Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

Postcard 11 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve just had the least eventful and least stimulating weekend of my adult life! Here in Saudi Arabia, women do not mix with men so I was not able to spend time with my colleagues (all men of course) and I didn’t have any plans. I opted to stay here for the weekend, partly for lack of imagination of where to go and energy to plan (the call to prayer wakes me everyday before 04:30 and I’m working long hours across time-zones so I’m exhausted), partly because of the expense of an international weekend away (not fair on our household budget) but also because I had a notion that I should experience a weekend here on my own. An expat told me on Thursday that he’d heard from another expat that there was advice for westerners to keep a low profile, so my vague plans of walking around and exploring evaporated. As the weekend stretched ahead of me, the concept of staying in my apartment for the entire weekend seemed quite bleak.

A different expat has fallen in love with me and persistently invites me to meet him (I refuse), so I suppose that staying in my apartment is not such a bad option after-all! When I told him (repeatedly) that I’m committed to my husband and children, he responded that the Middle East is a place for magical happenings with flying carpets and 1001 nights and I need to be awake to reality. What would Germaine Greer say to that?! I ignored him.

On Friday I kept a very low profile because that is the holy day and I didn’t want to flaunt my unaccompanied presence here. In the early afternoon I became hungry and fantasised of a burger and thick shake, so I donned my most conservative black hijab and abaya, kept my head down and ventured forth into the hot, bright day. I was initially stunned by the glare as I adjusted compared to the gloom in my apartment. I walked as fast as I could manage towards some western eateries, only to hear the adhan (call to prayer) and notice that all eateries were closed. I shuffled back to my apartment, collected some menus for restaurants that offer home delivery and tried calling some of the restaurants. I’m not sure why I thought any of them would answer. Finally after 20 minutes one did answer and we spent the next 2 minutes locked in a farcical comedy of misunderstanding that Monty Python would have enjoyed. He wanted to know what country I’m from and guessed India. I didn’t think that was relevant. Finally he told me that ordering was not possible.

I waited until 30 minutes had elapsed since the adhan and ventured forth again driven by a desire for bad food. I was ecstatic to find that McDonald’s was open. I entered the cloistered family section and was interested to find that it is completely divided from the single (men’s) section by a wall but that the same counter is shared and the same staff serve both sides of the partition. I ordered a beef burger, a large fries, berry juice and McFlurry. I wandered upstairs into the partitioned family area, almost tripping with each step on the hem of my abaya. Each booth had a curtain and as I passed 3 curious Arab women their male family member returned and swiftly closed the curtain so they were unable to get a good enough look at me. Later a group of very loud Arab women arrived and were astonished to find me sitting alone with my curtain open. The juice would more realistically be called cordial, the fries were twice as large as the portions sold in Australia, and the McFlurry tasted like sweetened ice. I discarded the buns (to avoid grains) and ate the beef patty with beef bacon and a token lettuce leaf and slice of tomato. As I was leaving the 3 curious Arab women were leaving as well and finally they had the chance to stare at me and offer shy smiles but alas no words. In 4 weeks I have only exchanged a few words with a woman and she was only interested in relieving me of some cold hard cash! I ventured into the nearby supermarket for a top-up of supplies then glided back to my apartment as quickly as possible thus ending my 60 minute foray into the world.

The next day I was having a leisurely late morning Skype call with my family when a colleague texted saying that he was on his way to an expat compound and if I wanted a lift there and back he would be pick me up in 20 minutes. I was in my pjs, unfed, unwashed, and not packed. The desperate urge to be outdoors and exercising meant that 15 minutes later I was ready to go. I was dropped off and went alone to the women’s only fitness centre. I was amazed when I walked in to find about 50 women (more than 3/4 of them were Arab) dressed in exercise clothing, hair and shoulders uncovered, and exercising with enthusiasm. I was told that my sports sandals were inappropriate footwear for the gym so I gave up on a work-out and instead I swam 1 km in my bikini in the women’s outdoor (but walled for privacy) pool. There were about 20 other women at the pool, mostly Arabs and dressed in a range of swimwear from bikinis to a type of abaya that is made from Lycra. No-one else was swimming laps but they graciously made room for me. Afterwards I sat in the shade and read my book while waiting for a lift back. I watched with surprise as at least a dozen women roasted themselves in the harsh sun. I thought that the time of sun-bathing ended in the 80’s? This morning my face was sun-burnt just from taking breaths for the time it took me to swim 1 km. Back in the change-rooms I watched as women who 10 minutes earlier had been wearing swimming costumes donned their abayas, hijabs and niqabs (face veils).

The region was alive with football fever on Thursday with the approach of the final of the Asian Champions League. The Western Sydney Wanderers were playing and one of my Arab staff members almost invited me to watch the game with them but swallowed the invitation in embarrassment (when he remembered I’m a woman) and instead asked if my apartment has the sports channel so that I can watch it alone. I sat alone in my apartment and turned on my TV for the first time this trip. I searched through 340 channels (I think that there are more than 700) seeing flashes of a broad range of TV shows from static advertisements for spirulina (like a magazine ad) to raunchy music videos to scenes of destruction in Iraq to religious channels to traditional dancing of a group of men dressed in thobes and carrying swords and/or canes. It was interesting to see the broad difference in the way that women dress throughout the Arab countries, from women in rather revealing outfits on Egyptian and Lebanese TV to women completely swathed in black. Anyway, after 30 minutes, with growing irritation and a sore thumb from changing channels I gave up and did not get to see the game. I found out this morning that the Wanderers won the ACL and in doing so the Wanderers are the fourth Australian club to play in the tournament and the first to win the accolade of Asian champions.

It feels fatuous and narcissistic to write a post like this but perhaps it will interest someone?

My other posts so far on this trip:


6 comments on “Postcard 11 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller

  1. Teresa Hooper
    November 3, 2014

    I think it must be very difficult for you to live and work like this. But you do and we, myself and Steve admire you for that. Just remember that there is an end to it all, and you do not have to live like this normally. Home is not far off. I feel sorry for the woman that hav no choice but to live in this way.

    • strivetoengage
      November 5, 2014

      Thanks for the comment and you are exactly right that it’s easy for me to think that I’m going home soon. By far the hardest situation is the wives of poorly paid South Asian muslim men. These wives are just as restricted but without the luxury of drivers and support networks etc.

  2. Pingback: Postcard 12 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller | strivetoengage

  3. Pingback: Postcard 13 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller | strivetoengage

  4. Pingback: Postcard 14 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller | strivetoengage

  5. Pingback: Postcard 15 from the Arab world – A female solo traveller | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on November 3, 2014 by in middle east and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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