Being back in the U.S. in December and January, among American friends and family, highlighted how far beyond a Westerner’s comprehension the idea of living in Saudi Arabia really is. A monarchy? Islamic law? Separate treatment for men and women? Living in a walled compound? To someone who hasn’t been here, there’s no frame of reference for any of it. Not a lot of sitcoms or movies set in Middle Eastern neighborhoods. So I thought I had some ‘splaining to do when I got back. A letter home from camp, so to speak. You know, Dear Mom, here’s what compound life is like.
But while I’ve been living here I’ve also wondered what the Arabs around us think. Wouldn’t you? This is what my compound looks like from the outside, right smack in the middle of a community of homes and apartments and shops and streets:
And then I saw this, by Abdullah Sayel, in the Arab News, which is a major English-language daily in Saudi Arabia:
Dear expat, if you live in a compound with a main gate and a number of villas surrounded by a high fence, then you need to accept the fact that you represent a legend or a human myth. In the next few lines, I will try my best to explain how.
In Saudi society, there is a stereotype about expat compounds and their inhabitants. Many still think that a secret life is run behind these high walls. To many Saudis, you are seen as someone who runs loud parties (especially during Christmas and New Year), crazy entertainment and fancy recreational facilities. All of this, of course, is thought to be taking place behind your compound walls. Is this true or not? This is something that I cannot comfort my fellow citizens about.
Now, what you need to do as an expat living in a fancy compound is easy. If a young Saudi or an Arab colleague asks you about the myths and lives of Hollywood stars, which you might enjoy in real, what would you say? Could this be the truth? Who can deny that this is just a stereotype?
(The link to the original is here, if you want to check me or explore the reader comments.)
Okay, THAT had never crossed my mind. Champagne fountains! Flappers! Feathers! Heathen music! Everybody in the pool! He seems to be picturing something like this:
Oh, man, how I wanted to sit this guy down and say, “Look, I need to explain a few things to you.” (Including how puzzling that last paragraph was.) And although the subject would be the same as my letter home from camp, it would be a very different set of things than the ones I explain to my mom. But Abdullah threw down the challenge, didn’t he? And I do like a challenge. So, with a lot of brainstorming help from Mr. Wood’s English classes at Clearfield High School (hollah!), I’m going for it. My Abdullah-footnoted letter home from camp to Mom, which in a perfect world would help both sides understand each other a little better:
How are you? Compound life is fun. Living inside these walls isn’t as weird as you think. Turns out everything is behind walls here, so we’re not that different.* Every Saudi home is behind high walls and a gate so you can’t see the house itself, and the windows are small and covered up.
This is what a Saudi neighborhood street looks like:
*Dear Abdullah, I have to explain about the walls here because western homes don’t have them. In fact, we build our homes with the express intent of making them look welcoming to everyone who passes by. We landscape along the front walk or at the door to invite people in. We have big windows. Even in an apartment residents will put a mat that says “Welcome” at the front door. Fences might enclose property behind the house to contain pets or children, but anything in the front is ornamental, and is rarely more than waist high.
And this is what my street looks like:
Looks like an Arizona retirement community, don’t you think? Front doors and walks are visible, houses face each other, windows are open. We greet neighbors and rap on a door to borrow something or say hello. Kids ride around on bikes and scooters, people go for a walk. Most days, people go to work in the morning, come home, eat dinner, watch some TV, go to bed.*
*Dear Abdullah: Really, that’s it.
We wear western dress inside the compound, so it’s very comfortable to be out and around, meeting new people. I’m making lots of new friends.*
*Dear Abdullah: Your families live comfortably in individually walled homes because you ARE at home, with lots of extended family that may not live in the same house, but are spread around nearby. We come here without family, and many foreigners would find it isolating to live in a walled home, without freedom of movement. Even with family nearby, Westerners are big on friends, including neighbors. We depend on them in times of need. We don’t have tribes. The network of family, friends and neighbors is the closest thing, and without any family with us here, friends and neighbors become extra important.
We have a restaurant; a gym; tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts; and a market here on the compound. There are also a couple of little hair salons, a playground, and a nice big pool and deck area. It’s nice to be able to have recreation and go about routine daily activities independently, without having to cover.*
*Dear Abdullah: In the West, men and women mingle freely and nobody thinks anything of it. Men and women are at ease around each other. Western women find no use in covering in black robes and are more comfortable without them.
Truth be told, I’m probably making more friends, and faster, because of the way we’re all packed in here together and can’t access the outside world on our own. (You know, with the way the women can’t drive.) The compound has a couple of buses that take children to their many different schools and then go out every day to take women shopping. There’s a monthly schedule, so you can look and see when the next trip is to IKEA, or a souk you like, or a store you need to go to. The nearest grocery store sends its own bus almost every day to pick us up, take us to the store, and bring us back. The driver drops us at our own doors and helps us carry in the groceries, which is great. However, you have to go right when the bus wants to, and check out according to the schedule, no matter what you have to leave off your list.
*Dear Abdullah: In Western countries women drive, and both men and women tend to errands whenever they need to. If you’re printing a document and run out of ink, you jump in the car, go to the office supply store, buy your ink, and come back. If one store doesn’t have what you need, you just go to another. If you think of something else while you’re out, you change your plans and add that errand to your itinerary. Arranging for drivers or adhering to a bus schedule is considered burdensome.
The silver lining is that the bus is the best place to get to know the other women. You talk about what you found, or give each other tips so that next time you can find what you didn’t this time. You can help each other look for things, or pitch in to help somebody who has a shopping emergency (birthday party, feeling unwell, new to Saudi Arabia). Those things wouldn’t happen anywhere else.
We also have socials and parties and activities*. The restaurant on our compound puts on a Thursday night buffet (Thursday night is Friday night here) where we make a habit of meeting up with our friends. Some of the women play board games in the afternoons. I like to play badminton, and sometimes women from the shopping bus decide to meet at the restaurant for lunch. We’ve also started having regular “princess parties” where we dress up in our latest finds from the Princess Souk (aka, the second-Hand souk–you can find the blog post from my first trip here). Here’s our gathering from this past week:
*Dear Abdullah: We ate dinner and went home about 10:00. No fountains, nobody in the pool, and if there were any feathers they were already on the Saudi dresses we bought here. Our “crazy entertainment” was conversation and picture taking. I had a Greek salad and some lentil soup. Oh–and a Diet Coke. Sorry to disappoint you.
Well, Mom, that’s about it for now. It’s Indian night tonight at the restaurant–my favorite. I hope everything is great at home. Write back soon! I’m having lots of great adventures that I’ll write about another time.