Human RightsReligion

Why growing up in Saudi Arabia was awesome, and why I beg you not to go there

I was just reminiscing with Ali Rizvi about growing up in Saudi Arabia.

We were foreigners, the children of expatriate workers. We lived in Saudi Arabia at different times; he is far older than I am, and he left in ’91 while I moved to Saudi in ’95. We walked in the same places a handful of years apart, a bubble of time between us. We lived in the same city and went to the same school, one of the most highly ranked private international schools in the world.

One of our fellow ex-Muslims, a Saudi from the same city, the capital of the Kingdom, asked us, ‘What was it like? Was it a Saudi curriculum? Was it segregated?’

No, no. Not at all. Nothing like that.

Nothing like Saudi schools, this American international school. It was co-ed, boys and girls, young men  and women sitting side by side in the same classrooms, holding hands while walking to their lockers between classes. Nothing like the brutal segregation of Saudi schools, in one instance so extreme that girls are allowed to burn to death rather than be permitted to escape a burning building without the proper covering clothing.

Our had no such requirements. It did have a dress code, rather benign for the Kingdom. At the time of my attendance, no shorts or sleeveless shirts except for during PE, no bare midriffs, no excessive makeup, jewelry, piercings. Nothing like a Saudi school.  In fact, in the years I was there, I was one of the only people in my grade, year after year, to wear the hijab. The covered heads on the playground you could count on your fingers. We were an international school with large American and Canadian demographics, and significant European, Arab, and South Asian ones too, incredible national and racial diversity. During Ali’s time, there were far more North Americans and far less South Asians and Middle Easterners. but that has progressively been changing.

We were eclectic, few, privileged.  We were taught an American curriculum far superior to anything I’ve heard any of my peers or students here in the US speak of. We learned American history in the middle of the Arabian desert, we took on the roles of farmers and tailors and butchers and simulated the agricultural economies of the original 13 colonies in 5th grade and then we simulated the Constitutional Convention in 8th grade, wearing wigs and buckles on our shoes as we stood in the Russell Room debating the articles of the Constitution. We read The Hobbit and Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird before we hit our teens, and wrote research papers with cited sources and annotated bibliographies, had spelling tests based on our science books, wrote creative nonfiction narrative essays. In our protected, sprawling campus under the desert sun, we ran for Terry Fox and Walked for Wellness and held intramural sports tournaments. We did Model United Nations, had an International Baccalaureate system, and we were big on art, community, music, drama, culture. Also, crucially, big on wellness, respect, empathy, counseling, outreach for students.

Nothing like Saudi schools.

Though I left when I was thirteen, I know full well that I would not be half the thinker I am today if it were not for the  close reading and critical thinking skills I learned in those formative years. This is namely because of the life I led; I was thereafter never given an educational opportunity that was not utterly useless until well into my undergraduate years, and arguably nothing of comparable quality and value until graduate school.

And despite, or maybe because of, the intense personal and traumatic struggles I had in those years, that school was instrumental in saving my life, my spirit, my mind.

And because of this, here is my plea: Don’t go there. Don’t work there as an expat in the Gulf, no matter how tempting the money, the opportunities, are. Don’t do it.

At least, not without considering the following. At least, not without knowing what you will be, what you will be doing by being there.

Ali told me that in the 11 years he was in Riyadh, he never interacted on any real level with Saudi citizens, never learned more than a few words of Arabic. This is not uncommon; in fact it’s the norm, because so it was for me, so it was for every expat I knew.

And it’s unnerving, disconnecting to consider how you can live in a country for years and years, the better part of a decade for me and more than a decade for Ali, and not have interactions with the citizenry, the local population, how you can be purposefully cut off from the life and culture of the place of your growth, the development of your personhood, the spring of your memories, the country whose water and food you are consuming, whose landscape you know and whose buildings are the skyline you’ve memorized.

How you can be there for years and learn nothing real or interpersonal or valuable about the country and its people.

How you can live in Saudi Arabia for a decade and leave without any substantial claim to a real human Saudi experience.

And note, it was not because we were required to self-select, self-segregate–there were no clear barriers to forming friendships with the citizenry of the land hosting us and partake in their way of living.  We didn’t have to disconnect and wall ourselves off.

So why did we?

It was because. we. could.

Can you imagine the privilege?

Even I, as an Arab who could mostly understand the dialect, whose family had some Saudi friends from our America years who we visited and spent time with, even I have no real claim to saying I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have dear, poignant memories of eating dinner in a Saudi house, overwhelmed with the spice and aroma of the soup and the tenderness of the deep, throaty Saudi dialect, and another memory of being a point in a circle of women and girls seated on the carpeted sand in the night, digging my tiny fingers into a giant platter of lamb and kabsa in a Bedouin tent alongside the spraying currents of the Red Sea. I have memories of being taken on tours through greenhouses and tent-like tunnels housing farms and farms and farms. But these memories have a foreign flavor, a tinge of excitement and newness and adventure and anomaly that serves to denormalize them.

Yes, I had Saudi experiences. I did not have a Saudi experience.

How ridiculously pleasant that I could choose to delve into that (or have my parents choose for me, as I was a child) only when I wanted, only when it was good, and then when it was not good, when the sand began to grate into my skin, I could creep back into my villa in my compound and forget the world existed outside its walls.

And I understood some of it even when I was so young, and it was striking.

That I, as a foreigner, a non-citizen, not-a-Saudi, could walk around in public places with my face uncovered. I had that right, nay, I had that privilege. Because women who were citizens of their own country couldn’t, and I could, and isn’t that the definition of unfair, unwon, unearned advantage? I almost can’t stand the guilt of it to this day, and then I think of that school that saved me, and that too, such privilege. Such supreme and ridiculous privilege that I could bypass gender segregation and be given every tool and resource and help and support to learn to think and read and question and love and stretch and be healthy and well and grow, and grow, and grow, in a land that was not mine while its own citizens could not have that, or any of their own spaces comparable to that.

Our school was not allowed to enroll Saudis by law–how could it make sense? That as a strange child in the heart of the Saudi capital I could have so much that a woman who was born and bred there had no access to should she have wanted it? I could walk in the mall without my face covered as an Arab woman. Had I been white, I could have done it with my hair uncovered as well. There was no ‘abaya or niqab that could serve as nothing more than a nuisance or else a fashion statement for me as a foreigner, that I could shed as soon as I left a Saudi public space again, that I only had to wear because I was there in the Kingdom by choice.

Sometimes I wonder how many women looked at me and others like me from behind their niqabs and resented that I had privileges they did not, that I was given opportunities and resources to change my life and they were not. I wonder if a woman looked at me and wondered if my father was a doctor or an engineer, and felt pain and anger that she was kept at home even though she could be, wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, and somebody from an entirely different country was brought in instead.

In my last year in Riyadh I was in Al-Mamlaka Mall, in the food court area, and a Saudi woman approached me to yell at me, to yell at this 13 year old girl. She snapped at me, snapped her literal fingers at me and told me to go home, to leave, that she did not want us and our privilege here. I was so shocked and ashamed I had nothing to say and there I stood. I had no words.

Now that I’m older I have more words but no solutions; only expressions of helplessness and horror. Today I have more knowledge and see more facets of the nature of the expat problem and how it feeds into the challenges women in the Gulf face, and how it is deeper and more complex than I can claim to understand, even after 17 years in the Middle East. Institutionalized oppression of women is only one level of it, and institutionalized racism is another one, where an expatriate doctor from Canada is worth more than one equally qualified and experienced from India by far, and is given much more of those special privileges. How South Asian and Southeast Asian expats are worth less than Middle Eastern expats, who are worth less than Western or white expats. How the expat community creates even greater demand for the, let’s not mince words, slavery system of migrant domestic workers brought in to be housekeepers, cleaners, manual laborers. How, even within our school among children, Ali, as a Pakistani, was referred to condescendingly as ‘rafeeq’ by Arabs, a word which literally means friend, but is a derogatory term for Pakistanis/Indians/Bangladeshis.

And if only expats were actual parts of the fabric of Saudi culture and society– if only they were contributors in more than a superficial sense. If only most of them did not make ghosts and cyphers of the population by handling themselves as so far removed from the citizenry just because they could.

Needless to say I am incredibly angry at the entire existence of an economic system that imports its workforce to create a clusterfucked dynamic of racism, exploitation of foreign labor, and at egregious social and monetary costs rather than let its women into the public sphere and give them the tools and resources to be the doctors and engineers their country needs.

I will never, ever, ever work in the Gulf for this reason. I will never contribute to a system that is built on the backs of the suppression of women and institutionalized racism. Others of course choose otherwise.

And that is really it. You have a choice. You have a choice that the citizens of the country you intend to work in do not have. You also, I should mention, have a choice that other expats have not, those third culture kids, who were brought there and brought up there and removed from their own homes and cultures perfunctorily, and who became enmeshed in the fabric of the expat experience as a matter of their personal development, their upbringing. True that they too have a choice, but it is not the same, it is not the choice of living there to begin with, and the choice of living in a suspended bubble of privilege once you are there.

And with that circumstance, being an expat in the Gulf, comes responsibility. If you are there, I urge the following: make yourself an active and strong and cognizant presence. Enmesh yourself into the productivity and wellbeing and growth of the country that is giving you so much. Learn its language at the very fucking least, meet its people, be a part of their lives, listen to them and understand them.

Or not. But remember you could always have gone somewhere else.

-Marwa

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  • Marwa, you’re an incredible writer. You nailed it. I was in an American school that felt like America, living in a Pakistani household that felt like Pakistan, yet living in Saudi Arabia, which was a different world compared to both. The school had people from 80 different nationalities, my best friends just in 8th grade were a Swedish guy (who shocked me when he told me really nonchalantly he’d never been raised in religion and no one in his family believed in God), a Sri Lankan guy whose family got deported eventually because they’d turned their powder room into a Buddhist shrine, and a Lebanese guy named Karim Sadik whose uncle was rich as hell and let us drive his Porsche (the first car I ever drove in my life) at 2 am while listening to Eddie Murphy’s obscene-as-hell ‘Delirious’ comedy special. That ‘segregated diversity’ was NORMAL for me. It’s all I saw growing up.

    I could write forever about this – there’s going to be a chapter on it in my book as well – but I have to run. I’m rarely prone to nostalgia, but this made me feel pleasantly nostalgic while simultaneously making me, um, “thank God” that I got the hell out of there in time. So your title captured the feel of the essay perfectly.

    • M

      I also used to go to the same school as you and Marwa – except it was known as SAIS-R instead of AIS-R. Thanks for posting this, it really made me think and reflect of all the good times I had there.

  • Mazlina P.

    Marwa: Thank you for sharing. I told myself & my three daughters the same – we have neither love nor dream to be there.

  • Jera Bladeasir Khan

    beautifully written :)

  • Reblogged this on The Syed Atheist.

  • Sadat Anwar

    I think you did a great job in capturing the events, especially the subject and the plot that you used was of equal significance. Your thoughts are shared by many expatriates teenagers living in Saudi Arabia. But I will still say, that the best time of my life was spent in KSA.

  • R

    Thank you…I, too, grew up in Saudi Arabia as a child of expatriates. It was only recently that I was able to pinpoint what it was that bothered me about my growing up there, despite being quite grateful for the opportunities it provided. You summed it up perfectly in this paragraph below, and it struck a nerve. Thank you for sharing.

    “And it’s unnerving, disconnecting to consider how you can live in a country for years and years, the better part of a decade for me and more than a decade for Ali, and not have interactions with the citizenry, the local population, how you can be purposefully cut off from the life and culture of the place of your growth, the development of your personhood, the spring of your memories, the country whose water and food you are consuming, whose landscape you know and whose buildings are the skyline you’ve memorized.”

  • I have been assigned to serve in KSA next year. I work for the U.S. government, and I have only one choice in the matter other than taking the assignment: to quit. I am seriously considering it, because I also do not want to contribute one whit to a patriarchal and asinine culture and political system. It’s a conundrum: whether my service in the place will serve in some way as a foundation for wisdom and later decisions.

  • I moved from Houston to Egypt when I was 3. Then Yemen. Then Cyprus. Then Pittsburg. Then Saudi. Then Saipan. Then Wenatchee. Then Malaysia. Then Thailand. Now Los Angeles.
    I remember in Saudi the mutawa would always scream at my mother to cover her hair. She’s blonde. I remember going to the gold souk and a man jumping in front of us and exposing himself. I remember the buses that took us from our compound to the mall. I always felt even then that they hated our disrespect for their culture. Our swim teams and shorts and christmas cards and bathing suit catalogues. It was their country and they didnt want us there imposing our culture and our crap on them. We stayed in our bubble partly because we were not welcome outside it and partly because we had such a drastically different way of life. Can you imagine if you had tried to go and visit a Saudi School? Unless you were properly fully covered and your father or brother was accompanying you would probably be arrested by mutawa and even if you were would you have been welcome.? I don’t know. I just feel that the Western world’s approach to Saudi Arabia is all wrong. They don’t want our wine and bacon and bikinis. Frankly it seems that they don’t want us there at all. It could have also been the time that we were there. I left six months after the military families were evacuated following the 1995 bombing. Before the gulf war broke out I lived in Yemen which was entirely different. I had only yemeni friends – we would sneak off the compound and play games in abandoned cars. My family were the only white people on our compound. My parents hired a tutor to come from the US and teach me to read and write in english. The Yemeni people were very friendly. The sheik’s wife gave me a gift every time we went for lunch at their house. We would drive out in to the desert to look for fossils in the sand and Bedouins would invite us to have tea in their tents. Its the same in Thailand and Malaysia and Saipan. Tutors. Cooks. Maids. Drivers. The only Thai and Malay kids you meet at your international school are the super wealthy. You don’t need to know the language. No one learns it. You just flit about from school to the mall to various restaurants and bars to the beach and back. You dont work. There is no legal drinking age. The money feels like monopoly and you parents will always give you more of it and if they wont your friends will give you some from their parents. There is no sense of consequence.
    My childhood was also specked with my dad losing his job and us having to move back to the states while he found a new one and live off our savings. Then money mattered. We had to do this twice. Once when I was in the first grade to Pittsburg and once when I was in the seventh grade to Wenatchee. I could not relate to my public school companions. And I was mercilessly teased and made fun of. I did not enjoy coming back to the US.
    My parents insisted that I attend college in the US. I picked LA arbitrarily. I had never been prior to moving here. I didn’t like USC. I don’t like football or sororities. I have adjusted to living here and I like it. I still am not interested in doing laundry myself. If I can make someone else drive I will. I hate grocery shopping. I sometimes long to go back to Thailand and be in my life in high school again, but it would never be that way. I cant go back to being a child. I know that life there is very different if you are a grownup and working there and trying to raise a family.

  • I moved from Houston to Egypt when I was 3. Then Yemen. Then Cyprus. Then Pittsburg. Then Saudi. Then Saipan. Then Wenatchee. Then Malaysia. Then Thailand. Now Los Angeles.
    I remember in Saudi the mutawa would always scream at my mother to cover her hair. She’s blonde. I remember going to the gold souk and a man jumping in front of us and exposing himself. I remember the buses that took us from our compound to the mall. I always felt even then that they hated our disrespect for their culture. Our swim teams and shorts and christmas cards and bathing suit catalogues. It was their country and they didnt want us there imposing our culture and our crap on them. We stayed in our bubble partly because we were not welcome outside it and partly because we had such a drastically different way of life. Can you imagine if you had tried to go and visit a Saudi School? Unless you were properly fully covered and your father or brother was accompanying you would probably be arrested by mutawa and even if you were would you have been welcome.? I don’t know. I just feel that the Western world’s approach to Saudi Arabia is all wrong. They don’t want our wine and bacon and bikinis. Frankly it seems that they don’t want us there at all. It could have also been the time that we were there. I left six months after the military families were evacuated following the 1995 bombing. Before the gulf war broke out I lived in Yemen which was entirely different. I had only yemeni friends – we would sneak off the compound and play games in abandoned cars. My family were the only white people on our compound. My parents hired a tutor to come from the US and teach me to read and write in english. The Yemeni people were very friendly. The sheik’s wife gave me a gift every time we went for lunch at their house. We would drive out in to the desert to look for fossils in the sand and Bedouins would invite us to have tea in their tents. Its the same in Thailand and Malaysia and Saipan. Tutors. Cooks. Maids. Drivers. The only Thai and Malay kids you meet at your international school are the super wealthy. You don’t need to know the language. No one learns it. You just flit about from school to the mall to various restaurants and bars to the beach and back. You dont work. There is no legal drinking age. The money feels like monopoly and you parents will always give you more of it and if they wont your friends will give you some from their parents. There is no sense of consequence.
    My childhood was also specked with my dad losing his job and us having to move back to the states while he found a new one and live off our savings. Then money mattered. We had to do this twice. Once when I was in the first grade to Pittsburg and once when I was in the seventh grade to Wenatchee. I could not relate to my public school companions. And I was mercilessly teased and made fun of. I did not enjoy coming back to the US.
    My parents insisted that I attend college in the US. I picked LA arbitrarily. I had never been prior to moving here. I didn’t like USC. I don’t like football or sororities. I have adjusted to living here and I like it. I still am not interested in doing laundry myself. If I can make someone else drive I will. I hate grocery shopping. I sometimes long to go back to Thailand and be in my life in high school again, but it would never be that way. I cant go back to being a child. I know that life there is very different if you are a grownup and working there and trying to raise a family.

  • Yara Yuri Safadi

    This is a great article. I grew up in Riyadh as well, I went to the French school, but it’s all the same. I felt the exact same way, that guilt that build up, that bubble that you are forced to live in. And when I broke the bubble and moved away to continue my studies, I felt so much remorse of not knowing the country that I have lived in for so long.
    I shared this as much as I can. I thank you so much for putting into words what I’ve been feeling for years. I hope change will come to this beautiful country that I not only love, but call my own because it feels like it is after living 17 years in it…

  • C. Nomad

    Very nicely wrItten. I spent seven years in Jeddah in my expat bubble and loved it for many of the opportunities you talk about. Then, a year after the 1991 Gulf War, I realized what life really was like there. I was no longer welcome at the Baskin Robbins I used to go to as a child solely because I was a woman. The sign said “No Ladies Allowed”, kinda like the “No Pets” signs in North America or the “No Blacks” signs of the segregated Southern US. As an adult, I’ve looked back on my time in Saudi more critically and realized all my privileges were for the expats and that the local women had very few choices. I’ve recently read a memoir by a Saudi princess “Sultana” that provides quite an eye opening account of life there. For the same reasons as you, the misogyny and institutionalize racism, I would never live there again. Heck, I don’t even want to visit for a short business trip either!

  • This is such a beautifully poignant account. I have never lived in any Islamic country, though I have met a large number of Muslims here in India. However, my knowledge about these countries and the women who live there comes from the books I have read and then these blogs and websites which have helped me expand my world view. There are so many times that their stories profoundly hurt me and I am filled with remorse for being ‘free’, ‘blessed’, ‘independent’ when a large percentage of women in this world are not allowed to be ‘who’ they are. Someday, I wish to visit some of these countries, meet the people there, see how they react to situations but I’d never wish to permanently reside in any such nation. See, that’s where I have a choice and those women do not.
    As an Indian, there are certain instances where I have faced discrimination or perhaps I have wished I was a boy only because of the ‘extra’ freedom of choice they tend to have. Even I have compromised with my dreams, suffered for standing up for what I believe in…at times at the hands of my own family…but, I just know one thing: I have the power that these women do not. I guess there’d be more to say in days to come.
    Kudos for your post. I really loved it.

  • You have written something I have been trying to express for years. I now have a better understanding of myself and how I grew up because of what you have written. Thank you.

  • Reblogged this on .

  • Quote ‘Institutionalized oppression of women is only one level of it, and institutionalized racism is another one’. Thank you for putting this article forward for us to read and understand. I my understanding this attitude towards women and other nationalities comes out of the qur ‘an and is enforced by sharia and reinforced by the culture. Correct me if I am wrong .

  • Marcia Smith

    I lived in Riyadh with my American soldier husband and children from September 2, 1990, to July 4, 1994 (my favorite Independence Day.) It was wonderful and horrible. I’ve written a book about my experiences (My War by Kathleen Cochran on Amazon.com). I’d love the valuable feedback I can only receive from women like you and those who have commented here. Fi ammon Allah.

    • mahmood alasmi

      Could not get the book in a paper format, only a kindle format, will be interested to read it, I am a physician who lived in KSA for few years and was thinking about writing about my experience, will be very interested to read your book, Sorry it is Fi Aman Allah, not ammon
      Best Regards

  • I lived in Asir, KSA for 6 years and it probably was the best time of my life as well. My dad and I would go out the “walls” of our compound a lot. Shopping, dinning out, traveling and going to bazaars, even just to hang out and walk through town. But it was traveling for sports that helped me have a Saudi experience. We would stay at the homes of families in Dhahran, Riyahd, Jeddah and have amazing nights. I wish there was a way to revisit this part of my childhood and show my son the amazing parts of the world I was privileged to see. Great article and thanks for reminding me how this too changed me for the better.

  • Sarah Al Motairi

    I agree with some of this but to be honest, I found this “somewhat” bias and “a whole lot” condescending. The general feel of this blog post puts us, Saudis, in a generalization of “poor unfortunate souls” who are “jealous of the expat.” It further generalizes a portion of expats as “privilege-harboring individuals” who almost have a “better understanding” of life’s realities.
    I strongly believe this is the mistake many expats can make; to not fully recognize the differences this world harbors and the standards of living different cultures may be comfortable within.
    To label the Gulf a “system that is built on the backs of the suppression of women and institutionalized racism” is in itself a suppressive and racist assumption. While Saudi Arabia has many issues it is slowly but surely inching its way to a better future. The “Gulf” has far surpassed expectations. I currently live in Qatar with my husband (African American) and he has been very honest in stating that this is the first time he feels like a man and not a Black man, a man targeted for his race rather than his skills. We chose to raise our children in the a Gulf state because we didn’t want our children growing up with the institutionalized system of racism in the US. Hair texture, skin tone, Arab mother in hijab, Black father originally from Jamaica, all the “jazz” that comes with a mixed child being raised in the US in the “melting pot” of NYC.
    This blog post is a dangerous one because it paints a broad generalization, perspective of a person who’s experiences may have been different to others. One person’s way of experiencing a life event may differ wholly for someone else. I respect perspective but am quick to judge the “holier than though” mentality that believes one way of life is better than another.
    And let us not forget the history of America. America itself was built, raped, and further built on an economic system that imported its workforce to create a clusterfucked dynamic of racism, exploitation of foreign labor (slavery)… Furthermore, thousands of Saudi women, in droves, are currently contributing to the Saudi economy as doctors and engineers and lawyers and small business owners and teachers and dentists and so on and so forth. There has been a forceful push towards educating women in Saudi Arabia and incorporating them into the growth of the economy. Rome was not built in a day. America sure as hell fought its battles through suffrage and all else to empower women. Saudi Arabia is but 85 years old and still pacing itself through its time in history, its struggles. This is the world we live in, one where history is shifting, goal posts and shifting to create history. Let the Gulf find its way and let us not generalize its negativities without highlighting its many positivities and progress. Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, are all perfect examples of steady and constant change for the better. It is not perfect but you tell me where on Allah’s earth is.