Saudi oh Saudi, where for art thou Saudi?
I never expected that I would be able to go to Saudi except to make pilgrimage to Islam’s holy sites: Mecca and Medina. Nor did I think I would be able to go without a mahram – a male guardian who is a close family member or husband. But I was able to defy the odds, because of God’s will. When we first arrived in Saudi we were met with a sandstorm. I thought sandstorms were a creation of orientalist fantastical movies. But no, it was real. You could not see a mile in front of us because the sand obstructed our vision.
Even through the sand, I could still make out the shapes of the skyscrapers and flashing lights of downtown Riyadh. It was amazing, I could have been in DC or LA, but I was definitely in Riyadh. The arabic scripts of the buildings reminded me we were in the Middle East. The city is super build up and developed – at least the parts we visited. Our hotel must have been a 4 or 5 star because it was elegant and the staff catered to our every whim.
Over the course of our visit we met with NGO’s like النهضة and tech start ups like بلاد. We got a glimpse into the lives of the Saudi elite – the movers and shakers. We visited the Harvard of the Riyadh and took a tour around the facilities. It definitely broke the stereotypes I had about the country – mainly because I didn’t really know what to expect. From what I saw of Riyadh, granted it was very limited, the country does have very developed parts, and the government is doing a lot to ensure that Saudis are getting the education they need – because its ALL FREE (same as Oman)! That’s a true investment in the population – free education.
Now I am sure a lot of people are wondering about the dress code. I can personally say that I did not see a single religious policeman. Though I wear the hijab on a regular basis, no one from the group did. To be honest, no one really wore the hijab and no one really cared. Granted we were in private establishments most of the time – the hijab would gradually slip off and no one would look twice. Our tour guide was a Christian who had been living in Saudi for 11 years, she did not wear the hijab once while she was showing us around.
The abaya was different, that had to stay on for most of the time. Though we were able to take it off in private establishments like the German Embassy. I learned a lot about the history of the black abaya while in Saudi, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not a part of the religion but it is cultural. *That’s for another blog post.
But overall Saudi seriously slapped the stereotypes out of my head. Especially the ones that friends and family implanted within me. Before I left I heard that the religious police was everywhere and that even niqab was forced upon the people. Though I realize I only saw a limited view of Saudi (the rich and effluent side), I think I still have a better idea of what life is like there than I did 2 weeks ago. But it has only spurred a hunger within me to go back and learn more!