Saudi Stereotypes

I sat at dinner one night with my boss, his wife, and my coworkers, bracing myself against the barrage of questions and concerns that were being fired at me one after the other. I’d just announced my plans for moving to Saudi Arabia, so I expected curiosities. Hell, even I was mostly clueless. But nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous nature of the questions coming from the mouths of otherwise intelligent people. Will you live in a tent? Do they have electricity there? What about the war? So many people, even now, ask about the war. What war, people?! That’s like asking someone in Michigan if they’re doing alright with that hurricane that just hit the coast of Florida. Knock it off.

People are naturally curious, and I can’t blame them for being a little clueless when it comes to life in Saudi. This is, after all, a place that is nearly impossible to get into. And thanks to the closed nature of society here, combined with the country’s horrible reputation in international news media, even Samantha Jones herself couldn’t dispel most of the myths and rumors about how things go here. But I’m going to do my best, so without further ado, here are the most common misconceptions about life in Saudi Arabia.

Women can’t show their ankles (or wrists, or faces, or hair, etc).
While all women, regardless of nationality or religion, are required to wear the abaya, hands, feet, wrists, ankles, and yes, even hair, can remain uncovered. You may be harassed by the religious police if your manner of dress doesn’t fit into their own personal views of modesty, but that’s rare for most people, and if it does happen, simply ignoring them will send them on their way.

Religious police carry sticks.
I do believe that stick wielding used to be a thing and that women used to get swatted for being “immodestly” dressed. But as long as I’ve been living or traveling here for the past seven years, I’ve never seen or heard of a Hai’a member carrying a stick.

Women can’t go out unless they’re accompanied by a guardian.
If this was the case, I would have jumped ship long ago. While we do need someone to chauffeur us around from place to place, be it a taxi driver, private driver, or family member, women do not need to have the company (or permission) of anyone to leave the house or go about their daily routines.

You have to walk behind your husband.
Confession: I sincerely believed this when I moved here. I had no idea that I could walk beside my husband, hand in hand, smiling and enjoying life. I was certain it was forbidden but happy when I discovered that I was among those who were sadly ignorant about Saudi life. To this day, seeing a couple holding hands here makes me giddy.

Women can’t ride in the front seat of the car.
I thought this too. The first time The Mr. took me out I climbed into the back seat and he looked at me like I was crazy. It’s an easy assumption to make because women ride in the back seats of taxis and cars which are being operated by private drivers. But when you’re married to (or related to) the dude behind the wheel, hop on in the front.

Saudi Arabia is a dry country.
Well, technically. But, just like in every other category of life here, money talks when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Whether at embassy functions, housing compounds, or private homes, both are readily available if you know the right people and have the cash flow. Or if you’re crafty and daring enough to brew your own.

Everyone is rich.
Nope. In fact, there is a problem here with poverty. There is indeed an incomprehensible amount of wealth here, and sometimes it feels like I’m the ONLY person I know who is broke, but there are plenty of struggling, middle to lower class families just trying to make ends meet.

Camels obviously come to mind when you think of Saudi Arabia. I was sad when I arrived for the first time and didn’t see any around town. Or when I took my first desert camping trip. In fact, the first time I saw a real live camel in Saudi Arabia was when I went to the red sands with Layla. The shame! So, no, camels are not abundant in the city. At least not this city. Unless you’re in the meat aisle at the grocery store. BTW, camel is for real tasty.

I’m sure there are plenty of misconceptions about Saudi life that I have missed. Let me know about the things you’ve heard or have believed about the Magic Kingdom in the comments section below!

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The other day a friend gave me some brilliant advice: fake it ’til you make it. But not the usual kind of faking it ’til you’ve made it. She told me to fake misery until I can stand on my own two feet financially. Until it’s safe to be happy. Because for the first time in a long time I’m happy. Like, super happy. And sometimes some of the people around you won’t like it when you’re finally happy. So those people will immediately try to piss on your parade because, as my grandma always told me, Misery loves (and, I’ve discovered, requires) company.

I thought about it, honestly. For all of five minutes, I thought about continuing to pound on that same old drum, complaining about my miserable life that I didn’t intend to choose in a country that limits me immensely. But if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders, even if only temporarily, I believe it is better to share that good news with the people who helped me to carry it for so long rather than pretend to still be dragging it around. Right?

Anyhow, I’m happy to report that my job is still fabulous. There have been a couple of jobs I’ve had in my life that I felt I was made for. This is definitely one of them. The only problem with it is that it has really fanned the flames of my ongoing baby fever which doesn’t seem to have a cure. After every class the phrase “I need more babies” escapes my lips. It’s a problem.

I’ve managed to find a balance between work and parenting, which is something I was really worried about when I accepted the job. Somehow the hour or two I have with my daughter each day is more action packed and productive than the lazy afternoons we had before. And I definitely have a deeper appreciation for the time I have with my girl. Which is why this post will be short. It’s time for the Cosby Show!

So here’s my my advice for the day: Don’t hide your happiness, friends. Even if doing so is easier. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Celebrate every little sliver of good that comes you way, no exceptions.

Three Good Things

Let’s start this post with a fun fact! Did you know that my readership severely declines during times when my life is going well and I’m posting about positive things? Yep. The general public only seems to like me when they can share in my misery. But anyhow, I’m here to share good things today, like it or not, because I am legit happy. 

Firstly, thanks to my blog and the wonders of the internet, I’ve had the good fortune of making friends and connections all over the world. Especially here in Saudi. One of those friends here in Riyadh helped me to land an amazing job last week. Yes, a job. For the first time in two years, I am gainfully and officially employed.

But before I go on and on about my new job, I’d like to take a moment to express how thankful I am to have been broke and jobless for the past two years. I have learned to make every cent that comes my way work to my full advantage. I’ve learned to value the things I have instead of wanting things I don’t need. I’ve learned that fun is usually free of charge, but if I have to, I can make $20 last a lifetime! 

So onto the job. I can’t even put into words how grateful I am. And how utterly exhausted I am. And how completely thrilled I am to be exhausted and fall asleep easily at night, and sleep all night long without waking up, and to have to iron work clothes, and have blisters on my ankles because I’m wearing something other than flip flops on a daily basis. I could add so many ands. 

The school I’m working for appears to be wonderful so far. It’s like a literal oasis in this desert. I can’t believe it exists. The administration is approachable and dedicated, the staff members are all very friendly, the students are well behaved, the school is clean, the teachers are qualified, and the bathrooms are fully stocked with soap and toilet paper. There are music classes and organic lunches and there is not a single teacher raising her voice or using threats or intimidation on students. It’s a breath of fresh air.

I’m a librarian, ya’ll. My job is to read to kids and be surrounded by books all day. I can’t even deal with how awesome this is.

Guess what else? I have been mentally planning an adult vacation for what seems like years, and now that I have this job, that adult vacation is totally happening. In real life! My plane ticket will be purchased right after I receive my first paycheck and buy myself some work clothes. The plan is to take myself to Dubai for my birthday where I will spend an entire weekend completely forgetting that I live in Saudi Arabia. And looking at Christmas trees. I can’t wait for it to happen so I can tell you all about it.

Lastly, I know it’s weird to call this good news, but word on the street is that my divorce might happen soon. The last time we checked on it, just after the government announced special status for mothers of Saudi children, the law permitting women in my case to stay here without being married had yet to be implemented. I don’t have much information other than that it is indeed possible. Double checking needs to happen because it’s never easy to get a straight and reliable answer in Saudi Arabia, but still, it’s good news. I never thought I’d reach the point of praying for a divorce, but I’m so tired of waiting. I can no longer wait to move on with my life. It’s an itch that badly needs scratching. I promise to update as soon as I have been given the heave-ho, but in the meantime I’d appreciate some finger crossing and prayer saying in my honor. 


Things I’ve learned from the failure of my marriage

It’s over. You’re hurt, and you’ve been dragged through the mud. You’ve probably lost friends, and maybe lost half of your 401k and half of your earthly possessions. You have bags under your eyes, you can’t listen to the radio in public anymore, and you’ve resigned yourself to being forever alone because the risk of being hurt just isn’t worth the reward of being loved anymore. Breakups suck.

But despite all the sucking, things get better, I swear. You pick yourself up, you dust yourself off, you find someone new and life is exciting again, and suddenly, you find yourself being sincerely thankful for all the shit you’ve been through. Because smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.

Even though I’ve reached the point in my breakup where I am SO DONE and mentally planning the divorce party of the century on the day this thing finally screeches to a hault, it has sucked for me too. We’re going on 3 1/2 years of being in breakup purgatory, but thankfully, this ridiculously long process has taught some priceless lessons on life and love. So I’m sharing them with you today.

I’ve learned more about what I want, and more importantly, what I don’t want
When I met The Mr. I wanted one thing: excitement. I was fresh out of a long term relationship and living in a new city, and having a cute guy to spend time with was great. But I didn’t think beyond a mutual attraction until I was already in way over my head. Now I know what kind of qualities I’d like the man in my life to have and which ones are absolute deal breakers. I know the man in my life must be kind, considerate, and that he must view me as his equal. I know that he must not be arrogant, materialistic, or someone who would ever call me bad names. I know those things because…

I’ve learned to love & respect myself
The difference between knowing what I want and being comfortable enough to say what I want is due to the fact that I love and respect myself. Completely and without shame. I’m my own best friend, my own biggest fan, and therefore, I’m my own advocate. I’ve found it to be absolutely true that I cannot expect anyone else to love and respect me unless I do those things for myself first. If you haven’t learned to love yourself, do it immediately. I’m not kidding. Right now.

I’ve learned to recognize my faults and shortcomings as a partner in a relationship
I’m an expert at recognizing the faults of others. Aren’t we all? But how much attention do you honestly pay to your own assholery in a relationship? I’m a nag. Like, a die-hard, on your ass 24/7 until you do what you said you’d do nag. You don’t come home when you said you’d come home? Expect an unnecessary number of phone calls. Said you’d fix the TV every Saturday for a month and still didn’t fix it? I’ll never let it go. I’m sorry. It all stems from my trust issues. I would have never admitted that 10 years ago, but it is what it is, so it’s only fair that I’m honest about it, right?

I’ve learned to give personal space, and how to ask for it and enjoy it for myself
In addition to being a nag, I used to be emotionally needy. I’d need your undivided attention and complete adoration at all times when sharing the same space or I’d be convinced that something is wrong with our relationship and then move right on to nagging about it until I created an actual problem in our relationship. Thankfully, my time in Saudi has forced me to knock that shit off. I no longer require someone else to fill emotional voids and cater to my insecurities. Once in a while I think it would be nice to have someone to fill actual, physical voids…someone to watch TV with or eat dinner with, but still, I’ve learned to enjoy time to myself now. Sometimes I wonder if I enjoy it too much and I worry that adding a person to my space on a full-time, permanent basis would be something I couldn’t handle. I’ll let you know how it goes when that happens.

I’ve learned that when relationships end, life goes on
Hello, I’m living proof! Love is wonderful. Relationships can be fulfilling. But they’re not something that should make or break your life. Love unconditionally and let go gracefully when you need to.

I’ve learned the importance of loving without attachment
I don’t have it down pat. When you love someone, and when someone is an every day part of your life, you will inevitably become somewhat attached to them. But I can more easily recognize attachment and separate it from love. I know that love does not equal possession and that knowledge has made letting go of and moving on from relationships easier for me. It’s also made being alone much more enjoyable as well.

I’ve learned that failing means you’ve tried
Those of you who have been reading from the start know that I fought tooth and nail for my marriage, especially during the times when I was the one who’d messed it up. It failed in the end, and that’s ok with me. I know that I did what I could to try and make it work. After I’d tried everything I could try, I learned the lessons above: Let go, and life moves on.

I’ve learned how to let myself be loved again
The hardest thing I’ve had to teach myself to do is how to let someone love me again. I came out of my marriage fighting and trying to make myself into someone who The Mr. would love and accept again. I was hurt and I was afraid that accepting love would only invite more hurt. It wasn’t until I learned that who I am at any given moment is someone who is, by default, worthy of love. And that if someone decided to love me, that was ok.I don’t have to do anything, I don’t have to be anyone else, I don’t have to look a certain way, I don’t have to cover up my flaws, I don’t have to fancy myself up, I don’t have to patch up my broken pieces. I am worthy of love because I exist, and it is ok to accept that love.

We’ve all been through breakups, big and small, and sometimes life changing. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Abuse in Saudi Schools

School will be back in session here in Saudi in just a few days and my fellow parents and I are knee-deep in uniforms, backpacks, school supplies, and of course, tuition fees. I’m always nervous at the beginning of a school year here. Despite paying exorbitant amounts of money for what is supposed to be quality education, we haven’t had the greatest experiences in the Saudi school system. My friends and I think it’s high time someone talked about those experiences, and it is our hope to draw the attention of those who have the power to change the way things are done here.

For many parents the start of a new school year brings a rush of mixed emotions. We feel pride as we watch our children take another step toward becoming successful young adults. We feel excited at the possibility of new friendships, important lessons, and academic achievement.

For many of us, there are also fears. We fear that our children may be bullied or left out, that they not make any friends, or that they may experience peer pressure. In some ways these negative experiences are necessary to teach our children valuable lessons, so we accept them and we are always there with a reassuring smile and a warm hug, teaching our children how to handle them. But what happens when the things you fear for your child are not only perpetrated by fellow students, but by teachers as well?

How do you answer your sweet child when you ask him where the bruises on him came from and he says from his teacher? What are the reassuring words you can say when your daughter writes in her diary that she hates herself and wants to die because her teacher called her names? What are your options after several complaints have been made to the teacher and the school administration, and the physical and verbal abuse continues?

In addition to problems such as outdated methods of instruction, the insistence upon rote learning, and the lack of qualified teachers holding the education system back in Saudi Arabia, abuse is still commonplace among even the most popular and well-known schools.

Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional, verbal, and more. Every form of abuse is detrimental to the victim and often leaves emotional and psychological scars long after bruises fade.

One Saudi father, Abu Muhammad, took the day off work to tour nearby government schools for his son who will be entering the first grade. His aim was to drop in unannounced, meet the teachers and administration, observe the students’ behavior, and make sure the facilities were up to his standards. As he approached the administration office, he heard strange noises which he recognized to be the sounds of a struggle. Much to his surprise, when he turned the corner to the principal’s office, he found the principal towering over three children who were huddled together on the floor, trying to protect themselves from the beating they were receiving from this vile man. The principal noticed the arrival of Abu Muhammad, straightened his thobe, replaced his shumagh and igal, and rushed the boys out of the office as though nothing had happened. Needless to say Abu Muhammad did not choose that school for his son.

An expatriate mother whose children go to a well known Islamic school reports that it is normal for the students to be hit with rulers, but she accepts this abuse because she wants them to benefit from the Islamic teachings of the school. Maybe someone can enlighten me on what part of Islam allows this sort of “teaching”.

When a Canadian mother noticed bruising on her son’s body, her husband took immediate action and visited the school. “My husband went to the school to complain. The school said they would investigate, but still had the teacher continue working with the children during the investigation. They gave my son a gift. The teacher later called us to apologize and also say the kids were fighting and he didn’t know what to do so he hit them. He was not taught how to deal with normal child behavior, and he’s been my son’s teacher for 3 years.” When she confided in friends about the abuse her son had received, she was told that since she’s living in the land of Islam, she should take the good with the bad and let the abuse go.

A Saudi mother whose children have all attended the same famous international school was shocked to find out that her grade 4 son had been struck on the head by a teacher for giggling during prayer time. This abuse made the boy afraid of attending prayers.

An American mother reports that her daughter has experienced migraines, stomach problems, and emotional disturbances due to the constant verbal abuse endured, despite repeated calls and complaints to administration, at the international school she attends.

A mother by the name of HH reports that her son has been the victim of abuse from both students and teachers. Pushed down the stairs, stabbed with a pencil, and hit so hard on the back of the head that the front of his head hit his desk. When she noticed that her son was not eating his lunch at school, although she took care to pack him his favorite foods, she asked why he wasn’t eating. Her son replied “I can’t sit down and eat. I always need to be on my guard.” When HH visited the school to inquire about possible bullying, the school administration advised her to tell her son not to go to the Saudi teachers because they won’t help him and that Saudi teachers could not effectively be disciplined for their abusive behavior.

A woman whose husband works in a hospital reports that a student had come in for treatment because a teacher pulled his ear so hard that it needed to be stitched back on.

As a teacher at a top 10 Saudi private school in Riyadh, I personally witnessed the principal of the school slap a 6th grade student across the face in the hallway just outside my classroom. At the age of seven my own child, who we brought to this country to be surrounded by people who we assumed would share our values, was called a dog by her Arabic teacher in this same school.

Many parents find these abuses unacceptable, but many still do not know that they are illegal. Especially for expat parents, communication can sometimes be a problem due to a language barrier. Even when complaints are successfully made, school administrations are quick to try to cover up the problems and make excuses for them, rather than to deal with them directly.

Many parents wish to make official complaints at the Ministry of Education, but phones are never answered and without access to reliable transportation, this can be difficult for many mothers to do. Administrators, when they do recognize the problem, often times do not have acceptable ways to deal with it. Either they don’t want to offend a teacher who has been working for them for years, they’re afraid of retribution from people with connections, or they’re simply at a loss for what to do. They may try to appease parents and children by gift-giving and excuse-making, but a long term and permanent solution is needed for this problem.

How much longer are we willing to let this continue? These are not isolated incidents; it is a widespread problem affecting even the most elite schools in the Kingdom.

I challenge any parent, any citizen of this country, any expat, any unannounced government official to walk down the halls of our schools during instruction time. Listen to the teachers yelling, hurling insults, and handing out threats. It is a well known problem that needs to be solved. We send our children to school with the hope that they will be shaped and molded into better human beings who will one day be valuable assets to this country and the world. Instead we end up with children who are experiencing stress levels that even we as adults couldn’t tolerate. Our children are being scarred for life. How can we expect them to love Islam, to love this country, and to respect their elders when the last things they are receiving at school are love and respect?

We as parents are doing our part. We are outspoken advocates for our children, we are involved and invested in our children’s education, and we take great care to make sure our children are afforded the best education available in this country, but more needs to be done by schools and the government.

School administrations need to have clearly outlined policies on abuse, mistreatment, and bullying for students and teachers, and they need to follow those policies and clearly document the steps taken for every incident. The Ministry of Education needs to be more available to parents, to answer the phone, to follow up with reports of abuse, and to make unannounced visits to schools to ensure that abuse is not happening. This is a problem that is long overdue for a solution.

Hijab: What to say and what not to say to a Muslim woman.

Some Muslim women wear hijab. Some don’t. Whatever we as Muslim women decide to wear, and for whatever reasons, we have all had to deal with endless questions regarding our decision to cover or not to cover. We realize that not everyone around us will understand our decision to wear hijab or to remove it, so we are usually prepared to happily answer genuine curiosities. We are not, however, always prepared to deal with some of the craziness that comes our way. From Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Can you imagine that every day when leaving your house having to mentally prepare yourself for the barrage of questions and dirty looks that will inevitably come your way because of the way you’re dressed? What if every single day someone said “Oh my God, I can’t believe you wore those shoes! This is America!” or “Did you husband make you wear those earrings?” or “You removed your nail polish? Aren’t you afraid of going to Hell?”  or “Have some shame, put some socks on those naked feet!” It becomes exhausting to say the least.

In an effort to educate and entertain my readers, my friends and I have come up with a list of things (things we have actually heard, btw) that you should and should not say to Muslim women regarding the ways they choose to dress.


Things not to say to a woman who wears hijab:

Do you have hair under that?
What color is your hair?
Can I see your hair?
Aren’t you hot?
Ugh, I could NEVER wear that.
Do you shower with that on?
Do you sleep with that on?
Are you ever allowed to take that off?
When will you make your daughter(s) wear that thing?
I really miss seeing your beautiful hair.
When are you going to take that thing off?
You know you don’t have to wear that here. This is a free country.
Did your husband make you wear that?
Sister, your hijab is not correct.
You know you can’t wear makeup/tight clothes/pants/earrings/etc and call it hijab.
Do you cover in front of your dad/husband/etc?
Did you have to shave your head?
Are you bald?
Do you have cancer?
Go back to where you came from.
Wow, you speak really good English!

Things not to say to a woman who has removed her hijab:

Oh, you look so much more beautiful without that!
Oh my goodness, I can see your hair now!
Are you still a Muslim?
Are you getting divorced?
What does your husband/father think?
Did you remove your hijab so you can date/sleep around?
If you’re not a Muslim anymore, it’s ok. You don’t have to fake it.
Sister, you know Allah commands that we wear hijab.
Aren’t you afraid of going to Hell?
May Allah guide you back to the straight path.

Things that are ok/helpful to say or ask a Muslim, covered or not:

I really like your scarf/hijab!
I really admire the way you’re dressed.
I love your style!
Why do some Muslim women cover their hair?
I support your choice to cover/not cover.
Where can I learn more about hijab?

How to make a hijabi woman feel normal, welcomed, and respected:

Hold the door open for her
Say good morning or good afternoon
Smile at her. You won’t turn to stone!
Ask her where she bought her scarf
Ask her how her day is going

Basically, folks, Muslim women, whether covered or not, just want to be treated like human beings. Treat us like you’d treat any other woman in your life. It’s ok to ask questions, that’s how we learn, but please try to make sure they’re not offensive. And consider researching the subject of hijab for yourself to better understand the motivations behind putting it on or taking it off.