Author’s Note: My few experiences are in no way an adequate source of knowledge about Saudi Arabia. For that, I’d recommend a book called “The Kingdom”, by Robert Lacey. I wish I’d read it earlier, maybe I would have been more understanding, and more tolerant. I’m sure there are a lot of good books on Saudi. But these are just a couple of pissed-off, smart-ass emails. Don’t expect too much.
“You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
The Fucking Wasteland
I’ve only been here a few days, and I haven’t seen much of anything apart for a drive along the highway from the airport to the medical city where I’m living. Clusters of dust-colored, identical buildings, cranes everywhere, lots of trucks carrying powdered cement, piping, rebar. The signs were in Arabic and English, one of them for an “Islamic Port” – I have no idea what that means. The place where I’m living looks a lot like a medical complex in any developed country: glass and cement facades, interiors wallpapered with money (sterile tile floors, subtle lighting, wood paneling, boring-but-probably-very-expensive abstract art, etc.), and lots and lots of parking. The apartment complex where I live is nicely landscaped and maintained. Lots of flowers, palm trees, shrubbery. Olympic-sized pool. There’s another living area for the Filipino workers that I see when I go out jogging – it’s a trailer park behind chain link and barbed wire, four people to a trailer (nurses, techs, construction workers, janitors – the janitors are contracted out by Bin Laden, actually). The barbed wire around the white people’s complex (North American, European, Antipodean) is mounted on top of a ten-foot stucco wall. Which is nicer, I guess.
So, not a ton to report, except for the fact that I’m not dead, or even detained at customs. Actually, having spent six months getting my visa, I was pretty disappointed in the lack of interest the customs agents showed in me. Someone from the hospital met me at the gate, and cut to the front of a line that was mostly women with young children exhausted from a thirteen hour flight, which was off-putting to say the least. This guy joked around with the customs agent who fingerprinted and photographed me, then my bags went through an x-ray machine manned by two guys who either were asleep, or were just resting their eyes for a while.
My job is entertaining, in that I’m amused by how boring it is. People have repeatedly apologized for that fact that I’ll have to work 20 hours per week, and have rushed to assure me that next semester will be much, much less work. My boss gave us a little pep talk today – the phrase, “we are teachers, so our first priority is to get paid and take the money home to our families,” actually crossed his lips. He said that it would be difficult to stretch the curriculum for an entire semester, but that we had to be careful not to present the students with any material that might be too challenging, because if they complain, the administration will have to do something about it. Most of the students got into this school because they’re well connected – their fathers are generals or sheikhs or whatever – so the students are more or less in charge. Inmates running the asylum and all. There is another American guy here – apparently his students complained that he was too strict, so now he’s not allowed to teach any classes, but he’s still collecting a paycheck. He just sits in his office for six hours a day – rumor has it that the school is not going to renew his contract when it expires, eight months from now.
This university is run from a central office in Riyadh, where there is an identical school, and apparently the students here have been out-performing the students in Riyadh, so there have been repercussions – the administration there doesn’t sign necessary paperwork on time, they withhold funding, etc., as a way to pressure the Jeddah branch into lowering its standards. Apparently there is a brand-new housing complex here that has been finished for three years, but we’re waiting on Riyadh to sign the permission slip for the teachers to move in. I’ve also been warned to avoid controversial issues like politics, religion, evolution and dancing. Most of my students listen to music, but the more religious ones can’t hear it even in the classroom. That includes musical scores and sound effects in films, which they can’t watch anyway, unless I can find a movie with no women in it. War movies, maybe.
Also, this place is way too high-tech. I’m not going to be able to use my whiteboard for the first five days, because IT hasn’t set up my email account yet – the whiteboard is digital, and I have to log into it. If I want to show the students how to spell a word, I’ll have to write it on a piece of paper and pass it around the room.
My apartment is fine. Not great, but not bad, either. Life in general is the same every day. Supremely blah. I go to work, I write, I go to the gym, I go to bed. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.
(2 months later)
Sorry I’ve been out of touch (yes, this is a mass email, and yes, I’ve been out of touch with everyone I know). Nothing personal, obvi. There’s just nothing to say. I go to work (sucks), I go to the gym (putting on prison muscle), I read, and i go to bed. I’ve left the compound maybe a half-dozen times. Been out for sushi twice, Italian once, went to a party at KAUST (a science and technology university/city two hours away), went snorkeling (amazing, amazing reefs, fish: colors!). Went to the beach once. Actually, went to the beach twice, but the first time they wouldn’t let us in because Nour is Arab, and they don’t let Arabs into the resorts here. I don’t really get why. Afraid of trouble. They fell all over themselves kissing my ass, but wouldn’t even consider giving her a pass. That, actually, was my introduction to Saudi culture, since at restaurants it’s generally Filipino waiters, and there aren’t any other ways to meet local people. No public gatherings. Thank whichever god for Filipino people. And Ethiopian cab drivers. Normal people to talk to, at least.
Anyway, i have nothing to say about myself – at least nothing you’d want to hear, because honestly, things are bleak. There was a 10-day trip to India in there somewhere, but it’s a blur now, and looking at the pictures, I hardly recognize them as my own. If I learned anything, I’ve since forgotten it.
So, sorry in advance if this is a downer, but I figured I might as well jot down a few things, the very few things, I’ve seen here. Saudi culture and all. Culture being a very strong word to apply to people who collectively shun music, dancing, art, film, and any large public gathering except for executions. [BS. I met a filmmaker and a writer while I was there, both Saudi. I met architects and musicians. I saw concerts at a couple housing compounds and the French Embassy. There’s also some odd public sculpture around Jeddah. I didn’t like them, but they’re still art. I’m also attaching a bunch of photos from a Jeddah historical day, where there were actually crowds out in the street, interacting with each other, and watching street performances – acting, all-male, no music, and it was only one day, but still.] Right. No concerts, because they’re a corrupting influence, but you can take your kids to an execution. One of my student told me his father took him to one when he was twelve, and he wasn’t able to look at him for weeks afterward.
Anyway, as far as I’ve gathered, music and art and dancing and cetera aren’t specifically, legally banned, but there’s this semi-official religious police unit – basically a sanctioned vigilante group, since most of these people appoint themselves – and they roam around enforcing religious laws, particularly if not solely on women. As an aside, these religious police have been specifically banned from conducting high-speed chases, but that didn’t stop them from running over a woman, on foot and in her own garden, my first month here. As another example, there are no laws specifically requiring stores to edit out women’s faces in advertisements, but when you walk around the shopping malls, you see the usual giant advertisements (“usual” meaning pictures of white people), and if it happens to be a store for women, as most are, it’s not unlikely to see a picture of a western woman walking through a field, holding hands with a child, her torso blacked out, and her face a digitized blur.
Regarding the treatment of women in general, it’s a (tiny) bit more complex than I’d imagined. Women are not legally required to cover their faces – that’s a rule imposed on them by their husbands and fathers. In Jeddah, women aren’t even (oh my god, I’m starting to sound like an apologist – I swear, I hate this all more than i can possibly describe, and the degree of hatred i carry around inside me all day long is so much more than i ever thought i could feel) – ok, start that again: women here, in Jeddah, aren’t legally required to cover their hair and face, as I gather is the case everywhere else in the country, with Riyadh being strictest. But, when the religious police pass by, they will stop women and demand they cover up. That happened to Nour and I outside some steakhouse one night. She keeps her veil around her shoulders, in case of emergencies. The guys, both in their 70s and carrying long wooden reeds, presumably for smacking people, actually approached me first, telling me to tell Nour to cover up. I knew what they were saying, but pretended I didn’t, and spoke back to them in English to get them to leave us alone. Nour covered her hair, and they did. At the hospital where she works there is a religious affairs department which tries to coerce Muslim women into covering up, and nearly all of the Muslim women (apart from Nour) comply, regardless of whether or not it’s common in their country. Women are also not legally forbidden to drive – again, though, this is a quasi-official prohibition enforced more by husbands, fathers and the religious police, and I’m told that out in the country, where it’s just necessary for survival, some women drive freely, though i have no idea if that’s true. There was a protest last month where women took to the roads – it was widely advertised on social media, and made all sorts of international headlines both before and after the event. All told, 87 women participated. They received $80 fines from the police (in contrast to a similar protest in the early 90’s, where the women did a couple months in jail).
Anyway, as i said, it’s a tiny bit more complicated than just the systematic segregation and repression of women. To some extent, the culture of segregation is meant more to isolate single men. For example, any restaurant, cafe, or generally public place you go will have a “singles” and a “family” section – these are euphemisms, with “single” meaning “men” and family meaning “mixed”. Nour and I would go to the family section if we’re together, and if I’m by myself, I’d go to the single section, while she would go to the family section. Some places – banks, for example – will have a men’s section and a women’s section. I’m told, though I obviously haven’t confirmed this, that as is the case with men’s and women’s public bathrooms in the US, the women’s sections are better-maintained, just nicer places to be. I’m also told that this is all to “protect” women, with the implicit assumption being that men, particularly single men, are a danger to women. The face-covering thing, again from what I’m told, dates back to the time (two generations ago, and forever before that) when desert raiders would kidnap young women and carry them off to their own tribes, for whatever purpose, marriage or slavery or a little of both. So the face covering came about as a way to keep raiders from identifying the younger, hotter women. It is meant to “protect” women.
Obviously it’s all a fucking joke, and just walking around this little shitty compound in the middle of the desert, or a shopping mall, or whatever, makes me feel like a fucking rapist, and I know it’s not the women’s fault, and I reserve the bulk of my loathing for the men (more on those [content censored] in a minute), but every time a woman avoids my eyes, or pulls back in a panic in case I brush up against her on the bus or in a hallway, or a whole group of women moves away from me and stops talking when I walk into a room, I get a little twinge of hatred and resentment. Being around people with their faces covered gave me the heebie-jeebies at first, then there was a brief period where I felt all sympathetic and whatnot, but now I pretty much just resent it, and i honestly don’t give a shit how terrible their lives are, and if only 87 women in a country of 26 million people will turn out to drive in protest of their own shitty living conditions, then fuck them anyway.
Yes, I know, what a terrible thing to think. This is why I don’t email home. Why I don’t write anything at all, anymore.
In any case, this kind of thing is the reason that everyone I’ve talked to, or read about in the news, says that if change is going to come to Saudi, it’s going to come very slowly, if at all. The Arab spring is just one more season they don’t have here. [Again, I’m calling BS on myself. Just over half of the Saudi population is under 25 years old, and for most of the last generation, the government has been offering full scholarships to any student who gets accepted to study abroad. So not only is there a massive share of young people, there’s a massive share of not just educated, but foreign-educated young people. Beyond that, the fact is that most of the “revolutionary” advances in Saudi society – for example the education of girls and women – were advanced by the monarchy, against the wishes of the more conservative population.]
So, the men… that’s a strong word. To be fair, or at least give the impression of fairness, Saudi men are a pretty smiley, laughy, jokey bunch. They’re like frat boys in funny costumes. Actually, their funny costumes are really pretty cool-looking, once you get over the discomfort of being in a large crowd of people where pretty much everyone dresses exactly alike (though men are allowed to dress however they want, and most young Saudi men don’t wear thobs). A more accurate way of saying they’re a jokey bunch is to say that Saudi men are lazy, incompetent, corrupt, vain, arrogant, loud, oblivious, self-absorbed, absolutely useless hypocrites who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, as you also might, if you considered yourself the master of all you see, beloved of the only true god and heavily subsidized by the state. Regarding the laziness: this is the dominant trait of Saudi men (women, as everywhere else in the world, are more industrious). Even by regional standards, they are renowned for their laziness. Sleeping on the job is de rigeur. They take 5 breaks a day for prayer (obviously), plus breaks for tea, chats with friends and coworkers, chats on the phone, etc, etc, etc. It’s not uncommon to see a guy at whatever his work happens to be, sitting next to a ringing phone, not giving a flying fuck or a rolling doughnut. Playing Candy Crush. I tried to go to the bank at 3:30 in the afternoon the other day – prayer time had just started (everything shuts down for either twenty or forty-five minutes during prayer time – and i mean everything, like, I was standing in line at customs at the airport during prayer time, and all of the customs agents left their posts, and the lines got intensely long until people were packed into the room cheek to jowl, and all the flights thereafter were delayed by hours, connecting flights were missed, etc.). Start this one again: I tried to go to the bank at 3:30, closed for prayer, waited outside for 30 minutes (inside they were having tea, and a good laugh), poked my head in the door and asked if they were going to open again (sign on the wall says open til 4:30) and the guy looks at his watch, shrugs, and says “khalas” (roughly: “enough” in the sense of “I’m fed up, I’ve had enough, basta ya.“). At the bank, they don’t even bother to disguise their glee when their system is down. A couple nights ago Nour and I were walking around downtown, trying to find a restaurant open – we couldn’t find a restaurant that would seat both men and women together, and we knew prayer time was coming, so we got our driver to stop at the walk-up counter that serves women, but he’d decided to close ten minutes early for prayer or whatever. Nour actually yelled at him, but he just laughed and pulled the grille. People don’t want to work, and seem honestly put out that you might expect them to. Which I’m pretty sympathetic to, actually. Just not when I’m hungry, or waiting at customs to get the hell out of the country.
That is not even the beginning of my rant about Saudi men – I could go on for page upon page upon page without even venting the tiniest portion of my disgust. I’ll spare you.
But, like I said, they’re pretty funny guys, always up for a joke, and generous, in their way.
There’s a lot more I could say, I guess. I’ve sat down a dozen times to write this email, but so far haven’t been able to rev up the wherewithal to try to channel all this lousiness in even a moderately clear-headed way. I guess I’m still more or less failing at that. As an attempt, a semi-disingenuous gesture in the general direction of fairness, I’ll say that nearly all of the young Saudi people I’ve met and hung out with – at various housing compound concerts, embassy dinners, a movie night hosted in an architect’s indoor pool – have generally been abroad, are relatively cultured, fluent in other languages, but have still decided to come back to Saudi, and they describe it as being a safe environment with guaranteed, well-paid work, a good place to raise kids, and free of a lot of the negative sides of western culture (binge drinking, date rape, street harassment, gun violence, etc.). A lot of them have said they were happy growing up here, and even if they are conflicted about being back in the country after studying abroad, and are open-eyed regarding the (stunningly blatant) hypocrisies of this so-called spiritual society, this is still home to them, the place where they come from, where their families and friends are, and they feel pretty comfortable in their day-to-day lives. It’s a stable country (for the region), a very rich country, an influential country (American presidents just line right up to kiss the king’s ass), a rapidly developing country (they’re building a high-speed rail line, which is still decades away from the US), there are good jobs, and they can expect to live reasonably prosperous lives here.
Okay, last thing, regarding what I called the hypocrisies of their so-called spiritual society. There are over 100 shopping malls in Jeddah, a city of about one million people. There are blocks where you can have a mall next door to a mall, across the street from another mall. The streets are choked with Lambos and Ferraris, Bentleys, Maseratis and the like. Gucci, Prada, Cartier, etc. Saudi ladies will wear their niqab with diamond-encrusted wrap-around Ray-Bans, dripping jewels, gold-lamé heels. Rich men wear lots of rings, sunglasses, pricey shoes, love driving their fancy cars at speeds that make you question their desire to go on living such a life. The most ostentatious, materialistic sort of people I’ve ever come across outside of uptown Manhattan (or Beirut, for that matter). Their imams and their politicians talk about western corruption, about Muslim values, and nobody seems to have even the remotest, vaguest notion that they are utterly and completely in thrall already. They are the living and breathing embodiment of everything stagnant and decadent and short-sighted and repulsive about the west, minus any of its redeeming features. Obesity is as normal here as in the deep south (as is religious zealotry). Racism is established fact. Saudi exceptionalism is American exceptionalism to the nth degree – when I raise an eyebrow at, say, the idea of a public execution (to say nothing of the mass beatings and rapes of Ethiopian men and women by gangs of marauding religious police), people shrug and say, “Saudi is different.” Not “incredibly fucked the fuck up.” Just different. Like if you ask an American politician why we’re bombing everybody brown, jailing everybody black, and spying on everybody of every color they’ll say hey, we’re special, we’re different, we get privileges.
Actually, in a lot of ways, this place feels like home, or home maybe seventy-five, a hundred years ago. Maybe fifty years. Hell, I’m sure there are parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana right now that would feel just as fucked up to me as Saudi does. And beyond the beatings and executions and rapes, there’s also a sort of day-to-day racism that would be pretty recognizable to any American. The way that all the builders here are Pakistani and Indian, all the waiters all Filipino, and all the managers and white collar workers are Saudi – if you say “landscaper” to an American, we’ll hear “Mexican”. If you say “7-11”, I’ll think Pakistani, or Indian. Who works at KFC? Black people work at KFC. Who runs the dry cleaner? Chinese people, or Vietnamese. Then, if you look even one generation back, at the phrases like “separate but equal”, or “a woman’s place is in the home” (possibly as sung by Ray Charles in the wonderfully misogynistic chart-topping, toe-tapping, “I’ve Got A Woman”), all of the same shit I’m sounding all self-righteous about is right there, deep in the culture, barely even sublimated in my own generation. And I haven’t met a Saudi yet who’s got a thing on the Westboro Baptist shitheads. So.
Fuck, I want a beer.