Over the year when I was waiting to move to Riyadh, I shipped Saleh things to put in our apartment, to make it feel like I was there when I wasn’t really there. When I did this, I used FedEx or UPS, which was atrociously expensive. Seriously, one time in an emergency I sent Saleh a document–four layers of paper, and that’s it–in a flat cardboard envelope, and it cost me over a hundred bucks to send it to him via FedEx. So you can imagine how much it cost to ship a box chock full of presents, baked goods, and general household items, which I also did several times. What can I say? Santa Claus found it difficult to get a visa into Saudi Arabia, so UPS had to do the job. I also wanted to make sure that he had some of my things in the apartment when I arrived, so that there would be some familiarity when I got there, you know?
So when it came to getting the rest of my things (books, clothes, shoes, things like that…but to be honest, mostly books) to Riyadh, we had to explore options other than what we’d relied on previously. Even Aramex (the Middle East’s homegrown version of FedEx), which is generally substantially cheaper than its more established counterparts, was too expensive to use to ship the rest of my things.
So we employed the services of a cargo shipper. Now, here’s the deal. When you’re shipping large amounts of stuff to Saudi Arabia, the cargo shipper doesn’t really take responsibility for your stuff the whole way there. What they do is contract a trucking company to pick up your stuff, which transports your stuff to a sea port, where your stuff is palletized and loaded onto a ship (this part is also contracted by the cargo shipper). Then the ship chugs around the world and drops your stuff off at a sea port close to you (in my case, Dubai), where another transport company, also contracted by the original cargo shipper, arranges to have the stuff moved from the sea port to the dry port. If I could have just loaded up my stuff in a U-Haul and trucked it on down to Florida to catch a Maersk cargo ship, I would have. But you can’t do that; things that go on cargo ships have to come from licensed transport companies, not your average Jane. So instead, we’ve been dealing with no less than five different companies to get my things here, although we contracted only one ourselves. And of course, when you ask one a question, they all tell you that one of the other companies has the answer to that question, so call them.
I don’t want to complain too much about that process, though, because although it took awhile, it did go fairly smoothly, if slowly. My stuff never got lost or anything like that. It just took a very long time to get to me.
About a week and a half before Saleh and I caught our plane to Riyadh in June, a giant truck showed up at our door in Missouri and loaded up about twenty boxes of my belongings. And we’re not talking little rinky-dink boxes; we’re talking big Rubbermaid storage totes, like this.
And several of them were chock full of books, since we decided it was probably best if I only allowed myself one suitcase full of books for the trip. I hated saying goodbye to my books; that was honestly quite hard. I’m in the middle of writing on a lot of projects, and I need a lot of books to finish them, but I simply couldn’t take all those with me on the plane. Some of them had to go to Saudi Arabia on a cargo ship. It was a sad inevitability. I could only hope and pray that I would be reunited with them as soon as possible.
Anyway, we loaded up the boxes, the truck driver moved them all to the back of the enormous, empty trailer and ratchet-strapped them down, and I sobbed while Saleh assured me that the books would be just fine, that all of my things in the boxes would be just fine, that everything was going to be just fine.
The shipment was scheduled to arrive on the nineteenth of July. That date came and went. A few days later, we found out that the Maersk ship that was carrying my boxes had indeed arrived in a port in Dubai. Then we had to wait for the boxes to be transported to Dammam, the closest major Saudi city to Dubai. When we got word that the boxes were in Dammam, I got excited. Surely, they were almost here!
Not so much. We had to wait…and wait…and wait. See, earlier this summer Saudi Arabia had some issues with its railway system, which meant that the cargo was backed up in the dry ports. We waited. Finally, we got word that the boxes were in Riyadh. The only problem was, by that point, it was approaching Eid, which marked the end of Ramadan and thus, a vacation time.
Before the Eid vacation started, Saleh went to the dry port and made arrangements for someone to deal with all of the customs clearance work for us. For a fee, this person would complete all the necessary paperwork, obtain all the necessary permits, get our boxes on a truck, and deliver them to our house. It was only slightly more expensive than it would have been for Saleh to stand around all day completing and arranging all of those things, so we decided that was the best way to go.
We didn’t hear anything from this guy for over three weeks. Finally, after I nagged my husband to within an inch of his life, we got ahold of our middleman and demanded to know what the heck was going on. Two days later, he called and told us that the customs officials were requiring that we get a special permit for my books, since there were so many of them. We would have to arrange the permit process with the Ministry of Culture and Media; someone from the Ministry would have to inspect each and every book.
Our middleman offered us another option, however. For 2,000 riyals above the originally agreed-upon price, he would give a payoff to the customs agents and get our boxes to us without having to deal with the permit process with the Ministry of Culture and Media.
This is one major difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States. All things considered, the United States is generally a place where procedures are standardized. Laws are codified. In theory, rules apply to everyone equally, although we know in reality, that’s not how it always works. Still, in the States, I think it’s safe to say that the aforementioned average Jane is unlikely to expect to be able to track down someone in high places and pay that someone to expedite (or eliminate) those standardized bureaucratic processes for her. Everyone has to follow the same rules, submit the same paperwork, go through the same processes.
Procedures in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, are not so uniform. Laws are not codified; they exist at the whim of a judge. Saudi Arabia has an amazing ability to turn even the tiniest tasks into a bureaucratic nightmare. Fill out this form…or was it this form? Maybe we need this form, too, and a copy of this document, as well. The process to get anything done varies on who you manage to see or talk to (this includes marriage permission), and having wasta (influence) often means that you can get things taken care of much, much more quickly and with much less hassle. Saudi life is all about knowing how to tolerate bureaucracy, how to navigate it, and when to find someone else to help you do it. And sometimes, that wasta comes with a price tag. Like now.
Saleh and I discussed this. What should we do? I said that it just sounded like our guy was trying to scam us out of more money. I said that I knew several American women who had brought books to Saudi Arabia via cargo shippers and none of them had ever had to get a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Media.
Saleh, on the other hand, had a different perspective. “Maybe the guy needs the money,” he said. “Either he will pay the money to someone at customs to get our stuff out or he really needs it for himself, so either way, it’s okay. And either way, I don’t have to go down there and stand in the heat all day to get it all taken care of. And I don’t know anybody there, and he does, so it’s worth it. And probably he gave the workers in the warehouse some of the money we’ve already paid him, too. That’s what I would have done if I were doing it…I would have given them fifty riyals each for helping me. Fifty here, fifty there…that adds up, you know.”
This right here is another huge difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and I think Americans could learn a lot from Saudis in this respect. Saudis give; Americans generally do not. I feel like Saudis have a culture of counting blessings and thanking God for everything they have; they give even when they know people don’t need it. They give just because they’re grateful that they can. Sometimes you will see poor people here sitting outside of shops, or they will come to your car window at stoplights; everyone gives something. I’ve seen people literally line up in front of a poor person and drop money in front of him. The poor person will have a stack of cash in front of him that far outdoes my bank account, and people still stop to give. People give money to street cleaners, who walk around Riyadh in yellow uniforms collecting trash; they technically have a job, but they don’t make very much money, so people often stop them and give them more. Even when Saudis know that the people begging for money are not truly in need of it, or that they are working the system, they give anyway. Once Saleh started talking to me about how the people who beg at stoplights are not really poor (“They come from Yemen and they beg for money but they are not really poor”), and then he rolled down the window and gave money to the man who had approached our car.
Meanwhile, in America, we’re not so generous, especially to poor people on the street. We pretend not to see the guy on the corner with a cardboard sign. We make excuses like, “If I give him money, he won’t help himself,” or “I don’t know what he’ll do with it.” And if they know someone is poor and is trying to get money without working for it? Well, forget it. Screw you; get a job. If they already have a job, but get paid slave wages for it, we don’t offer them extra; hey, it’s a job. In general, Americans don’t like helping poor people regardless of whether or not they really do need the help.
When I first met Saleh, I was amazed at how he always–always–gave something to poor people asking for help. If we saw someone standing outside Walmart with a cardboard sign, Saleh always left Walmart with some food or cash to give that person. This is one of the things I’ve always loved about him; I just thought he was extraordinarily generous. It turns out it’s just the culture he was raised in.
So when Saleh came up with this generous perspective about our middleman, I agreed to his plan. He was right, after all. And the next day, we got a call; our middleman had indeed managed to avoid the Ministry of Culture and Media, and the boxes would be delivered the next day.
And they were. When the doorbell rang to signal that the truck had arrived, I happily volunteered to go downstairs in my abaya and help unload, but Saleh shot that idea down; some of the boxes were pretty heavy, they had to go up four flights of stairs, and I’ve been known to trip on my abaya while going up stairs. Plus, in Saudi culture, it would just be weird for me to be out helping the (male) workers. So I parked myself in a room near the stairs, chatted with my mother-in-law, and excitedly listened to the sound of feet going up the stairs.
Finally, it was all done. I dashed upstairs and there were my boxes. Dirty, smashed, ripped open and taped shut again. Filthy, broken, un-reusable. Unsalvageable. But everything inside the boxes was there, unscathed. Some of the books were slightly bent, but nothing major. Thanks to the fact that I’d gone completely overboard with bubble wrap and Hello Kitty packing tape, all the breakable things remained whole.
Now that I’ve unpacked my boxes (haven’t organized everything yet, but that will come tomorrow), I can see how freaked I really was about moving to Saudi Arabia. I packed some of the craziest things. A green bath puff (did I think Saudis don’t take showers?). A bottle of baby oil (for stubborn eyeliner removal–why would I think I needed to bring this with me when Saudi women are practically the inventors of eyeliner–not to mention, they have babies?). Wooden spoons (did I believe that Saudi cooks don’t stir their food?). Why in the world did I think I wouldn’t be able to get these simple things here? I bet I could have saved at least one box by leaving behind the things that I now recognize as having been shipped completely unnecessarily. When my sister-in-law came up to survey the disaster area that our apartment had become since the boxes arrived, she stood in the doorway of the room where most of the contents of the boxes were now piled, laughed, picked up my newly arrived flour sifter, and said, “You know…you can get this stuff in Riyadh.”
Still, it feels good to have my things, even the ones I didn’t really need to ship after all. I have all my books now, so I can finally finish up projects I’ve been stuck on for months. I have my Monopoly set (although I still yearn for an Arabic one), I have my blue vase that my mom bought me on Murano in Venice, I have the small framed charcoal pencil drawing that I bought from a street artist in Rome. I have my softball glove. I have my Crock Pot. I have my collection of knitting needles.
I know it’s superficial, to be so contented by being in the presence of things…but I can’t help but feel like I’ve taken a huge step toward making Riyadh someplace I can call home.