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