We approached the house. Standing in a new neighborhood that is full of construction it looks out of place. Neighborhoods aren’t really defined here by gates or organized streets or other markers that would indicate its purpose as an area of homes and families. Neighborhoods are built like the Bedouins put tents in the desert – sort of random. This neighborhood is perhaps a little more organized than most because it is being built on recently reclaimed land that was once covered by the sea.
Like all houses in the Eastern Province, the house itself is shrouded by a 12 foot stucco wall. Where ever you drive, whether dirt poor or multimillion dollar rich, the homes are hidden behind beige walls that blend inconspicuously into the sand. So much of this country seems to be like that…hidden, covered, and cloaked in secrecy and mystery that is seldom revealed. It is easy to think that you know and understand because the world we come from is so in your face. Everyone’s dirty laundry is aired daily on the TV or newspapers in the US. We see so much “junk” about Lindsey Lohan, Snookie, and the Kardashians 72 day marriage that we become numb. Here, even if those things happen, they will never be spoken of or printed. The most important thing in Arab culture is “saving face”.
The driver stops in front of the house and we climb out of the Toyota Van. Five of us have been invited to spend the day with our Saudi nursing colleague who lives in Qatif. The gate, although attractively styled from wrought iron and glass, is opaque and cannot be seen through. We are buzzed in and immediately the paradigm shifts.
Inside the tall wall is a beautiful oasis of palm trees, grass, flowers and a swimming pool surrounded by terracotta tiles and comfortable sitting areas. The house is 2+ stories tall and practically surrounded by glass windows stretching from floor to ceiling on the first level. As is the custom we remove our shoes at the door and step inside. I catch my breath as we enter the most beautiful home I have ever seen. Over the entry door is an elegantly painted prayer from the Quran asking God’s blessing on everyone that enters. Looking up in the foyer I see a charming stained glass cupola depicting a scene with the prophet Mohamed. The formal living room is painted a deep, rich red with gold fleur de lis embossed on the walls. The twenty foot ceilings give a palatial feel to the space. The main family area of the house is open and provides a perfect spot for entertaining. There are two seating areas with an adjacent dining area in the middle and it all opens onto the pool. The walls are faux painted to look like marble in the dining area and one sitting area. The floor is marble. The other sitting room is an amazing color of blue that shimmers when the sunlight hits it just right.
My friend’s husband comes to greet us as do her two daughters and we are welcomed into the lovely home with kawa (traditional Arabic coffee), tea and of course dates! After some easy conversation and a tour of the main floor of the house we all head out to the market. My friend’s husband graciously agrees to drive us. We have a couple of hours to explore the market until the heat becomes too much and we collapse back into the air conditioned car for a private tour of Taroot Island. This area is very ancient and was once settled by Portuguese sailors. Some of the locales are hundreds of years old and people are still living in the houses. The roads are narrow and twisting and definitely not meant for automobiles! The Arabian Gulf is stunning in the mid-morning light and the dhal boats are bobbing gently along the corniche. On my way to the car a Saudi man and is son are waiting in a dilapidated old Ford. The old man has the window down and calls out to us asking about our nationality. I answer, “Amerikki” and he shouts back with a smile “USA number one!” and give me a thumbs up. I am amazed once again how much they love and respect Americans here. The paradigms shift….
Once back at the house we ditch our abayas and settle in for more kawa and tea. It is approaching noon and five other Saudi women join us for lunch. Mr. Husband has retreated back to the men’s area of the house and we don’t see him again until time to leave. Men and women remain separate almost from birth. Entertaining men and women together is rare and actually the layout of this house is unusual. Generally, there is a completely separate sitting and dining area for men and women because a man should never see the face (or arms or legs) of any women that is not his wife or mother. Even siblings keep separate quarters after the age of puberty.
The other ladies that join us remove their abayas and hijabs once they are in the house and cannot be seen by intruding male eyes. They reveal beautiful clothes and thick, dark hair. These are women I work with at the hospital but I have never seen their hair. They are all stunningly beautiful women. We greet each other with the traditional three kisses to one cheek and a hug. This is the greeting of close friends (male to male or female to female but NEVER mixed!) and if men are very close friends they will also touch noses. Greeting and parting are very important and always very animated. Tea, coffee (kawa) and food are also very strong signs of welcome and friendship and we all sit together and enjoy the welcome.
Our hostess has prepared a huge spread thanks to some of the other women who brought a dish or two and her sisters also helped by preparing food. We have broccoli cheese soup, seafood biryani, pasta and chicken, stuffed grape leaves, homemade hummus, 5 layer dip with Doritos, haloumi and tomato salad, fatoush salad, and flat bread. The food is delicious and we enjoy laughter and conversation as the women talk about their homes, their children, how they met their spouses and the struggles of balancing a career and a family. In some ways I could have been with any group of ladies in the States talking about the same things. Most marriages here are arranged and often the couple doesn’t even see each other until their engagement party. About half of these women actually met their husband and fell in love before they were married. Hearing these stories and the similarities to our courtships, engagements and marriages makes me smile.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent drinking mint tea and eating sweets (desert) in the sitting area while the sun slid slowly down the sky. Once it was cool enough we slipped out by the pool to enjoy the last vestiges of daylight. If our group had been adults only we would have smoked the “hubbly bubbly” but since we had our hostess’ two girls and two of the other guests’ daughters with us we opted to be good role models and pass. All in all it was a wonderful day getting to know ladies I work with and catch a rare glimpse of life in a Saudi home.
This is a land shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Men and women stay separated from each other in public places. Women veil their entire face in public and cover the rest of their bodies with black polyester robes, gloves and socks. Underneath the hijab is most likely a gorgeous mane of thick black hair and underneath the abaya is sure to be a designer dress or expensive pair of blue jeans. Questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will almost always be affirmative to avoid “losing face”. Even if the driver has no idea the location requested by his passenger he will confidently take them on board. Islam is Saudi and Saudi is Islam. It is difficult if not impossible for us from the West to understand that concept. Even the most enlightened Saudi male is not aware of the sometimes opposition to an outspoken Western woman or some of our concepts of self-governance. We as Westerners living in this strange land are guilty too…we hide our Christianity, hide the fact we drink, make halfhearted attempts to cover our clothes and hair, and make vain attempts to “save face” by often telling half-truths or at least distorting the facts. What you see on the surface is rarely, if ever the reality. At the close of every day I lie in bed and shake my head at the wonders of the day: an amazing sunset followed by a full moon, a compliment on an achievement at work from a most unlikely source, lunch with a diverse group of women sharing stories about life, love, children and families, uncovering the tender side of a new Saudi dad. My time is never boring and never luke warm. Some things I love and some things I hate about my life here but I wouldn’t trade the experience…every day is magical here in the Magic Kingdom!