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20140421 Cultural Escapades – a Western Woman in Saudi Arabia

Many people say you don’t really know anybody until you live with them (or amongst them perhaps). It hasn’t hit home to me with such force as it does now. I like to know who I’m with, where I am, and to observe my surroundings. As I learn more about living in Saudi, the moment I hear about a cultural event, folk festival, or ethnic celebration, I’m right on it. My few months so far in Saudi Arabia have been enriched by traveling to events around the Kingdom, mostly in the Eastern province, and to the biggest one that was held near Riyadh (the capital city).

In my job, I work closely with mostly Arab engineers, geophysicists and a few geologists, all highly skilled in the hydrocarbon exploration field, which is also called ‘upstream’ development. These oil and gas experts are mostly educated in English speaking universities outside Arabia. The service workers who maintain the grounds, cafeterias, coffee shops and housekeeping duties are generally from the Far East, and there is a distinct pecking order, much like a caste system. With that in mind, I have a strong penchant for exploring life outside the “privileged” corporate Arabian scene.

On a recent trip to the Janadria festival near Riyadh I met tribal people from all over the country. They were extremely hospitable and curious about westerners. I was also treated like royalty and given the best seat in the place at a song and dance exhibit while the general public stood outside the fence to watch. This is typical of Arab gracious hospitality, to provide the best experience for honored guests. This of course doesn’t happen unless one graciously shows respects the local custom of dressing top to toe in black, keeping your eyes lowered, and being quiet and polite at all times. Women are reserved in public.

In the Eastern Province, there is a long history of fishing and agriculture. The fishermen still go out in their (triangular) lateen-rigged sailing dhows. The Arabian Gulf also provides a living to many pearl divers. These men dive without oxygen tanks, and merely use a clip on their nose to keep out the sea water. Using a mesh bag around their necks, they dive down for as long as the lungs can sustain them and fill the bag with oyster shells. They’re rugged, traditional, and proud of their heritage. The agricultural areas are now confined to certain spots where there are artesian wells providing a strong water flow. Since the discovery of oil in the area of agriculture 80 years ago, there has been a change in how land is managed and owned. A running joke here says every time they drill for water, they get oil.

I visited an Eastern Coast fishing festival recently at a huge seaside recreational park. Thousands of visitors gathered around the outdoor square to enjoy the traditional story of the fishermen, and watch the young men dance and sing. There is an old folk tale about a grandfather who is walking his grandson, telling him the story about how his father went to sea and never came back. Even though it was all in Arabic, the story carried the intensity and feeling of the local spirit. All the dancers are young men who move in formation, which is traditional everywhere in Saudi. Women don’t dance or entertain.

The stalls show-casing the work of the locals handicrafts were busy with visitors watching curiously. Workmanship is all by hand, with manual tools. The woodworker who created wooden objects with large brass-headed nails had his little toddler with him. That little fellow had his own hammer and never missed a nail with it. His precision for a child of about two was remarkable. The crowds loved him of course. The basket weaver used dried palm reeds to create useful baskets for about anything you can imagine. The popular cooling device for the Bedouins and other desert dwellers’ drinks is a goat or sheep skin hanging like a swinging cradle between sticks. They must be effective, because I’ve seen them almost everywhere. The ladies create woven cloth that must be very strong and light for the camels to carry, and they use traditional patterns based on their tribal affiliations. (Think Scottish clan tartans). These age old traditions were beginning to wane, so the Saudi government has created incentives for people to go back to their roots in order to preserve and promote the traditions. The old seaport at Dareen is symbolic of the Darine people’s heritage. They are known for their ships and there are about 500 of them in the harbor with their triangular sails.

Traditionally only men work, so the folk stories are all about them really. It is changing slowly as women are becoming educated. Change does not happen quickly in a country that honors tradition. Women still are not allowed to drive. They still cover up in public. There are no public buses (only private corporate ones). No light rails, subways or other forms of public transport in the Kingdom. So if a woman is allowed to work outside the home, she must take a taxi or have a driver. She needs permission to see a male doctor and must have a male escort who is a close family member. No popping out to the grocery store on the bus, or taking the kids to school or to the hospital. There are no movie theatres in Saudi yet. There are plans to have one built at the new Aramco King Abdullah Cultural Centre that is in progress. The movies of course will not be Hollywood hits, or even Bollywood hits, and one can be certain that the content will be carefully selected. My impression of the television offerings here – there are roughly three categories of programming. For women – endless discussions about domestic affairs such as how to make good coffee and fruit juices. For men – macho risk taking sports and muscle cars. For everyone – religious arguments, prayers, and discussions about the attributes of the only religion legally allowed inside this country – Islam. The people traditionally honor their elderly, and they are very family oriented indeed. There is no alcohol allowed which is probably good considering their driving habits. They have the highest traffic accident and mortality rates of any country, so I’m told repeatedly. On a recent taxi ride he took the shoulder on the right of the road, ran red lights and did a New York U-turn (reversed at a missed side road and ran across the median). If I had the fingernail-biting habit, I’d have gnawed them down to the quick.

A Wee Shufti 

(Shufti is the Arabic word for ‘looking around’)