Jun 07 2011

My three days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Published by at 6:31 am under Blogs

I spent three days in the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attending a seminar for the renewed sesame street program Iftah ya Simsim. The conference was well organized and the attendees mostly from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council were very keen on its success.

My impressions of the Saudi capital and the people of the Kingdom range from the “I would never live in this city” to “the people are warm but totally confused.”

Arriving from the airport to downtown Riyadh, the first thing that hits you is the seemingly endless results of one sand storm after the other. From the moment you touchdown and you notice a low flying cloud that looks like the smog you see in major industrial cities. Despite regular attempts at cleaning them, parked cars have a layer of dust that seem perpetual no matter what time of day you are in.

Walking around in downtown shops and malls ones first impression is the absence of people in the streets except for foreign labor. In addition to the dust and other particles left from the sand storm, one can’t help but notice that the capital of one of a rich oil exporting country is not clean. Garbage of different sizes from cigarette stubs to plastic bags can be seen on street corners and sometimes next to rather than inside garbage dumpsters.

The separation of women and men become evident in almost every corner of the city. Most of the seating in the hotel dining room were semi closed and dedicated to “families.” Few tables were left for non family members ie men who are without their spouses. A driver that took us shopping says that because of this “family’s only” policy, there are few places where young men can go for entertainment or just to hang around. By the way, he told us that the cost of gas for his car is much cheaper than bottled water. A liter of gas costs about one fourth the cost of a liter of water.

But despite this seemingly tough living conditions, one can sense a real desire for change, albeit, still shrouded in layer after layer or defensive impulses. Older Saudis seem so worried about losing their identity that they appear oblivious to the fact that new generations totally influenced by powerful western media culture seems to be pulling the rug from underneath them.

In the working group I attended and as we were trying to come up with curriculum goals for the upcoming children’s program, the idea of religious tolerance seems to touch a raw nerve. While the attendees in our group (made up of 7 Saudi women and a man, a pro government Bahraini, a Yemeni and a Omani) were cognizant of the need to open up their society, the fear of the ‘other’ still seems to preoccupy them. In discussing the idea of religious tolerance, participants recognize that they need to expose their children to members of other religions and other religious experiences and celebrations, but they were petrified by this exposure. Without being so explicit, it took us more than half an hour to decide whether the children of the gulf countries should or shouldn’t say Merry Christmas to their Christian Philipino nanny or Lebanese Christian neighbor.

This conservative thought is not restricted to religious tolerance. Participants in our working group were complaining that participating in any sports activity (even among same gender) doesn’t exist in Saudi society including in schools. Music is also absent from public schools. While religious persons admitted that there is no theological justification for such absurdities, society’s powers seem to over ride even religious text or absence thereof.

Clothing for women, a much talked about subject in the west was also something very noticeable for me. The black  ‘Abai (long loosely covering apparel) and the head cover are obvious the first moment we entered the conference hall. Ironically women’s purses and shoes seem to be the one area of distinction with Saudi women competing to carry and wear the latest fashion.

The variation in head dress is also noticeable. Not only are all Saudi women obliged with the hijab that cover the hair and neck, but you have further covering restrictions, the litham which further covers the mouth and nose and the niqab (with two variations) which covers everything in the face except the eyes.

Our working group leader Enas (not her real name) was warm and engaging. But despite her engagement and true desire to produce something beneficial for the next generation, it was difficult to ignore the litham every time she spoke and you had to look at her. She later told me that she doesn’t usually wear the litham but because there were a lot of camera crews at the conference she wore it. When I told her that there was no camera crews in our working group she said that the whole time she was regretting not having taken the litham off but that once she entered the room with it on, she couldn’t in good conscience remove it.

While the totally black ‘Abai or full dress was universally adhered to on day one, the second day of the conference witnessed a noticeable retraction. Color appeared in many of the outfits worn on day two. The main speaker had a dress with big patches of purple another woman had a black dress with bright red wide segments of embroidery. Even the black head cover that was universal on day one gave way to one woman with a bright orange head dress and some front hair appeared to show off among many. A colleague of mine who worked with the same group a year ago said she noticed that most of the women wore make up this time around.

At the end of my first ever three day stay in Saudi, I leave the Kingdom with a feeling that this is a country that is at the crust of some major change. Governmental and social leaders attempts to keep this fragile society under social control appears to be about to burst out without anyone knowing what the results of such change will be. While some are hopeful about the upcoming eminent change, others recall that twenty years ago when music was allowed in public schools and society seem to be on the verge of liberal changes that right wing religious elements regrouped and imposed their will on society. Many are hoping for change but want it to come solely and naturally so as not to produce such negative results.






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