Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia

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Saudis Do Get How To Dress

I’m writing this post to ameliorate the response that I received from yesterday’s post. I fear it sounded overly judgmental or critical. That wasn’t my intent. I simply wanted to point out things that are different here – things that don’t seem logical through the filter of my own perception, coming from the west. Yesterday’s post was one post full of things that don’t happen here, but please remember that every other post I have written details the many wonderful things that do happen here. In addition, I find myself in the regrettable but unavoidable position of needing to draw some generalities. Unavoidable, because I’m trying to paint a picture for friends and family at home of what things are like here. I make an effort to work strictly from personal anecdotes, but at some point, I have to make statements such as “Saudis are like this.” Not all Saudis, everywhere, all the time. It’s just a general impression I’m receiving as someone new to this country. I will try to avoid generalities from this point in. However, after yesterday’s post about things Saudis don’t get, here is today’s post about just a few of the things that Saudis do.

Saudis get how to dress. I haven’t seen one distastefully clothed person since I’ve been here. This county doesn’t have the equivalent of that lady at Walmart in sweatpants, with “Princess”
bedazzled across a stained, baggy shirt. You just don’t see things like that here. Even the lower classes wear tasteful button downs and slacks. Because Saudis get how to dress.

Saudis get how to have a good time. Once I got settled in Al Kharj, I haven’t had one occasion to feel bored. Trips to the desert, having coffee, playing soccer, going to the mall, going out to eat, seeing farms, going to museums and galleries… You get the point. Once I got settled in and met some local people, I have not had a single occasion to feel bored. Sometimes, on the weekends, I’ve actually wished I could have a little more time to myself. The best part is that Saudis know how to have a dance party without alcohol. Saudis get how to have a good time.

Saudis get good food. Oh me, oh my… Have I been barefoot since I got here? Because the food is consistently rocking my socks off. Kabobs, shwarmas, kabsa, delicious pastries, with all of it washed down by top notch tea and coffee – I’m havingh to do a lot of exercise to keep the weight off. One month in and I’ve been successful so far, but the food here is very carb heavy. Every dish comes with a pile of rice or flatbread, often both. But I think the food is still healthier here then in America. The meat is usually lean, chicken or lamb, and the dishes contain a lot of whole foods, especially fresh vegetables. Despite the desert climate, Saudis grow many vegetables with the use of greenhouses. The city I’m in, Al Kharj, is an agricultural center, and we have a produce market with tons of cheap veggies just a few blocks from our apartment. The food is always absent of preservatives and other chemicals, unlike in America. A burger from McDonalds just tastes like, well, a burger – almost a little bland, really, compared to the MSG and sodium laced stuff in America. And the food is here is so cheap. I can get top notch shwarma or a filling dish of curry for 6 or 7 riyals – less then two US dollars.

Saudis get progress. Hear me out here. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – myself included – so I’m going to stay away from specifics. But there are two elements in this country – the system, imposed by a well-meaning but archaic hierarchy. The other element is popular opinion. From the many talks I’ve had with students, it seems clear that popular a opinion is yearning for change. For obvious reasons, I can’t say much more. Maybe this picture can say what I can’t. 20130527-214544.jpg Saudis get change.

Saudis get how to shop. Malls are one of the primary recreational outlets here. And they’re more then just a place to buy goods. They’re cultural centers and places to socialize. This building is Riyadh is home to one top notch mall – it is also the tallest building in the Kingdom at 99 stories. Saudis definitely know how to shop.

Saudis get generosity. In other posts, I’ve talked about people giving rides to strangers, and about people never being to busy for another person. I’ve been literally overwhelmed by Saudi generosity – as I mentioned, by the end of last weekend, I was actually craving some time to myself. But we just had too many friends that wanted to entertain us, show us around, give us a good time. Because Saudis get generosity.

Oh one more thing. Saudis DEFINITELY get WWE. And how about Brock Lesner defeating Triple H?! Go South Dakota!


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Saudis Don’t Get Ketchup


Saudis don’t get ketchup. I cannot tell you how many non-ketchup-worthy foods I have received with ketchup packets included. We’re talking pizza, pasta, kabsa (a broiled chicken and rice dish), or shawarma (a kind of roast chicken and veggie burrito). These are things that just don’t go with ketchup, but still the restaurant includes ketchup packets with the take-out. But, when I order french fries, guess how many ketchup packets I get. One. One ketchup packet for a whole order of fries. Saudis don’t get ketchup.

Saudis don’t get bathrooms. First off, this is the 21st century. This country has smart phones, Hummers, and MTV. So why is there any excuse for so many toilets like this? I shared the absence of shower curtains yesterday, and the inherent disregard for water on the bathroom floor. But seriously, can you believe it is common to walk into bathroom stalls that look like this? Men here don’t think about the ricochet from their bidet. However, I DO think about it, and it’s the reason I only poop at home. Because Saudis don’t get bathrooms.

Saudis don’t get timeliness. This goes both by the hour and by the day. In my personal experience, if I’m told that we will meet at 8 a.m., it means we’ll meet at 9.30 a.m. If I’m told that we’ll meet at 9.30 a.m., it means we’ll maybe meet in the morning, maybe in the evening. For a country of people that checks into prayer times like clockwork, five times a day, they don’t seem to think about the time very often. Maybe the frequent breaks for prayer undermine the workplace efficiency. Something certainly does, because Saudis must work the slowest of any people on the planet. I have been told for weeks now that someone will locate my passport and update my visa… “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow still has not come. Because Saudis don’t get timeliness.

Saudis don’t get rules of the road. I have been in cross-walks, half-way across the street, and had drivers SPEED UP as they approach me, then they yell at me to get out of the road. The other night, I crossed the street, in a cross-walk, in front of a truck that was at a standstill, waiting to turn. I locked eyes with the driver as I walked in front of him. When I was almost past his bumper, he slammed on the gas, forcing me to jump out of the way. I was also forced to call him some names that he probably didn’t understand, although it made me feel better. More then once, I have seen drivers turn into one way traffic, heading the opposite direction, and drive up the side of the street against the flow. More then once, I have seen kids about age ten or eleven driving. Maybe that’s why Saudis don’t get the rules of the road.

Saudis don’t get waiting in lines. Everyone will gently elbow each other around a counter, waiving their cash at the checkout man, trying to get served first. It seemed really rude to me at first. But now, I’m getting used to it, and I notice a lot of times it seems like I get served first, presumably because I’m white or well-dressed. It still seems unfair to me, but there’s nothing I can do about the fact that Saudis don’t get waiting in line.

Saudis don’t get trash cans. Seriously, the litter is piling up in this country at an astounding rate. The attitude is that, if they don’t throw their trash on the ground, the street sweepers wouldn’t have anything to do. From the looks of things, I think the street sweepers could use some help. But this help will never come, because Saudis don’t get trash cans.

However, as I’ve shared in other posts, Saudis do get generosity, good food, a healthy attitude of relaxation, and many other wonderful attitudes that make this a great place to live. Forgive this one post. I’m not really complaining, I just don’t understand what Saudis don’t get about ketchup.

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Pictures of the New Apartment

I am finally moved into a nice apartment in a good part of town.  We are close to the mall, although it is a family mall that mostly sells women’s clothes, so it doesn’t have a lot to offer us.

Unless we want love themed stuff.
Seriously, these stores sell nothing but groovy lights, teddy bears, and hearts – most of them emblazoned with the word “Love.”  And in typical Saudi fashion, there’s three of these stores right next to each other.
Oh- and if we want clothes with handlebar mustaches on them, they’ve got those.  Mother, guess what you’re getting for the holidays?
We’re also really close to a huge  produce market.
By the way, I’m talking about “we.”
This is my roommate, David.  He’s another teacher.  He’s from Los Angeles, and he’s pretty cool, except that he spent the last two years teaching with the Peace Corp in South Africa, in a mud hut way out in the bush.  So sometimes if there’s a delicious looking bug, he asks me, “You gonna eat that?”  He’s really good at eating rice with his hands.  Also, he smells pretty good for a guy who presumably isn’t bothered if he doesn’t have anything to wipe with after pooping. I haven’t asked him about this, so it’s pure speculation.  Seriously though, I couldn’t have gotten more lucky then to teach with this guy.  And, ladies, he’s single.  And of course, since we’re living in small town Saudi Arabia, he’s completely desperate.  I’ll forward him any fan mail you might want to send.
Saudis find shower curtains completely unnecessary.  This seems really barbarous to me.  They just let the water go all over their bathroom floor, which I guess they think is o.k. because it dries up so quickly here.  At least in our apartment, we’ll just get shower water on the floor, and not bidet water on the toilet seat.  This is a big issue in public restrooms, and the reason why I often hold it all day until I can go at home – because public restrooms are gross.  But not our restroom!  Right David?  David agrees.  Ladies, did I mention he’s single?
Our apartment has a couple small balconies, which is pretty cool.
They have a great view of the city.  As you can see, we’re really close to a mosque, which means the calls to prayer are pretty loud, but we don’t mind.
I kind of like waking up at 4 a.m. with the first call to prayer.  It makes me feel really good to know that, while others are praying, I’m in my boxers, drinking tea, reading poetry, and surfing the Internet – in my opinion, these are the only things that a well adjusted person could IMAGINE doing at 4 a.m., but I have plenty of family members who used to wake up at that time to milk cows, and I would never call their adjustment into question, at least when I know they’ll probably read this.
Our apartment is on top of a gym with a pool, which is awesome.  The gym is that place called Body Masters.  Our apartment is three floors up.  I like going to swim and workout, but I’m starting to think I should go in a burka after finding that  leers and advances from other men are quite common in this county, especially in the gym.  It makes sense, since female companionship is so rare here.  The fact is not talked about much, but estimates have about one-third of men here being gay or bisexual.  I’m pretty straight, but I still want to get swole, so I’ll tough out some guy-on-guy flirting for the gainz.
We’ve got a decent kitchen with a stove, which was one of the main reasons for moving to this apartment.  A lot of the places we looked at only had hot plates.
This is my bedroom.  It’s nice, but doing yoga on the tile floor adds a new dimension.  Of course, I haven’t seen yoga mats anywhere.  Up-dog to down-dog is really slippery once I get sweaty.  (Quick, can someone please ask me what’s “up-dog?”). And bow pose, plow, head stand, etc. kind of hurt.  But I can deal with it.

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Everyone is a Cabbie

Everyone here is a cabbie.  I’m in Al-Kharj, a city of a few hundred thousand, located about an hour’s drive south of Riyadh.  The town is small enough that it doesn’t support a taxi industry.  But here’s the cool thing – it’s normal just to flag down anyone driving and ask them to give you a ride.  You offer them a few riyals (the equivalent of about one US dollar), but half the time they refuse payment.  I find it so novel – I get to work just by hitch hiking, essentially.
This system works here, because giving someone a lift is one of the basic good deeds you can perform to honor Allah in Islam.  By the way, the most basic good deed is giving someone a smile.  How beautiful is that?  In any case, a majority of the drivers here will just stop and give someone a ride wherever he needs to go.  It’s a really inspiring kind of love-thy-neighbor thing.  
Saudi culture contains somewhat of an inherent socialism by default.  People are never too busy for one another.  And they don’t have our capitalist drive to always be better, and to have more.  
At first, it seemed illogical to me that all businesses here are grouped next to each other.  All the cabinet shops are neighbors, all the tire shops are neighbors, all the phone stores are on one street, all the pharmacies are on another street.  This is counterintuitive from a Western perspective – you don’t have a successful business by opening up shop right next to a “competitor,” you go somewhere where there is a “demand.” Right? 
But it seems that Saudis don’t really have this mindset that looks at others as “competitors.” Maybe I’ll find out the case is different as I spend more time here.  But it’s hard to think otherwise when you see neighboring shop owners loitering in front of their businesses, laughing and sharing cigarettes.  
Although family and tribal identity forges a stronger bond between people here then their national identity as Saudis, they are all united as Muslims.  A man might not actually believe in God, he might not live up to all the moral values, but it doesn’t matter.  If he’s Arabian, he’s a Muslim.  Every Arab I have met has an attitude of brotherhood and helpfulness ingrained in him that seems very socialist in my eyes, but not overtly so.  It’s more subtle, a casual understanding that everyone here is working together.  
It’s beautiful.  
(I want to take a moment to acknowledge that, in this writing I have drawn sweeping generalities from isolated anecdotes and my overall impressions of the people and attitudes I have encountered here.  Any generality can be dangerously misleading.  Of course, there are always multiple sides of a story, and I could discount everything I said by citing rivalries, both historic and current, between various Arab factions.  However, I believe my point stands as far as the people I have met on the street and at work.)

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Tie Up Your Camel

The other day, when it was time for me to come back from Qassim to Riyadh, I asked if I could take a bus instead of fly. The drive was about four hours, and I wanted to “see the countryside,” such as it is. I’ll never take a bus in Saudi Arabia again if I can help it, only because it was so cramped and deodorant isn’t really a popular product here.
In any case, I arrived in Riyadh and began trying to get a cab to take me from the bus terminal – on the outskirts of the city – to my hotel, which is in the center. The first taxi driver I talked to said he would take me for seventy riyals, which is a stupidly unfair price. I told him it was too much, at which point he turned and talked to the other cabbies, and then NONE of them would give me a ride for less then seventy.
So I grabbed my bags and walked from the terminal out to the highway. The first couple taxis I talked to were still asking too much – sixty riyals, then fifty riyals – finally one said he would do it for thirty, a fair price.
I opened the back door of his cab, unslung my first bag from my shoulder, set it on the seat…. And he just drove off, leaving me and taking my bag.
I was speechless – at least I was less any speech that I will reprint here. This was my important bag, containing my iPad, laptop, camera, lucky rock, photo album from Mom… yeah, THAT bag. Not to mention, it contained all my official documents.
I sat on the curb for about ten minutes with my head spinning. Eventually, I got up and just began walking. A short thought ran through my head – it was a little prayer. Generally, I have a principle that I only say prayers of thanks. I think people should rely on themselves to deal with their personal problems. But this quick thought ran through my mind before I could stop it – “God, if You’re really up there, I’d be so thankful if You could just bring my bag back.” In the split-second after I had this thought, two things happened:
The first thing was that I began thinking how wrong it was to have an idea like that – how faith isn’t contingent on good or bad luck, and the presence or absence of my valuables doesn’t tell me much about the nature of God, and it’s not like it proves there’s no spirit world at all just because I don’t get my bag back – etc.
The second thing that happened, was that the taxi cab came whipping around the corner, with the driver speaking excitedly in Arabic, motioning for me to get in quickly. Keep in mind – my accidental prayer, existential considerations, and the appearance of the cab all took place in less time then it took you to read about it. Like, two seconds.
The driver spoke no English, and I couldn’t understand much of his Arabic, but the best that I could pick up was that he didn’t want the other cab drivers to see him giving me a ride for a cheaper fair just outside the bus terminal.
Lesson learned: respect the taxi drivers. I’m just thankful I got my bag back.
Here are two practical lessons that I learned after I almost became the victim of a perfect crime. Because really – he could have dashed off with my bag SOOO easily.
1) Always check the number of the taxi cab before you get in or put any luggage in the door.
2) Try to put your least valuable bag in the cab first, and keep that smaller carry-on bag, which probably has all the important stuff in it, on your shoulder, then in your lap, as you sit down.
I read a funny line the other day in the novel “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I doubt she knew much about Arabia, but the line was, “As the Mohamedans say, ‘Have faith in God, but tie up your camel.'” Seemed fitting.

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So I’m back in Riyadh, turns out I won’t be teaching in Qassim after all. The company that hired me has switched all my information around with another employee named “Simon.” So when I finally interviewed with the Dean of the university last week, we found out he was expecting someone else (with a Masters’ degree) and I was promptly sent back to Riyadh.


There are positives and negatives in this situation. The positive side is that I can stay relaxed – I’ll eventually start teaching somewhere – there’s no doubt of that. And I’ve been getting paid since my plane landed. So in typical Saudi fashion, I am just supposed to relax and let the situation work itself out… “inshallah.”


“Inshallah”… It’s always “inshallah” here, or “God willing.” While I appreciate the relaxed attitude, sometimes I really wish someone would tell me “For sure” instead of “inshallah.” Sometimes I want to grab people by the shoulders, shake them, and say “Get out of here with your ‘inshallah!’ How about ‘inshyourself’ for once!?” But I don’t.


This isn’t just a problem in Arabia, although I’ve noticed it here more. But people do this in the States too. They have this idea that some force outside themselves – luck, God, the government, whatever – is going to determine the outcome of their life. This becomes a big problem if people use it as an excuse for not taking their destiny into their own hands.


Seriously, Saudis take “lackadaisical” to a whole new level though. It’s not an all bad, or all good, thing. It’s just the way it is here. Sometimes it’s really pleasant to work in such low-pressure situations. But other times, it can be ridiculous. Like when a multi-million dollar company with a skyscraper office in downtown Riyadh can’t keep their employees straight because they apparently only looked at our first names.


Here’s another example: last week, I was sharing an office with another teacher. It was the last week of the semester, and every day students would stream in, asking for him to drop some absences from their record so they were eligible to pass. Let me put this in perspective: Saudi students get paid a considerable monthly stipend as long as their butt has the minimum requirement of contact with a chair in the classroom. They are getting paid, as long as they have less then twenty-six absences in a semester. You read that right, as long as they skip less then a month of class they should pass and receive their money. And these kids were still coming in, begging for reprieve, because they had skipped thirty or more classes. I was certainly no honor role student, and I skipped my share of class, but this blew my mind. Needless to say, the “Protestant work ethic” isn’t a major factor here.


Their are many elements I love about working in this relaxed culture, but currently I’m drowning my frustrations in a second pot of green tea. My employer doesn’t know who I am, and already gave the position where I was supposed to go, on the east coast, to the other guy. I’ve been in this county almost a month, living in hotel rooms, and there’s no end in sight. They have misplaced my contract in someone else’s file and every time I ask them to find it they say, “We’ll get it tomorrow, inshallah.”


And this is all… A blessing. I’ve gotta look at it that way. It’s all good baby. Just a chance for me to breath deeply and meet more new friends in more new places.


Maybe soon I’ll stop being such an American. After all, their are other things to do besides work.


Ennui To This

Yesterday, I began journaling because I felt incredibly bored.  By the time I was finished, I realized that I wasn’t bored anymore and had no reason to be.  Writing is funny like that. 


Well – they warned me.  The other teachers talk a lot about the boredom.  They say it’s unavoidable.  I shrugged this off.  After all, momma always said, “Only boring people get bored,” right?  I thought, sure, maybe there are less opportunities to socialize here, not so much busyness as I’m used to, but that’s o.k., I had been craving less busyness in my life.  I remember specifically saying, not too long ago, back in the States, “Gosh, I really, really wish I could feel bored, just once.”

Well, I’ve found boredom, and honestly, it’s kind of sucky.

I don’t have internet or TV hooked up in my apartment yet, which is probably a good thing.  Just because I’m bored doesn’t mean I need to tune in to something mindless.

Here’s the list of activities I have available: read, write, study Arabic, revise some documents for work, exercise, cook, nap, or have a bath.  Yeah – I consider having a bath an activity.  What of it?  Actually, I only have a shower in my apartment, so this last option is kind of out the window.

The thing is, I’m tired of reading and studying Arabic, since that’s all I’ve been doing since 7.30 this morning.  It’s almost four in the afternoon now.  I arrived in Qassim with one week of classes left in the semester, so although I have to come to the office every day, I don’t exactly have anything to do.  So I’ve been spending my days reading and studying, which is great.  However, by this time in the afternoon, my brain is tired, and I’m ready for some recreation.

A bus leaves from the compound to take people shopping from four to six in the evening.  The last two days (my first days in Qassim), I went out with the shopping group.  I stocked up on groceries for my apartment (I had ostrich for supper the first night, and camel liver last night), and I took in the sights, such as they are.  Malls are one of the main recreational outlets in Saudi Arabia.  However, these shopping trips were already starting to feel boring, so I decided to stay home this afternoon and check out the gym on our compound.  Good plan – until I found out that from four to six the gym is reserved for ladies only.  You go girls.  I’ll just, y’know… not go… until later.

So.  I’m going to put on some music.  And cook my supper now so I can eat it right when I’m done working out later.  As soon as I finish exercising, I want to quickly eat, shower, and go to bed.  I’ve been going to bed very early, then waking up around four in the morning.  Don’t ask me why I wake up so early.  Maybe I’m hoping I’ll find something to do.

This was the supper I ended up making for myself.  The rest of the roast ostrich, along with roast carrots, cauliflower, onion, and fried green tomatoes.  Moussy Classic non-alcoholic malt bevarage from Sweden.  The cool part?  This meal cost me like three bucks.  And music is always free, this is what I was listening to: .  Props to Devanshu Narang for being one great DJ.  My friends may be far away, but they still keep me going.