One of the things about Saudi life to which every non-Saudi must acclimate is the way all businesses close at prayer times. There are five daily prayer times (called fajr, dhuhr, asr, maghrib, and isha), and at each of them, everything–shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores–closes for 30 minutes to an hour.
In theory, I have no issue with this. At this point, it’s a longstanding cultural thing to which I don’t feel I have the right to object. But in practice…well, it’s a headache sometimes. And last week alone there were two incidents in which the practice of prayer time closings made things sort of messy for me and mine.
Although Mr. Mostafa is usually in charge of grocery shopping in our family, last week I decided to go to the grocery store on my own…not only because I was craving a few things, but also because, hey, might as well get out and about a bit, right? Lavender and I rode with the driver to drop my sister-in-law off at work, and then he took us to Panda.
I settled Lavender into the grocery cart seat, and as I did so, a store clerk wandered up to me and, without looking at me, said something very quickly in Arabic, and then wandered off, looking down at his cell phone in his hand. I couldn’t catch any of the words, and he looked pretty bored while he talked to me, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Of course, I now know that he was telling me that I needed to leave because the store was about to close for prayer, but that didn’t occur to me, because when most grocery stores in Riyadh close for prayer, they let the shoppers stay in for the duration of the closure. I mean, no one can come in, you can’t leave, and you can’t pay for your items, get your produce priced, etc., but you can stay inside the store and walk around and put things in your cart (i.e., essentially, you can keep right on shoppin’, but no store employees can help you).
So, blissfully unaware that we were actually not welcome in Panda at that moment, Lavender and I set off through the produce section, choosing a few mangoes, some carrots, a couple potatoes, and a watermelon. We had our cart about half full when announcement came over the loudspeaker, and this one I did understand at least partially as the announcement that the store was closing for prayer. The other shoppers began milling toward the checkout area. I figured that they were all just wanting to get out before the doors were closed and they were locked in, but still, since everyone seemed to be leaving, I got suspicious. I moved toward the front of the store, where I ran into two men stocking shelves. I asked, “Can I stay in and shop?”
“Oh…yes. Yes, ma’am,” they said.
I thanked them and went back to shopping. A few minutes later, one of the shelf-stockers came up to me and said, “Excuse me, ma’am…I’m sorry, but you have to leave. For prayer time.”
“So I’m not allowed to stay and shop?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
So I walked back toward the front of the store. The same manager that had tried to tell me about the store closing when I first came in was trying to shoo out someone who had just walked in through the doors; I looked at that person and recognized Mohammed, my driver. He pointed at me as he indicated to the manager that he had just come into the store to retrieve me. The manager turned and said to me, “You have to leave. We are closing for prayer.”
I said, “Well…what do I do with all my stuff? I’m not done shopping yet.”
He sighed impatiently. “You can come back in fifty minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes? Okay.”
It was my turn to sigh impatiently. “Can I leave my cart right here, then? I’m not done shopping yet. Can I get my cart when I come back?”
“Fine,” he said.
Behind me, the shelf-stocker that had been sent to lead me out said quietly, “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“No problem,” I said to him. I parked the cart, picked up Lavender and my bag, and walked out of the store with Mohammed.
When I got back home, I went in the house and called Saleh. And I admit, I was crying. I was so embarrassed. Humiliated, really. I had been kicked out of Panda! Because I didn’t understand Arabic enough to know when I was told to leave! Le sigh.
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed, sweetie,” Saleh said. “They should be embarrassed. Why would they kick shoppers out of the store? No one else does that. Okay, close for prayer, but don’t throw people out. That’s dumb. Just stay home, honey. Tomorrow I’ll go pick up whatever you wanted to get.”
“Oh, no way,” I replied. “I already told Mohammed to pick me up at four. I’m going back.” I was determined not to give up. And luckily, when I went back, my cart was right where I left it, and I finished my shopping as though I had never been interrupted. Boom.
The second incident happened a few days later. I had made plans to meet a few friends for dinner at a mall near my house. Saleh dropped me off at the mall and told me to call him when I was ready for him to pick me up. But we also agreed that if my phone’s battery died (my iPhone battery has been draining at a ridiculously rapid rate lately), I would meet him at eight o’clock at the same door where he dropped me off.
I met one of my friends in the mall, and we had a great time walking around a bit before we went to a restaurant in the mall to sit down for dinner. Our other friend texted to let us know that she was running late. By the time seven-fifty rolled around, our other friend still had not arrived, but I checked my phone, and sure enough, it was dead. So I put Lavender in her stroller, gave my friend a hug, said goodbye, and headed out to meet Mr. Mostafa at our agreed-upon location.
Unfortunately, when I reached the foyer of the restaurant, I discovered that it was packed with people who also wanted to leave–the door was locked because the restaurant was closed for isha prayer. “Seriously? They won’t even let us out?” I said to no one in particular.
“No, it is very crazy,” said a Saudi woman next to me, shaking her head. “Okay, I understand not letting people in,” she continued, waving her hand toward the crowd of people outside the restaurant, which we could see through the glass panes of the doors. “But why they do not let us leave? We have already paid! How do we go to pray if we cannot leave?”
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. Then the woman and her friends began to oooh and aaah over Lavender (“She is so cute, mashallah!” “Beautiful name, mashallah!”), and we chatted for awhile before finally, the restaurant was reopened and we could leave.
As I walked out, I located my other friend, who had made her way to the restaurant and had been waiting in the crowd outside. We did a quick hug-kiss-kiss-hello-goodbye, and I rushed off to try to find Mr. Mostafa; it was twenty after eight, and by the time I got to the door where I was supposed to meet him, it was half past eight. He was nowhere to be seen. I sat on a bench and pulled Lavender’s stroller up next to me, thinking that he would show up eventually.
I was right. Ten minutes later, he came running out of the mall. “Nicole!” he screamed when he saw me, as he ran up to the bench where I was sitting. “Thank God! I have been looking everywhere for you! I was so worried! Oh, my God, I was so scared. Thank God you and Lavender are okay.”
“Of course we’re okay. We got locked in the restaurant because of prayer time. We’re fine. I’m sorry we’re late.”
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I yelled just now. I was so worried.”
“What did you think happened to us?”
“I didn’t know! I got here at fifteen ’til eight because I remembered the last time you came to the mall, you said you were outside early and then I was late picking you up. So I was waiting here for you in the car, and then it got to eight, and then fifteen after eight, and I started to get really worried because it’s not like you to be late. You’re never late. I drove around the mall and checked all the entrances; I thought maybe you were at another door. But I still couldn’t find you. At twenty after eight I parked the car and went into the mall. I went to the security desk and had them page you. You did not hear them page you?”
“I told them that my wife was missing and the guy laughed at me and I almost punched him in his face.”
“You told them I was missing?” I laughed. “Honey, seriously, what did you think happened?”
“I didn’t know, but every bad American movie ran through my mind. I am totally serious. I thought, ‘A terrorist has kidnapped her because she is American and our baby is American.’ Or something like that. I thought, ‘Someone has drugged her or something and she can’t fight back and they took her and the baby.’ I thought I had lost you.”
“My goodness!” I said. “Don’t worry, honey. Do you know how much I weigh right now? There’s no way any terrorist could get me out of this mall without someone noticing.”
I’m not even going to get into the irony of Mr. Mostafa being worried about movie terrorist Arabs, when he’s the one that always causes my fellow Americans to ask me, “Have you ever seen Not Without My Daughter?” But in any case, take note, Saudi Arabia. One of these days, the prayer time thing is going to get a security guard punched in the face by a worried Arab husband/father who’s seen one too many American movies in which Arabs are the bad guys. Globalization, man. I bet no one anticipated that particular side effect.