Monday, 24 January 2011

Smoking Dilemma in Saudi

According to my sources smoking is frowned upon by Muslims, in Saudi anyway.  I don't believe cigarettes were actually around at the time of Prophet Muhammad so there's nothing in the Qur'an that actually says "Cigarettes are banned".  But he said a few other things like ' Don't harm yourselves or others' and 'You can do what is good, but don't do what is bad' or something along those lines.  Quite reasonable sounding guidelines really and not much different to the sort of thing any decent human might say, Muslim or not, even in this day and age.

The scholars, the ones in Saudi, have decided to get a bit more specific about the choices Muslims should make in their day to day lives, as they frequently tend to do, and have issued a fattwa against smoking.

For once, I agree with them.  Not because I think Saudi's are incapable of deciding for themselves what is harmful, good or bad.  But because I don't like smoking.  And lets face it, the addictive properties in cigarettes aren't allowing smokers (Saudi, Muslim or otherwise) to think with free will - which is exactly how tobacco company's like you...chained and pleading for more.

Apparently, they (the scholars) wrestled with this issue because of the lack of specific wording in the Qur'an, but decided the huge amount of research showing the harm cigarette smoking does to the body when held against the guidelines above didn't give them much choice. (Gees, why don't they apply the same kind of logic to the reems of research on women's exercise benefiting women's health, or women being better drivers than men is a question that needs to be asked if you really are serious about Saudi peeps well-being).

Ours is a smokefree home - it always has been.  Any friends or family who do smoke, and there aren't that many, get sent outdoors and down wind if they light up when they visit. 

I really don't get the buzz about smoking.  Sure, as a teen I tried the stuff, but I'm pleased to say, it didn't stick.  I love that New Zealand has Auahi Kore - Smokefree whare, Smokefree waka.  Smokefree pubs, clubs, restaurants and....well, almost everywhere.  I'm a non-smoker...and I like me and the air I breathe that way.

The Saudi ladies I know have all, at some point asked, do I smoke.  I'm not sure if they presume all western women partake in addictive chemical infused tobacco sticks.  After I respond in the negative, they ask if my husband smokes.  Negative again.  They seem quite happy about these answers. 

I, of course, then ask about them and their husbands in regards to smoking. To date the response has been a big fat 'No'. In fact, they said, their list of requirements for what makes a good Saudi husband includes 'Does not smoke!'

That being said, it surprises me the number of Saudi men out and about who do smoke.  (And a number of those men lie to their wives about their smoking status, I have also discovered).

One evening Glenn and I decided to visit one of our more favourite hotel haunts for a late night coffee.  At this time of night the lobby was full of men lounging in the comfy seats... and the place reeked of cigarette smoke.  The haze stung my eyes and the smell was bringing on a headache. 

I felt like I had been thrown back in time 20 years or so....this is exactly what NZ's popular hangouts used to be like. It's also one of the reasons I didn't like going out to those places very often. As I've been saying (in case you missed it) I don't like cigarette smoke.

OK, it wasn't only Saudi guys smoking and No, not every Saudi man had a ciggie in hand.  But enough for me to be thinking 'What the?  I thought it was bad Muslim form to smoke?  What's going on?'

I don't have any concrete answers but here's my take on possible reasons for the Saudi smoking situation after a bit of research.  (Ok, a night on the net).
  • The smoking fatwa in Saudi is fairly recent.  My late night research gave conflicting answers to the exact date of issuance, so maybe not all Saudi men have heard about it yet. (Uh huh??)
  • Maybe these guys would like to give up they just don't know how. I don't believe there is a Smoking Quit Line in Saudi though, as always, I'm happy to be corrected.
  • And finally, fatwa are rulings, but they aren't binding law.  (Hmmm...might re-examine the black abaya and the driving rules....Move on Kiwi!)  Muslims can, apparently, still make up their own minds about issues such as smoking....except if you're a Saudi woman who lives in Saudi.
Which brings me to a little bit of a....well, a dilemma of sorts. You see, Saudi men, actually all men, can choose to smoke even though the knowledgeable say they shouldn't.  They can sit in any Singles Section and puff on a smoke, should they choose.  They can sit outdoors, where the rest of the population can see them, and smoke away if they fancy.  They can even pull out a pack in the Family Section, while accompanying their wives and offspring, and enjoy their cancer stick oblivious (I'm hoping from lack of education, not from arrogance) to the effect that second hand smoke has on the family, not to mention any non-smokers in the vicinity.

Women's options for smoking, however, are significantly reduced - and I mean all women, not just Saudi women.

One day, I was having coffee in a local place down the road when a group of young women settled into the cubicle next door.  Then I heard it....Chik!..A lighter.  Soon after, that unmistakable cigarette aroma wafted into my space.  I dropped my book on my lap and contemplated my options....Move. Not move.   While so engaged in my thinking a waiter came to the cubby next door...

'I'm sorry, you cannot smoke here'  (Yay)
'Why not'
'Smoking is not allowed'
'But, why not' 
'I'm sorry you cannot smoke here.  My manager said I have to tell you to not smoke.'
'So, where can I smoke?'
'Smoking is only allowed in the Single Section'
'But the Single Section is for men.  Are you telling us to go and join the men?'
'I'm sorry, you cannot smoke here'

The women, with lots of Wallah disbelief, left. 
On one hand, I was glad.
On the other, I was a bit pissed.

Why does this establishment allow men to smoke in the men's section, but tells women (and I have no idea if these women were Saudi or not because I only got a quick glimpse of them, but they spoke Arabic) that they can't smoke in their part of the cafe?  What gives managment the right to make such gender biased rules?  And here's the kicker - I have been in that same coffee establishment's Family Section while men out with their wives and family were smoking - and not a word was said from the manager or his staff.

I know I don't like the stuff but the bigger issue of the one sided-ness of this society was irking me a darn sight more at this point. 

Not all establishments are so one-sided.  There are a few dining spots in Riyadh I have been to that allow women to smoke.  I'm not quite so pleased if the ladies take advantage of that opportunity when I happen to be there, especially when the venue is indoors with no open windows - which is most Family Sections in Riyadh.

If women do light up now, a little voice in my head starts to make excuses for women smoking in Saudi and I'm not quite sure what to do with it.  Any suggestions for this little quandary would be welcomed.

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Riyadh National Museum

The National Museum in Riyadh is worth a visit if you're looking for something quiet, yet educational, to do of an afternoon.  Not just any afternoon though, you have to find the right afternoon for women and families (or men if you're one of those).

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Worker Bees In Saudi

There is a group of people in Saudi Arabia I call the Workers Bees.  They keep this place ticking over.   The Worker Bees come from India, Pakistan, Yemeni, Bangladesh, Sudan, Nepal, Afghanistan... places in the world I never really gave a second thought to till I moved here.

We make a point, Glenn and I, of chatting with the taxi drivers, shop assistants and wait staff workers because their English is quite good.  The seem to appreciate someone taking an interest in where they are from, their families and life back home and how they are doing in Riyadh.

That question, 'Do you like Riyadh?' usually gets a cautious response - they aren't sure how honest they should be.  Once we give our opinion of the place - as in, it's very different from home and some of the attitudes and ways of thinking are a bit strange - they tend to open up about their lives here.

We get the feeling that there aren't many people who bother taking an interest in the workers.  The attitude that workers are here simply to serve those higher up the income chain permeates this place.  (Try throwing that snotty attitude around back home and you might find your upper lip making seriously close contact with your teeth).

Taking an interest in their lives can expose you to the numerous sad stories that abound with the working class here, but we take a more positive view - being nice and taking an interest can really make someones day.  

Knowing the sacrifice they make to work in this country and the bad attitudes that get thrown at them almost daily, I think the Worker Bees are due a barrow load of respect, especially if they can still come out smiling.

Here's a typical story:  For the majority, Saudi was promoted as an awesome place to work - lots of money to be made. They signed up with a sponsor they had never met, through his scummy, crooked agent, and headed over.  Most have to surrender their passports to their sponsor on arrival.  I believe this little detail isn't mentioned till they get here.   Getting the passport back is like pulling friken teeth!  They work their butts off so they can send money back to their families who they go home and see once every 2 years - if they're lucky.  They have to keep working till they've paid off their sponsorship (I believe for most that takes around 5 years).

Once here, blue collar expats learn about Saudi heirarchy and where they fit in it - and it ain't near the top, which I guess is similar to any other country but, for some reason, belonging to the lower ranks in Saudi Arabia seems to give others a license to treat you badly.  From the stories they tell, happiness is hard to find in Riyadh.

And before you're under the misconception that it's just the Sauds who dish out the not so nice treatment...think again.  People of all nationalities have a tendency to fall into the 'holier than thou' trap and be unnecessarily shitty with the lower working class.  Totally disgusted me when I saw an Aussie guy being a dick with a waiter....he should know better.

I've heard expats say "I don't know how the hell these people even got jobs, they don't know what the heck they're doing?"  That isn't far from the truth.  Here is, we have discovered, what commonly happens with the Worker Bees who hold labourer type roles:

Mr Pakistani has landed a job in Saudi.  His family is so proud.  (Yeehaa!). 
He turns up for work and is told he is part of a maintainence gang.  (OK, Sounds great).
He arrives at a compound and is told his first job is repairing a tap because today, he is a plumber. (Huh! But I'm a painter!) Tomorrow, he might be an electrician and has to help fix someones air-con and the day after that he might be a builder - go forth with hammer and drill and fix something. 
Mr Pakistani has two options - Admit he has no idea what he is doing and risk losing his job, or Go forth and learn on the job.  He chooses option two.

What are the consequences of this choice? 

Exposing himself to complete abuse from The Occupant, and from Mr Boss should The Occupant complain, which he (and she) undoubtedly does.  Is it his fault?  Not on your Nelly it's not.  Training programs for most Worker Bees is 'On the Job' and you can bet there is no theory component first followed by controlled, supervised, step-by-step practical.  Workers are paid minimum wages because they are 'unskilled' - but someone has to fix your dunny, change your lightbulb, keep your air-con functioning.  And Mr Boss isn't about to pay top dollar for Mr Experienced - that's a recipe for 'Not Making As Much Money As I Want'. 

Do you think the workers like this life?  Do you think anyone likes being hollered at for being incompetent at something they have never done before.  No flaming way!  But they have to grin and bear it and learn fast because someone has to pay for the wife and kids back home.

The maintenance guys at our compound have been through the learning wringer, and believe me that learning process was hard on all of us.  They are now skilled enough to do what's required.  The ones that didn't cut the mustard have gone. 

What tends to keep the Worker Bees here, apart from not having a passport, is the fact that, though they aren't raking in the dough (what they get paid in a month we can spend on one dinner out) they are making more money than they would at home where there is no work.

You'd think there'd be camaraderie between fellow collars, but even the Worker Bee population has a hierarchy with associated unwritten rules of treatment toward each other.  In fact, hierarchical prejudice is rife in the worker populace. Worker Bee hierarchy goes something like this from top to bottom:

Indians - they are largely top bee and hold administrative roles;
Next is the Pakistani's - they make up a large percentage of the taxi drivers and maintenance;
Filipinos are next - they are largely service staff, shop workers and maids;
Afghanis tend to be the construction workers;
Bangladeshi tend to be the gardeners and street cleaners and just lately are also getting driving jobs.

Before anyone gets upset - these levels of hierarchy are generalizations.  Of course not every Pakistani is a taxi driver, nor every Indian in admin, nor every Filipino in service. etc, etc.  It's just here, most are.

The Worker Bees in Riyadh are very aware that Saudi's are at the top of the privileged pile, Westerners (white collars) take up second spot and the gap between the peak of the mountain and the base where the workers reside, in terms of income and treatment, is huge.

One thing is for sure. If these workers were to decide they had had enough of the way they are treated here, Saudi would grind to a halt. It is common knowledge that the new generation of Saudi's does not really like to work.  Not the real get your hands dirty kind of stuff. 

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule because Glenn has a young Saudi colleague at work who is awesome because of his work ethic and willingness to learn his profession - but I understand he is a minority in that regard, which, according to Glenn, concerns some of the older Saud folks he has spoken to.

The younger Saudi generations today actually have a huge similarity to far to many New Zealand Maori under a welfare government - generations of people with their hand out expecting to be given everything. Of course, unlike the NZ government, Saudi has some major oil greasing the peoples palms over here.

It would be interesting to take New Zealands habitual, palms out unemployed and make them Worker Bees in Saudi to see how many have what it takes to survive and thrive in this life.  Terrible as it sounds, I don't have high expectations.  (And yep whanau, I'm looking at some of you!)  There are a bunch of kiwi's who think they have it bad, and I am not including those individuals who do have terrible home situations they are trapped in, but as a whole, in comparision to workers in Saudi, New Zealanders really don't.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 3 January 2011

One Year In Saudi And Treading Water

Happy New Year!  It is Jan 1st 2011. Exactly one year ago today I arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
What do I think?  How do I feel about my life here after one year?  Oh, how many adjectives are there in the dictionary...I don't actually need all of them.  In truth how I'm feeling after one year in Saudi is simple, yet sad.  I feel like I am treading water.

There is a surreal feeling to my life in Saudi.  It's almost as if I'm in this pretend life and I'm just waiting for when I'm going to wake up.

Well isn't that a downer! 

Gees Kiwi we were hoping for so much more, like How you've settled in and finding your feet and doin all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff....


I watched a movie the other night, where the girl comes to buy a lottery ticket with a sour lemon face and and guy selling the ticket says, 'You just want to bring people down with a face like that don't you?'

The last thing I want is to bring anyone down, but life is what life is.  If I was to look at why I'm here, the answer is simple.  I am here as The Husbands wife.  My sole purpose is to keep him company while he works in this challenging environment.  To stop him feeling lonely.  And to be his tax break.  That's it.
(I suggest that all Kiwi' before they move overseas take a real good look at your tax situation.  NZ tax criteria for non-residence sucks).

After one year I can tell you, I think I need a more meaty purpose. 

It's hard being an expat woman in Saudi without a real purpose.  It's easy to not move from your home till after 4pm when the shops open, or worse still, when The Husband gets home from work after 6pm.  It's easy to hire a cleaner to do all your housework.  It's easy to eat out every day so you never have to visit your kitchen.  It's easy to pointlessly traipse through malls.  It's very easy to be a nobody, wrapped in black.  It's also easy to lie around in your compound and do nothing.  It's far too easy.

On those days I feel my brain is drying up into this prune state.  Wrinkled and pointless with not much by way of zapping synapses going on at all. 

There are days when I have to kick myself into action.  It's time to visit the gym.  It's time to write something in your blog, It's time to thumb through my list of expat phone friends and find some place to go.  It's time to jump in the car and drive.....No Kiwi, you cant' do that - Ahh, what a bitch! 

It's been one year since my arrival in Riyadh and I guess it is fair to say I've settled in.  I know how things operate and can get myself around although, apparently, I'm still classed as a 'newby'.  (I wonder when one becomes 'seasoned' as a Riyadh expat).  In the great summing up of Living in Saudi, I have to say, it ain't that bad.   It's not home, but it's not the hell on earth other people try to tell you it is.  Different yes.  Hell, no.  Soul destroying.  Occassionally.

I have decided that I can do one more year in this bizarre dream-like life.  The Husband is talking three to five.  Let's hope he learns how to handle the jandal on his own over the next year, cos after that, he's on his own.  Unless I find my meaty purpose and can stop treading water.  Then, we'll see.

Ka Kite,

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