A place you can call home for now, for today, for yesterday, maybe even for tomorrow. A place that totally consumes your soul, at least for this week. A fear that intermittently exists, a curiosity that would kill the cat, a feeling of the strangest loss yet utter belonging. The strength you find within you and the cliché introspection is not a myth. Existence is within a bubble- the outside world unable to penetrate. A life you accept as normal because your mind is open enough to absorb and accept another new lifestyle.
Maybe I did have culture shock?
Of course, things still surprise me, sometimes I can’t believe my eyes. Saudi Arabia might seem like a strange choice. A country rich with oil yet poor in equality and human rights. A society which rarely unveils itself to the Western world. Where tourist visas are non-existent. But as I gradually settle into a life of Islamic values and repressed culture it becomes easier for me to call this place my ‘for now home’.
It’s hard to describe Saudi Arabia.
A vast country full of dusty deserts, empty quarters and old traditional Bedouin Camps. You’ll find a mosque every 200 feet and everything will come to a hault 5 times a day marked by shops closing up and the distinctive sound of call to prayer. There’s a surprising amount of heritage and history seen in the likes of Mada’in Saleh and its impressive carved tombs. Beautiful greenery, landscapes filled with date farms and the winding mountain roads of Taif and colourful flowers in Yanbu. Massive American style shopping Malls without cinemas or bars in line with strict entertainment laws here and of course strict alcohol laws. All balanced out with Riyadh’s record breaking architecture and cosmopolitan vibe and Obhur’s European style beach resorts where diving boats head out to the world class coral reefs of the Red Sea. I think it’s fair to say that Saudi can offer as much heritage, history and beauty as any other country, and it is all still untouched by masses of tourism due to the strict visa regulations. You just need to know where to find it.
The people here are just as diverse. In Riyadh, a sea of conservative black abayas and often veiled faces follow expectedly behind the husbands in crisp white thobes, a reminder of the expectations of women here and the male power and domination within society. In Jeddah, a hustle of rainbow coloured abayas and flowing hair walking beside men in Levi jeans and designer t-shirts chatting in harsh American English accents. The Saudi youth hang around the streets until 4am, drinking Pepsi and admiring each other’s pimped-out sports cars. The younger generation are becoming educated, they study abroad and bring new values back with them from the Western world slowly influencing life here. Whilst the older generation paint their hands and feet in henna and drink cardamom filled Arabic coffee whilst sat cross legged in the traditional souqs at Al Balad.
Living in Saudi Arabia is a bit like a front row ticket to watch the entire evolution of a community.
Repressed no longer, times are changing. The country has survived centuries of living under a veil of strict codes, poor human rights laws, lack of female equality and capital punishment. Throughout the past 4 years I have noticed many exhilarating changes. In 2015 women were given the right to vote, a huge movement in such a country. Abayas have gone from black to multicoloured, a lot of the young women in Jeddah even wear theirs open. Just last year power was removed from the Muttawa (religious police) and now there is virtually no presence from them in the Kingdom. Hipster style coffee shops are popping up along Jeddah’s Corniche where the traditional segregation of the sexes is overlooked and mixed groups of men and women sit together laughing, reading and even playing music- a sign of changing times since the country has opened up to the likes of Facebook, Instagram and even Tinder dating. Don’t get me wrong, we still need to abide to cultural expectations, we need to be careful and respectful but gone are the days of being hit with a cane for having your hair on show, at least for the most part. This is a country that is confusing and often contradictory, it doesn’t really know its own identity.
Maybe in hindsight I am romancing my experiences.
It doesn’t come without some level of emotional disorientation and frustration, but with time I became accepting of cultural restrictions placed on us. I adapted to a point where things such as not driving, and wearing the abaya no longer irritated me, in fact…I love my abaya!
Why did I move to Saudi Arabia?
Like most expats here I seem to think I arrived here by accident. A momentary feeling of the need for adventure and a lucrative offer to explore a part of the world where there are no tourist visas (every adventurers dream, surely?). An opportunity to live in the sunshine and spend my days exploring a whole new culture, new religion and the chance to challenge myself and travel around the rest of the Middle East.
4 years in the Magic Kingdom has taught me more than I thought possible. My once open mind is now fluid and flexible and my understanding and tolerance has diversified even further. I’ve figured out that despite differences in backgrounds and beliefs, we are connected by our world and more similar than I ever imagined. I didn’t just learn this from the Arabic culture in which I’ve been living, but also from working and socialising is such a diverse and eclectic expat community. At risk of my head being chopped off, my expat life will not be discussed here.
Most importantly I’ve learned that great things happen when you step outside your comfort zone and immerse yourself in something entirely unknown. You will emerge from these experiences a real resident of the world with a feeling that home is everywhere.
For now, I’ve learned all I can from this chapter, on to the next.
Ma’asallama Magic Kingdom,
Thanks for the memories ❤