I’m in the U.S. now, doing what both expats and a lot of Saudis treat as necessary: getting out of Saudi Arabia. I wasted no time beginning my Celebration of Swine: straight off the plane and into a sweet pork Mexican salad, followed by a ham dinner, followed by ham-and-bean soup the next day, followed by tacos carnitas the day after that. Bless the pig.
Before all that, though, on my final leg home, I sat next to a woman who asked what I look forward to most on coming back to the U.S. Easy answer, and it wasn’t the pork. No, what I look forward to most is freedom of movement. In the U.S., if I need something, I can get it when I want and come back. No bus schedule, no taxi drivers, no waiting, no rushing to get business done before a prayer closure, no anxiety or impropriety about walking around alone.
And walk I have, because in Riyadh, the only places to walk are inside malls. Sidewalks are nearly nonexistent. In residential areas, pavement usually ends against a curb at the base of the wall surrounding a home. Along commercial streets, cars park in front of businesses that may or may not have a strip of pavement in front of the window. A recent article in one of the papers celebrated a park in Riyadh, talking about how wonderful it is, how people come from all corners of this city to enjoy this magnificent resource where families can walk. It included lots of quotes from people talking about how glad they were to have it.
Yawanna see it?
You got it? Not the bare sandy rectangle in the middle. That’s a construction site. Check that dark green squiggly line running along the roadside through the middle of the picture. That’s it. It’s a sidewalk. With landscaping. I mean, it’s certainly a nice sidewalk.
But it’s a sidewalk. And people really do drive there, park their cars, get out, and go for a stroll. The fence on the right separates the sidewalk from the field o’ sand construction site. The squiggles in the satellite photo are places where the sidewalk curves to go around a planted bed. And that’s it. The destination park.
In California, I get up early every morning and walk and walk and walk. But I still see Saudi Arabia at every turn. In this place, for example:
At least, residential on the left. Do you see it? The wall. I have no idea who lives behind the hedge in California, but I’ve been annoyed at them for years. This pompous palace is alone in a neighborhood where the houses are nice, but look more like this:
In the midst of these welcoming 3-4 bedroom homes is that petty little palace, taking up an entire block, surrounded by a 10-foot hedge. There are two openings in the hedge. One is unintentional: at the corner they’ve filled in a gap where the hedge doesn’t grow well with a board fence, then planted an additional hedge outside the original:
The other opening is for the gate:
There it is. Threat of electrocution to all, along with the subtly classist arrow pointing “deliveries” around to the side entrance. All indications are that these people don’t want to be part of things. In this neighborhood they’ll always be the “Oh, you’re the ones that live in that house” people. And yet they live here and keep that sign on the gate anyway. I give it an eye roll and a head shake every time I walk past.
So of course, in a sweet twist of justice, I now find myself living inside a place just like it. Not the house (lest you be confused), but the national equivalent. The country with the high hedge all the way around, the electric gates, the arrow pointing to the special entrance the hired help is supposed to use.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow just anybody in. You not only lack freedom and appropriate places to physically walk while inside, but there is also no freedom to go in and out as you please. Foreign workers are granted a visa to enter Saudi Arabia only under the “sponsorship” of an employer, which is either Saudi or itself sponsored by a Saudi entity or individual. You exist in the country at the pleasure of that employer. Your freedom–or lack thereof–to come and go is established by your employer. As a foreign passport-holder, I cannot leave the country without an exit visa, granted by the Saudi government if your employer says it’s okay.
In other words, the gate is electrified, there’s a guard at the service entrance to check whether you’re really supposed to come in, and he’s there to check your pockets as you leave to make sure you’re not carrying any silverware out.
I see editorials all the time in Saudi papers complaining about how misunderstood Saudi Arabia is, how Westerners think all the wrong things, how nobody seems to notice anything but the bad. And in the comments, the drumbeat of offense at Westerners presuming to judge Saudi ways. Generally, they express frustration without solutions while I wave my tiny arms and say to nobody in particular, “What else are they supposed to think when you shut everybody out!” There’s lots of talk about projected growth in the tourist industry, without any allowance for who, exactly, those as-yet-forbidden tourists are expected to be. And so the global neighborhood continues to roll its eyes at those people, who electrify the fence while everybody else roams around taking a walk, waving from the mailbox, bickering about barking dogs, inviting each other over to barbecues.
Not too much later, along another street, I approached a house just as the front door opened and two women came out: the first white-haired and a little stooped at the shoulder but still quick, the second about my age. They walked along the front path to the driveway and toward a car parked at the curb. I presumed this was a mother being picked up for an appointment by a daughter. The daughter, following behind the mother, was doing the talking. I didn’t dial in to what she was saying, but the voice was declarative, adamant. Lecturing. And then the older woman interrupted.
“I can’t hear you!” she barked, still walking, not turning her head, not slowing down.
At this point I had entered the Zone of Awkwardness. Directly across the street, where we could see each other clearly and no one could imagine I wasn’t aware of the conversation. Eye contact made.
“Good morning!” I said. Why fight it.
A nod. “Hello.”
Daughter then went back to talking. I heard, “The thing is, though, that you can’t just…”
I think you’ve probably painted in the same picture I have by now. Daughter scolding or lecturing Mom about some impossibility or unreasonableness, Mom not wanting to hear it.
And there, plain as could be, was Saudi Arabia stuffing fingers in its ears and singing “Nah-nah, nah-naah-nah,” while people like this editorialist and this one try to say that much would be gained by opening the gates and allowing foreigners to enter the kingdom freely.
Saudi Arabia is engaged in building an enormous financial center in the heart of Riyadh right now. A brand-new Wall Street, 42 buildings, 900,000 square meters. All at once, from the ground up.
And you know what? It’s gonna be empty when it’s finished. Any dope can tell you. I mean, I can tell you. There just aren’t enough existing businesses to fill them, and given an interest in establishing a Middle East base, what CEO is going to say, “Hmm, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, Riyadh…Yeah. Let’s go with Riyadh. Our valuable executives and their families are going to be just fine with confining visa requirements and travel difficulties and burdensome restrictions on women and absolutely no entertainment. Pull the trigger, Pat.” The Economist said as much here, as does even this Arab News editorial, but so far, nobody’s talking about making any changes.
Can you still see that old lady, frowning, walking away, saying “I can’t hear you”?
I’m a lifelong suburbanite and neighborhood rambler. I get it: Having your own space, and being able to observe your own preferences about how you want to manage it and live within it, is a wonderful feeling. But you’re going to have neighbors, and you don’t get to pick them. Denying that reality by pulling the curtains and growing the hedge do not render you invisible, but instead make you the crazy hermit dude. And if you then stick your hand through the hedge and start waving people in, then frisk them at the gate, then tell them to take a bunch of invasive medical tests, then hand them a strange costume they have to wear while they’re visiting, then serve them really bland food, then tell them they can’t leave until you say so–well, they’re just gonna be straight freaked out. Seriously, don’t blame the neighbors for talking about you at the midsummer barbecue.
But here’s the other thing I get: The better folks know each other, the more open people are with each other, the more accepting they are of each others’ differences. The less willing they are to disparage each other with labels and generalizations. “Crazy hedge guy” becomes “Bob who used to have the hedge,” then “Bob with the terrible cooking,” and finally, “My neighbor Bob.”
Much as I enjoy walking the neighborhood, I hope I have a good seat at the barbecue when that happens. And I wouldn’t say no to a plate of ribs.
P.S. For one expat’s account of dealing with the problem of exit visas, see my friend AJ’s post at http://ajssmallstackofplates.blogspot.com/2012/02/meeting-prince-or-my-time-as-illegal.html