When I first arrived here in Riyadh, Mr. Mostafa took me to a bank so I could open a checking account. It was kind of a big deal for me; since I had to go into the ladies’ branch of the bank, where absolutely no men are allowed (hence the picture below of the bank door), I had to go through the account-opening process totally on my own while Mr. Mostafa sat outside in the car, waiting for me to emerge with my new debit card in hand. It was, as I recall, the first time I did anything completely on my own here, without the assistance my husband or my sister-in-law or my mother-in-law.
I got the account opened, and I was proud of myself. But, as it turns out, a checking account isn’t nearly as essential in Saudi Arabia as it is in the States. In fact, it’s been sitting nearly empty for several months; cash is still the preferred method for most transactions that take place here in the Kingdom, so lately I haven’t had much of a reason to use the account. Still, it’s there if I need it, and that makes me happy.
Well, last week I got a text message from the bank informing me that the money in my account had been frozen (all 2 riyals of it) because I had not “updated my information” with them. This is code for, “We need to see your iqama in order to verify that you are still a legal resident of Saudi Arabia.” So this morning, Lavender and I headed to the bank to “update my information.”
When you see pictures of Saudi women on TV, it’s always of them covered head-to-toe in black, with only eyes visible. But, in case you’re curious, when you enter the ladies’ branch of a bank in Saudi Arabia, it all looks very much like a bank anywhere else in the world–the women are dressed professionally, sans abaya or any other coverings (the idea being that Islamically, the all-female workplace renders them unnecessary).
I headed to the teller window and told her what I needed to do. The teller, a young woman in a very hipster outfit that included suspenders and a pair of super cute tortoiseshell glasses, explained that I needed to take a number and wait for the next available customer service desk. So I did.
Within a few minutes, my number flashed on the little screen above one of the customer service desks, and I hauled Lavender over to it. I sat down, and the lady on the other side said nothing.
“Hello. I need to update my information on my account; it’s frozen,” I said, handing over my debit card and my iqama.
She took the cards and began tapping on the keyboard of the computer on her desk. “Your account is frozen because you have to renew your iqama. It expires every year.”
“No,” I said. “Mine doesn’t expire every year because I’m sponsored by my husband, not an employer.”
She picked up the card. “See? It expires…oh. In two more years.”
“Yes,” I said.
She went back to typing on her keyboard. Tap, tap, tap. “You don’t speak Arabic?” she said.
“La,” I said, the Arabic word for “no.” I smiled and continued, “I mean, I can read, and I speak a little bit, and I’m always trying to learn. But no, I don’t speak Arabic very well.”
She continued typing, staring at the computer screen. “You are in Saudi Arabia. You should speak Arabic.”
My face fell in shame. “I know,” I said.
“Your daughter is Saudi. You should speak Arabic.”
“I know,” I said again.
She pushed a stack of papers across the desk. “Sign here. And here. And here.”
I did. She handed my cards back and said, “Thank you. Be sure to use your debit card in an ATM to make sure it works again.”
And that was that.
That experience left me a tiny bit shell-shocked. I had never been quite so openly shamed for not knowing Arabic the way I probably should. When I got back in the car and rode home, I was squeezing back tears. But I couldn’t help but be somewhat grateful for the experience, because I know it’s something that people in the U.S. endure constantly when they don’t speak English.
You get that, people? Learning a language as an adult is difficult, especially when you have pressing demands on your time other than devoting yourself to language study. And knowing enough rudimentary Arabic to say prayers isn’t sufficient for everyday communication. That being said, the experience spurred me to start seeking out ways to study and improve in Arabic. My in-laws are wonderful, but they all speak at least basic English, so they all tend to fall back on just speaking English to me…and I don’t blame them, because if they want me involved in the conversation, it’s easier for them to just use English, rather than say everything in Arabic and then translate it for me. I get that.
So it’s up to me. I’m hoping that I learn some things along with Lavender. We’ll see if we can learn Arabic together. I’ve put Mr. Mostafa on the job of finding episodes of Sesame Street in Arabic to download. I think that will be good for both of us.
And for every experience that embarrasses or shames me here in Saudi Arabia, there is an equal and opposite positive experience. A few days ago, Lavender and I went to a nearby mall to do some morning mall-walking and some basic shopping. As I was waiting in line to check out at Carrefour, one of the female managers, who was overseeing the female cashiers working the family lines, started to make silly faces at Lavender, who was getting a bit fussy in her stroller. (She generally doesn’t mind riding in the car or in a stroller, but boy, does she get irritated when the car or the stroller stops and she’s stuck sitting there without being able to go anywhere. In this respect, she’s all Saudi.)
Once the manager had Lavender calmed down, she came over and stood next to my checkout line as the cashier rung up my items. She said to me (in English; I think she had heard me talking to Lavender in English as we got in line), “Welcome to Carrefour. Your baby is so beautiful, mashallah!
“Oh, thank you!”
“May I ask where you are from?”
I replied, “I’m from the United States.”
She said, “Oh, American! And you live in Riyadh?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you Muslim?” she asked.
Now, this is a question that any non-Saudi female will be asked, unless one is wearing a niqab. (It’s okay to say no if you aren’t. The response will probably be something along the lines of, “Maybe someday, inshallah.” You might even be given a business card which directs you to a website where you can learn about Islam–this happened to my mom once in a hospital waiting room while we were waiting for one of my prenatal appointments.) In the States, having one’s head covered is pretty conclusive evidence that one is a Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, if you look like you’re not Saudi and you don’t speak Arabic, covering one’s head is not sufficient Muslim cred. So I get asked this question a lot here in Riyadh.
“Yes,” I said.
At this, the manager’s eyes lit up. She came forward and gave me a huge hug. “Alhamdulillah!” she exclaimed, planting kisses on both my cheeks through the material of the niqab that covered her nose and mouth. “Mashallah!”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling. I paid for my items, hung my shopping bags on the handles of Lavender’s stroller, and started to leave. The manager took my hand and said again, “Alhamdulillah. Please come back to Carrefour soon.”
Now, I know that this interaction holds a lot of assumptions, and perhaps even prejudices on the part of the manager. I can’t help but think that she might not have invited me to come back to Carrefour soon had I not answered in the affirmative when she asked if I was Muslim. Before she found out that I was Muslim, she was cordial, but not overflowing with kindness. I couldn’t help but think that the world might be a better place if she had been so welcoming with others, regardless of whether or not they were Muslim.
All that being said, this moment warmed my heart. In the States, people are so often regarded with suspicion when they are “outed,” so to speak, as Muslim, whether that’s through clothing choice, their own admission, or whatever. So to be not shunned, but literally embraced because of my identity as a Muslim…well, that felt nice. I’ve written at length about how most of the time, Saudi Arabia actually makes me feel like less of a Muslim in many ways. But that moment…it was nice.
And now, if you have any resources for Arabic study that you’ve found helpful, feel free to send them my way.