Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Times

Today was a very interesting day. After getting one friend out of the country after an epic, protracted and thoroughly unnecessary war with our company, another friend and I were able to visit and enjoy the hospitality of a Saudi home. What an experience! Here's the story. Last week, we all went to one of the biggest malls in Riyadh. As we were wandering around, a couple of women came up to us and said they wanted to "communicate" with us. I, being the naturally suspicious person that I am, was at first very hesitant to accept any invitations or get tied up with anyone. Then, I decided that it would likely be one of my few opportunities to get to know Saudi women.

Turns out that one of the women is a journalist, and her daughter is a college student. They both want to improve their English, and followed up with me earlier this week to meet up today as a "get to know you" type thing. The mother met us at the mall this evening, and then invited us to her home. I was more reticent, but since I had a buddy with me decided to go for it. We braved the Thursday night traffic and driving by the son-without-a-driver's-license, and got to their villa. It was kind of what we'd seen before when we were house-hunting, with several sitting rooms, a large kitchen and maybe 4-5 bedrooms. The whole house was painted a vivid yellow, and the furnishings were plush. The hospitality these women showed was lavish. First there was juice and water. Then cake and tea. Then Arabic coffee and dates. Then a large plate of fruit each. They also gave us a package of dates each and sent a driver for us to take us home.

Our discussion ranged from the beauty of English to the difficulty of Arabic to what everybody studies/d in school to how women in Riyadh are not particularly open to new ideas and don't try to improve themselves and don't look to the future.They loved hearing about all of our "firsts", and were so pleased that they were the first Saudi home we'd been to, and wanted to serve us our first real kabsa. They also told us that we were the first foreigners they'd known, which was I suppose flattering for us.

We were rather surprised and pleased that we seemed to have gotten ourselves involved with a more liberal family. The mother explained that because her English wasn't very good, all the important assignments for the newspaper went to men. Both mother and daughter want a driver's license, and feel that English is the gateway to the world. Inside, I was cheering them on, thinking that they will be the catalyst for change in Saudi Arabia. But they're from Medina, which I think has some very different attitudes from Riyadh, which is much more conservative. I think it will take an attitude adjustment here in the capital for change to happen. But we'll see.

I think the general consensus is that change is happening in Saudi, slowly but surely. Letting Blackberries in, and having women actually live in dormitories on some college campuses are only the tip of the iceberg. Letting women in the workplace is also a step in the right direction. But I think that change will come at the behest of the women, and it's hard to get people who have lived so long without something to imagine themselves having it. Some of the women here have lived without freedom, so they don't know what it is. As such, they are happy with what they have, and being humans are resistant to change. Others have traveled outside the country, and see things they wish were different. Of course not everyone feels the same way--some will have traveled around and seen what's wrong with the world, and not want that brought to Saudi. But the thing is, it IS here in Saudi.

The strict and forced adherence to Islam covers a layer of society that is rotten. It covers the covert parties, drugs, drinking, rape, slavery, incest, murder, racism, greed, domestic violence and xenophobia. Image, money and influence are so important in this country that all of the bad is hidden away so that the world will see only the perfectly Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But God knows the truth, and He'll see through the lie. None of the above are Islamic, Saudi, and you know that but are too afraid of losing face to admit it. Get a grip, understand your own religion and start solving your problems. Don't just ignore them.

The hope for Saudi lies in its women, but not all of them have recognized that yet. Tradition and progress are not mutually exclusive. Neither are religion and equality. Knowledge is power, and the women are rapidly outstripping the men despite huge obstacles. It's only a matter of time, I think, before Saudi will be visibly different, and what you'll see is a public presence of women in charge. That'll be a wonderful first!

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