Saudi Arabia, like most countries, is a place of contrasts. From harsh deserts to lush green snow-capped mountains to strict religious observance (which isn’t necessarily matched by pious social behaviours), contradiction is evident in many aspects of life here.
I am constantly fascinated by people’s attitudes to those they believe inferior to themselves. It goes without saying that the Arabs believe themselves superior to the South East Asians who serve them as drivers, maids, gardeners, nurses and nannies.
The irony being that the South East Asians are often educated to a higher level than those in whose employ they find themselves, not to mention that they are actually skilled labour, something the Saudis can’t always lay claim to.
And given the plummeting oil prices, the Saudis find themselves in the uncomfortable position of actually having to do an honest day’s work unlike their parents who can leave the office for the day at 12pm, having arrived after 8am.
Another glaring contrast is the life of the migrant versus the life of the expat. Not for me the casual racism of the expat which allows it to say things like ‘oh, I just saw a dark head’ when mistaking one Indian driver for another. Or believing that all foreigners live in one locale, when by foreign she means white expat.
Due to the nature of my work, I technically find myself on the expat side of the fence. But my survival instinct means I conduct myself like one of the migrant labourers. From looking at me – my overfed face aside – it’s not immediately evident that I’m not someone’s maid, my skin plump with melanin as it is.
And one always has to remember that unlike ‘Western’ governments that’ll run to the aid of their delinquent denizens, I cannot expect such largesse from my government were I to fall foul of local authorities; I must always remember which side my brown bread is margarined.
As a woman in Saudi Arabia, there are a lot of things to really dislike about the place; not being able to drive, or ride a bicycle. There are no gyms for women.
Any time that you want to go somewhere, a man needs to be involved in transporting you there and if you have no husband or brother or a loving guardian, that gets very expensive very quickly.
Being chased down by the religious police aka Mutawa’a which falls under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Not being able to sit in the ‘Singles’ section of the restaurant even if you are unmarried. BUT. There are times when being kitted out with a vagina does have its benefits. People will actually let you jump queues as a woman. Like in the bank or at the airport, you’ll often find yourself being ushered to the front of the line. I think this has more to do with their worry that even the prospect of a woman in the vicinity will cause all the men to descend into a blind sexual frenzy.
Especially if said men are brown people, because we know brown people can’t be trusted to keep their short stuff in their pants and not defile the sanctity of virtuous women. The irony being that as a foreign black woman, I feel much safer around the Pakistani / Indian / Bangladeshi / Sri Lankan / Filipino men than I would around the Arabs. The South East Asians are not looking to get themselves deported and are hardly likely to set a foot out of line (also given that said foot might get lopped off). The Arabs would probably not even get a slap on the wrist for any malfeasance perpetrated against the all-round chocolatey goodness of my voluptuous Nubian personage.
Women here, like women in most other parts of the world, are very conscious about their appearance. The degree to which they express that consciousness will depend a lot on their geography.
As an example, the women in Jeddah, a coastal city on the Red Sea with a long history of trade and interaction with other cultures, are more likely to be colourful and vibrant. Women inland will be more traditional in their black abayas, hijabs and niqabs; the Jeddah women will gild their abaya-shaped cage in brilliant colours and fabrics, almost like bright-coloured birds proudly displaying their plumage.
But it is to their eyes that women of Saudi Arabia dedicate the most attention. I don’t have reliable stats on mascara and eyeliner sales in the country, but I’m sure that when all the oil runs out here, those sales can still power the economy before any further diversification.
I surprised myself the other day when simply from looking at a student behind her niqab, I recognised her just from her eyes. All those times I’d been rude about ‘how can they tell each other apart in photos’ suddenly seemed foolish and narrow-minded – showing up my own ignorance.
In many ways, it must be like that moment some people have when they realise not all Chinese / Japanese / Koreans look the same. It truly is an eye-opening moment from that narrow, slant-eyed world vision.
I think, though, what has been most refreshing about my Saudi experience so far has been the fact that so few of them know anything about Sub-Saharan Africa, if they’ve even heard of it at all. My arms had wearied from batting away all the preconceptions and misguided notions about the country of my birth, its people and its leadership.
There are only so many dead-eyed stares I can give in response to misinformed foolishness before my soul completely withers away to a worn-out nothingness.
Conversely, the importance of my identity as a black African woman is reinforced often. A generation or two back, some Saudi men ventured outside their regular gene pool and darkened it with some African flavour, notably from Chad and Sudan. Now you have a generation of young people who are technically Saudi, but aren’t really recognised as such for their African roots.
But a lot of them have never been to or lived in Chad or Sudan so can in no way relate to extended family there. They find themselves in that odd space where they don’t know which roots to lay claim to. And my students love me for my blackness and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. I’m hoping that they’ll keep repeating the black is beautiful mantra for some time yet, if only for them to revel in their own blackness and take pride in it.
Local media is hardly awash with strong female role models, let alone strong female role models who look like them, and whose experiences they can relate to.
But so far I’m glad that my intrepidity has taken me from rural Tanzania to desert Saudi Arabia. For millennia, humanity has pondered the essence of love. Sometimes, it’s easier to say what love isn’t, than what it is. Love is not always grand gestures accompanied by expensive roses with the world’s tiniest violin scratching out a schmaltzy tune in the background.
Sometimes love is an old Saudi man in an airport, gently adjusting his wife’s trousers after she’s come out of the toilet because she’s too frail to do it herself. All this done behind a flimsy cloth held up by a stranger who sympathises with the long-winding, often humiliating, journey to geriatry and infirmity.
Love can also be your special needs student presenting you with a wilting flower that’s been languishing all day in the bottom of her bag, apologising for her previous day’s transgressions, doe-eyed in her yearning for forgiveness.
Of all the places that I thought my faith in humanity would find some restoration, Saudi Arabia was not that place, and yet I have found that despite being so often denied affection, the people here have an immense capacity for love.
I might not find my sheikh to upgrade me to a lifestyle to which I would rapidly become accustomed, or be snapped up as a Mutawa’a’s fourth wife, but I can bask in the warmth of the love that I have found here.