband as man and wife. To me, this really isn't marriage, it is more like dating and then breaking up. But this is how it is done here, and to be labeled a divorcee seems unfair.

    To Marahm -
    This week there was again a bit of drama at the household. It seems like the girls are on a roller coaster ride with dad at the controls. I too have hopes that the couple will still be able to reconcile. Thanks.

    To Molly -
    The girls insist that there is no 2nd wife involved, but they could just be in the dark as you said. Interestingly, a while back I had asked 18y/o Mirmiam how she felt about polygyny, just to get her opinion. She told me she didn't like this idea at all and hated that Islam allowed it. I still don't know the cause, but the couple has been having issues for quite a while. It had to be something really serious for the woman to leave her 5 daughters.

    To Aalia -
    I think that Molly was speaking hypothetically, making a generalization, and not trying to insult you or your husband. Sorry if you felt on the defense. Thankfully you and I both have husbands who understand and respect our feelings about polygyny, regardless of the fact that Islam says it's ok. I think a husband who does not get the blessing of his 1st wife aforehand is a scumbag who is insensitive and uncaring about his wife's feelings. Thanks so much for commenting.

  17. Hi Susie!

    I'm living in Riyadh. I'm currently looking for students to tutor in English as a 2nd language. However, i'm not really sure what books, resources i should use. Any recommendations?