Saturday, 5 June 2010

What To Expect When Visiting Saudi Homes

Expats who are fortunate enough to get an invite to a Saudi home, because not all of them do, are not sure what to expect.   Life here is so different to back home and rumurs are rife about what Saudi's are like.  This post outlines what I have come across on my first visits to the homes of Saudi friends.  It may not be exactly the same for each home and I am by no means and expert on Saudi home visit etiquette, plus most of my friends are from the middle classes (upper class is something else again), but it gives you a bit of an idea how things go from a female perspective.
  • Automatic opening door -Saudi women should not be seen in public unless covered. The women I have met do not cover in their own homes (I'm presuming this is the case for all Saudi women at home).  So, when I visit my Saudi friends they stand behind behind the door and the door opens apparently on its own.  The first time this happened it took me a second or two of contemplation 'What should I do?'  'No point standing out here'.  I walked in.  My host greeted me once inside.

  • Send out the child - for my first visit to another Saudi home I called from my mobile to say 'I think I'm in the right street'.  Her brother had drawn a map.  Glenn can vouch that maps and I are a combination that usually, though not on this occasion, results in 'LOST'.   On this day, my friend sent her young son to the gate so I could see exactly which house to go to.

  • Shake hands while kissing on the cheek - usually 3 kisses - 1 on one cheek, 2 on the other.

    I actually get a bit confused about this - how many kisses, which cheek first.  Apparently, so I've read on the net, Arabs from different regions have different protocols depending on situaton.  Situation examples being - Is this a first visit, are you a good friend, are you a relative, how close a relative and so on.  One day I'm going to ask exactly what is what because, as any person with half a brain knows, and I've spent lots of time meditating to improve my brain capacity so there must be grey matter in abundance, what you read in cyber space and fact can be two vastly different things.  For now I reckon it's best just to hang my cheek in the vicinity of a possible kiss, or three, so if they come cool, if not no worries.

    The hand shake is not your firm kind either.  Very soft and gentle which, from a western perspective, is more akin to floppy.  It can feel a bit weird at first.  The other day I met an Aussie bloke who obviously hails from the 'If I can hurt them I'm a shit hot fella' line of thinking.  Won't be shakin' his hand again that's for sure.  Dick wad!
  • Greeted by my host. I am welcomed and then queried about my health and the health of my family.

    Apparently it's good form to be interested in each others well being, which is no different from any other culture. I've heard that Saudi etiquette expects you and your host to spend quite a bit of time asking after each others health and that of the spouse, the kids, your parents, any other immediate whanau, the in-laws, other relatives and on and on.  Being half way intelligent (as per paragraph above), I expect discussion that detailed is appropriate if you actually know the family (I could be wrong).

    I also freely admit that I gleaned this info from a guy (a.k.a male species), and an expat guy at that......Hmmmm - does that make it highly questionable info, especially in this country where it seems a great deal of effort is put into the sexes knowing as little about each other as possible.  Maybe he meant that's what the guys do??? Suffice to say, I have never gotten quite that carried away at my house visits.  Asking after her health, the hubby and the kids is usually as far as I get when I'm visiting.
  • Take off my abaya (yay freedom!) It usually gets hung up somewhere, though one of my friends has got past the "May I take your abaya" stage and I often just drape it over a chair.
  • A seat is offered, sometimes on a couch other times on the floor.

    Most homes have two rooms for receiving guests. One is a lounge similar to any western lounge with comfy sofas and armchairs. The other is a more traditional arrangement with ground level Arabic mats. Both are fine with me though those with gammy knees may find getting to the ground a little difficult.
  • Soon after arriving Arabic coffee and dates is brought out. Enjoy this with chit chat.

    Arabic coffee is not cafe latte' but I've got used to it and quite enjoy it. One day I'll even try making it myself. Glenn would like to buy a qawah (coffee) set before we go home. He considers it something authentically arabic. Another arabic practice I figured out is if I empty my cup, they fill it. Same goes for food. So, when I've had enough it pays to leave a little in the cup or on the plate.

  • Next up tea (shay).

    The tea is usually served black and sweet in those cute Arabian tea cups.  Sometimes they may have a pot of mint tea made up or they will simply have some mint leaves on a plate that you can add to the black tea yourself.  Occasionally they may also offer a ginger tea which, as well as being quite gingery, is also very sweet. I like it but those averse to sugar may not.

    Conversation carries on throughout this process and along with the tea comes more food - cakes, biscuits, chocolate - that kind of thing.  I have learned not to eat before visiting Saudi homes, they are very hospitable and there's always something
  • Meal - Most visits end up with a meal of some description. Sometimes it's full blown dinner, other times a sandwich.

    To date casual meals have usually been eaten on the floor. A plastic covering is put down to protect the carpet (this is protocol, not because they know I drop food). I've eaten without cutlery (not that easy, I should practice more) and with cutlery, it just depends who I'm visiting, how long I've know them and what is on the menu.

    Full blown meals have been eaten at a table. The hostess who offers me invitations to join her family for lunch is older and loves to serve simple yet traditional meals.  Her daughters are charged with seeing to the guest (me), so my plate is one of those dished up first.  The children get their meals and the hostess is then happy to have her plate filled.  The daughters then get their meals and all adults sit down to eat at the table while the children have an area outside the dining room set aside for them to eat watched over by the maids.

    After the meal the bathroom is offered to wash hands and clean up. So far, every house I've been to has a separate guest bathroom. Then we move back to the lounge for even more chit chat.
  • Saying goodbye.

    For most visits I usually have my driver come back to get me after two hours otherwise it can be hard to decide when to leave as Saudi's will stay hosting you as long as you choose to stay.   If other people are also visiting then some will take their leave soon after the main meal.  It is not common for guests to stick around for too long after the meal is done, unless you know the family well. 
I've gotten into the habit of taking something with me on these visits, either home baking or nice chocolates largely because I know I can't invite these women to my home to return their hospitality. Saudi's are not permitted on our compound unless the women are prepared to remove their abaya and niqab and men are not permitted in thobes.

Almond and coconut cake. 
(This is here purely to put pictures on this blog, I didn't actually make it)

There are numerous books you can buy on Amazon about culture in Saudi.   When Hubster first move here he was given this book: Don't They Know It's Friday, which was fine for him with its focus on the culture of business in Saudi Arabia.  For a more complete view of Saudi culture and etiquette then this book, Culture and Customs of Saudi Arabia (Cultures and Customs of the World), reviewed in the Saudi Aramco World magazine some years back, is worth a read.

As you can see, visiting Saudi women is actually no different from visiting friends back home, except for the language barrier (which is rapidly reducing mostly because they are very fast learners) and a few cultural differences (which aren't going to change just because I'm in town). We talk, we eat, we laugh and we enjoy each others company.  No, not much difference at all when visiting Saudi homes.

Ka Kite,

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