A Letter From Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Dear Mr. LMN, Hope you are doing well. How are things at the Academy? I am doing just fine here in Al Arabiyah as Saudiyah1, ever heard that name before? It is just the local short name for Saudi Arabia. It is already a year since I left the US and now I am almost halfway through the two years that I am spending here. There’s a lot that I want to tell you about my experience so far.

I always wanted to leave Westford for good, but had never imagined that I would someday be doing a job in Saudi Arabia! It all started when I got this new job with the Saudi Arabian Specifications and Standard Organization (SASSO)2. My Uncle has a close friend in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. So one night my uncle asked me if I would like to live for two years in Saudi Arabia, and then he told me about this job opportunity for which they required a qualified engineer in structural architecture.

It wasn’t exactly something that I had planned in life, but I always wanted to experience life in a different atmosphere, and this was the perfect opportunity for me to do so… so here I am! I work in a Water conservation-desalination1 plant in a town called Khumrah which is 30 miles south of Jeddah3. It is a small town with a population a little less than Westford3. Where I live is very close to my work, barely a 5-minute walk from the plant. Since there aren’t many trees around the place I live, it is usually very hot in that area.

The average temperature here in Summer is really killing!! Sometimes it gets as high as 94 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, it’s an extreme climate here4! It certainly is a big change from Westford! It makes me sweat a lot, but I have gotten used to that. Even now I still calculate the temperature in Fahrenheit, whereas this country follows the metric system, which is sometimes confusing, but that’s just part of the experience. But I am really thankful to my uncle, he did give me a lot of tips about staying here.

For instance the kind of clothes that I should pack, and what vaccinations I should take before leaving other than those required by the Saudi consulate such as the ones for cholera5. So I guess, I was pretty much packed up when I left America. I live in a small 2-story building, in a 2-bedroom apartment- building6 with Umar, the son of my Uncle’s friend. The apartment building has no parking lot, there is no reason to have one because not many people in this town own cars for themselves.

At first, that really surprised me! I and Umar have become really close friends now. He too works in the same plant as me. He can speak some English, although he can understand everything I say in English, which is something that I am really thankful for It’s one of the best things to happen to me. You will not find many English-speaking people here. Only 60% of the population of people 15 years and older can read and write1. Anyway.. so we live on the 2nd floor and there is an Arab family that lives downstairs.

The first day, when I arrived at the Jeddah airport, I was amazed by the way the airport is designed, it looks more like the ancient Islamic architecture that I had seen much of in the travel brochures on the flight. It took a while to clear the customs, especially since the import laws here are very strict7. After clearing the customs as soon as I was at the arrival terminal Umar was there to receive me. He recognized me with the help of a photograph that my uncle had mailed to him.

Since I am a Muslim, I had some knowledge of Arabic, from what little I had learned in an Islamic school, but that was twenty years ago!! Anyway, so I greeted Umar, in what I thought was an ancient Arabic greeting- “As salaam O Alaiqum”8, he replied by saying “Wa Alaikum As Salaam”. But later, I discovered that there was nothing ancient about it! It’s the formal way of saying hello to someone, technically speaking, in English it translates to ‘peace be upon you and it’s part of my Arabic vocabulary now.

There are several forms of greeting in Saudi Arabia. The most common one is a handshake, called the salaam with the right hand and the phrase “As salaam O Alaiqum” Frequently, males follow the greeting by extending the left hand to each other’s right shoulder and kissing the other’s right and left cheeks. The form of greeting changes depending upon the person being addressed. When accompanied by a woman wearing a veil, a man would not normally introduce her, and one does not expect to shake hands with her.

The term for “Good morning” is Sabah al-Khair, and for “Good evening” it is Masah al-Khair. A casual hello is Marhaba.3 It’s always a good thing to know these phrases, if sometimes you get in trouble, they act somewhat similar to the phrase “I come in peace” in English!!! Anyways.. so once Umar found me he jokingly told me that he would have recognized me even without the photo, because of the peculiar dress that I had worn, although I laughed that off, that was the first time that I felt weird being in a T-shirt and jeans. Most people I had seen were dressed in long clothes that covered them fully.

Males dress in a white robe with a flat turban for the head, while women wear veils that cover them fully from head to toe, except the face4. But it isn’t like that in every part of Jeddah, or for that matter even the whole country. Many men prefer wearing western outfits such as shirts and trousers, while some women in cities also wear skirts which are about knee-length. 6 For probably the first time I felt as if I was “the odd man out”! Anyways.. very soon I and Umar were on our way to Khumrah in a hired taxi.

It was a bumpy 2-hour drive, mostly because of the bad road conditions, not all roads in Saudi Arabia are like that though1. The hot weather made it even worse for us. We reached the house, and no sooner had we started unloading the baggage than a gentleman came up and lend us to helping hand. After we were done with the unloading, I thanked him, and then Umar introduced us to each other, his name is Khaled Bin Ahmad. He is the tenant of the apartment on the first floor and lives with his wife Asma, a son Ashfaque and a daughter Fatima.

Most people have more than 2 children, usually, the number of children in each family is 3-41. We are pretty good friends now, his family usually invites me to dinner at their home with Umar. I love the food here. Saudi dishes are composed mainly of rice with lamb or chicken and are mildly spicy. Kasbah, which is rice and lamb, is a favorite dish throughout the country. Rice is also often served with vegetables and a green salad. Fruit is frequently eaten for dessert, accompanied by Saudi coffee, which is brewed with cardamom. Seafood is popular on the coast, and there are many varieties of fish.

Coffee or tea is served before all meals. Buttermilk is also a popular beverage. In general, food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only. Bread may be torn with the left hand but is eaten with the right.3 I really had to get used to this habit, at first I was very clumsy breaking the bread, and eating the rice, but now I think I have pretty much learned the proper way of eating. Khumrah doesn’t have many restaurants10. I had once been to one in Jeddah with Umar. Hotel restaurants offer a variety of types of cuisine, including Chinese, Indian, Italian, Japanese, and North American.

Traditionally, the main meal of the day is in the mid-afternoon (usually after 2 PM), when children are home from school and parents from work. But those whose offices remain open in the afternoon now have their main meal in the evening. 4 Conversation is often minimal during the main course of a meal; people prefer to talk before and especially after the meal, while they drink tea or coffee.

I generally am very talkative at lunch, but Umar doesn’t mind it, he is quite understanding. But when I am at Khaled Aqha’s home it would be rude to talk while eating. 4 Although I am a Muslim, it is sometimes difficult for me to believe the diversity that exists between an American Muslim and an Arabic Muslim. When I say diversity, I basically mean the traditions and the way of practicing religion. I have come to realize the fact that Islam is practiced differently in all the different parts of the world, and the way I practiced it when I was in the US, is certainly quite different from what I have seen and practiced here.

Then there are so many customs that actually have their root in the beliefs of Islam, which I was totally unaware of. For example, everybody removes their shoes at the doorstep before entering the house, even when you are invited to someone’s home. Umar told me that it is a tradition that has been carried out for centuries now10. Speaking of traditions, in Saudi Arabia there is a long tradition of hospitality, which has its roots in the ancient custom that any traveler in the desert who ran into difficulty could receive protection for three and one-third days3. In fact, just last night I had dinner at Khaled Akha’s house.

I call him by adding an Akha8 to his name because in Arabic it means brother, and I call his wife Ukht8, which means sister. In the first few days, I repeatedly used to make the mistake of calling Ukht by her name, which I later realized is not considered decent for a non-relative man to do unless he is her father3. Luckily Khaled Akha is an understanding man, otherwise one can end up in serious legal trouble for doing something like that.

You see, the constitution of this country is actually the Sharia- the Islamic law, which prescribes the role of men and women in society1. The most amazing thing that I found out, in my first week here was that the citizens of this country have no say in electing their government! Saudi Arabia is actually a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al-Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council.

Members of both councils are appointed by the king7. But what amazed me, even more, was that this system functions as well as the democratic capitalist system in the USA! Of course, I have come across people who feel otherwise, they demand a more flexible system. But since freedom of the press isn’t as extensive here, you never hear of such groups on television or in newspapers.

Some of the customs and social practices are very conservative7, and I would say the sharia’ is responsible for that. Islam pervades all aspects of life here more than anything else. For the same reason, they also have a special police force – the religious police called the Mutawwa’iin7. They are basically plainclothes policemen that patrol the streets to enforce the conservative standards of the law. Once I almost got caught by the police when I was trying to photograph a woman at a public fair, I didn’t know that there are rules for photography too6.

In fact, there are religious laws against certain dress codes. I feel the laws are too strict to adhere to, which is a view I am sure most people here share with me. But there are also laws that forbid non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and bibles, and food such as pork 7(which is unholy in Islam), these laws are relatively understandable.

When I see women who are dressed so conservatively3, as opposed to the men who have more freedom of choice in what they wear, I feel a certain kind of guilt for the freedom I have! Moreover, the pattern of social roles I have seen is that women take care of the household, and the children by staying at home while men are the breadwinners. Bread-earning reminds me, that tomorrow I don’t have to go to work, because it is Thursday. Did you know that the working week is from Saturday through Wednesday? Not only that, we have breaks between work, for Namaaz (prayers) when people go to the nearby mosques for their prayers4. Friday (Jumma) and Thursday (Jumme-Raat) nights are considered important days of the week for prayers, everybody goes to the mosque on this day for their prayers. Religion is a very prominent characteristic of Saudi society.

It is one of their first priorities. It is quite obvious because of the large concentration of the Muslim population, a 99% majority1! It is also to a certain extent because of Al-Ka’aaba, which is the center of pilgrimage for Muslims all around the world. It is considered the holiest place on earth. I remember talking to you about this in Global Insights class when we were studying Islam. It is the Ka’aaba that attracts the major tourist population to this country4.

It is amazing the way, the government handles the enormous tourist population every year, despite the problems that it has to deal with. One of the major problems here is the scarcity of water. Which is also one reason I chose to take this job. A large amount of the total land area is covered by desert. Desert storms lead to the desertification of vast areas of land. This poses a threat to agriculture. Agriculture engages about 15% of the total labor force.

The government is coming up with projects for the development of more and more desalination facilities, through which they can then use the seawater to their benefit, for irrigation in agriculture and also for industry. So water is one of the very important resources here. In Khumrah, the water facilities aren’t as well-developed as they are in the cities1. Sometimes I have to skip showering for the day because at times when the water supply is short, the tanks are not filled. But I don’t mind that, as long as it doesn’t last for days together.

When I first came, I was too conscious about my health, so the only water I used to drink was mineral water, which cost me about half a dollar for each bottle11. By the way, the currency used here is the Riyal, which is then divided into 100 halalah1, just like dollars and cents. An American dollar is approximately worth 3.75riyals1. So whenever I used to buy something, I converted it into dollars, and it seemed so cheap to me, but later I realized that sometimes I was paying a lot more than the actual price, just because in American terms it was cheaper! In fact, I gave up the mineral water, within a month.

That however wasn’t the best of ideas. I suffered a mild viral fever for 2 days because of that. But Khaled Aqha and his wife took good care of me, for both days, Umar got me my medicine, and Khaled Aqha took care of me.

Now whenever I go to the market, I get some groceries for Khaled aqha, at first he never accepted anything from me, saying that I was like his guest, but now we no more have a guest-host relationship, it’s more of friendship, I feel. I was fortunate that I did not need any hospital care, it saved me some money.

Usually, hospitals demand cash payment, usually before treatment! Anyways, so did you make finally make that trip to India that you always planned on? There are some Indians1 at the plant where I work, actually, there are people from many different foreign nationalities where I work.

The main ones being people afro-Asian backgrounds1. I wish I could write more about my life here. But it’s something that you really need to have first-hand experience to know what I am talking about. Hopefully, I will see you in Westford next May.