So I’ve been here over four months now and a few things are standing out in my experience… but excuse the mostly unrelated photos as it’s not very cool to take pics in public.
The first thing is the beggars. In Auckland, NZ, they can be seen sitting on the sidewalk near a busy shop, intersection or ATM machine, with a hat or a box to collect coins.
In Saudi people don’t walk around much so beggars would be hard pressed to get many donations; instead they approach cars that are stopped at traffic lights, or sit outside the hospital or a popular shop.
The people at the traffic lights are usually women and they wear a secondary veil so that you don’t even see their eyes. Many Saudi women also wear fitted black gloves so you see not an inch of skin. They approach the window and tap it then pinch their fingers together in a gesture of appeal. Sometimes there have been men or children too. I see most drivers don’t give money but a few roll down their window and hand a note out.
The women outside the clinic or mall often have a baby. When I first saw one I thought it was a fake baby doll because I could see so much of its body, but a closer look revealed a tiny wriggling, almost premature looking, real baby. Sometimes the women look elderly so maybe they are the grandmother, and the mother is at home with her other children.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that Saudi people don’t have much notion of lines and queuing and right of way. This applies to several areas: the college where I work, the supermarket, and (as mentioned in my previous blog) driving.
In NZ at school, the students would see you coming down the hall or up the stairs and make way – and call out for other students to step aside too. In Saudi they make no attempt at all to let you pass or avoid bumping into you. They amble slowly down the hall side by side, and they stop on the packed stairway, phones in hand, to chat.
In the supermarket, there’s often a riot of kids. You might see three of them standing up in an empty trolley, while their older brother pushes them. You might see a small child struggling to push a full trolley. The parents don’t make much effort to keep them out of your way so you just need to keep a look out and go around them.
At counters when you’re waiting to be served, they sometimes crowd around rather than forming a line, and have no qualms about pushing through. And the roads are the same.
The third thing is the plastic bags. At the supermarket, they’ll put a few items in one bag and knot it tightly. One time they put one pair of plastic gloves in a large bag and tied it up! It’s always a race to beat the packing guy and try and get more items in a bag before you end up with 20 of them.
As a result of this oversupply, you see plastic bags everywhere, and especially on the roadsides stuck in dried bushes so that they almost look like blue and pink flowers.
Another thing is that because it’s illegal to socialise with men who are not your family, and because the women are brought up to be so private, it’s strange to smile at strangers and make small talk – so you just don’t. People in the malls bustle past each other without a glance. If a shopkeeper asks about you, chances are he’s from another country.
Still, the atmosphere in the malls is not unpleasant: you can roam around in relative freedom enjoying the vaunted ceilings and air-con, and you see people without scarves on, or at least more open faces. And if you have money to shop, you can buy anything you like from low-end to luxury shops from over the world.
The bad atmosphere is on the streets where men go out of their way to intimidate female pedestrians. They toot and honk and screech close to you. One even swerved off the road as if to hit a colleague recently. If you read the US security warning about Saudi, it says there’s a latent threat of terrorism but the greatest danger is road traffic accidents. And this certainly seems true.
When it comes to prayer, there’s the scheduled five sessions a day – announced by plaintive calls from the loudspeakers affixed to minarets in every direction – and every public building has prayer rooms for men and women. Smaller shops usher customers out, close, and the clerks walk to the nearest mosque. Supermarkets lock customers inside while the clerks leave their posts.
When there is no mosque available, people will unroll a small mat, aim it toward Mecca and pray on the spot. This may be in a classroom or office at school, or under a stairwell in a hotel. But not all Saudis participate; it’s a matter of choice and everybody is very nonchalant about others praying near them.
A final note is about an experience yesterday. I was in a print shop and heard a loud mewing and was excited to finish my order and go and find the source, thinking the shopkeeper had a pet with him. But I found the kitten outside. It was pressed up against two locked glass doors in the glaring, 40 degrees heat, and it couldn’t move because its eyes were clamped shut with infection and dust.
What could I do? At home, I might have picked up a healthy kitten and taken it home. Here they have many feral cats, which I think could have rabies. So then I could have picked it up with some kind of protection and taken it up an alley and poured my water bottle on its head and left it to maybe survive.
But it was so hot, and it is so unbelievably uncomfortable trying to stay alert to surrounding people and traffic and walk in a thick black gown while being choked by a black scarf, that even something like that is challenging. So I did nothing.
I have perhaps painted quite a negative picture here but I don’t really feel negatively about this place. I think it’s full of people – immigrants and natives – trying to make the best of living in the desert and there are many moments of kindness that soften the blow, as well as many artistic details that liven up the public spaces.
If you drive through some parts of Riyadh, the newly-sprung architecture is cohesive and grand. Somebody clearly has a plan and considering the population is doubling every 20 years, you’ve got to hope it works out for them.