The girls in my class often ask me what I had thought of Saudi before coming and how those thoughts compare to what I think of Saudi now. I honestly tell them that, before coming, I thought that the women would be a bit more repressed, unhappy and not as beautiful as they are. I tell them that I didn’t think that they would be as warm, kind, welcoming, and happy (easy to laugh) as I have experienced. I also tell them that I only have views of the women, because I have not met many Saudi men (which is true) and they laugh because they know it to be true in this society where men and women are strictly kept separate until marriage. The women (myself included) are definitely restricted here compared to what most of the rest of the world is used to, but because these girls have been brought up in this misogynistic society, they know no different and accept it as normal. Of course, I have students from each end of the spectrum, those girls from wealthy families who have travelled abroad, and have tasted a bit more freedom, and those who have never left Saudi and know little of the outside world. The wealthier, more knowledgeable ones, love to test the waters and I have to be careful in class. I have one girl who is a bit more outspoken, wears designer Ray-Ban glasses, and sits in the front row. Earlier in the week, she stood up while we were practicing introductions through role playing, and saucily said “Hi, my name is Noura, I am from America and I live with my boyfriend.” I know that this is not true and would NEVER, EVER be allowed here, but I laugh with her because she and her friend are laughing so hard that they are bent over, have their hands covering their mouths, and it is contagious. I know that they are on the edge of teenage rebellion and it is not in my nature to reprimand a dreamer, so I laugh as I tell her that she has a good imagination, that she said that in English very well, and move on to the next student.
I was talking to another student yesterday, who struggles with her English, but wants to practice, so she will stay and visit with me, or at the end of class, walk me to my office while carrying my bag. She told me that her father has (or has had) three wives. He divorced the last one who now lives in Syria with her daughter. She explains that in Islam, men are allowed to have up to four wives, but only four, as long as they can treat each wife equally. This means that if he provides a nice house for one than he has to have an equally nice house for the other. I had another student tell me that this is why her father only has one wife. This other student’s father is a History teacher and doesn’t make enough money to have more than one wife. I guess teachers are paid the same all over the world. My bag carrying student also tells me that she likes to play with fire. She proudly showed me a picture of herself, on her phone, depressing the knob on an aerosol spray can, which had been lit, and so was shooting fire (similar to what I have seen teenagers dangerously have fun with in the States). I can tell that the girls here in Saudi, like most teenagers, love to think that they are doing something different and dangerous. They may be from a restricted society, but they are still normal teenagers.
In our large teacher’s office at the University, there is a mixture of both English and Arab teachers together. When you enter the office each morning, it is normal to take your time and personally shake the hand and/or kiss everyone on the cheek and say either “Good Morning, how are you?”, or more often “As-Salamu Alaykum” which means peace be upon you. I have discovered that Saudi women tend to kiss only one cheek whereas Egyptians (and I think Jordanians) kiss on both sides of the cheek. It took me months to figure this little cultural anomaly out. It also appears that the number of times you kiss is determined by how happy you are to see the person, or how well you know the person, but usually not more than three or four times. By the way, men also do this. Last week, I saw a car accident. No one was hurt and the men got out of their smashed cars, met each other, shook hands and kissed each other on the cheek. I don’t think you would ever see this in Western culture.
There is one Chemistry teacher, in our office, who is also from Sakaka, and she tells me (as most women here do) that she loves America and that she dreams of going there. She is just thirty, divorced and has a five year old daughter. One of the first things she asked me when I met her, was if I had any children. After answering, I got the usual empathetically voiced reply, “No Sons?” As you can imagine, sons are very highly regarded here. If a wife gives a man no sons, he will want to take another wife. Then, this Chemistry teacher told me, laughingly, but I know somewhat seriously, that she had hoped that I had had sons so she could marry one of them. Then she teasingly asked me to please adopt her, so she can go with me, back to America. I told her that I would love to adopt her, but that I couldn’t because my husband would like her too much because she is so beautiful, because she is. She loved my reply and my compliment. So I settled and told her that I have some handsome nephews that are unmarried, and, of course, she wants me to tell them about her. This is a normal way of finding a husband here. There are no meetings, no pictures, just arrangements and introductions made through word of mouth. However (sorry boys), she tells me that if one of my nephews and her are to be married then they will have to convert to Islam. I tell her that I think that would be a big problem. In Islam, a man is allowed to marry a Christian a Jew or even an unreligious woman. I am told that this is because women have a soft heart and can be easily swayed by a husband as she grows to love him and bears his children. Also, since the man is the head of the household, there is no problem because the children (especially the boys) will be brought up Islamic. However, an Islamic woman is only allowed to marry an Islamic man.
I wanted to get to know some of the other women that I see everyday at the University, so during some of my free time, I went out to the large metal gates, where we enter and leave the University each day, to get to know the security women who guard them. Of course, I was invited to sit and drink Saudi Arabic coffee with them. Arabic coffee definitely has a unique taste and, I am told by other Arab teachers, that this type of coffee is only made in Saudi and nowhere else in the Middle East. Only one of the security ladies spoke enough English for me to understand her. She told me that she and her husband were divorced. This was conveyed through pointing at herself and then saying husband, then putting her fingers together and quickly separating them while making a “whiiisht” sound with her voice. It was enough for me to understand. She asked me if I drove by saying “You drive?” and miming two hands on the steering wheel. I told her that I drove, but in America. Then she told me that she also drove which is something that is not allowed for women here, but I have learned that many do it in the desert where no one else is the wiser. She conveyed this to me by proudly pointing to herself and saying “I drive desert” and then miming her hands on the wheel and her foot pressing hard on the gas pedal. Between our conversations, as I sat and drank coffee, I watched her, as she checked late arriving student’s bags for illicit cameras. I found it interesting that many students had camera phones that went unnoticed by her. She would pick their phones out of their bags, look at them and say “Camera” with an Arabic accent, to which they would reply “La” which means no. I am not convinced that she really didn’t know that what she held in her hand was a camera or not, or if she were just going through the motions. I do know that I have seen many cameras on campus. As a side note, I have interestingly discovered that some people have someone called a “Wasta”. This is a name given to a person in a high office, or someone with clout, such as a prince or close to a prince, who can get things done for you. Wastas come in handy, when you need to get things overlooked or allowed in certain cases. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is definitely a society built around relationships. It’s all about who you know or who you are related to.
Yesterday, there were some girls who approached me and said that they had been in the PYP program last year. One told me that the other one was getting married later this month. The engaged girl proudly showed me her engagement ring. I said “Congratulations!” and asked her if she were happy. She said she was, and seemed to be very proud that she was getting married, and really excited. Later, she was on the phone, and her friend was giddy as she told me that she was talking to “him” on the phone as she pointed to her ring finger. Her friend said “He tell her he love her” and giggled like no one was supposed to know. I turned and watched this student as she spoke on the phone. Her long black hair concealed the phone at her ear and she kept running her hands through it in an excited but nervous jester as she got to know her future husband. She seemed excited and happy for the future. I asked another student if she also wanted to get married and she said she didn’t like to talk about it. I asked her why, and she said that it embarrassed her talking about it. So I didn’t ask any more questions.
I realize that, although most of my students say that they want to be doctors, most of them will realistically become wives and mothers. A few lucky ones might be able to have both, a career and a family, but only if this is what they choose and their husbands support it. I had the young engaged women later ask me if she could take my picture. Now, on my first day at this University, I allowed a couple of students to take my picture, but was later cautioned that if the picture got on Facebook and knowledge of this got back to the Dean, that I might get into trouble. So, yesterday, I apologetically told her “No”. She pleaded for me to let her and she said that she would only show the picture to her mother, and when she had children to them. I almost cracked when she mentioned showing the picture to her children. Who doesn’t want to be remembered for generations as being an important part of someone’s life? Sadly, I declined the offer, and told her that she will just have to tell them about me. It is little memories like this that make me feel nostalgic as I approach the ending of my contract. As I look back, I hope that I have made a positive impact and left a good impression on the young and beautiful women of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.