Although I believe in destiny, I am a firm believer in the idea that people can influence their fate – at least the direction that one travels to get there. My older brother once told me, during a less than decisive moment in my life, that “people like us” need to spend at least 50% of our time outside of our comfort zone. I’m not sure the percentage is accurate, but he definitely knew what he was talking about. I am constantly looking for new challenges and new perspectives. During moments in my life where there are lulls, I always think back to his words. This opportunity certainly stemmed from stillness in my work, and despite my mental debate about the magnitude of this particular challenge, I decided to take the plunge.
On December 30th I boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia to tutor/mentor a young woman in the field of psychology. We changed planes in Ireland, and from the corner of my eye, I noticed an Irish airline with a clover on its wing. Instantly, I thought of a trip to Ireland (my first time overseas) five years earlier. I recalled my first journal entry where I wrote about that same winged plane and thought that the clover must be a sign of good luck. I chose to believe the same thing this time around. Have you ever been in one of those situations where you feel like so much time has passed, when in actuality it’s only been a few hours, a few days, a few weeks? It’s been roughly a week since our plane touched down on Saudi Arabian soil and I feel like I’ve been here for a while. I’m sure that it has something to do with the scale of differences that I’ve seen in such a short period of time.
While some things have remained the same; the site of a Dunkin Donuts, a Pizza Hut, or a Hilton Hotel; the majority of things have taken a turn in a direction that I previously knew nothing about. On my refrigerator is a list of phonetically spelled words that I have been practicing; Shokran (thank you), Ismi (My name is), Marhaba (Hello), Maa Alsalameh (Good bye). The buildings are all the same color as the sand and dry dirt beneath them. The women covered head to toe in a thin black sheath as if to appear expressionless, figureless, and nearly phantom-like. Looking down the isle of the Tamimi (grocery store), my eyes are flooded with visions of black figures cruising in and out of the isles, while their children run circles around them. I asked a coworker how the children recognize their mothers, when they all appear the same. She stated that when her son was small she told him to look at her shoes before they left the house; that way, should they be separated, he would be able to find her. I thought this was quite clever. In my experience, my mother’s face and clothing was how I recognized her and although I’m not certain, I think if only her eyes were showing, somehow I still would have been able to find her; however some of the women even have their eyes shielded. The men (although not all of them) wearing red and white scarves on their heads, pepper the shops and stores that they work in.
Men are the only the ones allowed to drive in this country, and unless you are married to the driver, all women must ride in the back seat. Once you have experienced what the roads are like here, you may find (as I did) that you are glad that you don’t have to drive in the chaos, which I think rivals that of than Manhattan driving. It seems as though driving rules are mere guidelines and lines on the pavement are just suggestions.
I’m sure that some things will take some time get used to. In America, eye contact is considered a common courtesy, however in Saudi a lack of eye contact is a sign of respect and humility. I need to keep reminding myself of that when I catch myself staring out of curiosity, familiarity, and the desire for connection. Five times a day (starting at 5am) the speakers lining the streets of Riyadh begin to hum with Arabic music and words, indicating that it is time for prayer. The shops close, the men retreat to their prayer rooms, and the city briefly shuts down for a moment of solace for the Muslim world. For me, it means carefully planning when I go to the store and who I interrupt.
Interestingly enough, wearing my abaya (a black robe used to cover the body from shoulders to ankles) is quite comfortable and takes away the very prominent display of fashion that litters the states and other countries. Although I slightly miss the freedom, it is oddly comforting to know that it does not matter what you are wearing, how tiny your waist is, if your shirt has a stain on it, or if you have some famous label or brand attached to your body. I found one with a trim of silver and find it to be distinctive enough to satisfy the ingrained sense of uniqueness that I have known for so long.
While I definitely find it peculiar that there are no dressing rooms in stores for women to try things on (you have to purchase the item, go home, try it on, and either keep it or return it within three days of the purchase date), I also recognize that there is a method to this whole system that is deeply dependent on faith, culture, and tradition (all of which I will not be one to criticize).
Despite all of these interesting differences, I think the most prominent one for me is that of language. I was not offered that chance to learn a language in school until 7th grade; at which point I wasn’t too interested. In Saudi Arabia, like many other countries around the globe, children are taught not only their language of origin, but also English, and possibly another. There are people on my compound from Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan – all of whom speak more than one language. My neighbor has been teaching me pieces of French and Arabic, both of which she learned as a small child. I think (and hope) that this is something that Americans are beginning to understand and grasp. My nephew, Aaron, at two years old, already knows more Spanish than I do. After this experience, I can’t help but hope that he continues to learn it, even though it’s not offered in school at his age. Like me, I know there will come a time for him, when he wishes he knew more than just his native tongue.
I am sure that there will be a lot more adjusting, interpreting, and writing headed my way during this extraordinary opportunity. I can only hope that with each day that passes and with each frustration at not the knowing the language or the customs that I will remember to keep an open mind. (period)