Riyadh - The City of Lavish Discontent?
"Oh you who believe! Do not let a people mock another people; perhaps they [those being mocked] may be better than them [who are mocking]..."
In the early summertime of last year a former coworker and I were invited to a beautiful café by the mother of two of our students. We were delighted by all the enticing delicacies placed on quaint buffet tables and we took our seats in the second story of a geodesic translucent globe that overlooks the entire city of Riyadh.
While we drank specialty teas and munched on endless finger foods from around the world, we discussed the original Bedouin culture of Riyadh and its recent infusion with bouts of current global customs. I mentioned my excitement in wandering the original stone streets of old Dariyah Souk--its tiny shops that overflow with breath-taking, handmade souvenirs all intertwined with ancient mud houses that have aged so artistically. I love the original Saudi decoration and enjoy seeing it preserved and revived.
As our conversation of old Riyadh continued, our hostess, Dr. Lubna al-Ansari, epitomized grace. She humbly praised my counterpart at work (a history teacher) for having "more knowledge of Saudi history than Saudis themselves." And in my heart, I humbly praised this woman for taking time out of her busy schedule to show us such hospitality and for having the ability to praise our unique qualities. Looking around at the faces at our table, I remember realizing that I held this family in grateful admiration. I still do today, almost a year later.
But by now, I have (albeit painfully) discovered that not every family in Saudi Arabia can be defined by the same respectable charm that my hostess in the above anecdote exuded. In fact, many Americans and expatriates from the western world have little a good thing to say about Saudi culture and Saudi Arabians in general. I am noticing more and more that, within the expat community here in Riyadh, there seems to be a haughty consensus that Saudis are an abominable bunch--a culture of spoiled, rude, lazy nomads who are incapable of properly handling the wealth that God has blessed them with. The problem with this attitude, for me, is that it's cunningly contagious and damaging to both the morale and productivity of the expatriate community as well as the well-being of the country itself.
An American friend of mine (who will remain unnamed) commented once during an expat get-together about an al-Saud at her place of employment: "Uhh, she's no princess. Because for sure her grandparents just crawled off of a camel a few decades ago, after we Americans found the oil here." These types of comments, coupled with griping complaints about the strict rules of the country, are a daily occurrence amongst foreigners working in Riyadh. And, after being immersed in this negative group-think for long enough, I admit to participating without even realizing that I have been doing so.
I remember complaining about having to wear the abaya--a long black robe that signifies modesty--in public (please note here that I think the abaya is beautiful but my issue was with it being mandated legally instead of left as a personal choice). I whined about not being able to drive, about not being able to publicly celebrate the birthday of my beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings upon him). I grumbled about not being able to attend my local gym because it is for men only and about not being able to find a tanning salon in the area (note: not spray tans, the UVB beds). I felt right at home with the other Americans moaning and objecting to everything that didn't pass our sniff test, until one day, I walked in on a group of expats trash-talking something bigger than Saudi culture: they were making fun of Islam.
"Yeah I'll enjoy that alcohol and bacon; too bad for you it's haraaaaam!" These employees laughed in the faces of young, impressionable Saudi kids. "So have fun with all the co-wives that your husbands will marry over you. I'll be busy rocking my bikini." The Saudi children sat in silent humility, and I could see self-hatred in their faces. I could suddenly feel the pang of my esophageal sphincter flipping inside out as I stared in shock, uncertain of how to react. It's all fun and games until someone winds up mocking something dear to my heart. Seeing the effect that the words spoken had on these kids gave me chest pain. This, I thought to myself, is no better than the anti-Semitic comments that led so many Jews until this day to despise themselves for who they are and what they believe. It's manipulative; it's abusive.
And the only good thing I can say about that moment is that it finally woke me up and gave me the strength to draw some lines. I vowed to myself to never participate in negative talk about Saudi culture again. I also made an inner commitment not to be silent while expatriates are arrogantly eyeballing Saudi Arabians down the barrels of their noses and speaking of their perceived incompetence.
We all made a decision to come here. None of us were forced to be here. If some of us can't handle the situation, then by all means, we should leave back to where we came from. And if some of us have problems with Saudis, with Islam, then we need to either educate ourselves or escort ourselves silently. But to stay here and pocket wealth--weather large or small--from a population who has entrusted us to benefit their society while we verbally pierce holes in the very fabric of their beliefs is hypocritical, disrespectful, and downright fowl. Shame on us, the expatriates!
The Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings upon him) said once, "Whosoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak positively or remain silent." This is a valuable lesson for all expatriates, regardless of our respective faiths. There are so many beautiful people in this country of whom we can speak positively. There are so many comforts of Western life available here at the tips of our fingertips. There is hospitality, generosity, appreciation for expatriates (and Americans especially), and a list of other good things we can focus on being grateful for.
I, for one, thank God for having the opportunity to have come here. I am ready to be grateful now for this blessing and exhibit the same grace as many Saudis have showed me in the year and a half that I have lived here. Perhaps we can all learn from the group of people we once judged.
After-thoughts: I wanted to make a disclaimer that the expatriate women I mentioned above are amazing in many ways. They are talented, bright, and many of them do care. I in no way mentioned their comments as an attempt to defame anyone--I only wanted to illustrate the depth and breadth of negativity towards Saudi culture and Islam in the expat community. And again, I do not claim innocence. I hope that the moral of the story is what shines through, instead of judgment towards any of the characters mentioned above, and, most importantly, I hope that the characters I did mention above find themselves enlightened and their opinions altered by the time they end their respective journeys in this country. May He guide us all, Ameen.