Out on the Town: my first (few) social outings in Tabuk

I am sorry its been so long since the last post, and I further apologize for the length of these posts. So much is happening to me here in Saudi that I hardly every have the time I want to write, and when I do, I’ve got a ton to write about. Thanks for hangin’ in there my loyal friends and readers!

Dinner with the Bosses

Last Saturday, our country directors came to town and we all went out to dinner. This is a more difficult prospect than it might be in other countries, because the number of places that allow mixed gender groups to dine together is pretty limited. Our driver came to pick us up, of course, and we drove through some pretty heavy traffic (which I was later told was actually light traffic) to get to Maisalon.

Even though we were all foreigners, the table was still divided along gender lines, the black abaya clad women on one side of the table and the ‘normally’ dressed men on the other. The meal was a pre-set multi course affair. It started with a very nice soup that seemed to have maybe a chicken and rice motif, and a really delicious tapas plate of hummus, baba ganoush and sliced veggies.

I’m really glad this was the case, because the main course turned out to be a huge plate of meat with a side of rice. Fried prawns, meat on a stick, and some other anonymous looking fried meat things. Did I mention the hummus was really good?

All in all a fairly sedate affair, and I spent most of it chatting with my SD’s teenage son about anime and video games. Yay for not being a very good adult.

Casual Dinner with Friends

Tuesday afternoon, I had this great plan to go down to the Panda (grocery store) and load up on veggies so I could make myself some kind of vegetable stew, since all the restaurants around here are so meat heavy. Now, the shops are closed during the early afternoon, so I have to wait until after Asr (which starts around 4pm) to do anything after work. And then you have to hurry because Maghrib is like 90 minutes later.

Just as I’m getting ready to go, my doorbell rings. [redacted] and [redacted] are at the door and ask if I’d like to go out for dinner with them. Sure! Thinking they mean like to the shawarma place next door or something.

Oh, no.

We drove around so much of Tabuk, finally arriving at a Pizza Hut (quite near Maisalon, by the way). [redacted] is a very entertaining fellow. He’s half Russian and raised in the Czech Republic. While hanging out in my apartment or in his car, he doesn’t care what I’m wearing, but is quite insistent that when we are in public where any ‘religion man’ as he puts it might see us that I wear the niqab in addition to my abaya and hijab. Oh, and as it turns out, also any time we might get over charged for something if the shopkeeper thinks I’m American.

This was a challenge because I didn’t own a niqab. My hijab is also much smaller than most regular Saudi hijab, so I’m trying my best to wrap this thing around my hair and lower face, and consequently got quite a bit of it in my mouth.

[redacted] also loves to drive, and to make [redacted] nervous with his driving, smoking and swearing. This resulted in a pretty amusing drive watching [redacted] tease [redacted], listening to Lady Gaga on the stereo and watching the city transform from bland sand colored daytime to bright and colorful night.

After dinner, [redacted] asked him to take us to a shop called Alrifai, which does imported sweets, tea and coffee. I had no idea that the Lebanese made such good chocolate! I was also finally able to get some medium roast coffee, which is amazing. The coffee I bought from Panda was such a dark roast it was pitch black, which is not (pardon the metaphor mixing) my cup of tea.

Later on I picked up some of these little nougats. I was curious because they were covered in flower petals. Turns out to be a delicious nougat with pistachios. The flowers are rose, and I think it might also be made with rosewater because the rose flavor is very distinct and quite pleasant.  So much yum!

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Shopping Trip for the Teachers

Our contracts stipulate that we be provided with transportation to and from work, as well as two shopping trips a week. The later part wasn’t a high priority here because the hotel is walking distance from the Araqi Mall, where there’s a pretty good grocery store and plenty of other shops.

However, our SDs decided to get it off the ground this week, and we had our first work-sponsored shopping trip on Thursday afternoon. It turned out to just be me and [redacted], but we went out to a new Mall to check it out. We got there too soon after Asr so all the shops were still closed. We wandered around window shopping while we waited for everything to open. This mall had an even larger amusement park, both indoor and outdoor attractions for children.

More than half the shops were ‘Family Only’, meaning that single men are not allowed to enter them. Shopping malls may be the only place in the country where women have more freedom than men. [redacted] spotted a bath and body shop and headed in without noticing the sign. The women actually gestured to him to come in before I pointed it out. As we walked on, he told me he had never had an experience like that, but since the women saw him with me, they assumed that he was married and therefore safe.

I picked up some throw rugs for the apartment. I’ve been having trouble with tracking dust, and stuff, so I now have a foot mat at my bed and my most frequented sitting chair. And I also managed to get a new nose jewel. Originally I was told in no uncertain terms that face piercings were out, but this week I noticed that not only did my students wear nose studs, but that my SD did as well. So I got the go ahead and now have a little light blue gem, and feel a leeetle bit closer to Seattle.

Just as they were calling Maghrib and we were heading out, a clerk noticed [redacted] peering at the Alrifai stand and insisted on serving us before shutting down for prayer, so more delicious candy. I’m building a stash since I can’t eat more than a piece or two a day.

And speaking of sweets…

A Night at the Istraha

Thursday (last day of the work week btw, so think T.G.I.T.) I was invited to my first Istraha. This is a villa that Saudis rent out to have parties and relax in large groups. My friend [redacted], this delightful young Saudi woman who works in the administration part of my department, invited us. Her father had just had an angioplasty and his brothers were throwing this party to celebrate his recovery. Her whole local family was coming and she really wanted to introduce us (her American co-workers), and to share her family’s good fortune with us.

It felt a little strange, getting all dressed up, doing my make up, etc, then putting on the black tent and concealing all of it. [redacted] came with her father to pick me up from the hotel and we drove quite a ways, collecting my SD [redacted] and her family (in their own car) along the way.

A thing you have to understand about Saudi, there are no addresses. Streets have names, ok, but there aren’t building numbers and the postal system operates by landmarks. For example, my hotel is the Fawasel Hotel across from the Araqi Mall. Seriously, this is how the address is listed on their business card. So, [redacted] couldn’t just tell [redacted] where to meet them by address and then Google Map a route. They had to meet us at a landmark and then follow us.

The Saudi women are very tactile, so [redacted] held my hand as we rode in her father’s car. She told me about her family, her time in college, and her ideas about how to judge people for their good or bad actions and personalities, rather than religion or nationality.

Her father talked to me about the drug problem in Saudi. He told me about travelling to Amsterdam and seeing everyone smoking hash (his word), and how shocked he was that the government allowed it. I tactfully decided not to mention that Washington state had recently made the same decision.

Another thing to understand about Saudi is that it is a nocturnal culture. There’s a lot of sleeping in the afternoon, and nightlife doesn’t start until 9pm or later even though fajr is at 5am. I can’t quite adjust to this yet, so I go to bed around 9 so that I have 8 hrs when the call to prayer wakes me up. But for this gig, dinner wasn’t going to be served until 11pm, and at even fancier gigs dinner might be as late as 1 or 2 am.

So, that day I was up at 5am, taught classes from 8 to 230, went shopping from 4 to 7 and then got picked up for the Istraha shortly after 8pm.

Like everything here, the Istraha is divided between men and women. Upon arrival, we entered a small side entrance and were promptly greeted by a flood of beautifully dressed women offering hugs, handshakes and kisses. Doffing our abayas and hijabs, we took a moment to adjust hair and clothing that had been concealed.

There was a courtyard where children played in the cooler night air. The women congregated in a large room, the walls lined with padded seating and movable arm cushions. We were introduced to everyone, kisses and handshakes. The ladies here had none of the restrictions that the girls at school face where dresses and sleeves must be worn long. There were short skirts and sleeveless tops, beautiful colors and jewelry.

It was amazing to watch these women. When there are men around, they’re all dressed in black with only the eyes showing, voices low and body language demmure. I’m pretty sure this is the only way most Westerners see Saudi women because the media images and video are all like this because they can’t allow themselves to be filmed in anything less if a man might see it. However, as soon as the men are safely on the other side of a wall, they come alive! Bright, beautiful and expressive, its a whole other world. I actually feel sorry for the men that they can never see how amazing their women really are.

We were offered round after round of the spiced Arabic coffee and sweet black tea. There were chocolates and toffees and some really neat baked goods. There was a kind of pastry made of vermicelli noodles with a cream cheese filling, and there are these cookies… these cookies. They’re called Mamoul, which means ‘stuffed’, and I’d had some store bought ones before, and they reminded me of a fig newton but with date instead of fig filling. However, these were homemade, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! The cookie was this crumbly butter shortbread and the date paste filling was still slightly warm with just a hint of cardamom. I asked [redacted] to tell her aunt how delicious they were, and completely forgot the tendency of Arabic cultures to gift someone with something if it is complimented. So I ended up with a small box of them to take home. Not that I’m complaining.

[redacted] is a beautiful person, inside and out. She smiles all the time and doesn’t hesitate to tell people what she thinks, good or bad, though most of it seems to be good. She’s not married yet, and I think she’s very lucky to have a father who isn’t forcing the issue.  She’s strong-willed, kind and very funny, so the time simply flew by as we enjoyed her company and the treats on offer.

We chatted and snacked for a couple hours then moved into another room for dinner. Dinner was a very traditional Saudi affair. In fact most of the women were in a different room. [redacted], as a hostess, had us as her special guests in a smaller room, along with her  sister and a cousin who was particularly interested to meet us, even though she spoke no English.

There was a plastic guard on the carpet, and a large platter with saffron rice and lamb in the middle. We all sat on the floor and dug in. There was no silverware, and no bread to use as a scoop. The tradition is to simply pick up the food that is nearest to you on the platter with your fingers. This is way harder than it looks with rice. [redacted] and her sister tried to give us lessons, a particular tactic by which you scoop up some rice and sort of squish it into a lump (this doesn’t actually happen), then push it to the tips of your fingers using your thumb and transfer this to your mouth, then delicately brush the remaining few grains of rice onto the plastic covered floor.

I can’t say that I succeeded in this approach, but I did manage to eat my fill nonetheless. The food was excellent. I am a sucker for lamb, and this was particularly well made, very tender and flavorful, even if I did have to wrestle it off the bones. I heard on the mens’ side they simply put the whole carcass on the rice platter, and at least they chopped it up for us.

Somewhere around midnight, I was stuffed full of sweets and lamb and having trouble keeping my eyes open, so we begged our goodbyes and I was able to catch a ride home with [redacted] and her husband, since [redacted] and her father were likely to be there for another 2 hours or more.

Sadly, I have no pictures to share, as it would have been very inappropriate to take pictures of the women not covered up, but I hope that the words paint a good picture for you.

A Friday Drive  & A White Knight 

The weekends and holy day are different here than non-Muslim countries. Friday is the holy day, so everyone goes to Mosque in the morning, then maybe a family dinner after Duhr. Kinda like Sunday in large parts of the US.

Again, I had a nice quiet day planned, finish my lesson plans, write a blog post, do some laundry and enjoy my high speed internet for the weekend (I got to take home the school’s hotspot router) to watch some netflix. Then a little light shopping on Saturday, I wanted to pick up a real niqab so I could make [redacted] more comfortable going out, and some more skirts for work since I only arrived with 3.

Just as I have ensconced myself in the comfy chair with my tablet to one side loaded up with Buffy reruns and my laptop to the right of me loaded up with lesson plans and ESL resource websites, once more, my doorbell rings.

[redacted] and [redacted]. Now. [redacted] has an excuse. I sent him an email about the hotel manager. See, earlier on Thursday, in the teeny space between shopping and Istraha, I had asked if the hotel cleaner could change the sheets in my room. I didn’t really expect much beyond that, so my room was kind of a mess. I still don’t have enough hangers or a clothes hamper, so clothes are all over the place. But this doesn’t seem like an issue for sheet changing.

When the cleaner shows up, the hotel manager is with him. At first I thought maybe it was a thing so I wouldn’t be alone in the room with a man, and the door was left open, but the situation got creepy and uncomfortable pretty fast. The manager kept insisting that the cleaner do more things, which meant that they were picking up my clothes and things. He wandered around my room, looking at and even sometimes picking up my things, he kept trying to make conversation and sorta hitting on me. Then after they left and I took my abaya off, he found an excuse to come back and see me in my tank top.

I told [redacted] about it at the Istraha, and she suggested I tell [redacted], who is both a man and lives in the hotel and would be able to do something about it.

So [redacted] came by Friday to check on me and talk about what had happened. When [redacted] heard the story he got really angry. In Saudi, women are to be sheltered and protected, so what amounts to a little creeper vibe that women in the West deal with frequently is really inappropriate behavior here. So he charged out of the room and back downstairs to confront the manager who then was dragged back up to apologize to me.

I appreciate the sentiment here, but of course by having two guys confront and threaten the manager of the place I live has just created a pretty severe atmosphere of resentment from this guy that I have to see every day… things guys just don’t take into consideration, this is why we don’t get hostile when dudes are doing the unwelcome flirting verging on harassment thing because it just makes every subsequent encounter with said dude unbelievably unpleasant.

For example, today I went downstairs to get some water and he pretended not to understand me despite the fact that I used both English and Arabic until I literally walked over and pointed at the water. He just kept barking at me ‘one or two’ and wouldn’t listen when I tried to ask about what size the bottles were or how much they cost. Then he tried to sell me the tiny bottles in the fridge instead of the big bottle that I was pointing to. So he’s gone from being a skeezy creeper who wanted to help me to try and impress and ingratiate to being an angry bitter passive aggressive jerk.

Anyway. Back to Friday.

After telling off the manager, [redacted] and [redacted] hung out for a while, then took off for a break. We agreed to go out shopping later on and get some food. I got a little more work done before [redacted] came back on his own, [redacted] having begged off due to a ‘headache’ I’m not entirely sure had actually manifested and may simply have been a desire to hide inside, which my own itrovert half is starting to sympathize with.

So, I tuck the hijab back over my face and we head out. Most of the shops are still closed because its only like one in the afternoon, but we managed to find a place I could get a real niqab and stop doing the crazy face wrap.

I noticed a really interesting phenomenon while we were driving around. The streets were crowded with cars so I was still wearing the niqab. As we crawled through slow traffic and stopped at red lights, I looked out the window at the cars around us and I realized that none of the men in the other cars could see me, just this black blob. Suddenly I felt… safer, more at ease. I could look at them but none of them could gawp at me. For the first time since arriving I understood why the American women I worked with had chosen to wear the niqab even though it is not required. I’m not saying I want to wear it all the time, but now I’m glad I own one, and can put it up like a shield whenever I want.

We wandered around looking for open shops and found a few, I got a new skirt too. We picked up some lunch and came back to the hotel to eat, then headed out again after Asr.

Once the shops were open, we were able to go find me a new abaya, its a front closing kind with much wider sleeves, way way easier to put on than the over the head one I bought in Seattle. Inside the shops, [redacted] took the lead. He warned me to keep my voice very low so that the shopkeepers wouldn’t hear my English. He got me a pretty good discount, though, I got what was priced as a 220 riyal abaya plus a new larger hijab and a more comfy niqab all for 180.

We got some iced mochas and drove out on the highway toward Medina, a pretty empty road with some mountains and farmland. There was a checkpoint on the way where police were checking for illegal materials, but they just waved us on through. [redacted] said it was because I was with him, and looked like a real Saudi woman, so they just assumed he was a responsible young man, but if he’d been alone they might have stopped and questioned him.

He explained to me that the black tent get up, niqab and all, means freedom for me as a woman in Saudi. I don’t think I could have ever taken a sentence like that seriously before I got here, but seeing how easy everything is when I’m veiled and following a man around, I’m starting to see what he means.

We chatted and joked and listened to music on the drive. At some point I became curious how he could just drive around all day, so I asked about the price of gas (petrol) in Saudi. He told me its cheaper than water! A litre of water is about 1 riyal, but a litre of gas is about half a riyal! No wonder driving around is a valid form of entertainment for so many young men.

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I got to see a spectacular sunset on the way back into the city, and we stopped at a really upscale shopping area where I got very confused about dress sizes. You’re not allowed to try anything on in Saudi, so you’re supposed to be able to just know if something is going to fit. And bad enough trying to find sizes in America, where I might wear anything from a 12 to an 18 depending on the brand, I don’t even have any clue what the numbers on these dresses mean!

I got a 34, which does fit, but is a teeny bit snug once I tried it on at home. American sizes are supposedly waist size minus 20, so a 14 is supposed to be a 34 inch waist. This isn’t really true anymore, but its how its started and I thought maybe that was what this 34 meant. But then I looked  up some sizing charts online and European sizes which look like those numbers are totally way off because a 34 is like a size 6 or 8  in American and there is just NO way that I could wear an 8 and only think it was a little snug. So, I’m at a loss. My new solution is to take the only non elastic waisted skirt I already own and hold it up to myself and see how fits across the front of my waist so I can try to judge skirt waist size by just holding it up to myself…. sigh.

The whole shopping experience was very surreal, since I was dressed in my full Saudi gear veil included, and [redacted] had asked me to speak very quietly inside the shops. He took charge of the entire expedition, spinning stories about me being British and himself working for the Embassy to impress shopkeepers and get us a discount. I think it would drive me crazy to live my whole life like that, and I’m still planning to do some shopping on my own where I can just take my time and look around, but it was interesting, and a little reassuring to know that if I need a man to go to bat for me in this male dominated culture, I can call [redacted] to the rescue.

Busy Bee’s Day Off

So, there you have it, another whirlwind week in the Magic Kingdom. Today has been pretty laid back. Apparently its “Black Saturday” here, which is the payday before a major holiday, so I’m kicking back, finishing up my work, doing that laundry and catching all of you up on the adventure!

One more week then I’m off to Jeddah for Eid! Thanks for reading and have a great day!

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3 thoughts on “Out on the Town: my first (few) social outings in Tabuk

  1. Pingback: Visiting a Saudi Home | Gallivantrix

  2. Pingback: The Unexpected Side of the Veil | Gallivantrix

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