(Stories of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia)
by Unda DeVeil
Hi there, I’m back! Refreshed and ready to rock ‘n roll after being ‘let out’ to enjoy a 2 week whirlwind tour of the Gulf States and normality!! - threw off the abaya, drove the car, basked in the sunshine, wore a bikini, drank alcohol, ate pork, danced and swam. I felt like a naughty little girl doing all the things I can’t do here. It was Fantastic. So, batteries re-charged, I’m ready to face whatever Saudi throws at me. Hmmm…January…let me see. Nothing much happening here apart from the Sales, and that’s nothing to write home about ‘cos it must be just the same where you are.
Or is it?
Sales or no sales, there’s no such thing as an all-day shop-till-you-drop spree here because the shops are obliged to shut four times a day for prayers, plus everything shuts all afternoon till 4pm. This means you can’t actually get on with a great deal of shopping at any one time – Paradise for men!
Most business is conducted in the morning, which is the big chance to get things done, whether it’s shopping, banking or anything else, because between the first prayer time at sunrise, and the next at midday, it’s the longest ‘prayer-free’ time available in the working day. Things open around 9.30 ish so you’ve got to be out there and ready to run at 9.30 on the dot, or things could go horribly wrong. It’s all in the timing. Gone are the days when I might be at home and suddenly realise I need something so just hop in the car, go out and buy it. Oh no. Not here. Every outing must be carefully calculated around prayer times. Everything stops for prayer, even some of the traffic. Religion Rules.
Talking of hopping into the car, I cannot, and that’s the one big bug I have about this country. Females are not allowed to drive. Nor can they get on a bus - not that I‘d want to when I see the state of them. They’re prehistoric! MoT’s must have expired at least 25 years ago and I didn’t know tyres were made up of so much wire! Nor did I realise you could get that many people in one bus. I wonder if they’ve got the Guinness Book of Records here. Shame if they haven’t. I suppose if the odd one falls out under the wheels of a passing car nobody notices. The skill these men have in getting on and off buses amazes me, and provides much amusement as I sit watching, stuck in traffic in a stinky taxi. You see, the buses never actually stop at the bus stops, they just slow down when they get nearish. So those wishing to get off have to be a bit quick about it or they’ll get shoved back in. Those wishing to get on have to be fit enough to run with the bus, whilst also relying on having handfuls of their clothing grabbed by daredevils leaning out at perilous angles to haul them up to the bus platform.
But let’s get back to the shopping. As I said, it’s all in the timing. I’ll give you an example…suppose I actually miss getting out in the morning. That leaves me with two choices. I can wait til the 4pm opening time or I can do the grocery shopping. Because there’s one exception to the ‘all closed in the afternoon rule’, and that is the International supermarkets who pride themselves in displaying huge ‘OPEN 24 Hours’ posters, though in fact they aren’t, because they too must close for prayers, and if you’re half way round a supermarket when the call to prayer comes – you’ve had it!! However, there are one or two branches in this city where it is possible to get a ‘lock-in’…it’s all rather sinister and reminds me of good old country pub days at home. The secret is to get into the shop before the ‘soon we’re closing for prayers’ announcement. Then, come prayer time, for 20 minutes the doors are locked, the lights go out, tills shut and the assistants disappear, but you get to stay, peering at the shelves in the darkness wheeling your trolley up and down the aisles, happily shopping. Of course you have to be a bit careful not to crash into any of the local ladies as, dressed head to toe in black, they are not easily distinguishable apart from the whites of their eyes, and it’s especially tricky if they’re wearing the full veil. The big disadvantage of the ‘lock-in’ is that you don’t escape Scott free – they play the prayers over the tannoy system at an almost deafening volume, though I have to admit the whole scenario appeals to my strange sense of humour and I’ve suffered many a giggling fit, tears rolling down my cheeks whilst skulking about in the dark looking for the Frosties. The supermarkets of course, know that nobody will try to leave without paying, because nobody wants to lose their hand or their head. Simple.
The alternative, waiting till the 4pm opening time, is always a bit of a risk due to the frequency of prayer times later in the day. But, anyway, I’ve missed the morning slot so off I go to the nearest mall - it’s all malls here, no High Street shopping and I’ll just add now that you can’t try any clothes on, there is no such thing as a changing room. The very culture dictates that all shop assistants are men, so it is thought too risky to have ladies undressing in shops. In my opinion the very culture provokes certain problems but that’s another story for another day. So, here I am in the shopping mall and I’m strolling around browsing, and maybe I see something I like. But I dare not hesitate too long in my decision to buy or not, because any minute they'll shut for prayers again. Which means I can either hang about for 20 minutes outside the shop, waiting for it to re-open, or go home and come back later. But to go home and come back later is risky. I would have to be quick off the mark because the traffic in this city is hell, and also there’ll be another prayer along soon – they’re just like buses – all morning without, then they pile up later in the day. I really think Allah could have spaced them out more evenly. And just to make it really interesting, the times vary from week to week, so things could go horribly wrong if you don’t get it right.
Now, you’re probably thinking, why doesn’t she just pop into a coffee shop for a cuppa and wait there till the prayers finish. Easy peasy – if you’re a man!! You see, men and women must not mix, and everything is done to prevent it happening. Let’s take restaurants and coffee shops/cafes for instance. They must have 2 separate rooms with 2 separate entrances. The larger part, and usually at the front with the view, is for men only, and some pokey little side entrance or back door is for the families.…’families’ meaning women, children, and men with their wives.
In my case, being female, I must go to the ‘family’ section, and the rules here are a bit sketchy (as always in Saudi). Generally speaking, if I’m alone I cannot be served in a coffee shop unless I have my ‘Mahram’ with me – my male chaperone (who can be my husband, father, brother or son). Some places will serve unaccompanied women but they’re a bit jumpy about it in case the Religious Police happen to pass by (and you know how scary we women are when we don’t have our minders with us)!!. I’ve thought about this a thousand times and still cannot fathom out what exactly they think we are going to get up to - dance naked on the tables, delirious with the excitement of being out in a café? Restaurants on the other hand will serve me, in the family section of course, whether I am alone or with other females and no Mahram. With me so far?
OK, forget the shopping, forget having a cuppa and let’s just go home.
It’s crazy. It’s Saudi.