I originally published this article in Woman Today (Qatari Magazine), October 2008.
My first foray into the Arabian Peninsula began with my arrival at Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia in early 2000. I had accompanied my husband, a Lebanese native, along with a contingency of U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, on an 18 hour flight from Washington, D.C. to explore potential joint venture opportunities between U.S.and Saudi companies. While our delegationsipped mint tea andwaited for our luggage in a room overflowing with colorful, sumptuous furniture, a swellof activity rose around us; I was startled bya seaof black abayes and white thobes ebbing and flowing throughoutthe hall. Even morepeculiar and unfamiliar, was the sight of Saudi men enthusiasticallygreeting each other with a kiss to each cheek. Some even lightly touched the tips of their noses together. Trying not to stare rudely, I watched two other gentlemen welcome one another; locked in a convivial embrace, they strolled side by side through the terminal. Many pairs walked away, hand in hand, gleefully swinging their arms in the air like schoolyard chums. I found myself stifling my astonishment at such outward and physical signs of affection between men. Ironically, the Saudi women seemed less emotional in their interactions with each other; their greetings were barely audible or visible and more somber. The corner of the hall, however, hummed with vigorous, yet controlled, chatter from clusters of women, surrounded by the incessant motion of children. Backdrops such as these would unfurl throughout my incomparable and intriguing time in the Middle East.
In November 2000, my husband, our two pooches and I relocated to Riyadh from Washington, D.C., our home of 17 years, and settled into the unique rhythmic pace of the Kingdom. Whether at work or socializing, I found the same closeness between both my male colleagues and our Arab male friends. Even casual greetings among men would begin with busses to the cheeks and lead to protracted conversations that oftenincluded cardamom or Turkish coffee, or sweet mint tea. Four years later, we moved to Qatar where despite the booming pace of the economy the socializing patterns moved at a distinctly slower and more deliberate stride as had been the case in Saudi Arabia. As I sauntered through Doha’s City Center Mall or Souk Al-Waqif, I was continually surprised by, and in awe of, the close and intense relationships between Arab males: groups of men sharing sheesha and Turkish coffee while speaking in hushed tones or throwing their heads back in laughter.
Relationships between males in the U.S. are generally not as public in expression or exhibition. In Western culture, men are typically characterized as less openly emotional, preferring to bond over topics and interests such as sports, work, popular news, or finances. Our American male friends were usually caught off guard when my husband, born and raised in Jordan, reverted to his natural customs, greeting his friends with a hearty hug and familial kiss on the cheek. Invariably, our friends might laugh anxiously, slightly confused, politely saying, “Please don’t do that, it’s not really the way we do things.” In time, however, many of our male friends became comfortable with my husband’s overtures of amity, even reciprocating his warm salutations.
Marie-Josée, a Canadian expat friend, who has traveled all over the world, discussed her own perception of the cultural differences between how Arab mensocialize: “Although two men kissing on the cheeks, rubbing noses, and holding hands may be seen as bizarre in culturally conservative countries (like Japan, UK, USA and Canada), in European countries (like France, Italy, and numerous African and central American cultures), men greet each other with kisses on the cheeks and view the ‘non-compliant’ cultures as ‘cold’. We are all different and should not judge and assume our way is the best and only way.”
Social segregation is a very natural part of Arab culture, and forms the tapestry of much of the larger community. My husband has had the singular opportunity to experience this distinctive form of socializing when he attended several formal male only events, including a wedding ceremony in Riyadh and an engagement celebration in Doha. Although he was politely greeted as a “brother” and encouraged to feel comfortable,he found the sober nature of each event rather bewildering. Unlike informal gatherings of Arab males at cafes and restaurants where collectives of men seem intimate and jovial, traditional functions for men are typically marked by more subdued pursuits. Music and flowers were absent from the wedding ceremony in Riyadh; controlled whispering permeated the air. After an hour and a half a feast was served, and shortly thereafter the men departed the wedding hall. The engagement ritual was similarly understated, marked by muted conversation during which servers offered cardamom coffee, mint tea, and soda, followed by kanafeh after which the men dispersed. These occasions and men’s conduct when attending them differ greatly from what happens at the famed sporting event. As football or baseball does for the American male, soccer matches in large stadiums in the Middle East bring out the vibrant and competitive spirit in the Arab man.
In contrast to formal gatherings of men, “women only” events give Arab women the opportunity to cultivate a certain freedom to simply be themselves and appreciate their femininity. My first introduction to such functions found me awkward and self conscious not knowing exactly how to act or what was expected of me. Adding to my discomfort was my anxiety at being viewed as an oddity, someone out of place. I wondered if these women regarded me with suspicion: the American girl seeing this type of celebration as simply a novel or quaint experience. I was initially surprised to find these women who in public were often silent, enveloped in black, here surprisingly open and joyous, transformed by their colorful clothing, ornate jewelry, and immaculately coiffed hair.
A friend of mine, Loraine, from the UK, shared her feelings regarding her own experiences with this type of social setting. “It is easy to assume that the women from this part of the world who wear the abaye have no idea of, or interest in, fashionable clothes, but I have been a guest at a local wedding where the women celebrated separately from the men, and was surprised to see them beautifully attired in the latest up-to-the moment designer clothes.” Loraine paused for a moment and then continued: “The Qatari ladies I have met socially are also very knowledgeable and ‘switched on’ as to what is going on around the rest of the world and can easily discuss trends and social issues. It is all too easy for us from the West to assume that because women wear the abaye, in which they look serene and demure, that they are shy and retiring ladies. The exact opposite is the case.”
A cautious observer in the beginning, in time I began to thoroughly enjoy the warmth, grace, and sociability that accompanied bonding with other women. My Arab sisters taught me to completely let go and be comfortable in my own skin, enjoy the moment, and succumb to unbridled delight. At such events lively discussions thrummed as the soaring strains of Nancy Ajram provided the backdrop for vibrant singing and enthusiastic, intimatedancing. While in Doha I have had some remarkable evenings with Qatari families during which I might be one of a cluster of women settled on colorful red cushions on the floor enjoying palpable Arab hospitality and probing conversation while sipping cardamom coffee, eating dates and Lebanese mezzah, while my husband is huddled with the male members of the family in an adjacent tent in the front courtyard.
While single sex socializing is prevalent in the Arab world, in the U.S. it is a less explicit part of life. These moments that allow for men and women to fraternize in their own groups are often relegated to special occurrences such as a bachelorette party, baby shower, or shopping excursion. Young women in the U.S. also assemble to partake in “girls’ night out” evenings where they might go to an assortment of dance clubs or restaurants over the course of the night. Women in both the Arab world and the U.S. value these special moments spent together in sisterhood. For men in the U.S., bachelor parties, sporting events, or even weekends spent fishing, hunting, or camping allow for times where they might strengthen their unique relationships.
These instances might also arise within the context of Americans’ daily routines, cropping up rather organically amidst the business of everyday life. For example, western moms may meet each other at cafes, with their children, as a scheduled part of their busy day to chat with one another while their children are occupied, and both parents may use sporting and extramural interests to talk with and visit other families. In this case, many times men will coalesce with one another to socialize around the given sport or activity.
Living in the Middle East for the last eight years has afforded me not only the opportunity to become more aware of the rich Arab social culture, but has also opened my eyes to the wonderful and novel bonds men and women form with each other when the opportunity permits. Most importantly, my distinct socializing experiences in the Arab world have impacted the way I approach my own socializing habits. I find myself much more at ease among my Arab and American sisters, united by the commonality of our gender. Socializing is an integral part of both cultures and facilitates the celebration of commonalities amongst difference.
- An American Woman in Saudi Arabia (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Highlands of Saudi Arabia: Unexpected Delights in Abha (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Three) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Two) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part One) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Desert Trips and Barbecues (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Pampered Pooches in Arab Lands (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)