(Stories of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia)

by Unda DeVeil

A short introduction. Stories of every day life in Saudi Arabia, as seen through the eyes of a British woman living there, may interest some of you. I hope so, as it is my intention to write something witty and amusing as well as to give an idea of daily life in a totally different culture and lifestyle.

So, what exactly do you find to do all day? A continuation of Week in the life…… day three.

Monday. Another bright and sunny morning greets me as I leave the house at 0645, and already I'm witnessing some fine examples of road rage in front of my sleepy eyes (or what we ex pats call Thobe rage). I'm on my way to a private compound across the city, and, not being allowed to drive or get public transport, my husband is driving me the half hour journey to where I will set up my stall for the monthly bazaar, something which closely resembles an indoor market.

Open to ex pats, and there are thousands of us, this is the biggest and most popular bazaar of them all, probably because we are always on the look-out for gifts to take back to our home countries, and on visits to our families. Unfortunatly Riyadh shops don't offer much on that score. There are very few places in the city selling gift items 'made in Saudi' So we rely on these (ex pat) bazaars, and this one in particular offers us everything from fresh baked bread to wooden camels, and from silk cushion covers to beaded headscarves. Most of the stuff is craft-like and home-made. Making things at home is a hobby most wives take up to keep themselves from going nuts (remember it is extremely difficult for women to work out here), and we are glad to sell the stuff we've made - it gives us something to do, gets us out of the house and earns us a bit of pocket money. I sell a selection of things on my stall, including home-made jams and chutneys; framed prints of my pen&ink drawings of Bedouin jewellery, mosques and middle eastern things; some jewellery and bits and pieces, and before long it will be the home-made Christmas pudding season too. These bazaars are not quite legal of course, as the very nature of them brings together whole groups of ex pats under one roof, and as mentioned before, this is something the powers that be are very uneasy with. So yet another event known as a coffee morning, though we all know what it's really about!!

Today it was absolute bedlam. I don't know where the thousands came from but they were certainly intent on spending their money. Talk about rushed off my feet which is why I breathed a big sigh of relief with the approach of midday when the bazaar ends. I can start packing up and go home. This afternoon I take stock of what I've sold, make notes of what items I need to make or re-order, and make a shopping list of ingredients so that I may start on the christmas puddings.

Tonight a group of us, 3 couples and 3 single men are going out to eat in an Italian restaurant at a nearby hotel. Now you're probably wondering what the big deal is here, so why am I even mentioning such a simple event simple by western standards, but it really isn’t simple here. For a start, none of what we plan to do is acceptable, allowed, or legal according to Saudi religious law.

Mixed couples shouldn't be in each other's company. After all, my friend's husband will see my face, and he's not my father, brother, husband or son. Sound familiar? Yes, here we go again with the Mahram story The single men in the party should very definitely not be looking at me, talking to me, or even be in the same room as me. My very presence could excite them beyond their control, in which case they will not be held responsible for their actions should they become wild with passion. I suppose it's all that pent up testosterone just bursting out of them!! Which often leads me to question this culture's demanding of strict segregation of the sexes, and whether or not it doesn’t actually provoke the very problems they are trying to avoid. However, I don't suppose I'll ever have the answer to that.

When we get to the restaurant, we're taken straight to the family section and put into one of the curtained booths, where the waiter on glimpsing the females in our party removing our abayas almost faints with shock and can't close the curtains quickly enough. Underneath, we have been careful to dress conservatively, but strictly speaking we should not be removing our abayas at all, and the Muttawa would have plenty to say to our husbands on the subject of vice, virtue and not keeping us under proper control.

If the Muttawa should come in and discover us, they would surely arrest us all for being in a mixed group. I don't want to give the impression that Saudi's never go out in groups. They do, but the group would be made up of family and so there would be nothing wrong in them all being together. The waiter is obviously quite nervous at our mixed party in the restaurant as he scuttles off to find us some menus and soft drinks -no wine list here, alcohol is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia . All in all it's a risk for everyone concerned. But what to do? We are fed up entertaining in our homes, bored with such restrictions, we want to 'break out'!  So we take the risk.  But I'll just point out here, that on sighting any Muttawa in the hotel, the restaurant manager would rush in and warn us, in which case we could make our getaway, or at least disperse quickly, so we feel quite safe tucked away in our booth, behind closed curtains. Every restaurant must have a family section and most have curtained booths or screens for the ladies to be able to eat more easily under their veils, or even to remove part of the veil, without being seen by strangers.

The evening passes quickly, and with no Muttawa in sight, without incident, and despite the lack of alcohol we enjoy ourselves fully. We eventually make our way home, safe in the knowledge that we have got away with a mixed social event, once again. It's crazy. It's Saudi.