two silly ways riyadh could be better for us.

March 28, 2016

It’s that time of year. The weather is gorgeous here in Saudi Arabia–just warm enough during the day that swimming sounds like fun, but not hot enough that you feel like you’re roasting in an oven when you step outdoors. It’s the kind of weather that makes people sit outside in their hosh and bake in the soothing sun while simultaneously lamenting, “Oh…summer is coming.”

And along with the gorgeous summer weather comes the urge to escape…because there are certain things that you just can’t do here. (At least, not in most places.) A few nights ago, Mr. Mostafa, whose work schedule has been about a thousand shades of crazy lately (you know, he’s an accountant, and it’s “the season”), was tossing around the idea of taking a weekend trip to Bahrain soon for some sun and relaxation (even though we just went–somewhat disastrously–a few months ago). “We’re both so stressed,” he said. “I think we need a little vacation.”

I don’t know if we’ll get around to a Bahrain trip soon. But I understand what he’s saying. And last week, I got a Whatsapp message from a friend here in Riyadh, another American married to a Saudi, letting me know that she and her kids were heading to Dubai for the week. “We haven’t left the country since September,” she said. “We need a break. Husband is going for a business trip. Kids and I are going for the pool.” Complete with laughing face emojis, of course. As though an explanation were actually necessary.

We all get it. Even most Saudis get it. Although I find Saudi Arabia much more livable than most Westerners can believe, we all need breaks from it. On long weekends and school vacations, the causeway that connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia is jam packed with Saudis crossing the bridge for some time in Bahrain. And every time I get home to Riyadh from a trip to Bahrain or Dubai or someplace like that, I find myself thinking that there are some simple things that Riyadh could change that would probably keep a whole bunch of its own citizens within the borders on weekends and holidays, spending money and pumping up local economies. Obviously, I’m not Saudi, but I am married to one, and I can safely say that there are only a few things that we really notice the loss of whenever we get back. But they are important things.

Movie theaters. Like my sister-in-law mentioned, not having movie theaters is so irritating. I simply don’t understand why they don’t exist here. Is it the family-unfriendly content of so many movies? That doesn’t seem like a reasonable argument, considering the stuff that can easily be watched on TV channels here, not to mention that if that were a serious concern, movies could be edited to cut out the sex or whatever else that’s deemed offensive, the same way media is censored on Saudi Airlines flights. Or heck, they could just not show certain movies deemed objectionable.

Another concern I’ve heard mentioned in relation to movie theaters is the potential for gender mixing/indecent behavior in dark movie theaters. Well, that seems pretty easy to address. There could be female-only showtimes (with a private, mandatory niqab check to make sure that dudes aren’t trying to sneak in), male-only showtimes, and family showtimes, in which the attendees have to be on the same family card (in Saudi Arabia, the head of each household–i.e., the husband, father, or oldest son/brother–carries a family identification card that lists everyone under his guardianship–so for example, on Mr. Mostafa’s family card, he is listed, along with me and Lavender). Sure, it would be a much more complicated moviegoing experience than anywhere else in the world. But at least we’d be able to grab some popcorn and a soda and see the latest Pixar movie without having to plan a weekend out of the country.

Family-friendly swimming pools/waterparksIn addition to going to the movies, our primary pursuit upon leaving Saudi Arabia for a quick weekend or holiday getaway is swimming. And when we’re not swimming with Lavender, we’re playing in the sand with Lavender, or sitting next to the pool or on the beach. It’s so relaxing.

Like I said, when we go on a mini-vacation, this, in conjunction with movies, is basically all we do. Seriously–we go to Bahrain, we go to the movies, we order room service and chill in our cozy hotel room, we go out for a couple of good meals, and we relax by the pool and on the beach and sip mint lemonades. We aren’t wild and crazy kids.

Riyadh has plenty of good eating. It has some great hotels where you can hole up in a luxurious room and order as much delicious room service as your tummy can handle. What it doesn’t really have is anyplace for families to have fun together in environments where an abaya is entirely impractical. There’s a water park in Riyadh–I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard a lot of people’s kids really like it. The only thing is…even when moms are there with their kids, they still have to wear an abaya. So basically, moms can’t participate in the water park fun. Nor can they feasibly chase their kids into the water in the event of an emergency (although if my kid were in danger, you can bet I’d be shedding that abaya like a snakeskin…or just plowing into the water, abaya and all).

Like, just a few days ago, I read about how a new huge mall is being built in Riyadh, and it’s supposed to have an indoor ski park in it, much like Ski Dubai. Which is awesome. (Although don’t get me started on the oddity of having something like a giant indoor ski park in an enormous mall right smack in the middle of the desert but not having a movie theater in said mall.) But one of the questions that quickly came up was, will it have gender segregated days? Some days for men, some days for women? Or will there be an opportunity for families to ski together? Obviously, it’s impractical for a woman to ski in an abaya, so if family ski times were to be an option, women would have to be permitted to wear their puffy ski suits in front of men, in lieu of an abaya. And that currently seems highly unlikely to be allowed, although I hope I’m wrong.

And if there were swimming pool complexes/waterparks where families could all participate, there would have to be a wardrobe exception for women that allowed them to wear swimsuits in front of men. I’m not talking bikinis, or even traditional Western one-piece swimsuits. They could require Islamic swimsuits, or otherwise say that women’s swimsuits must include pants that reach ankles and long-sleeve tops that are long enough to cover the butt, or something like that; I’d be totally fine with that. (And while they’re at it, they can require that men must wear rash guards–swimming shirts–and swim trunks that come down past the knees.) And just like the movies, they could stipulate that each person allowed in must be on the same family card as the other members of their group.

I mean, why can’t I find a view like this in Riyadh?

Why? In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult to replicate. We can grow palm trees. We can build swimming pools. WE CAN MAKE MINT LEMONADES.

Come on, Riyadh. The more I talk about these things, the greater they sound. Let’s make ’em happen. We don’t need bikinis, beer, or bacon (I’m fine with a burqini, strawberry Barbican, and turkey bacon). I’m not talking about building nightclubs. But, speaking for me and Saleh, these two simple things would definitely cut down on our impulse to occasionally leave the country for a break.

Or you know, maybe not. I mean, really, it’s hard to beat waking up to this view in Bahrain.

And it’s always fun to get away and experience different things, even when where you live offers every single thing you want. So…don’t stress, Riyadh. Even though you’re not ideal, we still love you, and you’ve got a weird charm all your own.  Heck, I’m far from ideal, myself.

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