Saturday, 29 May 2010

Invited to a Saudi Home

If you'd told me a year ago that I would be invited to a Saudi home to meet new Saudi friends I wouldn't have believed you.  Three weeks after arriving in Riyadh I was getting cabin fever -  it was time to get out and about meeting a few more people and finding new friends.

Glenn took my need for company to heart.  He bounced off to work one day and mid-morning he rang me.  Prior to my arrival, his Saudi work colleague, AA, had offered for me to meet his wife.  She was learning English and wanted conversation practice.  Given that since arriving I had started learning Arabic courtesy of Noor, our taxi driver, and 'Arabic For Dummies' it only seemed right that his wife and I should get together for some language exchange.  That is why Glenn had been so bouncy.  He was keen to put this plan into action.

I admit that his suggestion about meeting a Saudi wahine (Maori word for woman) for conversation made me a little nervous initially.  But, being Aquarian, my nerves were quickly calmed by the fact that this could be an interesting day.

How to improve your Arabic? Talk to bananas!

Date was set and respective husbands passed on respective wives' phone numbers.  They were interested to see how this visit would go because they knew we were both beginner level language learners.   Glenn was totally impressed with the fact that my Arabic consisted largely of  'Hello, How are you, It's nice to meet you, What's your name and I'd like to eat'.  That should keep us chatting all morning.  

AA had told Glenn his wife only knew a few English words.  So few, in fact, he wasn't sure if we'd be able to communicate.   He had suggested a back up plan though - their Egyptian neighbour spoke English.  If things got too difficult we would go and get her.

The morning of my visit I sent Glenn to work with strict instructions to find out what I should wear. I  mean, what do you wear on your first visit to a Saudi home? 

Being a procrastinator allows one to put off worrying about things till the very last minute.  So as well as wondering what to wear this particular morning, a few other thoughts were crossing my mind:
  • What protocols would I be expected to follow?
    (I figured there would be some, every culture has them.  Perhaps I should have asked around.)
  • Should I take a gift?
    (Bugger, wish I'd brought some greenstone gifts with me.  Bit late to be thinking of that now Gae!)
  • Who else would be there? 
    (I'd heard Saudi families pretty much stick together.  This could be a whanau affair.)
  • What would their place be like?  Why does this matter?  Because the houses in our local vicinity are huge and perusing shops on the main shopping strips gives the impression that Saudi homes are decked out with rather expensive, large, lush furnishings.  I can't eat at home without dropping food everywhere, just imagine what I would do to OTT furnishings!
But mostly, my immediate concern was 'what to wear?'   On my reconnaissance to Riyadh in August I had been told, by other Westerners, that Saudi women dress beautifully in their own homes. Right now, this seemed both reasonable and problematic.  Reasonable because the malls are loaded with the latest fashion labels and trends.  Problematic because I don't own anything beautiful or fashionable.  Coming to a place renowned for its heat I packed mostly shorts and T-shirts.  Meeting Saudi's and visiting their homes had not been on my list of things to do.  Why not??  Recon conversations with expats regarding Saudi and western socializing suggested getting an invite to a Saudi home was so rare it might as well be impossible. 

What a load of nonsense that turned out to be!

Glenn called -
"He laughed and said wear whatever you want".
"Didn't you find out anything Glenn"
"Gae, I told you what he said.  You'll be fine"

Not particularly helpful - aren't men so painful on important topics like this!   Don't they understand it's not easy to make new friends if their first impression of you isn't favorable.  What to wear is important!

OK,  I'll have to resort to female intelligence - should've done that in the first place.  This is a Muslim country.  Modest clothing is recommended.  I fished out the only long sleeved summer blouse I own (truly, only 1) and a pair of trousers - not jeans, I figured that would be too informal for a first visit.

Taxi arrived and off I went.

This young Saudi couple live in an apartment block (no large house) in a new area outside the central city. Their apartment could belong to any one of my own children.  It isn't huge.  It's not decked out in enormous over the top furniture.  Apart from her baby girl, there was only her and I.  And she was wearing a knee length denim skirt and floral top - very casual.

I had my Arabic dictionary, she had her English one though she didn't really need it.  Her English was sufficient that we figured out, with hand signs, drawings and a lot of laughing, what we were trying to say.  My Arabic, on the other hand, ran out of usefulness fairly early in the visit.

Two hours after arriving I was just thinking about heading home when I was asked, "Would you like meet my family?"
"Really, when?"
"Now" she said, "in the family farm"

Running through my mind was the 'Saudi's only hang out with their own families, they stick to themselves' conversations I'd had on the compounds.
"Are you sure you want me to meet your family?"
"OK, I would like that, thank you".
What a Buzz.  Making new friends was proving to be a very good idea.

Forty minutes later I was carrying the baby out to a waiting 4WD with 3 women and a couple of their children already inside. All the ladies were in full niqab gear.  Only the driver was in the front seat, we all squeezed in the back seats.  (Females cannot sit in front with the drivers if they aren't related to them.)

About an hour after climbing into the vehicle it occurred to me that I was being driven off to a place in the desert I didn't know the name of, with people I'd only just met, whose English was limited and, what's more, I couldn't even see their faces.  Buzz is settling - now I'm thinking I must be mad!

The farm was about an hour and a half's drive out of the city.  We pulled up outside a fenced area, unloaded and headed into the guest house.  The guest house is a tent - picture Arabian Knights - big colorful Arabian tents, large cushions and magic flying carpets - that's the guest house. (The carpets don't really fly) .  Once in the tent all abayas and niqabs came off.  I was introduced to Mum, Dad and another sister and children.  I think allowances were being made for the fact I was western.  My understanding of Saudi etiquette is that a Saudi man would never see the face of another mans wife, but I'm a newbie - don't quote me. 

The tent was hot, so all carpets and cushions were uplifted and carried out to the shade of one of the buildings - much cooler. Then came the Arabic coffee and dates and chit chat. Followed soon after by tea and sweets and more talk - dismal Arabic does not keep you up with the conversation at this point. Then lunch came out.  Rice and chicken, salad and a milky desert.

After this we moved into the ladies building to relax and chill out. The younger girls bought out cards and we played a game that taught me colors.  Everyone just seemed to really open up in this room.  Lots of questions, trying to figure out words, laughing.   They laughed at and appreciated my attempts at Arabic (my dictionary got a workout).   I loved hearing them talk...trying to catch words and learning pronunciation.

The day was cooling off so next up was a tour of the farm.  It's a date farm.  How the palms survive is beyond me, even with irrigation it's so dry in the desert!  The farm buildings are relocatable - one for ladies and, behind a screen fence, one for the men - I got shown that too, it's exactly like the ladies one. There was also a kitchen shed and a few work sheds.   Two maids helped out in the kitchen and with the kids.

After the tour we moved the carpets behind the screen fence to sit outside the men's building (it was quite pleasant in the shade of the building and I think this whanau prefer the outdoors to the indoors.) My friends husband was due to arrive and he was not to see the other women, hence the need to move behind the screen.

Salah, prayer time, came up three times during my visit. The women took turns to use the prayer mat and shawl. They prayed right next to where we sat. The first time I tried not to watch...that's rude. By the end of my visit I hardly noticed. Funny how you can get used to things.

I also met my friends older brother (I'm presuming this is another allowance they made).  He'd driven out from the city and came out back to spend some time with his sisters, his wife and his mother before having to entertain his brother-in-law in the tent.
Prior to dinner was more Arabic coffee, followed by tea and sweets. As one of the girls said, 'it looks  we eat and drink coffee all day'.  Dad cooked some meat on a fire Bar-B (wire grill set over flames ) and I sat with the girls and ate my dinner while the men entertained their 'guest'.  It's funny to think that your daughter's husband is a guest.  Given that he's not allowed to mix with the rest of the family (ie the ladies) unless they are covered up I guess he will always be treated as such - one of the many cultural differences I don't question  (much), just acknowledge.

Around 10 p.m. it was time to go. It was a great day, very tiring.  My view of Saudi families has broadend considerably because of it. 

I have since met other Saudi women and been invited to their homes, and accepted those invitations.  Meeting new Saudi friends is so easy, I'm amazed that there are expats who have been here for much longer than me and have yet to experience visiting Saudi homes.

And I visit AA's wife, my new found friend, nearly every week - her English is racing ahead.   My Arabic?  What is one level up from dismal???


  1. Just read this post. My wife and I will be moving to Saudi in August and just got word today so I have been blitzing the web for all info about the Kingdom. Came across your well-written, very interesting blog. Fascinating stuff-you're a great writer!

  2. Thank you. I suggest as a good site for info and making a connections before you get to Saudi. Best of luck with the moving process :)

  3. brinkka2011 says: I enjoy you because of all of your effort on this site. Its been an motivation for me. I've passed this onto a friend of mine.

  4. Ki Ora!

    I'm so happy to have found your blog. We are planning to move to Saudi this September and already I'm sick of hearing other peoples negative opinions :(

    I love this post of yours as this is the life I imagine that I'll find :)

    You said that you taxied to your new friend's house. Is it possible for a woman to take a taxi alone? I thought it was, but read on another sight that I must have a family member with me - which would be a little tricky.

    Right I'm off to enjoy some more positive insights of life in Saudi.

    Ka kite ano

  5. Hi Andrea,
    Welcome to the blog. KSA like anywhere has its positives and negatives. I've found a lot more of the former exists than I was led to believe. It is without doubt a different country, but as my father used to say, "if you're different, hooray for you!"

    And I often catch taxi's on my own. Normal precautions apply here as anywhere in the world. If you find a taxi driver you like get his number and become a regular client.

    Hopefully see you here one day :)
    Ka kite

  6. Hi just came across your blog... I'm moving to Saudi Arabia, actually same city as you in the next few months so reading this has been most helpful and given me hope to meet new friends lol .... Cheers


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