Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.) 

I had been a career woman in Saudi Arabia for a matter of months, having left a satisfying life in Washington, DC with my husband and two miniature poodles in tow for a cultural adventure in this intriguing land of black abayes, and white thobes and ghuttras.  My experience at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh began in November 2000 and within a short time helped illuminate the importance of “people time” in the Saudi workplace, as well as the emphasis placed on achieving a healthy balance between work and “home life.”

The KFSH compound itself actually helped to bridge the work-life divide in some interesting and unexpected ways. Its vast property catered to single, expatriate females, primarily nurses, by providing a large array of amenities. From grocery stores and flower shops to a bowling alley, post office, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the grounds included everything that an average, western girl needed to feel at home, minimizing her exposure to the Kingdom’s unfamiliar customs.

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Most days, these many facilities, combined with the overall make-up of the staff, made it easy to mistake the hospital premises for a small town or planned community. Browsing the magazine racks in the grocery store always brought me back to reality. Black magic marker blotted out the bare arms, legs and cleavage of the models on the magazine covers.

My spine bridled when I first opened one of the women’s magazines to find each of the pictures of the young models with similar blackened arms and cleavage; each magazine I flipped through was the same. Later, I discovered that one of the informal duties of the mottawah, or religious police, involved shielding the community from even the slightest hints of sexuality.

This sort of seemingly nonsensical mottawah activity provided fodder for uneasy chuckles and long discussions about our mutual unconventional experiences within the Kingdom at weekend expatriate gatherings or evening fetes. Many of my single female expatriate friends who remained in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time eventually came to the conclusion that the financial rewards and unique professional and personal experiences gleaned from life in the Kingdom outweighed concerns over eccentric and baffling pursuits by the mottawah.

While the mottawah were not permitted on the hospital premises, I remained mindful of my dress, especially for work. In the States, I might have decided on my outfit for the day in the precious minutes between drying my hair and heading downstairs for a bite of breakfast. Although my clothing options were more limited in the Kingdom, my early days at KFSH found me devoting significant time to picking out clothes that were both respectful of the stringent cultural customs and professional.

During my induction at KFSH I half expected to be greeted with a neatly divided fleet of robes and pant suits. Instead, Western women like me were permitted to forgo the black abaye on the hospital grounds; we were strongly counseled, though, to have our arms and knees covered, and low-cut blouses were strictly prohibited.

When off hospital grounds, Western women typically wear the abaye; in some shopping malls they are required to wear a headscarf or otherwise risk an encounter with the “mottawah.” In extreme circumstances a woman or her husband, who in the “mottawah’s eyes allowed her to dress indecently, might face jailing.

Like most other female expatriates I normally wore a mid-calf (or longer) skirt or pants, and a long white lab coat to work. My colleagues’ fashion, however, reflected both the cultural and stylistic diversity in the workplace. The Saudi woman working at the passport desk was completely covered in black, her eyes, two charcoal pools, stared back at me. Her Sudanese workmate at a station in close proximity wore a colorful yellow and blue sarong and head covering that exposed her entire unmade face, leaving wisps of hair peeking under her scarf.

At the hospital, Lebanese women stood out in stark contrast to all others not only in attire but also in their confident demeanor; these women sported tight pants, immaculately coiffured hair and painstakingly applied makeup, demonstrating their knowledge of the latest fashion trends. Lebanese women followed the same kind of cultural mores as other Arab women such as covering their arms and legs while on the hospital grounds and wearing the abaye and headscarf in public (with their faces exposed) when off the hospital premises.  Yet, it appeared as if there was an unspoken understanding in the Arab world that granted Lebanese women more fashion freedom. Conceivably this nonconformity was due to the regular influx of Western European tourists into Lebanon during its golden age in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the civil war, when it was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

In any event it became increasingly apparent to me that women from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain were clearly more reserved and demure in dress and behavior in public settings than those women from non-Gulf countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. I soon found that despite the divergence in clothing styles and presentation, women were not typically the objects of unwanted glances or stares that sometimes find their way into Western workplaces dominated with male colleagues.  In fact, great lengths were taken to shield women from this unwanted attention; Arab women’s offices were never positioned along a main corridor, and some women even hung curtain material over the entrances of their partitioned offices.

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

As I became more acclimated to my new professional surroundings and adjusted my demeanor and appearance to fit in, one particularly surprising aspect to the Saudi workplace continued to fascinate me: the relationship between women and their hair.

It might sound trivial to Western women who fail to think of their hair beyond fretting over its neatness, messiness, or frizzyness, but Saudi women experience their hair in a completely different manner. In the Kingdom, strict mores exist about the public display of women’s hair, and Saudi women exercise careful attention to keep their hair covered with few exceptions.

I distinctly recall dashing to the restroom early one morning before a meeting and running into my workmate, Amal, splashing her face with a bit of water, her shiny raven colored locks free from the confines of the obligatory headscarf. Restrooms were one of the few locations at work where a Saudi woman felt safe and sheltered enough to bare her hair.

Wednesday morning breakfasts of Lebanese mazzah that featured mounds of hummus and babaganoush, freshly baked pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, and spirited chatter behind closed conference room doors were another. Although I usually felt awkward when I noticed a Saudi woman uncover her hair, as if I were intruding on a particularly private and intimate moment, I inevitably found it hard to look away.

Despite the ubiquitous headscarf, Arab women take great pains to style their hair based on the current rage, commonly sporting fashionable cuts and trendy highlights. Some of these women were particularly exquisite looking with their luxurious hairstyles framing ebony pools of their eyes.

On another occasion Aisha, also an officemate, came into my office and glanced around furtively, making sure we were unobserved, before tentatively removing her headscarf. Her dark brown wavy hair spilled around her face, and she asked if I liked her new haircut. “Oh, yes, it looks great,” I affirmed. “You know, Michele, you should really try putting highlights into your hair like Alia,” Aisha quipped. “Highlights would really bring out your face.” My heart swelled with humility; this from a woman who, in public, outside of hospital grounds, was not only required to cover her hair, but her face, as well.

Working “shoulder to shoulder” with my female Saudi counterparts I came to learn that they had an acute appreciation for their career opportunities, were extremely hardworking, and remained intensely disciplined, particularly those without young children.

I often felt like a surrogate mother or big sister to some of the younger, female Saudi women, one of whom would even stop by my office regularly to discuss some of her more private marital challenges, which invariably most women face. “My husband isn’t spending enough time with me,” she fretted on one occasion. “Sometimes he goes out with other men, and doesn’t tell me where he’s going or what he’s doing,” adding “I feel that maybe he doesn’t love me anymore and is not interested in me.”

I admit that at times I felt off-balance during these encounters, happy yet daunted by this level of trust from a workmate; I couldn’t recall ever having these kinds of intimate discussions in the American workplace. “Marriage is complex and challenging,” I began tentatively, trying to give my best Dr. Phil advice. “It has its ‘ups and downs,’ and there are some points during a marriage when the man and woman feel somewhat distant from each other. You just have to nourish the marriage like you have to water a flower to make sure it grows and stays healthy.”

She remained expressionless, yet I glimpsed a flicker of understanding before she bolted away to answer her incessantly ringing phone in her office down the hall. I always felt honored to be a trusted colleague and friend during these moments. The professionalism of my American employers suited my career aims, but after becoming familiar with this more familial work culture, I realized how many U.S. offices, by their very nature, discourage these types of personal interactions.

The heart-wrenching tragedy of September 11, 2001 certainly challenged some of my budding relationships with my Saudi co-workers. The events of that day left Bishara and me emotionally spent and quite discouraged as initial reports implicated Saudi involvement in the attacks.

As I tentatively entered the office the following day, Abdullah cautiously approached and asked, “Are you alright, Michele?” adding “I am so sorry about what happened.” He continued, “I hope that nobody you knew was hurt or affected.” I told Abdullah I appreciated his concern and felt a bit of relief that there weren’t any hostilities toward me.

KFSH, like many places in the Kingdom, certainly had its factions that disagreed with American policies, and I became apprehensive when it was confirmed that Saudis participated in perpetuating the attacks.

However, I was astounded one late afternoon several weeks after 9/11 when Samer, a Saudi finance manager and collaborator on one of my reports, bristled when I expressed concern for Americans living in Saudi Arabia. He exclaimed, “Michele, if anybody tries to get near you, anybody at all, I will put myself between them and you.” He paused for a moment, and continued “And I know your workmates would do the same.” Samer’s gesture rendered me mute for a split second; I barely managed a curt, “Thank you, Samer.” Despite my enduring trepidation, in this moment I had a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

Many of my friends back in the States still wondered at my dubious choice, fearing that I had traded one competitive work culture for another one with additional, improbable challenges. They emailed regularly with endless queries: How was I coping? Did I miss family and friends? How did I manage working under such (they envisioned) strict and sterile conditions?

I greatly appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I was thriving with each new discovery. In the midst of what was becoming a fulfilling and productive life transition, more change ensued: My heart sank in late spring 2003 when we discovered that my husband, Bishara had a life-threatening medical condition.

We considered having Bishara treated in the U.S., but after much deliberation we realized that Bishara would receive “top notch” medical care from KFSH doctors who had studied at some of the finest medical institutions in the world. I was not only gravely concerned about my husband, but acutely aware of how this might impact my work arrangements. I found myself in Abdullah’s office, again, hoping to trade on his good graces.

“Abdullah,” I began, as I closed the office door behind me, a lump forming in my throat, “Bishara is going to be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and I’m going to need to work out a leave schedule with you so I can split my time between work and spending time with Bishara.”

Before I could continue Abdullah jumped in, “Michele, while Bishara is in the hospital, I am not your boss, Bishara is your boss. Anytime Bishara wants you to take off from work, take leave time; and I am not going to charge you for any time off as long as Bishara is in the hospital!”

He must have seen the uncertainty in my face because he added, “It’s okay, go off and see Bishara. He needs you!” My eyes welled and my limbs trembled as I stepped over to shake hands with my gracious benefactor, the same man who had made such a stony impression on me when I first arrived.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how far my working relationship with Abdullah had come in the short years I had been at KFSH due, at least in part, to my own personal and professional growth rooted in this unparalleled cultural experience. My initial meeting with Abdullah in November 2000 had left me numb and certain that my best efforts to contribute to the financial success of the hospital would be thwarted at every turn.

At the time, I thought maybe what I had heard in the states about women lacking respect or receiving unfair treatment by men in the Middle East was true. In that instant, I had questioned my decision to leave my comfortable life in Washington, DC for this unfathomable and strange life in the Kingdom.

Yet Abdullah’s unwavering support of me and my husband during this time of crisis, (and on other projects and ventures throughout my time at KFSH), simply affirmed that I was where I belonged: among a very unique community of individuals who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them.

One early evening, around the anniversary of my first year at KFSH, bone weary after several twelve-plus hour days at the office, I turned my bleary eyes to Abdullah as he swung through my office door.

“You know, Michele,” he exclaimed, “you are the one person in our group who I know when I give her a task, will get the job done right!” My knees nearly buckled with the unexpected compliment. Taking a breath, I merely smiled saying “Abdullah, I think it’s time for a cup of tea.”

Related articles

Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.)  

“I never wanted you here,” he said. “When they asked me I told them that you were all wrong for the job.”

My heart skipped a beat. I stared dumbstruck at the bits of frayed, brown mesh office carpet, the afternoon sunlight filtering in through the windows of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

It was November, 2000. Just days ago, my husband, Bishara, and I had left a nearly idyllic life in Washington, DC, where we had shared a five-bedroom home complete with the requisite American white picket fence, to come to Saudi Arabia.

Our flight from Washington Dulles airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia lasted nearly 20 grueling hours, taking with it our two beloved apricot poodles, our 43 pieces of luggage: our entire life. Five words threatened to make our journey half way across the world meaningless. I peered at Abdullah, the man whom I had looked forward to meeting as my new boss, in his crisp, white thobe and ghuttra, searching his cherubic face, trying to comprehend his words without letting my emotions get the best of me. Was I prepared to let my hard work be squelched by this soft-spoken bureaucrat?

Relocating to Saudi Arabia was not a choice that my husband and I had entered into lightly. After spending seventeen years in the urban grind of the nation’s capital, I began to notice a kind of restlessness in my life.  I had a happy and fulfilling personal life with my husband and friends, and I enjoyed my job and co-workers, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I had reached a plateau; I felt as if I were standing at the edge of an imaginary shore like a sailor’s wife, willing a familiar ship to appear on the horizon.

I wrangled with guilt in feeling compelled to step out of this perfectly fine existence. While dating Bishara, a Christian Lebanese national born in Jordan, I became acquainted with, what seemed to me, the enigmatic and esoteric region of the Middle East.  I remained curious about that part of the world after we married, always intrigued when Bishara talked about his childhood and experiences growing up overseas. My yearning – like a low-grade fever – for a cultural adventure caught up with me in late 1999 when I felt particularly drawn towards the inscrutable Saudi Arabia.

There was no denying the effect that even the mere mention of the Kingdom had on me; my mind turned over images of white washed palaces, cobble-stoned streets jammed with merchants’ carts, and regal women enveloped in black gliding silently through airy plazas. The pictures flickered by like scenes from a film not yet completed. As I shared my feelings with Bishara, his normally merry eyes clouded and his forehead tensed. “Saudi Arabia, why Saudi Arabia?” he asked.

I could not articulate exactly why, I just knew this was the place I needed to explore at this juncture. The more I turned over the possibility of starting a new life in this mysterious country, the more enthusiastic I felt.  Newfound energy replaced my restlessness and eventually swayed my initially reluctant husband.

I thought, perhaps naively, that finding employment might be the toughest hill to climb in making this life transition. For nine months, my husband and I worked feverishly to secure jobs in Saudi Arabia. After an initial trip to the Kingdom with the US-Saudi Business Council in February 2000, Bishara was fortunate to meet a Saudi sheikh who kindly promised to secure a job for me first and then Bishara, as Saudi work restrictions limited my job prospects to academe, hospitals, and women’s banks.

True to his word, a week after Bishara’s phone conversation with the sheikh we received a call from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a highly regarded medical institution in the Middle East with a well-trained staff, requesting my CV.  Two weeks later we were notified of my new position as head of a recently established department in the finance office.

My initial excitement was short lived, replaced with administrative headaches: innumerable phone calls to management at KFSH about the details of my employment contract and salary, figuring out the logistics of bringing our two miniature apricot poodles with us, repeated trips to the doctor for the required medical tests, and supplying the hospital with criminal history reports, visa forms, and family records.

I began to think our new life in Saudi Arabia would never materialize. Whether by the sheer force of my determination or from a series of lucky breaks, I nevertheless found myself thousands of miles from the only home I had ever known, meeting my new employer.

“Abdullah,” I began, finally finding my voice. “I came here to be a team player, to work hard and assist your department to be the best it can be.” A flicker of remorse passed across Abdullah’s face. “Well,” he retorted, “I really don’t think you have the appropriate background to be part of our group.”

With my resolve building, I persevered. “Abdullah, I am interested in learning and I’m a quick study; I’m sure that any weaknesses I have can be overcome.”

Abdullah fixed me with a stern, quizzical look and then abruptly turned his back, striding down the corridor. I remained rooted to the spot, unsure as to what had just transpired. Several minutes passed and neither Abdullah nor another superior appeared to politely “escort” me out of the building; I began to realize my job remained intact and let out a thin sigh of relief.

There was never a time when I wasn’t conscious of being a professional, working woman in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East and its customs have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last eight years. I admit to my own curiosity and apprehension before traveling to the Kingdom, turning over in my mind myths and rumors I had heard about the strict rules and regulations imposed on women.

Though they most certainly meant well, friends and family had no shortage of opinions and (I would soon learn) erroneous or sensationalized facts about the “tragic” plight of women in the Kingdom. I was determined, however, to start my new life with a completely open mind and to learn as much about myself as well as the culture through this new experience.

I took small, calming breaths as I strode along the office corridor on my first day of work. To my surprise and relief, two young Saudi women readily greeted me, offering me cardamom coffee, a popular drink with a pungent, spicy, sweet taste, which served as a welcome pause from my early frenetic days in the Kingdom.

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

My Saudi male colleagues were cordial, but less familiar, tendering me gentle handshakes and steely reserves. This reception left me a bit perplexed as I was accustomed to casual greetings followed by the requisite “small talk” typical of American working environments.

In the weeks that followed, I became pleasantly surprised to notice that this seemingly restrained working relationship with my Saudi male co-workers gave way to an almost familial association; I was referred to as “sister,” which afforded me a certain level of respect. In time, even my boss, Abdullah, became a good friend and almost a brother to Bishara and me, helping us through some harrowing personal trials and perilous situations.

In my first few weeks at the hospital I found myself learning more than just my new job; the aspects of work I had taken for granted in the U.S. suddenly became completely novel. Professional etiquette, for instance, took on a whole different meaning in this new workplace, and I had to relearn a diverse set of protocol just to fit in.

At times, I found myself treading lightly around cultural and traditional roles for women and men and the appropriate interactions between the two. If I were one of a couple of women at a meeting with a predominance of men in attendance there was no particular code of behavior; I felt comfortable sitting where I liked and freely expressing myself. Women, particularly Western expatriates, were also allowed more informality when interacting about work-related issues on a one-on-one basis with a Saudi male workmate.

It was important, however, that the discussion center on work and not track into the personal realm. On other occasions, such as the time when we welcomed a new Director of the Finance Group or when a collection of men and women in a conference room celebrated the retirement of a fellow colleague, tradition dictated that women and men remain segregated.

It was during these instances that I found myself making a conscious effort to respect the customs of my host country. There were moments when I instinctively felt like walking over to a Saudi male co-worker clustered with other male cohorts on the far side of the room to discuss a particular professional matter, and I had to pull myself back. During these occasions, I felt particularly nostalgic for the easy circulation between my male and female workmates in the U.S.

My role as supervisor to Arab men, including Saudi and Lebanese nationals, also required some mental adjustments on my part, leaving me more than a little curious and anxious.

Similar to my workplace persona I assumed in the States, I felt it important to convey through my statements and actions that I was a team player and a professional. If there were issues with my Arab male subordinates having a female American boss, these sentiments were left unexpressed verbally or otherwise.

My male Saudi teammate, Saad, was smart and exceedingly polite and respectful. Our working association evolved into the more traditional supervisor/subordinate relationship, making it less familial than the working relationship I shared with my Saudi male peers outside of my group. I also contended with the matter of my Lebanese subordinate, who had worked for a couple of prominent American companies in the U.S., and regularly solicited Abdullah for my job. Fortunately, I’d encountered a similar situation several years earlier with an ambitious subordinate when I was a finance manager with a U.S. government agency.

The responsibilities and complexities of management seem to transcend cultural or gender divides. In both instances, I found myself focusing on promoting a balance between the team effort concept, and maintaining clear lines of authority.

In addition to the inherent “ups and downs” in any workplace there were some obvious differences between America and Riyadh, such as their Saturday to Wednesday workweek, the laws that restricted women driving to work (or elsewhere for that matter), and the scent of bakhour (incense) wafting along the halls.

Other, less transparent, customs left me slightly bewildered. I quickly learned, for instance, of the male Saudi habit to let doors close behind them, regardless of who trailed, as they stepped briskly through the halls of the hospital complex. In time I realized that even women did not hold doors open for each other.

My husband explained that Saudis presumably wished to avoid any gestures possibly construed as flirtatious or inappropriate. Ironically, though I regularly asked men in the States to step through a doorway before me in an effort to reinforce the notion of gender equality, I found myself missing this common western courtesy when moving through the corridors of KFSH.

Another practice I learned to quickly incorporate was using the phrase, “inshallah,” or “if God wills,” into my daily speech in both social and professional settings. Expatriates learn of this neologism within days of arriving in the Kingdom. “Inshallah” follows many expressed thoughts, wishes, queries, and responses. The phrase is so common it becomes entrenched in the vernacular of the ordinary expatriate.

“Can we meet today at 1:00?” “Inshallah,” comes the response. Or, “Do you think we can have that report finished by the end of the day?” Without hesitation, the reply is “inshallah.” One day when my husband and I were rushing back to work after a medical appointment, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded elevator.

The elevator stopped on the second floor and a gentleman outside asked if the elevator was going up; several of us responded automatically, “inshallah.” It wasn’t long before I found myself saying “inshallah” in meetings or in the course of workplace conversation.

Despite my sometimes steep learning curve in becoming acclimated to my new place of employment, the days slipped by rather quickly until I could hardly remember my daily routine working in the States. Though my schedule had a similar rhythm of deadlines and meetings, the work hours were enjoyably punctuated with gratifying moments of downtime– not the same kind of grab-a-cup-of-coffee-and-stand-around-watching-our-watches-chatting kind of moments I knew too well from my own and friends’ professional experiences.

Arab corporate culture allows you, encourages you in fact, to take time out of your day to devote to connecting with one another on a more convivial level. Usually this happens, I discovered to my ample enjoyment, over soothing mint tea or cardamom coffee served with dates or Arabic sweet pastries.

Coming from a corporate environment less concerned with this aspect of professional development, I failed to realize how vital it is to truly slow down in the course of the day until I worked on my first large project for the hospital a couple of months into my contract.

In January, 2001, the team I supervised became responsible for a new automated budgeting process. Despite the frantic pace and frustrations intrinsic in implementing any new process, it was rare for a day to pass without being offered Arabic coffee.

One afternoon, my head buried in a stack of reports and my thoughts distracted by a presentation looming the following day, a female Saudi co-worker popped her head through my office doorway.

“Michele,” she called. “Please come by my desk, I made some mint tea this morning that I would like to share with you.”

My first impulse was to decline: there were final preparations for my big financial presentation the following morning; how would I be able to finish everything with this impingement on my critical work time? However, I understood the importance of human interaction in the Arab workplace, and I knew that refusing this sort of invitation was considered rude.

I summoned a smile and reluctantly followed my colleague to her partitioned office. As I stepped inside, I encountered another woman already seated in the corner, dressed in typical hospital attire for Saudi women: a long skirt that fell below the ankles, her blouse positioned high on the neck, a black scarf adorning her head, and a long white lab coat completing the ensemble.

I barely had a moment to find my own cup when the women broke into animated banter. Conversation about our current financial project was interspersed with more casual talk about their children’s schooling or what the housekeeper might prepare for dinner that evening.

The chitchat and aromatic mint tea lulled me, as it would do in the future, into an appreciation of this particular instant in time; I realized that there were life issues just as, if not more, important as the tasks at hand in the daily work grind.

I was finding I had much to learn in this exotic and fascinating land; my first days and months of employment at King Faisal Hospital had been an “eye opening” experience teaching me not only about the importance of “people time” in the workplace, but about a culture and lifestyle that had been built upon centuries of tradition and customs.

. . . Part Two will follow!

Related articles

Wonders of Turkey: Old Antalya (Kaleici)

My initial research on where we should go when on holiday in Turkey revealed what seemed like endless opportunities.  Although Turkey is less than a tenth the size of the U.S., it is a relatively large nation in the greater Middle East region with an intriguing history and rich culture.  Sites to visit ranged from Pamukkale in southwestern Aegean Turkey with its hot springs feeding calcium-laden terraces (cotton castles); to Mount Nemrut in southeastern Turkey where in 62 BC King Antiochus constructed a tomb surrounded by 30 foot Greek and Iranian god statues; to Cappadocia in central Turkey (Nevsehir Province) with its fairy-like chimneys fashioned from volcanic stone.

View of Mediterranean & Taurus Mountains from Antalya

Following our two remarkable days in Istanbul, which included a whirlwind tour of various Byzantine and Ottoman historical sites such as the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, we chose to focus on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.  We would begin in Antalya, a popular tourist destination on the southwestern coast of Turkey, where we would stay for a day, rent a car and travel west along the Mediterranean shoreline to Kas, a cheerful, picturesque town, and then onto Selcuk and Ephesus.

Our one hour and fifteen minute flight from Istanbul to Antalya on Turkish Airlines was uneventful, other than the nearly two hour delay on the tarmac in Istanbul.  (We were told that there were 24 flights ahead of us waiting to take off.)  Good time for a “cat nap” and a bit of reading.  The stewards on the flight were great, very accommodating and happy that we were enjoying our visit to Turkey.  We were impressed and thankful to see Turtas rental car representatives eagerly awaiting our arrival at the Antalya airport – (although heavily used for tourist traffic the airport is on the small side and very manageable).  The representatives helped us program our GPS, very important in Turkey, as most road signage is in Turkish, and it is easy to become lost in the maze of cobblestone streets in the small towns and old districts of larger cities.

Hadrian’s Gate (Old Antalya)

As we made our way from the airport, the cityscape of Antalya proper came into view, and once within the city it wasn’t long before we spotted Hadrian’s Gate, (built in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian), the Fluted Minaret (Yivli Minare), and stone cut walls and structures affirming that we had reached Kaleici (“Old Antalya”).  Our boutique hotel, the Mediterra Art Hotel, was off of a cobblestone street in the middle of Antalya’s historic district.  Simple, yet clean and very quaint, the Mediterra Art Hotel, had a European feel to it and due to its prime location offered a host of opportunities for viewing the sites of this celebrated town.

Mediterra Art Hotel in Kaleici

Our first night we ambled around the immediate vicinity of our hotel, sans map, to get a lay of the land, and were treated to a Turkish hamam (bathhouse), which are prevalent throughout Turkey.  We were greeted by locals and tourists alike on the streets and from open windows of a restaurant bar where music beckoned.  Although tempted by the festivities, we resisted and decided to make it an early night, as we wanted to fully enjoy this attractive city in daylight hours.  Before bedding down, we had a delightful dinner at our cozy hotel restaurant furnished with four unpretentious wooden tables inside and four outside by the pool.  The red house wine served as a savory complement to our cheese roll pastries, salad daubed with olive oil and pomegranate dressing, and lamb over rice with vegetables.

Turkish Hamam in Antalya, Turkey

Dinner at Medeterra Art Hotel

Indications are that present day Antalya was founded in 3rd century BC and early on was part of ancient Rome, later falling under Byzantine, Seljuk Turkish (the Persian poet, Rumi, was among this tribe) and Ottoman rule.  As a result of its illustrious and varied past, old Antalya abounds with an amalgam of historical sites that range from the Hidirlik Tower (built during the Roman Empire), to the Ottoman clock tower and the Kesik Minare (first a Roman temple, then a Byzantine church, and finally a mosque).  Antalya, is a preferred vacation spot not only due to its rich history, but also by virtue of its location, nestled between the Mediterranean sea and the impressive Taurus mountains.  Bishara and I would only have half a day in this appealing town before departing for Kas, so we looked forward to packing in as many of the sights, and as much of the local culture, as possible.

Kesik Minare (Antalya, Turkey)

After a hearty breakfast at our hotel that included an assortment of cheeses, breads and rose jam, black and green olives, mortadella-type cold meats, and soft boiled eggs, we were off to experience the allure of Kaleici.  It was early April, and we were fortunate to be met with Mediterranean temperatures in the high 60s, sunny skies and a meager number of tourists, as we were visiting at a non-peak time of the year.  Since we were limited to only a few hours in old Antalya, we decided to simply wander along the town’s alleyways and cobblestone streets to obtain a flavor of the place.  Restored Ottoman homes, with traditional second story bay windows and wooden windowpanes and shutters, were a prominent feature of historic Kaleici, often serving as hotels, restaurants/bars, and curio shops for vacation goers.  Gates of exquisite boutique hotels opened up to courtyards where poolside brunches were underway beneath massive orange and olive trees.  Bishara and I made sure to visit the cliffs to the west of town where we were enthralled by magnificent views of the Mediterranean sea and Yat Limani harbor.  We enjoyed sweet, flavorful Turkish coffee at Mermerli restaurant atop the craggy bluffs, and marveled at the snowcapped mountains in the distance and aqua blue sea below where boats were docked at piers and bikini clad women soaked up the rays on a nearby beach.

Restored Ottoman houses.

Courtyard of boutique hotel. (Antalya)

View from Mermerli Restaurant.

Mediterranean Sea with Taurus Mountains in background.

We had far too little time in Antalya, but looked forward to our drive to the charming Mediterranean town of Kas, approximately three hours away.

. . . To Be Continued!

Related articles:

Shopping, The Great Leveller

I originally published this article in Woman Today, January 2009.

Gatherings of women enveloped in black moved effortlessly along the corridors while children darted around their purposeful steps.  Men in white flowing robes and ghuttras clutched the handbags of their wives while they combed through the maze of ladies’ shops and shoe stores set in amongst Starbucks, Saks 5th Avenue, and Tiffany’s.  For me, images of life in the Middle East conjured up vast marketplaces and merchant stalls flush with clothes, jewelry, and artifacts; I hardly anticipated shopping at an upscale, western-style mall only two days after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Washington, DC in late 2000.  My husband, a Lebanese national, and I were barely acquainted with our new life abroad when a friendly work colleague offered to introduce us to the many mall shopping opportunities available in the capital.  I was initially skeptical; I had certainly seen my share of American malls, but this colleague assured me that mall shopping in Riyadh was a very unique experience.  The words “unique experience” piqued my interest.  As a naturally curious expatriate with a propensity towards indulging in new endeavors, I agreed, allowing our guide to lead us through a dizzying tour of some incredibly upscale, couture stores.

Villagio Mall (Doha, Qatar)

The ceaseless whirring of cash registers following us from store to store indicated that these shoppers could afford their extravagant acquisitions.  In the Kingdom, “mall shopping” takes its pattern from western models with endless square footage devoted to stores that offer a range of apparel, jewelry, shoes, housewares, and electronics or specialty products for the discriminating consumer.  In the U.S., the ubiquitous mall ranges from low cost to high-end stores or those that blend the two, providing offerings for nearly every socioeconomic group.

In 2004 we relocated to Doha where I was similarly astonished by the quantity of malls with their exquisite shops and recreational opportunities.  Young adults and children glided around the ice skating rink at City Center and families slid along in gondolas down the Venetian-style canal of Villagio Mall.  (Note: Villagio Mall was recently closed due to a tragic fire.)  An American expatriate, Katita, living in Doha shared her wonder at these spectacles:  “When my family and I first shopped at Landmark Mall, I was so surprised to see this beautiful mall with all of its western type stores with everything from Chanel perfume to Swatch watches.  My favorite was the supermarket at one end, which all the malls have. Talk about ‘One Stop Shopping.’

Katita Wilmot

On my assorted shopping jaunts, I myself have observed that mall expeditions in Qatar seem to offer socializing experiences similar to the U.S.  Young people frequent City Center, Villagio, and Landmark where they gather to fraternize and mingle much in the same way that American youths spend entire afternoons casually roaming the mall and meeting with friends.  However, in Doha local young men and women are segregated; likewise, only families are permitted in the malls of Riyadh, which curbs anxieties about loitering single men.

I quickly noticed that Qatar malls were more than spaces of commerce or places to enjoy leisure activities; they were locations where  women could revel in displaying their fine apparel and carefully styled hair and makeup.  Throngs of Arab women, a portion in beautifully adorned abayes, embroidered with fine, gold thread, meander in the corridors between stores, punctuating groups of western women wearing the latest couture styles.  It amused me to think of these women as living models, competing with the array of clothes and high fashion on display.

“The Pearl” in Doha provides abundant upscale shopping opportunities.

In America, the trek to the mall is treated less as a prized social outing or special occasion and more as a utilitarian activity; men and women hardly dress with formal intent, preferring instead to don comfortable jeans, shorts, or baseball caps and tennis shoes.   For U.S. citizens, mall outings are first and foremost consumer excursions: Americans are bombarded with an array of discount opportunities and urged to take advantage of these savings by using their credit cards or opening new charge accounts at any given store.  When my husband and I first arrived in Riyadh, I was stupefied at the reliance on cold, hard cash.  The credit cards we eagerly acquired through our employer remained unused in my purse and my husband’s wallet.  In America we had become conditioned to witnessing consumers using their VISA card to pay for a two dollar McDonald’s food order.  In Doha, the credit card we obtained upon arrival debited expenditures immediately from our bank account leaving us free from the financial shackles that unbridled reliance on credit can create.  What a novel concept for an American; buy only what you can afford!

Souk Al-Waqif (Doha, Qatar)

Souk-time!

The grandeur of many of the malls in the Arabian Peninsula initially left me nonplussed, incredulous over the seemingly unending supply of designer goods.  Shopping in western culture is closely associated with the woman as consumer, perpetuating the perception that all women love to wander the aisles, voraciously spending as they shuttle from shop to shop.  While I never fell into this stereotypical role, I did become particularly intrigued with the opportunity to expand my shopping experience and visit a traditional Arab souk.  Arab souks, I would find, were veritable hodgepodges of intricate alleys and pathways housing shops sitting shoulder to shoulder bursting with exotic wares.  Riyadh, known for its lavish malls, luxurious chandelier shops, and abundant fresh fish markets (due to the proximity of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf), is also noted for its teeming souks such as Bat-Ha, the Kuwaiti souk, and Dira, one of the oldest traditional souks in the city.

Tablahs (Arabic drums) at Souk ~ Doha, Qatar

Ouds (Arabic Guitars)

The tapestry of souk shopping is tightly interwoven with the art of bargaining, which is not only accepted, but widely expected.  On my inaugural visit to Dira, two venerable and wrinkled men bartered for ancient daggers and swords in a remote corner of the souk, leaving me rooted to the spot, unable to turn away for fear of missing a moment of these charged and fascinating negotiations. Similar scenes are common across the patchwork of shops, laden with fierce exchanges of fluttering arms and pitched voices between customer and vender who haggle over the cost of a pair of sandals or a sheesha pipe.  Bargaining is not purely a male prerogative; women regularly practice their gamesmanship at reducing the ante for several meters of silk fabric or intricately adorned handbags.  While I am commonly taken aback by the swift and heated dickering, my husband is quite proficient at the craft of bargaining; it must be either “in the blood” or honed by years of practice growing up in Lebanon and Jordan.  Bargaining is not typically an accepted practice in typical U.S. stores with their set inventories, fixed prices, and company budget constraints.  However, after living in the Middle East for the last eight years, we have found some success with bargaining in the U.S.  Just two summers ago, my husband and I visited Lowe’s home department store where we practiced our haggling skills to secure lower prices on garden furniture for our new home.  Surprisingly, I even recently found myself successfully bargaining at Hamad hospital in Doha for a lower price to acquire medical records.

Vegetable souk in Qatar.

Like Riyadh, Doha has a multitude of souks. Some contain a wide assortment of goods and others cater to a specific clientele, such as the gold souk, livestock souk, fish market, or computer souk.  The Al-Shabrah market, with its immeasurable quantities of vegetables, fruits, and eclectic mix of people, takes the concept of a U.S. “farmer’s market” to another level. Al-Najmah is devoted primarily to household goods and hardware; it is informally reserved for men, making me feel a little like an intruder when my husband and I visit.  As a newcomer to Doha, I was excited to experience Souk Al-Waqif, “the new, old souk,” a mass of shops brimming with nearly every good imaginable.  The scent of incense infiltrates the winding alleyways, and the crush of women and their children in tow makes for a frenetic and spirited atmosphere.  Older men in turbans expertly propel wheelbarrows in the narrow channels of the souk, and the doughy smell of cardboard thin saj bread wafts around you as it sizzles on large flat half-dome heating elements suspended over wood blocks.  Scattered amongst the hearty chaos are Arab men of all ages sitting on plastic chairs in small alleys; plumes of smoke rising from their sheesha pipes as they sip aromatic cardamom coffee and mint tea, conversing with one another about the day’s events.

Ros Cutts

“I eagerly looked forward to my first experience of souk shopping, and it did not disappoint me,” remarked a British expatriate friend, Ros, of her first souk experience. “Wandering around the slender passageways of Souq Al-Waqif I was introduced to the blended smell of spices, and stalls filled with rolls of colorful fabric waiting to be tailored into dresses and other garments. I was fascinated by the collection of falcons and falcon paraphernalia available in a small courtyard area.”  Ros continued, “Leaving with visions of Lawrence of Arabia I was somewhat startled to find western-style restaurants and coffee chains dotted in between the traditional craft stalls and Arabic-style restaurants.  It seems a shame to have not preserved the original architecture and to have allowed western food outlets to open in the souk.” She paused in retelling this and asked with a laugh, “Perhaps I’m just old fashioned?  In any case, I enjoyed my shopping experience at the souk and look forward to using my spices and returning to sample some of the delicious looking food from a traditional Arabic restaurant.”

On one of our initial trips to the Souk Al-Waqif I had been taking my time to saunter along the streets, exploring the varied vendors and their wares when I heard a throaty voice at my shoulder. “Marhaba, bedak chai aw qahwa?”  Realizing the voice did not belong to my husband, I turned to find a smiling old man, nodding his head vigorously and offering something in his map-creased hand.  I realized he was offering my husband and me mint tea.  I thought it odd at first, even mildly invasive, and I hesitated thinking that he was trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. However, I learned that this was customary and realized that this type of tradition made the souk experience unique, much more than simply an excursion.  Souks by nature, rhythm, and flow encourage its patrons to slow down and immerse themselves in a kind of cultural shopping rather than simply surrendering to the shopping culture as many do in U.S. malls and stores.

Pam Weissen

My Scottish expatriate friend, Pam, also expressed how she favored souk shopping:  “My children love and look forward to visiting the souks. They save up their pocket money and love to spend on Arabic souvenirs and have bought everything from camel ornaments, to perfume pots, to musical instruments!  The Arab shopkeepers are so warm and friendly especially to the children and whether they buy or just look, I find them patient and kind.  The boys also love a bit of a barter which is always in good spirit.  I also feel that my children are safe and we can walk around and truly relax without the worries of the West, i.e., uptight shopkeepers and the concern that someone will snatch our children.  In contrast, if  I look round and can’t find my youngest, no doubt some shopkeeper will be chatting with him, or as happened the other day, an old lady in a veil, seeing my anxiety, smiled and pointed to another shop to let me know that he was there – a really nice gesture.”

Living in the Middle East has afforded me the freedom and singular opportunity to not only shop for the practical new dress at the mall, but to also “shop” for new experiences at the souk.  Happily, I am never a disappointed consumer in either place.

Related articles

 

First Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

This continues the series of posts on our expatriate life in Saudi Arabia (from late 2000 to mid-2004) through a compilation of e-mails and notes.  With Ramadan likely starting this Friday, July 20th, this e-mail recounts my first Ramadan in Saudi Arabia in December 2000.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

E-Mail:  December 20, 2000

Hello Everybody!!

Bishara and I continue to have a wonderful time here in the Kingdom!  To start with, the weather could not be more beautiful; it has been sunny with highs in the 70’s and lows in the lower 60’s for the last several weeks – and this is the end of December. Now, of course we’ll pay for this magnificent weather in the summer when it can reach 120 plus.  But, remember, it’s a dry heat, as they say.

We finalized the purchase of a Jeep Cherokee last week, and have very much enjoyed the additional freedom and flexibility it has provided. We plan to join a caravan of other interested parties in early January and make a trek out to the desert to a place called “the edge of the world.” We understand that at this site there is a massive cliff from which there are stupendous views of the desert. We can’t wait!

It is currently Ramadan, which is one of the holiest times for Muslims. Ramadan started on 11/27/00 and will end on 12/26/00.  Ramadan occurs during the ninth month of the Hijri (Islamic calendar), and begins when the crescent moon is first sighted.  (Since the Hijri calendar is lunar-based, the month of Ramadan shifts by 10 or 11 days each year.)  During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and expatriates, (like ourselves), are asked to respect this holy time by not eating or drinking in public during the fasting hours. (At King Faisal Specialist Hospital where we work, however, there are two cafeterias that are open for expatriates who comprise a significant portion of the hospital staff.)  Ramadan is not only a time to refrain from eating during daylight hours, but is also an occasion to exercise self-restraint and sacrifice, and to purify body and soul.

Atop the Sahara Hotel for Iftar Meal (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

The daily fast during Ramadan is broken at sundown with an Iftar feast. The feast, enjoyed by gatherings of family members and friends, traditionally begins with cardamom coffee and dates and moves on to sumptuous Arabic dishes. We were lucky enough to attend an Iftar feast recently atop the Sahara Airport Hotel in a restaurant with a panoramic view of the surrounding desert. The views were breathtaking and the meal was unbelievable. There was no end to the food being served, much of which was Lebanese-style, actually, including hommous, babaghanoush, tabouli, fattoush, ful medames (fava bean dish), and so much more.  Absolutely delicious!

There was a massive platter of lamb, “mandi,” originating from the Yemen and now popular in the Arab Gulf, and broader region, which is prepared by first digging a hole in the ground, or building a mud cone, and then burning wood within the enclosure.  When the fire turns to embers the meat is hung over the hot ashes and the hole is sealed.  The oxygen is consumed within 30 minutes, however, the residual heat continues to cook the meat for around 90 minutes.  We had never tasted such tender lamb!

. . . And Bishara, the Lebanese culinary expert, says that the tabouli was the best he had ever had!

Time to eat!

After dinner, we entered a large tent (majless) adjacent to the restaurant where diners enjoyed sheesha, a fruit flavored tobacco smoked from a Middle Eastern water pipe.  During Ramadan, day turns to night and night to day! Several nights ago, for example, we were at a mall after 1:00 AM. Most malls are open until 2:00 or 3:00 AM during Ramadan. We plan to attend another Iftar feast this weekend at the home of a very gracious Saudi couple who work at the hospital.

Smoking sheesha after Iftar meal.

For the holidays we will be attending a Christmas dinner with some wonderful Polish and Canadian “expats” we have met.  We can’t tell you how nice the people are here; there is an extra special closeness that develops among expatriates who are all so far away from home! We are also working on putting together a small New Year’s Eve “get together” with our newly formed friends. For those of you who know our “darling pooches,” Mish Mish and Callie, they are very much enjoying the attention of the “expats” here who had to leave their pups at home. “Our girls” were recently groomed and are looking gorgeous. Mish Mish and Callie will soon be even happier when we move to a location called the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ). The DQ is where the embassies are located along with residences, restaurants, and retail stores for the occupants of the area. It is an approximately five mile by five mile area that has palm tree lined streets, lovely gardens at every turn, and trails where we can walk our “little ones.” We have brought Mish Mish and Callie to the DQ often for walks and they love it!

Me & Pups in Diplomatic Quarter (Riyadh)

Happy, happy holidays!! Please stay in touch and let us know how you’re doing!!

Best regards,

Michele, Bishara, Mish Mish, and Callie

Related articles

Rules of Gender Socializing

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.

Smoking Sheesha in Doha

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-Josee Bedard

Marie-Josee Bedard

 

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.

Men congregating in Souk Al-Waqif. (Doha, Qatar)

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.

Loraine Barron

Loraine Barron

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.”

Western and Saudi Arabian women.

Arab and western women. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: Nancy Ajram performing at a wedding i...

Nancy Ajram in Cairo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Woman from Damascus, Muslim woman from Mecca, ...

Arab Women – Late 19th Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Related articles

The Highlands of Saudi Arabia: Unexpected Delights in Abha

I originally published this article in Romar Traveler, May 2011.

The city of Abha defies images of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one vast sand dune. The impressive Sarawat, or Al Soodah, mountain peaks, climbing nearly 10,000 feet, surround this lush region granting the visitor some unexpected delights.

Asir region in southwest Saudi Arabia.

Abha, the capital of Asir province, resides in the southwest corner of the Kingdom.  The Asir province is one of thirteen provinces in Saudi Arabia and shares a limited border with Yemen to the south.  The larger Arabian Peninsula lies between the Nile River and Tigris-Euphrates basins to the west and north, and, Asia, to the east; in ancient times this area was home to a network of caravan trading routes. Merchants transported almonds, dates, frankincense and myrrh from the Asir province and surrounding areas to trade with the people of Mesopotamia and the Nile River valley.  Spices from India were also born along the caravan arteries through Asir province by way of what is now Oman and Yemen before being transported to the more urbanized western and northern reaches.

Arriving at Abha hotel.

As a western woman making preparations for a trip to Abha and the Asir region I could not help wondering how I would be treated in the more remote parts of this land ruled exclusively by men since the ancient trading days of 3,000 BC.  At the time, I lived and worked in Riyadh where I was accustomed to wearing the abaya (long black cloak), and in some public places, a headscarf.  I assumed I would need to don the abaya for the length of my trip to Abha.  I was surprised to find out that despite the area’s rich and historic traditions I was only required to wear conservative western garb, and shortly after landing at the Abha airport from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport, I was encouraged to forgo the abaya completely.  It was a pleasant surprise, as well, to be greeted as a “sister” by the local population, which made me feel like the member of an extended family.  Due to the Kingdom’s traditional views on gender, it is recommended that a male escort (husband preferred), or fellow group of female companions accompany women intending to travel to the Abha area.  The Asir Province, which includes over one million acres allocated to Asir National Park for hiking, exploring, and other recreational pursuits,is a highly touted tourist destination within the Kingdom.

Most visitors take weekend tours of this unique destination. It is a welcome respite for Saudis and expatriates living in the country, especially due to the cooler temperatures in the summer months that range from 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the evenings to daytime highs of 88 degrees Fahrenheit.  The temperature in Riyadh regularly reaches 113 degrees Fahrenheit and higher in the summer.  In addition to offering a welcome reprieve from the oppressive Saudi heat, Abha and the surrounding area holds some fascinating discoveries for the curious traveler.  Cable car rides starting from Jabal Al Sooda, Saudi Arabia’s highest point atop the Sarawat mountain range, offer stunning vistas. As guests descend, they take in views of the rugged mountain peaks, dotted with green vegetation, dramatic escarpments, and clusters of baboons.

The mountains of Asir were formed through the geological movement of the Alps, giving way to the Great Rift Valley that runs along the Red Sea and much of the eastern coast of Africa.  Evidence of this fault makes itself seen in the mountainous southwest region of the Asir province as well as in the Hejaz region, in a series of escarpments along the western coast of Saudi Arabia alongside the Red Sea. The Tihama, a coastal plain bordering the Red Sea, extends from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the Hejaz region before moving southward towards the Gulf of Aden where it swells to meet the mountains of Asir and Yemen.  Some historians refer to the area surrounding the southernmost portion of this plain as the “birthplace of mankind.”

Mountains of Asir Province (Saudi Arabia)

Originally inhabitants of Yemen, a segment of the Tihama population migrated to, and eventually settled in,southern Saudi Arabia and the Asir area.  The Tihama people reside in the lowlands of the region and tend to live in thatched huts made of mud, palms and grasses.  Each hut contains its own functions; for example, one hut is used for sleeping, another for cooking, and another for living. As is the tradition throughout the Arabian Gulf, the Tihama people show visitors great generosity and hospitality with offers of cardamom coffee, and dates.

The Tihamas, tribal and independent, fish, farm, herd goats and sheep, and take great pride in their craftsmanship, most notably their elaborately made baskets and hats.  The basket souk, located outside of Abha, provides glimpses into a fading artisan culture.  Not only is it a prime locale where the visitor may practice their bargaining skills, an obligatory art form in this area of the world, but it also presents a rare look at a souk run solely by women.  Clad in black abayas with batoolas, gold colored masks covering the eyes and nose, the old women of Abha sit cross-legged on ragged red carpets. Speaking in gruff, throaty, almost unintelligible monosyllables, these women manage just enough English to sell their baskets.  As a western female, raised in a culture where women continue to strive for professional equality, I found myself appreciating this community of women and what they stand for in this society.

Abha Basket – (Woven in southwestern region of Saudi Arabia.)

The Miftaha Art Village at the King Fahad Cultural Village near Abha houses original paintings and sculptures from artists in the area. It even includes traditional Tihama garments that a visitor may try on. For men, black vests or simple cotton shirts, with red, blue, and gold-striped sarong-type skirts make up the customary outfit.  Classic Tihama gentlemen, or ‘flower men,’ may also wear headpieces sporting flowered wreaths with green sprigs, and sometimes dried herbs, green leaves, or grasses and a dagger, or jambiya, at the waist secured by a belt.  Reportedly, the reasons for these head decorations are to attract young brides and as a form of natural perfume.  ‘Flower men’ are said to descend from the original tribe of the Tihama and Asir region.  Women wear black robes, piped through with red and gold embroidery. For more formal occasions such as weddings, their headpiece may consist of an exotic silver band with long, thick silver beaded engravings hanging from the rim; a wide silver belt with lustrous sterling tassels pinching the waist.  Oversized ankle bracelets with large bells and an extravagant silver-layered necklace complete the ensemble.

Playing “dress up.”

Young flower man of Tihama

Young flower man of Tihama (Photo credit: CharlesFred)

 

The “Hanging Village,” or Al Habbalah (the rope), is a remarkable commune located in the Sarawat mountain range around 6,500 feet above sea level.  At one point in the region’s history, Al Habbalah was only accessible to its residents by ropes.  Researchers believe this unusual community was inhabited from the time of the last incursion of the Ottomans until the 1970s.  The turbulent history of this region unfolds in a series of political overthrows,starting in 1818, involving the Egyptians, Ottomans, and the Saudis, resulting in the Abha region’s assimilation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1933.  One can only imagine the extraordinary efforts involved in living everyday life in Al Habbalah, in which residents, livestock, goods and materials had to be hoisted along the width and depth of menacing escarpments by a series of ropes and pulleys.  These days, regularly scheduled cable car rides allow visitors extraordinary views of the ruins of the village: a network of primitive houses, built from mud and clay balanced perilously on treacherous cliffs.

Hanging Village in Asir Province

The nearby archeology museum contains artifacts of the region, including daggers, swords, rudimentary tools, and utensils. It also accommodates a five-story replication of the traditional house of the highland region, replete with multipletiers and tiny windows.  Adjacent to the museum is an open-air restaurant where one can enjoy a break from the day’s activities with fruit-flavored sheesha (water-based tobacco from a pipe).  The intrepid visitor may respectfully ask the staff to try their hand at drumming on a tablah (Arabic drum) or strumming on an ude (small Arabic guitar).  This is sure to bring smiles, as well as the odd stare, from the faces of the diners and restaurant staff alike.  Unlike restaurants in Riyadh where men and women dine in their own sections and women are prohibited from smoking sheesha, Abha restaurants allow mixed gender seating.  It was a welcome change for me to enjoy and relax in the restaurant, pleasantly smoking sheesha in my western clothes within full view of Saudi diners and other visitors.

Smoking sheesha in Asir Province, Saudi Arabia.

The Asir province provides many opportunities to view the prevalent and historic mud, stone, and clay multi-storied houses of the highland area.  Presumably, these structures, sometimes quite colorful, were built for the large number of immediate, and oftentimes extended, family members, which is a common trait of Arab communities.  The massive abodes brandish high windows and multiple, narrow abutments that run the length of the building to keep the rain out.  Each village includes a lookout tower at a higher elevation – protecting its inhabitants from tribal and other attacks that occurred in an earlier era.  In present day, the watchtowers are sometimes used to store food. 

Ruins of multi-tiered homes outside Abha. (Saudi Arabia)

A wide expanse of desert plateau borders the city of Abha.  At the edge of the sandy swath a precipice gives way to an old, crumbling Ottoman fort.  Evidence of rolling green mountains and alluring lush valleys lay along the horizon.  Ottoman graveyards, designated by misshapen sandstone burial markers, pervade the landscape.  The location affords ideal moments for travelers to decompress, relax, and take in the spiritual nature that permeates the ruins.

Ruins of Ottoman fort in background. (Asir Province, Saudi Arabia)

Related articles

Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia

Where did we live?  It was a simple enough question.  The taxi driver repeated the question with a hint of exasperation in his voice.  My husband, Bishara, and I had just been to the Faisaliyah, an impressive triangular tower in the heart of Riyadh that housed a luxury hotel and prominent shopping mall. The building, which rose nearly 900 feet, displayed a glass sphere balanced perilously on the summit that contained the hotel’s multi-leveled restaurant.  At the hotel, we had shared tea and Arabic pastries with a member of the American Businessmen’s Association, Riyadh chapter, a gentleman we had met on an earlier trip to the Kingdom in February 2000 in association with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.  It was now early November 2000 and we had been in Saudi Arabia for three days, which had passed in a frenzy of activities: filing endless administrative forms, signing a final official employment contract with King Faisal Specialist Hospital, (KFSH), making multiple visits to the Family Medicine offices for vaccinations, signing more forms, and meeting my co-workers in the Finance department and orientation sessions.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Where I worked.

Bishara and my eyes locked in desperation.  Where did we live?  We didn’t have a resident address.  Street addresses did not exist in Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh is a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island and, to us, seemed like a confusing hodgepodge of contemporary skyscrapers, Arab sweet pastry shops, cozy outdoor cafes, luxurioushaute couture shops, the ever- present McDonalds, and traditional souks with intricate cobblestone alleyways.  Later, Bishara and I found out the expatriate population used landmarks to define quadrants of the massive city. The roundabout area near a billboard advertising Pepsi Cola was coined the Pepsi Cola Roundabout. The ghoulish and infamous Death Roundabout named after the excessive number of deadly accidents that took place within its curves.  Family and friends back home found it odd that our mailing address included a departmental code associated with the individual’s place of employment.  Bishara eventually recalled that there was a high-end shoe shop on the ground floor of our apartment building.  Shoe shop, shoe shop, what is shoe shop? asked our taxi driver, a middle aged man with a deeply wrinkled face, an off-white tunic and white embroidered skull cap.“Qaser Al-Ahtheiah.”  Bishara exclaimed!  “Ahh, Qaser Al-Ahtheiah,” the taxi driver proudly yelled back.  Bishara leaned over and translated, “Remember the Shoe Palace?”  Yes, this sounded vaguely familiar.  I remembered seeing the marquee through my peripheral vision as we sped away in a taxi we had caught around the corner from the shoe store earlier in the day.

Arab Sweet Pastry Shop in Riyadh

Only three days prior we were met at the Riyadh airport by an official from the KFSH, after a nearly 20 hour flight from Washington, D.C. We greeted our contact with our nine pieces of luggage and two adorable miniature poodles, Mish Mish and Callie, who had traveled with us in the plane’s cabin to join in our adventure, and piled into a van.  We started our journey at Dulles airport, outside Washington D.C., with 43 pieces of luggage including suitcases, trunks, and boxes with every assortment of household item and clothes for every season that we naively felt compelled to lug halfway around the world.  Although we had notified the airlines that we would have excess baggage, the airline representatives took one look at us with our mounds of luggage and two pooches, and said “No way.”  It was one more obstacle to be overcome.  We rummaged through several trunks and suitcases to determine what we really needed for the next couple of weeks, decided we’d need to send 34 pieces separately by cargo, and in the process missed our plane.  Crazy, was the consensus from our friends in the U.S. and from the compatriots we met later in the Kingdom.  In contrast, a Canadian family with two young children who became fast friends within a month of our arrival, and who lived in an expatriate compound in Riyadh, had brought only eight pieces of luggage for an indefinite stay.

Me, Bishara, and the pups with our luggage. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

Prior to moving to Saudi Arabia, we had exchanged innumerable e-mail messages and phone calls with administrators and the Finance department at KFSH, where I would be working, to beseech them to sidestep the regulations that dogs would not be allowed in official KFSH residences.  We explained that our pooches were good natured and just like family to us.  There was much back and forth, and considerable resistance initially, however, it became increasingly clear that with continued persistence we just might be able to prevail.  To complicate matters we had been going through an exhaustive process of filling out paperwork that needed signatures and official stamps from the U.S. department of the Interior, Agriculture, and our vet.  With each successive e-mail we could feel the resolve of the KFSH administrator on the other end of the transmission softening.  An absolute “no,” became “let me check further into it,” later becoming “maybe we could house you in temporary quarters initially,” and finally becoming “okay bring your dogs and we’ll work something out.”

It was becoming increasingly clear that there were definite shades of gray in the Kingdom and that although there were rules and regulations there were many cases where the edges could be bent with sufficient determination.  Such was the case with our fixation on bringing our pooches with us to Riyadh.  We were willing to hold our breath for longer than the other side.  An hour before landing at Riyadh airport, I pondered all that could go wrong once we landed and began moving through immigration, a sense of apprehension rising within me.  After all, we had not one dog but two, and we knew that the Kingdom was not a particularly dog-friendly place.  In addition to gathering all of the immigration paperwork for me and my husband, I checked to make sure that Mish Mish and Callies’s documents were in order.  As we moved through immigration our youngest, Callie, slung over Bishara’s shoulder in a doggie carrier, let out a small yelp. The tall and officious looking immigration officer turned toward us, “For God’s sake, what was that?!?,” he screeched. Bishara replied sheepishly, “That’s just our dog.”  “How many dogs,” the official retorted with a menacing grimace as he eyed the dog carrier hanging off my shoulder.  Bishara answered even more sheepishly, “two.”  “Haraam, haraam, (forbidden, forbidden), we cannot touch them, let them go through,” was the officer’s clipped response.  With a fling of the official’s arm we were through immigration without so much as a peek at the carefully prepared paperwork for our cherished pups.

Hurtling along the modern causeway with its pristine medians cradling palm trees and colorful flowers, I was reminded of the unusual driving habits of our Saudi hosts, which I had experienced during our trip to the Kingdom nine months earlier. Many cars rode two abreast in a single lane. Others cruised along the white line of the lane divider itself, which we came to find out was a frequent occurrence. Even more alarming was the practice of cars switching lanes from far right to far lift to make a left-hand turn or vice versa, in one swift maneuver, a compulsion that we would find happened far too regularly.  The car horn surpassed all other signals as the driving sound of choice. It was not unusual to be stopped at a red light and hear car horns start to chorus from all sides. Saudi drivers made New York motorists seem sleepy in comparison.  Of course, I could snicker; women were prohibited from driving in the Kingdom.

We finally arrived at our new place of residence, Olaya 8, in the heart of the city and right across the street from the soon to be completed Kingdom Center with its nearly limitless haute couture shops.  As we approached a security guard near the entrance of our apartment building both pooches began whooping and hollering, as if they knew we were nearing the end of our journey.  The guard, a formidable looking man with furrowed brow and of stocky stature, practically fell off his feet with surprise. “What is that?” he asked in limited English.  “These are our dogs,” Bishara said, trying to remain calm and keep his voice friendly. “We are KFSH employees, and we have been approved to have the dogs live with us.”  “What are you saying?” the guard shot back.  Bishara repeated, “These are our dogs, and they have been approved to live with us.”  The guard looked skeptical. His face continued to cloud.  “Oh, no, no, no!!” he shouted, his voice rising with each syllable. “No dogs, no dogs!”  “Look, we have a document showing that we have been approved,” Bishara said.  Scowling, the guard grabbed the document out of Bishara’s hands. He stared so hard at the paper I expected a burnt hole to appear at any second. It was obvious he still did not understand.  “No dogs!” was the insistent reply.  It was time for Bishara to use his powers of persuasion.  Calmly, yet with conviction, Bishara began in Arabic, “We have just flown half around the world from America, and right now we are exhausted.”  Bishara continued, “I do think that this is something we can settle tomorrow.”  The guard’s shoulders relaxed; and he pointed us to the double glass doors of the building’s entrance.

Bishara and pups outside front door of Olaya 8 apartment.

The white marble floors of the apartment building sparkled, specks of brown and gray reflecting off the long fluorescent lamps strewn along the ceilings.  We crawled into a cramped elevator, one of those smallish European type elevators, to the seventh floor.  The KFSH representative led the way into our apartment. Piling our luggage in a corner and setting our pooches free, we began surveying our new home away from home.  The apartment was a cavernous place, nearly the size of our 3,000 square foot home outside of Washington, DC, and fully furnished. Colorful reds and greens threaded through the material on a supple couch, love seat, and two chairs in a very long and narrow living room.  A large dining room contained a hardwood table with chairs to seat eight and a matching armoire stocked with plates and glasses. The kitchen was ample, yet somewhat dated, but contained all the necessary utensils pots and pans, cooking sundries such as a microwave, blender and knife block, and even dry goods such as bread, peanut butter, granola bars, and cereal.  A washer and dryer occupied a side room off the kitchen.  A protracted hallway led to three expansive bedrooms with more than sufficient closet and cupboard space.  Two and a half bathrooms were strategically located in the apartment, with the half bath in the foyer looking like something out of “Homes and Gardens;” with finely curved golden fixtures.

View from our Olaya apartment of Kingdom Center construction. (November 2000)

As we approached our apartment building in the KFSH van, we had been happy to spy large balconies running the length and breadth of the imposing edifice; Bishara and I had lived in an apartment building in northern Virginia when we first married, and unlike many of our neighbors made very good use of our spacious balcony, barbecuing regularly and relishing weekend breakfasts in the early morning sun.  My heart skipped a beat as I tugged at the balcony door, and was unable to budge it open.  Even Bishara’s brute force was ineffective.  Peering behind the curtains of the pane glass window, I found a thick chain lock threaded through the door handle and another protruding piece of metal clamped to the outside wall.  I asked the KFSH official, who was about to depart for Riyadh airport to assist another group of incoming KFSH employees, about the lock.  “All of the balcony doors of the building are locked,” he said, matter-of-factly.  Bishara whispered in my ear, “That’s weird.”  My spine stiffened ever so slightly.

Although we had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of food on our Saudia airlines flights, by the early evening the effects of jet lag dictated that we brave the streets of downtown Riyadh on foot to pick up some more substantive nourishment.  Given the dubious driving conditions, we were certain this would be a daunting task. Our notions were confirmed when we tried to cross the street. Flagging down a policeman standing near the intersection outside our building, we expressed our concern with crossing the boulevard.  “If God wills, you will make it across.” The policeman deadpanned. “Good luck to you.”  On top of it all, I was still unaccustomed to my abaya, which I was regularly tripping over.  Bishara and I decided that we would hail a cab to cross the street.

Grocery store around the corner from our Olaya 8 apartment. (Riyadh, KSA)

We finally settled on a grocery shop around the corner where we encountered a wonder of freshly cut lamb and the freshest of vegetables. We found it a bit easier to communicate with the Pakistani and Nepali shopkeepers. After losing ourselves in the honeycombed aisles of the shop, Bishara reappeared with a broad smile, “They’ve got Budweiser. I can’t believe it, they’ve got Budweiser!”  “It’s non-alcoholic,” came a voice just over Bishara’s shoulder.  The curves of Bishara’s mouth straightened, a baffled look replaced the sparkle in his face.  The shop vendor continued, “There is no alcohol in Saudi.  Only non-alcoholic drinks.”  We had read about this in our information packets regarding Saudi culture and general “do’s and don’ts.” The promise of a tasty beer snatched from Bishara’s palate still left him nonplused.

As we left the store, the bag boy followed us out with our full cart.  We stepped out onto the sidewalk and Bishara turned to take hold of the shopping cart for the trip home.  The young man, with a slight build and mussed, thick dark hair hanging over his forehead, pulled the cart away and continued forward with an expression of steadfast purpose.  Bishara politely announced, “It’s okay, we’ll take it from here.”  Expressionless, the bag boy continued marching forward along the sidewalk.  Bishara repeated, “Thank you, you can give me the cart now.”  The bag boy appeared to not have heard or was ignoring us completely.  We gave up. We neared the corner and Bishara pointed the young man the way home.  Down the street of our apartment building, up the elevator, and into our apartment, the bag boy remained with us the entire way.  As we stepped through the doorway, our girls immediately began their ritual of zealously welcoming our visitor with leaps to the buttocks, nibbles to the hands, not to mention pitiful crying, garnering the first emotion from this goodhearted young man; sheer terror.  Cornering our pups, coaxing them out of the room and into a bedroom, we shut the door.  Returning to the front door, we told the panic-stricken young man that all was safe and under control.  His composure slowlyreturning, our compassionate attendant pulled the shopping cart into the kitchen and proceeded to empty the bags placing the items on the counters.  Bishara slipped our friend a hefty tip, and he evaporated into the night air.

Even before arriving home from our grocery shopping jaunt, we could hear our pooches’ high pitched yapping intruding upon the stillness of the night.  We had let our pups relieve themselves in enormous potted plants in a corner of Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and in the parking lot just outside the Riyadh airport terminal upon our arrival in the Kingdom.  It was apparent that nature was calling, once again, after a long night and day in the confined space of a doggie carrier.  This presented an unforeseen predicament.  We were in an apartment building in the middle of the capital city, and our query about grassy spots around town had been met with bewilderment and shoulder shrugs.  The only grass to be found in Riyadh was a park that was miles away, and the Diplomatic Quarter a three square mile quadrant of the city that housed many of the countries embassies, was even further away.

“Walk time” for the pups. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We needed to explore our neighborhood and determine what makeshift arrangements we could organize for “our girls.” It was time to don my abaya, once again.  Near the end of our previous stint in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year, I had begun to accept the abaya as a second skin.  Before coming to the Kingdom, I had several friends try to dissuade me from this crazy thinking about wanting to go to Saudi Arabia, and one of the dubious, and I would later find, flawed, arguments used was, “You’re going to have to wear one of those long black robes, and if you show your ankles the religious police are going to whack your leg with a stick.”  These types ofaccounts only served to make me more determined to follow through with my adventure, even more curious about what this unconventional place would be like.

One great thing about the abaya is that you can wear anything underneath it.  If you’re having a bad hair day, you can even wrap a scarf around your head, and still fit in perfectly.  Pajamas typically became my attire of choice under my abaya when Bishara and I walked the dogs before going to bed and first thing in the morning before breakfast.  On the first sojourn through our neighborhood, we wandered down through the ample streets with their stand-alone concrete homes and stone wall perimeters looking for a suitable place for the girls. We spotted an empty lot with beige sand and chunks of concrete with jagged edges.  It wasn’t the green grass of home, but seemed like our only alternative.  Mish Mish and Callie weren’t entirely receptive to squatting amongst twigs and an assortment of scattered brush and the occasional empty soda can, however, they soon realized that this was as good as it was going to get.  A middle aged Saudi gentleman with bright white thobe, carefully positioned ghuttra, and gracious heart who lived across the street from the empty lot spied us on this first night and asked if the dogs would like to come into his courtyard to consume some grass.  Evidently he thought our fluffy and curly haired companions were sheep.  Our girls are “people pooches” and were only too happy to pounce all over and apply licks to the tip of the nose of this unsuspecting benefactor, very un-sheep-like behavior, putting this kind man in a bit of a tizzy.  “Uh, oh,” Bishara exclaimed as our pups began eyeing the lush green grass just inside the courtyard, and not as an appetizer; with a yank on their leashes we were out of there, the kind gentleman waving us off with a crooked smiled plastered on his face muttering something unintelligible under his breath as we scampered off.

On that first night in Riyadh, Bishara and the pooches ensconced comfortably in bed, belying the fact that we were on the precipice of beginning our unusual new adventure, I wandered in the darkness to the bathroom, switched on the light and stared at my weary face.  “What have I done?  How could we have left two good jobs, our family and friends for this strange place?”  This was the first and last time that I would seriously question the judgment of my decision to live and work in the Kingdom.

The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Three)

Although we had only been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a matter of days, I was already captivated by this mystifying and exotic country where I had been cordially greeted by Saudi businessmen and government officials alike, and even had several job interviews lined up.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, was in Saudi Arabia with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council attending a series of meetings to explore joint venture possibilities between U.S. and Saudi firms.  I was an adjunct member of the team, only in the Kingdom as a result of the Herculean efforts of my husband who knew I just had to see, experience, and ultimately live and work in this enigmatic country.  Our adventure began with a nearly 20 hour journey from Washington, DC to Riyadh, where I had been surprised to find a modern city with skyscrapers, cafes, and upscale malls crisscrossing the city.  I had been even more astounded by the warm reception I received from members of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, venue for a preliminary meeting, where as the lone woman in the room I was offered a seat at the conference table, access to a microphone, and swayed to inaugurate the meeting by conveying my early impressions of Saudi Arabia.  I felt relieved, yet disconcerted, to experience similar receptions in the many meetings I attended in Riyadh with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.

Me & Bishara in Saudi Arabia. (February 2000)

After my enlightening and intriguing stint in the capital city of Riyadh, I was anxious to visit and experience our second destination within the Kingdom, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country. Dhahran sat alongside the iridescent, calm waters of the Arabian Gulf. There we visited several leading Saudi companies and governmental organizations that included the Tamimi Group, Chamber of Commerce, steel companies, and a high-tech hospital in Al Khobar. At each destination my confidence and sense of self became further fortified as my hosts encouraged me to openly express my thoughts and opinions.  On countless occasions, in rooms resplendent with lavish and colorful furniture, oversized paintings of Bedouin scenes encased in gold framing, I was stupefied to find myself surrounded by a cluster of gentlemen preoccupied with my unceasing impartial and frank discussion on our time in Saudi Arabia and our fervent desire to live in the Kingdom. These men, radiant and dignified in their impeccably white starched robes and colorful headscarves, typically kept a comfortable distance, but in these instances would often lean forward intently, hands clasped on their lap, or resting comfortably on the arms of their chair, their resolute eyes focused on me. Onlookers seemed drawn, although with noticeable reserve, to this ongoing repartee between the spirited American woman and the assemblage of their countrymen. One impassioned remark I heard from Saudi businessmenon a number of these occasions related to their concern over women not being permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.  As one distinguished gentleman rejoined, the growth of the Saudi economy would double if women were allowed to drive.

Bishara on beach in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Following our meeting at the Dammam Chamber of Commerce I requested to use the restroom. To my surprise, I was apologetically told that a women’s restroom did not exist in the building. One of the Saudi businessmen attending the meeting at the Chamber, whom I had very briefly met, rushed to my side. The gentleman graciously guided me to the men’s restroom, walked inside with me and pointed to a stall.  Although grateful, I was unsettled and perplexed. The businessman intimated that he would wait outside the stall until I was finished, assuring me that he was my brother.  My mind raced. Was I being foolish for being mindful of my safety in this quiet corner of the government building? I was particularly confounded by his repeated insistence that he was my brother, was this a ruse, or simply small talk?

I was even more astonished by Bishara’s response, or lack of a response. Bishara, normally quite protective of me in most situations, particularly when other men’s unwanted advances are involved, seemed to regard the whole matter quite calmly. Bishara explained that in the Arab world, particularly in professional and business settings, it was critically important for men to treat women as sisters with the utmost respect. This bucked against everything I had heard before going to Saudi Arabia. I was going to find out that there were many layers to the tapestry of the Saudi culture.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (February 2000)

Our third and final destination was Jeddah, located in the western provinces of the Kingdom, 150 miles west of Mecca, and adjacent to the radiant and impelling Red Sea. Jeddah was a beautiful and delightful city with an extraordinary amalgam of traditional Arabic and contemporary Western architecture, including a scattering of mirrored skyscrapers.  From the window of our chauffeured car, I strained my neck to get a better glimpse and gulped as we approached a roundabout that displayed magnificent and modernistic sculptures of life-size cars jutting out of concrete in incongruous directions. Another roundabout exhibited oversized Bedouin urns spewing water. Westerners seemed to appreciate Jeddah, where there were opportunities to swim, boat and dive in the Red Sea. The coral reefs of the Red Sea, I was told, rivaled those of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Jeddah also had fewer restrictions, particularly for women who frequented restaurants and sheesha cafes unaccompanied by men. Women were not afforded this privilege in Riyadh, nor in many other cities in the Kingdom.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

During a break in between meetings, Bishara and I ambled along the sparkling beach of the Red Sea that straddled the picturesque outline of the Jeddah skyline; our toes caressed by the fine white sand. We were told that there were sections of beach partitioned and earmarked for expatriates, allowing sun worshippers to strip down to as little as bikinis or Speedos. As Bishara pulled out our camera to take a picture of me against the backdrop of the dazzling sea, we were startled and alarmed to see a uniformed gentleman rushing over waving his hands and barking in a blended language of English and Arabic. He forbade us to take photographs; there were Saudi women in the background. Saudi women regularly swam in the sea clothed in their abayes, a sight that would always seem alien to me.  Further down the stretch of beach I stopped in my tracks; there was a camel decked out in a bright red and gold carpet with luxurious tassels over its back being led by a thick knotted rope through a vacant parking lot by a middle-aged man in an off-white tunic. I had hoped to see a camel on our trip to the desert kingdom, although in my daydreams it would be ankle deep in sand with a tent and Bedouin in the background. Bishara, always full of surprises, saw to it to make another fantasy of mine reality.  Arab bargaining is an art full of nuances.  The vendor starts high, you go low.  The vendor makes a slightly higher offer, the customer walks off in a huff, and the vendor eventually relents, calling you back to accept your offer.  Bishara, mindful of the intricate movements of this marketplace dance, approached the man with a proposition.  I watched as Bishara expertly entered into negotiations with the man and within several minutes I was helped aboard the motley quadruped.  Bishara eagerly snapped shots without a hint of opposition from the uniformed officer. I was on top of the world.

Me on camel in Jeddah. (February 2000)

Our last night in Jeddah our driver, most graciously, on his own time and without accepting payment, escorted us to the gold souk (traditional Arab marketplace) where Bishara hoped to buy me a ring to replace my wedding ring and to serve as a reminder of our time in Saudi Arabia. The souk was an intricate maze of small shops made of concrete slabs offering a multitude of goods from spices, Indian silk, pots and pans, and children’s toys, to women’s lingerie and 21 karat gold jewelry. The marketplace teemed with Saudis, other Arab nationals, and a sprinkling of expatriates.  The souk tickled all of the senses. The scent of incense and spices infiltrated the winding cobble stoned alleyways. Sauntering through the mystical hodgepodge we often had to dart from side to side or flatten ourselves against the side of walls to avoid the crush of wheel barrows propelled by decrepit men in turbans laden with every imaginable product or artifact or to dodge the oncoming charge of women and children.  An elderly Saudi man, a roadmap of wrinkles marking his face, tended to cardboard thin saj bread sizzling on a large flat half-dome heated element over a wood block in a corner of the souk. Across from him sat a group of Saudi men on aluminum chairs smoking sheesha. One man rested his bare foot on the edge of the seat of the chair, another stared off into nowhere in particular, plumes of smoke snaked from his nostrils and mouth, while the third companion spoke animatedly, his words peeling off his tongue like rocket fire. Down another maze-like alleyway an array of women in black stood clustered in a tiny shop fondling decadent frilly lingerie, children clutching the edges of their mother’s abayes; South Asian men tending to their queries and purchases.  Women were not allowed to work in the retail industry in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi men had little interest in menial jobs.  The souk was pure enchantment and a staggering assault on my physical and emotional being; the abundance of community and culture in this tangled patchwork was in stark contrast to my more sterile life in Washington.

Me & Bishara in Jeddah. (February 2000)

On the plane trip back home, I turned to Bishara, gushing about our trip and what it ignited in me. My yearning to go to Saudi Arabia had grown from an ember to a flame. Upon returning home, I resumed my daily routine, hoping that my tenure in the urban jungle would be short-lived. With each passing day I wondered how much longer I would be crisscrossing the gloomy subway platforms. Bishara and I endlessly discussed the possibility of starting a new life overseas, and these talks punctuated my drone-like reality. We spent many sleepless nights sharing our uncertainties about giving up our dream home, ending our stable employment with treasured health insurance and retirement plans, and leaving the nearness of our family and friends.

Within several weeks Bishara received a FAX from a sheikh from the Diwan of Saudi Arabia expressing an interest in Bishara’s company executing a joint venture with the sheikh’s company. At this point, Bishara’s boss, unfortunately, had decided against pursuing a partnership with a Saudi company; we were on our own. Bishara conveyed this to the sheikh, but stressed that we were both very interested in securing employment within the Kingdom. Given the employment restrictions that women faced in Saudi Arabia, Bishara asked the sheikh to help find a position for me. The sheikh was most gracious and amenable; two weeks later high level management from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a well regarded medical institution in Riyadh, contacted us to request my CV. Shortly after, I received an offer to manage a new department created within the hospital. In November 2000, Bishara and I were on a plane back to Saudi Arabia to begin our new adventure.

The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Two)

We had trekked nearly 7,000 miles from the comforts of home in the Washington, DC area to the exotic land of Saudi Arabia.  Our hosts guided us through restricted passageways at the Riyadh airport, eliminating the prerequisite searches and questioning, to a luxurious holding area with colorful, lavish overstuffed sofas atop golden legs where we were served fragrant mint tea and dates of many varieties.  The Riyadh airport had been an intriguing collage of constant sound and motion, a feast for the eyes and ears; men in white thobes greeting each other enthusiastically with a kiss to each cheek, clusters of women shrouded in ebony with intractable children milling about, and persistent chatter.  All against the backdrop of opulent multi-tiered chandeliers and languid fountains spewing plumes onto lush greenery.  I could only imagine what the city of Riyadh had in store.  I was primed for my new adventure.

My husband, Bishara, and I transited from the airport into the city of Riyadh on an immaculate, modern six-lane highway with palm trees lining the medians. We lunged to the center of the back car seat, our breathing halted, as the occasional Mercedes or BMW with tinted windows and gathered curtains on the passenger and rear windows hurtled past us on the shoulder at death defying speeds. Our driver remained undaunted. As we entered Riyadh, on that mild, sunny afternoon in mid-February 2000, I clutched the edge of my seat and let out an inaudible gasp. This was an ultramodern city with high-end couture shops, quaint outdoor coffee shops, skyscrapers that punctuated the skyline, five star western hotels, and the seemingly ever present McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. The stereotypical images in my mind of Saudi Arabia began to shatter.

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Kingdom Center in background) ~ [From: Wikimedia Commons]

Because Bishara’s boss was never really keen on my presence on this trip of scheduled meetings between U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, including entrepreneurs from northern Virginia and prominent Saudi businessmen and government officials, I was not involved in the early sessions between our group and the Saudis. Doggedly determined to secure a job, I spent our first day in the capital city in our Radisson hotel room on the phone with Saudi executives and government representatives.  The gentlemen I spoke with were all kind, gracious, straightforward, and apologetic. Due to the employment restrictions imposed upon women, occupations were limited to three sectors: academia, the medical field, and ladies’ banks; it would be a major challenge and nearly impossible to secure employment in Riyadh. Each gentleman assured me he would do his utmost to support me in my efforts. I was wary of the unfounded generosity, but I consistently encountered a listening ear and was given contact names and numbers, encouraged to call back if I needed further assistance. To my pleasant surprise, I found that these were not just empty words. Despite what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, I secured several promising interviews.

On our second day in Riyadh, I went to a breakfast meeting with the American delegation and later a meeting with the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce; on each occasion I was the lone woman in the room. On our journey through the heart of Riyadh, a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island, I was dazzled by the sight of the soon to be completed Faisaliyah, an imposing three dimensional triangular tower that rose to almost 900 feet. Horizontal sheets of steel running the length of the prodigious building would eventually house a five-star luxury hotel and principal shopping mall. The tower sported a precariously perched glass sphere near the tip, housing a three-level restaurant. The Faisaliyah would be the tallest building in Riyadh, only to be overshadowed by the Kingdom Center, a building that dominated the metropolis at almost 1,000 feet, aimed for completion in January 2001.

Faisaliah 2

Al-Faisaliyah Center (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We were cordially welcomed at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce by several commanding and majestic figures in crisp white thobes who bowed slightly, reverently sweeping their right hand to their chest as they delicately shook the edges of my fingers. The Chamber was accented with vaulted ceilings, crown molding anointed with complex circular designs, captivating colossal glass chandeliers, and mammoth windows with drawn dark blue curtains and gold sashes tied to the side. As papers shuffled and murmurs dulled, I fully expected to be seated in a corner or in the back of the room where I would remain fairly innocuous, content and honored to simply have the opportunity to observe the proceedingsI was, after all, only an auxiliary member of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, there in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia solely due to the relentless efforts of my husband, Bishara, who was insistent that I accompany him on this trip to witness some of the intricacies of this enigmatic place; this country where I was bound and determined to live and work.  Bishara, ever one of my staunchest supporters and allies, was going to make sure my unconventional yearning came to fruition.

I felt my pulse rise and an irrepressible rush as I was guided by one of the Saudi government envoys to a seat at the table with the American contingency next to Bishara, a microphone at my disposal. I sank into the luxuriant black leather seat; delighted and appreciative. Before the meeting began, each member of the American bloc, including myself, had the opportunity to address the Chamber and expound on their specific business interest. Following these introductions, the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce disclosed that he knew there were many misperceptions in the western world regarding Saudi Arabia.  The American group had been in the Kingdom for a couple of days, and he was curious to learn of their impressions.  I felt Bishara’s foot connect with my leg under the table, urging me to speak up.  A flash of irritation crossed through me; I was not an official member of the delegation. It would be highly inappropriate for me to speak.  Bishara’s encouragement proved unnecessary. The Secretary turned his magisterial gaze in my direction, declaring he wished to hear from the lady first. My face flushed, pools forming in my armpits, and in those moments of exaltation I decided to forget all my logic and composure and speak plainly from my heart, sensing that this was a place where everyone could understand my sentiments regardless of culture or background.

I stayed glued to my chair, surprisingly steady, intent on being candid and genuine in conveying my gratitude for this trip and this opportunity. The greater part of my hesitation and anxiety dissipated, only a hint of apprehension remaining. I began to articulate what it meant to me to be on the first leg of this sojourn.  I spoke for approximately seven minutes, though time seemed suspended and my physical body displaced, only my mind whirring. I shared that my desire to come to the Kingdom was born out of a longing to experience the Arabian Peninsula through new eyes and form my own impressions, cleanly. Emboldened by the invitation to speak, I talked about seeking employment in the Kingdom, telling the group that I had had many conversations with incredibly gracious Saudi gentlemen who were helpful and forthcoming regarding my objective.  Before I realized I had finished speaking, spontaneous applause broke out on the Saudi side of the table. My heart skipped a beat, and I reveled in the acclamation, feeling a renewed sense of energy, possibility, and power. I was beginning to think my innate desire to spend time in Saudi Arabia was justified.

Me and Bishara in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Me in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Each destination we visited, we were welcomed with hospitality and warmth.  Docile and subservient attendants, typically of south Asian origin, endlessly scurried in and out of our meeting rooms serving Arabic coffee, mint tea, and Arabic sweet pastries with crispy filo dough filled with honey and pistachio nuts on gold and silver platters. The pungent and delectable aroma of cardamom seed extract radiated from the Arabic coffee and filled every molecule in the room. The ritual serving of coffee, tea and sweet pastries is a salient element of all gatherings, whether of a personal or business nature, in the Kingdom. To my consternation I was cautioned repeatedly to move my cup from side to side with my right hand, signaling to the attendant that I was finished. Failing to do so meant receiving continuous refills, a “free refill” policy that, while appealing to many Americans, was not ideal in the Kingdom. One of the many lessons in Arab culture I would learn. In countless settings while sipping Arabic coffee or tea, or discussing various business strategies,I was disarmed to witness our Saudi counterparts periodically snap their neck to one side while grasping the end of their ghutra and tossing it over their shoulder only to perform the same ritual with the other end of their ghutra. It reminded me of the many women I knew back home who simulated this behavior, flinging their long hair from their face in an attempt to tantalize and garner male attention. At other times I witnessed our esteemed and benevolent hosts, unreservedly primping and preening in front of wall mirrors.

Our nighttime excursions, rushing from meeting to the next or traversing the city to settle into repose at our cushy and enchanting quarters, revealed a whole other world. Several hours after dusk, the city came alive with frenzied activity. The terraces of “male only” coffee shops opened their arms to young men with ghutras rakishly skewed to one side or in baseball caps turned backwards. They sipped Turkish coffee and smoked sheesha (water-based tobacco smoked from a large pipe), while speaking in hushed tones or whispering in each other’s ears. Gaggles of women of all shapes and sizes, concealed in black, indistinguishable from one to another, bearing uncanny resemblance to the “grim reaper,” exited from the backs of cars driven by Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi chauffeurs, mumbling, with their children spilling out behind them.  Gliding from the car, their abayes dancing and flapping to the melodies of the night air, skimming along the entranceways of upscale shopping malls and haute couture shops; they immersed themselves in the bowels of endless shopping, exiting in the wee hours of the morning.

After a couple of “eye-opening” days in Riyadh, and with my curiosity piqued, I looked forward to our next destination, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country.

. . . To be continued!