Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Celebrity Sighting and Cultural Clash

We rolled into Madinah just as the sun was setting. I immediately liked the place. For some reason I just felt comfortable there. I loved the drive there - the farther we got from Jeddah, the more mountainous the terrain became. Groves of date palms are abundant throughout the region. Madinah's weather was delightful, much cooler than Jeddah's winter. We had traveled up to Madinah with my husband's brother's family, and the following day we were expecting more branches of the family. The winding city roads led us to the energized downtown area where the enormous and beautiful Prophet's Mosque is nestled amid dozens of highrise hotels.

Adnan managed to squeeze the car into a small space next to his brother's car outside the hotel. The two brothers went inside to check in to the hotel while we (the women and children) waited in the cars. Adam and I got out to stretch our legs after the long drive and we stood between the two cars. I started snapping a few photos with my ever-present camera when suddenly my sister-in-law (SIL) "H" let out a little scream as she excitedly pointed to a handsome young man walking by, blubbering that he was a famous Egyptian movie star! He heard her little scream and turned around, waving and smiling at us. Thinking quickly, I asked him if I could take his picture with my son, and the attractive actor happily obliged. I pushed Adam over toward him and snapped the photo and then thanked him. He was most gracious, asked where we were from, and then turned away and he disappeared into the darkness. The funny thing is that neither Adam or I had a clue as to who this guy was. From H we learned that the mystery man's name is Ahmed Ezz, who started out as a model and from there broke into Egyptian movies. Adam was thrilled to learn all of this since he had not been paying attention and was miffed at why I had pushed him over to take a photo with a total stranger in the first place. Later we bluetoothed the photo to Adam's phone and H's phone, and you should have heard all the "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" as other female family members gazed upon the photo.

The hotel we stayed at was literally a few steps away from the Prophet's Mosque, so the location was great. However the hotel itself had seen better days. Since we were late in making our hotel reservations, this was the only one available. Honestly it was a bit disappointing. Now considered a "Hajji" hotel which is used to house large groups of religious pilgrims who come to the country for the Hajj, our "two bedroom suite" was actually furnished with a total of ten twin beds - six crowded into one room and four in the other. There was not room for much else in the units, as you can imagine. It was clean, but clearly it was past time for the carpeting to be replaced and the bathroom and kitchen could definitely use updating. The booked-to-capacity fourteen floor hotel had nine elevators which were totally full every time we wanted to get on. This was a major pain! But not only that, this was the first time in my life that I have ever seen segregated elevators. Yes, there were signs clearly marking certain elevators for "Men" only or "Women" only, and it was enforced! Luckily we didn't spend that much time in our hotel rooms and the rest of the family that arrived a day after we did were booked into a couple of neighboring top notch hotels, so we spent more time relaxing in their luxurious suites.

The first night we ate dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the fancier hotel restaurants, and it was lovely. They offered a magnificent self serve buffet with a wide variety of exquisite dishes. The Hajj attracts visitors from all over the world, people from different cultures with different customs, with one thing in common: Islam. Even so, the Saudi culture is a much more closed society than most countries, and other Muslims may not be entirely familiar with proper Saudi etiquette and customs. So there can be a bit of clashing of the cultures as I found out in that hotel restaurant that night.

Since I arrived here in Saudi Arabia a little more than a year ago, my husband has constantly reminded me that Saudi women do not speak to or even look at other men. Ok, but I am not Saudi and I never will be. He brings this up when we go into a shop and I naturally greet the clerk, or say "Thank You" or "Goodbye," in Arabic of course! To me, this is just part of my friendly American upbringing in being polite and acknowledging another person's assistance. Anyway, as we sat at our table enjoying our meal, the group of men at a neighboring table got up to leave. An older gentleman of the group stopped by our table, smiled, and said "Good Evening" to us in some type of European accent. Then, apparently having heard me speaking English, he directed a question to me, asking if I were British. So I replied that No, I'm American, and he asked from what part, etc. The man was only trying to be nice. But after he left, my husband made a little stink about how the man should not have spoken to me, that culturally this was very wrong of him, and that I shouldn't have answered him. I'm sorry, but I feel to ignore someone speaking to me is rude. This is a very Saudi thing, just like wearing the abaya. I wear the abaya and if I had my druthers, I would not. But we are here in Saudi Arabia where all women must, so I do. Now honestly, I am in my 50s and have been very comfortable speaking to people/men all my life, and to expect me to change this behavior at this stage of the game is just not something I can or will do.

I might add that during this trip to Madinah, no fewer than a dozen men - mostly sales clerks, and yes, even the lovely Ahmed Ezz! (that's him on the right) - asked me where I was from, or if I were Turkish or British. Luckily my husband wasn't around or did not hear. I do not mind being spoken to and I do not mind answering. It's what I have always done. Actually I was a little surprised and flattered by my husband's little display of jealousy, but he made a big deal out of it in front of his brother and the family too, and they agreed with him. Of course, remember that THEY are Saudis too. What do YOU think?


  1. Whenever I drop by here and read what your're up to you always seem to take these things in stride, not take them personally. I would find it very difficult to stop being myself. I guess my question is, probably out of ignorance, do you feel anyone will retaliate against you for speaking to men? I think that's what a lot of us are curious about, is it a serious issue? Is your husband concerned about your welfare or just doesn't want you to talk to men? Or both?

  2. Hello Susie, I really enjoy your blog. I really am not sure what I would have done, but even sometimes my husband does not like me talking to other men (just sometimes).
    From the way you write your husband sounds quite reasonable and wonderful to you. I am not sure I could live that life though as I am used to living in a pretty casual country but if you are happy and your family is happy that is what matters.

  3. OH! I have just GOT to move to Saudi! Segregated elevators! Ma shaa Allah... I absolutely HATE when I need to go up (alone) and some stupid male thinks he can ride with me.

    I dont talk to foreign men at all if I can help it, but the one thing that is a little hard is the greeting, giving thanks. If a muslim man says "asslamu alaykum" then I should reply (it is his right over me as a Muslim) but generally I dont speak to them at all. And when I reply to the door man's wife for example, and her hubs is nearby, my husband gets a little jealous cuz he says my voice is too soft.

    Anyhoo - I know where your coming from, but I hope you can try also to understand the Islamic point of view. That man for example is talking to you cuz your a foreigner, and cuz your hubs is not there, but he would know better then to talk to a Saudi or woman in niqab for example or someone with their husband. Like, the other day, I went to visit my friend, and her husband returned home, so he waited outside and looked at the ground out of respect as I left. But for her other friend who does not wear niqab, he was laughing/talking with her.... and I dont know, it made me feel more like a princess but thats just me. Not just anyone has the right to talk to me, laugh with me, SEE me. Only the cool peeps ;) LOL no, I mean the ones close to me...

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post sweetie, sorry for hogging the comments section LOL

  4. Hi PJ - If a foriegner is to have any chance at all of surviving here, you must be flexible and be able to go with the flow. A great respect for the culture and customs is also a must.
    I don't think it would be anyone's place to retaliate against me for speaking to men, other than possibly my own husband, and he wouldn't. My hubby is very concerned about my safety here, more so than I, and would like for me to adopt the ways of the land as much as possible, he thinks for my own good. But there are places where I just have to draw the line and speaking or not speaking to people is one of them. He spent 30 years in the states with me. I worked with men, for men, had men friends, etc. The problem is that Middle Eastern men tend to think that any type of contact from a woman is an invitation for sex, which is ridiculous, but that's how many of them think. I can see when I accompany hubby to the vegetable market with my camera in hand, the poor workers there are ecstatic when I take their photo or smile at them. They can see that I am with my husband, so how could they think that I want sex? Some things just don't make sense here to me, but I'll keep trying to figure them out!

  5. I think being told who to talk to is difficult for any American woman to accept. Especially if you know it was a completely innocent conversation and ignoring the person goes against all you have been taught about being polite. My husband got all riled up at me once in the mega market because apparently I was smiling too much when I asked the guy in the electronics section what I need to connect my computer to the scanner I had just bought a week earlier. I was just being nice to someone who was serving me, but then I turned around and I found him glaring at me over the Mobile phone display.

  6. Hi Suzanne - Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I do feel pretty lucky with my man. He's not perfect, but who is? If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one. It is difficult to try to conform but still remain true to yourself at the same time. If I had my choice, I would choose a more casual lifestyle as well, and definitely a cooler climate too! Ah, the things we do for love ... !

  7. Hi Umm Travis - I loved your comment. It gives a totally different perspective than my feelings. You are so comfortable with not speaking to men, and I can't see that I will ever feel that way. I think that many of the foriegn men here, whether they are Hajjis or workers, may not necessarily be aware that it is not proper for them to speak to me, and this is where the culture clash begins. I was just a little surprised that my hubby reacted the way he did, especially since he spent 30 years in the states. It's one way in which he has changed since his return to Saudi Arabia. And that he still displays a little jealousy after 30 years - makes me smile!

  8. Hey Susie... wow! I think that would be harder than even wearing an Abaya. I am good at ignoring creepy people but nice people just being polite, no way!

  9. There was no harm in what you did. Also the young man is so cute. I always enjoy your blog dear Susie.

  10. Yeah, very cute that movie-star, but Adam is just as cute. I wonder you don't want to cover him up! I'd say he's a definite danger to female morals running around free...

    segregated elevators, as if men are a different alien species, or contagious...
    And it's too weird but again and again segregation only seems to get all men to only think about sex! Sheesh, I'm glad I live in a place where I can interact normally, and am not constantly regarded as a sex-prospect by men!

  11. Oh Susie, Susie, Susie, talk speak be the person you are. Adnan knows who you are, just be respectful and careful. You can't be someone you are not and as far as I'm concerned you've made enough concessions, but that's just me. Merry Christmas my friend - Marcy

  12. Hi DesertMonsoon -
    I agree with you totally. Somehow I think it may have something to do with control, which is such a big part of a Saudi man's being. When we lived in the states, my role in our household and our lives was enormous compared to what he did, and now it's just the opposite. But as far as I'm concerned, he married me for the person I am and trying to change me won't make either of us happy. Thanks for stopping by and adding your two cents!

    Hi Monica -
    Exactly! I grudgingly wear the abaya, but I do it. But not speaking to or smiling at people? I just can't do it. It's not in me.

    Hi Yoli -
    Thanks for your support. I don't feel I did anything wrong either, but culturally, here, women do not speak to men. They are raised that way - I was not. I just can't give up who I am - I have sacrificed enough just by being here and wearing the abaya!

    Hi Aafke -
    Adam is SO in love with you! You are #1 on his list.
    And you are so right about the segregation only serving to further heighten the male awareness of females as sex objects. That is all the men here can think about.

    Hi Marcy (Anon) -
    Thanks, Marcy - it was great to hear from you. It's definitely a challenge to try to conform to the way of life here without losing my own identity in the process. Some things are easier than others, and some are just not possible. My best holiday wishes to you too!

  13. Susie, I think that muslim women have ENORMOUS power over men. This is despite all the no-no's. I also think muslim men are very afraid of women, especially strangers.
    Of course I hope that Saudi Arabia will change and become a modern country. And I believe that women will lead the way.
    Like you, I would wear the abbaya but I would find it extremely empowering for I could wear NOTHING (and I mean it), nothing under it.

    As for your husband's reprimand, I do understand him. But I do not think I would listen.
    The fact that the vegetable seller thinks you want sex from him when you smile at him means that the society really became sick, as in ill with this obsession. I find this part sad. Normalcy is removed from life.
    I think you are handling yourself extremely well.


  14. Another result of complete segregation of the sexes is an increase in homosexual behavior. I have heard - from people who would know - that in the local highschools it is very common for the bigger stronger boys to use the smaller ones for certain purposes that I am not going to describe in detail. And lesbianism is common among Female University Students and this is in the UAE, which is way more liberal than its neighbors. A Palestinian friend of mine at University, who had lived all of his life in Kuwait, said that a little boy is more likely to be raped than a woman there.

  15. DesertMonsoon's comment made me wanna throw up... Why? Because it's a reality! But this is what happends when you try to introduce a perfect system to a community with many flaws, and then pollute that perfect system with crazy laws!

    Over here I find it really disturbing that I have to be more aware of my son being attacked by MEN than myself.

    Anyways, when I go into an elevator men are respectful enough to not try and get in it with me. Umm Travis said it all for me though :-D

    I won't be polite or smile at a stranger guy cuz he will take it the wrong way -- believe me, it's happened more than once! If I even speak English with my obviously Western accent, guys will try to pick up on that :-S

  16. I think your son is better looking than that actor. And all the rest of it is about control. Controlling the women & controlling other men in society in relation to their women. Somehow there is a notion of "honor" which has faded in Western society since the advent of industrialization & democracy. Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom -- not a Western-style democracy. Our Western-style notions of equality & individualism are alien & inappropriate in their culture. There is some truth to the the old saying: When in Rome do as the Romans. The Saudis are not embracing the West. In fact, they are seemingly making every effort to keep these Western notions of equality at bay. (Really, Saudi men would be so much more convenienced if their women could drive themselves in a car to the grocery store or the mall.) Well, look what happened to the Shah of Iran for embracing the West so whole heartedly. Really, think about it, a Kingdom is a Kingdom and Western-style notions of the equality of the sexes and the notion of the advancement of the individual premised upon merit have no place if the monarchy is to survive.

  17. Sorry for making you want to throw up Aalia. But like you, I have sons and I do worry about them - they are of slight build, a bit on the small side (for their ages) and very pretty - my little on has soft light brown curls and golden skin...
    My kids were outside playing this past summer and my older son, Salman went inside quickly to use the bathroom and left the little one out with his equally little friend; and when he came back out he found a young teenager (boy) talking to them and telling them that they must come with him because the police wanted to talk to them.. and they were about to go. I Thank GOD that Salman got back in time to stop it. I would rather someone kill me than have that happen to one of my sons.

  18. I don't question what you've chosen to do, susie, I'm just curious about day to day interactions and I know you can only speak for yourself. I'm a fairly shy person but like my physical freedom and I think that is what I would miss. I sometimes think I would enjoy the anonymity of the veil, though.

  19. I'm like you, Susie. I couldn't stop talking. It seems so rude and arrogant to me. If people ignored me like that, I'd think they were snobs.

  20. Ok susie - I have known you for 50+ years and NEVER known anyone to keep you from talking - lol -

    I understand you are in a foreign country but I don't think you need to change who you are because of that. Going with the flow is one thing but not speaking to a man when it makes you feel bad or like you are being rude is another. You are our happy, friendly Susie and that should never change.

    When are you coming home anyway?

    lov eyou very much. I know you don't have Christmas there but my prayer for you is that you can still celebrate our joyous season in your heart and that the coming year will keep you safe and happy. Take Care and God Bless You!

    Merry Christmas!


  21. Just passing through, thanks for the stories and experience.

  22. I'd tell him to get over it!Of course I wonder if it was just a big show because his brother and family were there?
    How funny to get the actors picture before you knew he was!
    What a nice young man your son is!I know you must be very proud of him.

  23. ive just come back from saudi after completing hajj, and i talked to everyone out there, you did get looks because i think they are not used to it, but everyone there was so friendly and lovely, we spent nearly a week in madinah which was really chilled out, but me and hubby couldnt get over the guys holding hands thing, there were two guys in our hotel lobby practically huggin each other until my hubby broke them up with an angry stare, before hajj i thought i would come back all covered up with niqaab and all, but going there and seeing so many women from all over the world who are so strong in their faith and dont wear it changed my mind altogether that first smile to each other is what is needed and with niqaab i dont understand how you can do that, i was also shocked at the poverty there, to me its seems like a third world country, it makes you wonder where is all that wealth going to there seems to be no infrastructure and sanitation policy!!, i follow your blog regularly and love it sorry for the long post, im from the uk, which has clean toilets!!

  24. Good points here Susie. I mentioned this incident to my wife and she commented that if your hubbie wanted someone who would act in the "correct cultural manner" of a Saudi Arab, that he should have married a Saudi Arab, then she gave me a wink. Mind you, she is a Saudi as well, so she is aware of how things work.

    It is pretty common that Saudi spouses act a bit differently abroad than they do at home.

    Anyway, I am sure he just has your best interests at heart and your safety. Even being a white convert wont protect you from terrorists today, as witnessed by some killed in Saudi the last year or two.

  25. Susie,
    Wow amazing info. Continue to be the yourself no matter what. I do hope that you did celebrate Christmas within your heart?

  26. Hello is it possible for you to take pictures of the intricate embroidery on the womens wear ?I see around your eyes the starting of something good!

  27. Great blog, Susie!

    As a very friendly, outgoing person I find it offensive that if one speaks to a man that he is so undisciplined to immediately think of sex. I'm afraid I would tell him where to go, in no uncertain terms if he was so disrespectful.

    I suppose I would ask why the rest of the world has no problem with unveiled women working, playing and worshiping next to men? Why the need to take away women's God given equal rights and make them second class citizens? Why do these men have so many complexes that they need to treat women as property?

    You are a brave woman, Susie. I don't believe I would ever want to move to a land where women are nothing but sex objects and must be covered completely so men don't lose control.

    Insane jealousy is not flattery!


  28. It would be very difficult for me to not return polite comments. I'm a "when in Rome..." type of girl, but it's hard to not be friendly and polite. I would have done as you did.

  29. I bet your husband didn't mind you talking to men back in the US. As you will find out,or may be already did, Saudis are schizophrenics and have grandiose delusions about their worth and contributions to the Umma.

  30. Susie, I am very friendly too and I talk to men. There are times when I ask my dh to handle things but he may not know what to do and if language is not an issue then I would rather take care of it myself. I always greet and use other forms of speech from my upbringing (please - thank you). If I can avoid it I do. The other day the battery on my cell died and I needed to call my dh to pick me up from the mall. I had my daughter ask the security gaurad for his phone and offer him some money, which he refused. I don't hold long drawn out conversations, it's basically short and the point, but friendly.

    yeah, I thought it was cute that your hubby got jealous. Aww Susie still got her groove!

  31. Hi Susie,
    I'm pretty sure this is my first time commenting--maybe your husband's feelings are hurt a wee tad for being treated differently. Yes, his situation may be different, in that he is married to a non-Saudi woman, but he still feels like a Saudi man and he may perfer to be treated as such by his peers. If he is not treated equally, than what does that make him? Less of a man? There is a lot said inbetween the lines when a man who would not approach the wives of the men he is sitting with, is comfortable to come approach this stranger's wife. Though I think jealousy can be healthy, really I can't wrap my head around a lot of it! What do my actions have to do with you!? Still, I a trying ;)
    Also regarding this idea that gender segregation leads to homosexuality, I'mma say no. Perhaps "ruining" a woman is seen "culturally" as a graver sin than raping a boy. Regardless, that is not the same as homosexuality, which is consensual sex amongst adults. Pedophiles are perverts, nuff said.
    Love and Peace,