Category Archives: saudi life


May 21, 2015

When I heard other expat parents talking about their little ones and jet lag, I admit that I had sympathy, but never very much empathy.  It’s always been really easy to get Lavender on the sleeping schedule of whatever time zone she happens to be in.

But then…then she turned two.

The trip was mostly uneventful…actually, truth be told, it was pretty amazing, because in the airport in Chicago (where we landed after initially flying out from Springfield, Missouri), I ended up randomly meeting Ina May Gaskin, who was on her way to Istanbul. Her books, along with the AMANI Birth book, basically singlehandedly prepared me for Lavender’s birth. She chatted with me, the gushing fan, for about fifteen minutes, and she laughed when I told her about how seriously Mr. Mostafa took his role as my coach. She was so very nice that she even obligingly took a selfie with me and didn’t smack me when I hugged her as I said goodbye and thanked her for all of her work.

Meeting her was such an honor. The work she does is so tremendously important. Read about her, if you haven’t already. And if you’re a first-time pregnant mama (or even if you’re not pregnant but hope to be someday, or you’re pregnant but not with your first baby), read her books. You won’t regret it.

We flew on from Chicago to London, and finally, we caught our flight from London to Riyadh, landing around eleven o’clock at night. We anticipated being home by around midnight; we knew passport control would go pretty quickly for us, since we were coming in on a flight of mostly expats, and thus the Saudi citizen line, which we use, would be much shorter.

That all went according to plan. We moved on to baggage claim and parked ourselves next to our assigned carousel to collect our five checked bags. Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally, there was one of our bags!

Then another!

And another!

And another!

And then more waiting.

And more waiting.

And then the carousel stopped.

And we were one bag short.

The bag we were missing was huge, pink, and, of course, stuffed to the gills with little items we don’t have easy access to in Riyadh, including, much to Mr. Mostafa’s heartbreak, his new two-patty George Foreman grill, along with the converter that we remembered to bring for it (you’d think that by now we’d be consistent about checking the voltage of the small household appliances that we bring to Riyadh from the States…but alas, his last George Foreman grill suffered a fate similar to that of my WaterPik). If I could have chosen one of our five bags to not get lost, it would have been that one.

We filed a report at the airport, and now we are waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

After the mess with the suitcase, we got home and finally went to bed around three in the morning. Thus began the saga of Lavender’s unbalanced inner clock. For the next few days, she stayed up all night and slept all day, and thus I stayed up all night and slept all day, too. Yesterday, I did my best to keep her up for most of the day, waking her up around eleven in the morning and only allowing her a tiny half-hour nap in the afternoon. She fell asleep at ten o’clock. Mr. Mostafa and I rejoiced, thinking that finally, we had slayed the jet lag beast.

But Lavender woke up an hour later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Turns out she had just taken the nap I wouldn’t let her have. I woke up with her and watched episode after bleary-eyed episode of Super Why! while trying to convince her to be quiet so we didn’t wake up Baba (Mr. Mostafa), because he had to go to work in the morning. He woke up around six in the morning, and he sent me off to bed so that I could get an hour of sleep or so before he left for work. After he was ready to go, he brought her to bed and finally, around eight o’clock, she gave up and fell asleep.

So, this…this is the face of jet lag.

jet lag.

And British Airways still hasn’t found our bag. If you follow me on Twitter (I’m nicolejhm), and you see me posting a tweet about the bag situation, do me a solid and retweet it. I’d like British Airways to be aware that I’m not the only one keeping track of my lost suitcase situation. So far they haven’t been rude or anything…they’ve just been really, really unhelpful. And I’ve heard stories of folks getting their lost bags weeks or even months after they originally went missing, so I’m not going to be giving up hope for quite awhile. I am, unfortunately, going to be a pain in the butt until someone can tell me something.

And I think I have some sort of gum infection, because all the teeth on the back left side of my mouth hurt. A lot. Especially when I chew. And I don’t want to go to the dentist. But I will probably end up having to.

So…re-entry has been a bear this time. Still, alhamdulillah for everything. In the grand scheme of things, life is wonderful.


March 12, 2015

When I converted to Islam, I always knew I wanted to wear hijab–i.e., a headscarf. Perhaps owing to my years as a devout Catholic with the drive (but never the bravery) to wear a mantilla during Mass, headcovering seemed like a natural progression in faith, one that I sought to embrace wholeheartedly. I still love having my head covered in public. I feel uncomfortable and disconnected when I don’t, even though headcovering here in Saudi Arabia, with the tarha that matches whatever abaya I have on, can feel like a chore more than anything else because the material is often slippery and the wrap-and-tuck style I use (as so many other ladies here, Saudi and non-Saudi, do) when in the Kingdom lends itself to my adorably excitable baby yanking it off.

But even though hijab came naturally for me, I’ve never felt persuaded to cover my face with a niqab, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. It just never seemed to me like a practice that would enhance my connection to my faith in any way. However, I do know ladies who readily embrace the niqab for this reason, and for many others–yes, including feminism. Some women wear it because their husbands prefer for them to (at least when in Saudi Arabia), for a myriad of reasons. I know Western women for whom moving to Saudi Arabia was a relief because it meant that they could finally wear niqab without fear of judgment and/or harassment. I know other Western women married to Saudis who feel no particular connection to the niqab and wouldn’t wear it in the States or any country other than Saudi Arabia, but their husband’s female family members wear it, so they do, too. The diversity of reasons for wearing niqab is as endless as the diversity of the faces it covers.

But after a breakfast here in Riyadh in which I found myself chatting with friends about wearing the niqab and its influence or lack thereof on who a person is behind it, I found myself curious about what it would be like to cover my face in public, and what better place to try it out than in Riyadh, where the majority of women cover their faces, anyway?

It wasn’t about how other people would respond to me, or about attempting to step into the shoes and replicate the experience of a full-time niqabi through a part-time experiment. Rather, it was simply about exploring how I interacted with the world around me when I had my face covered. Would I feel different? Would I somehow feel closer to God? Would I feel further away from God? Would I feel empowered by my relative anonymity, or would I feel constricted by it or lost within it?

So I decided to give the niqab a spin.

I couldn’t just run downstairs and borrow one from my female in-laws; neither my mother-in-law nor my sister-in-law cover their faces, although my mother-in-law used to when she was younger (she says she stopped because it caused her skin to break out, which makes sense to me…the niqab serves as a protective barrier from the sun, but it also seems like if your face got sweaty, the cloth would absorb the sweat and hold it against your face, which can’t be good), and both of my husband’s grandmothers do. So one Saturday morning, while we were out and about, I instructed him to stop at an abaya shop and purchase a niqab for me. He ran in and came back out with exactly what I needed.

“It was really cheap,” he informed me. “Only 10 riyals.” Which is less than $3. I wasn’t surprised. This particular niqab was basically a long, narrow strip of black fabric that tied at the back of the head, with a square-shaped piece of matching fabric that came down over the face area, its top two corners connected to the longer strip, so that the eyes remained visible. There are different abayas that have the niqab built in, and different kinds of niqabs that are designed to come connected to a headcovering. But the one I now own is very simple. I just put on my abaya and put my tarha on my head like usual, and then I place the niqab over my face, with the long strip on my forehead and the ends tied at the back of my head.

For the next several weeks, I wore the niqab when out by myself in public places.

My first concern when I started wearing it was that Lavender would be freaked out when she saw me with it on. She had never seen me with my face covered before (heck, for that matter, neither had I), and I didn’t want to scare or confuse her. But when I tied on my niqab and turned to look at her in the backseat, she just laughed. Crisis averted.

Another concern I had was the heat. I thought that surely, it must be stifling underneath a niqab! And yes, being completely unaccustomed to it, it was, at first. I had never been so aware of my normal breathing. Every time I exhaled, it felt like there was a bubble of hot air trapped over my face. But then I noticed that every time I breathed in, the opposite happened. The incoming breath filtered through the fabric and canceled out the heat on my face with a rush of cool air. It was like a see-saw. Warm, cool. Warm, cool. Eventually, it evened itself out and I stopped noticing the presence of the niqab.

In Riyadh, I’ve often heard Western female expats say that the niqab actually draws more attention to them, not less, because their blue eyes are a giveaway that they’re not Saudi. I don’t know if my glasses deflected that sort of attention or what (when I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, I was wearing my regular glasses), but I don’t think anyone really noticed me more than usual when I wore niqab. In fact, I felt like I fit in much better; my sense of sticking out like a sore thumb was significantly diminished–which, obviously, is culturally relative, because in the States, the opposite would certainly be true. The only time I really felt that the niqab drew more attention to me than usual was when I spoke to someone in English–my American accent caused folks to stare a lot.

Wearing the niqab didn’t make me feel closer to or further away from God. Thus, I still don’t feel like the niqab has any sort of religious significance for me personally, but I understand that it does for many women (much like I can see how the mantilla would have no appeal for many Catholic women, but for me, it absolutely did). However, I feel like this is a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing–I put on the niqab partly to see if it would catalyze some sort of religious clarity or insight, but I think many, if not most, Muslim women who make the choice to cover their faces feel the religious need or preference to so before they follow through.

And even though I don’t feel like the niqab is a beneficial Islamic step for me, it’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of it, at least here in Riyadh. Even though many women don’t cover their faces here, the fact that so many women do makes it stand to reason that putting on the niqab would contribute to blending in with the larger crowd.

If my mother-in-law and sister-in-law wore niqab when they went out, I probably would, as well–or at least, I’d think more seriously about adopting it as a ritual when here in the Kingdom. But as it stands, I’ve reverted to my previous abaya-and-tarha combination, and just as before, I don’t automatically reach for my niqab as a part of getting dressed to go out. However, I do now keep my niqab tucked in a small pocket on the inside of my handbag, in case I ever start to feel uncomfortable in a way that more easily blending in with the crowd would help alleviate. I certainly didn’t feel lost within or constricted by my niqab-imparted anonymity, although I think that’s something that would vary from person to person. I actually appreciate that since I now know that I can feel comfortable with my face covered, I can choose to wear niqab or not, as it suits me.

And as with everything else, choice is what it should always be about.

wearing niqab.

meet mr. mostafa.

February 26, 2015

So, a few weeks ago, I was inspired by a blog post on The Kardia and decided that it was time to let my blog readers get to know Mr. Mostafa a little bit better. After all, he is one of the very main characters here, and he’s generally so understanding of how I consistently provide a glimpse into his life through the lens of my own admittedly limited perspective, as each individual’s perspective inevitably is (although I think part of the reason why he’s more chill about my blogging habits than a typical Saudi guy would be is because he’s actually the one who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place. In other words, he created this monster, so he’s got no one to blame but himself. Ha!). So I figured he deserved the chance to speak for himself a bit.

For the basics, I used the interview questions from The Kardia, tweaked a bit to reflect our own cultural foundation. Then I asked questions submitted by readers via Facebook, Twitter, and email, which I lightly edited for length, structure, clarity, etc. where necessary. The result is a very long but meaty interview (but heck, if you expected a short post from me, welcome, ‘cause you’re obviously new here). So, if you’ve made your cup of tea and are settling in for some reading time, here you go: Mr. Mostafa, in his own words!

Introduce yourself.

My name is Saleh bin Mostafa. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. My family is originally from Medina. Most of my family members are located in Medina and Jeddah and Mecca. But I was born and raised in Riyadh. Let’s see…I’m a certified public accountant. I guess that’s it.

What do you think about my blog?

I really like your blog, and I think you differentiate yourself from other bloggers by not talking about a specific topic or a specific location or just your personal life. You kind of, you know, merge all of them. Like, you’re basically talking about everything in your experience, but especially in Saudi Arabia as a foreigner, which I believe is what makes your blog unique.

What is your favorite post that I’ve written?

I can’t really recall all the posts right now, but probably one of my favorites, one that drew a smile on my face, is our kitchen…when you wrote about our kitchen. Because I put a lot of effort…you know, it was kind of difficult to design and buy appliances for a very small, teeny-tiny kitchen, like a small fridge that has a freezer, a small washing machine and dryer in the same thing, a small oven, stove, you know…then after you wash the dishes, where are you going to put the dishes away…so yeah, I was kind of proud of myself when I read that post.

Have you ever had a blog, or have you ever considered starting one?

No. I used to hear a lot about blogging when I was in the States, but I never really knew a lot about blogging. I guess I’m not that kind of geeky guy.

Oh, so I’m a geek?

That’s what they say. Bloggers are geeks.

Oh, really? This is news to me. Well, kind of.

I don’t know, haven’t you watched the episode of The Office when they launched the Pyramid? All the bloggers there are geeks.

Hmm…that’s true. Those bloggers were geeks.

Yes. But those aren’t my words, those are Dwight’s words.

If you could meet any famous person, who would you choose?

Any famous person…well, for me, superstars or singers or whatever are not really role models to me. I don’t really have a role model in my life, so…but right now, maybe…I don’t want to say I have a crush, but maybe Taylor Swift…you know, I like her.

Good idea not to say to your wife that you have a crush!

Well yeah, I don’t want to say I have a crush on her, but I like her. I even, you know, I took it so personal when she released her new songs. I was like, “This is not Taylor.” I was totally disappointed. Even after I watched the video, I was extremely disappointed. But then, you know, I started to like the music, so…

So you like to shake it off?

I do, I do.

It’s okay, because, you know…I kinda feel the same way about Bruno Mars. Like, I won’t say I have a crush on him, but…yeah.

Well, I really like Bruno Mars songs, but, you know…I got disappointed in him when I found out that he was doing cocaine. So…

Let’s hope Taylor Swift doesn’t have a similar scandal.

Yeah, I very much hope not.

Tell about a date night gone wrong that we’ve had.

I think you’ve already blogged about the worst one…the date in the States, our first date after Lavi was born. Another one was…I was very excited, it was our first anniversary. I wanted to take you to a special place and have a very fancy date. So I made a reservation at Spazio, at the top of the Kingdom Tower. I wanted to make special arrangements; I told the guy I wanted a special cake and music. And I told him it was our anniversary, everything should be “Happy Anniversary.” Happy first anniversary. Well, after we had our wonderful dinner, I saw the waiters coming with the cake, behind you. And I was disappointed when they started singing “Happy Birthday.” And they wrote on the cake, “Happy Birthday,” too. Then we went to French Corner to grab you some macarons, because you love macarons. Well, when I came back out, the car wouldn’t start. The battery ran out. So I called the driver, he came and we tried to jump the car. But we couldn’t figure out where the battery was on the other car. We finally figured it out, but jumping didn’t work, so I had to go buy a new battery and put it in there in the parking space in front of French Corner. Yeah, it was a cluster.

Okay, so let’s cover all the bases…sports. Who is your favorite football (soccer) team, and why?

I remember before 2002, or let’s say up to 1998, I’m gonna say, I was very crazy about soccer. I could never miss a game of my favorite team. My favorite team, in my heart, was Al Ittihad…which is, you know, the team from Jeddah. But due to the environment and the cultural impact and the kids’ influence…I had to be like everyone else in Riyadh, so Al Hilal became my favorite team. I remember even my bedroom carpet was blue, everything was blue, I wanted everything blue. I still love blue. But the Saudi league really sucks now. After 1998, probably up to 2002, maybe the last time we won the Asian Cup…after that, I stopped caring a lot about soccer, especially in Saudi Arabia.

What is your favorite American sport, and why?

Again, I’m not really much of a sport guy, but if there is any sport that I would like to learn, it’s American football.


Because, you know, it makes sense. I remember when we went to the Springfield Cardinals baseball game, I was totally confused. It didn’t seem like a sport to me. But in American football, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of strength, it goes fast. And you know, in soccer, it takes a lot of special skills. It’s really amazing to watch a player like Ronaldinho or Messi or David Beckham. I believe that’s a special talent that you don’t really see in baseball.

baba and baby.

That’s all for the basics. And now, on to the reader questions!

Are there times when you thought it would have been better if Nicole was born a Saudi? If so, when and why?

Yes, sometimes, just because of the language. Sometimes I really want to speak in Arabic. Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to express your feelings in another language. Sometimes I really wish…not that she was born Saudi, but at least that she grew up speaking Arabic. Even before I met Nikki, I used to write a lot of poems in Arabic, and I wanted to share them with her. But it was difficult to share those poems with her, because she wouldn’t understand them. But I’ve always loved writing poems. Whenever I feel mad or sad, or when certain events happen, that was my way of expressing myself. So yeah, I don’t have a blog or anything, but I love poetry. I’m a poetry geek, not a blogging geek. So sometimes, yes, I do wish she spoke Arabic…sometimes when I’m mad, you know, when we are in an argument, or when I try to make a joke…that’s a part of me that I don’t think she knows about me. The other part is…you know, I’m really talented when it comes to imitating accents in Arabic. I used to make my friends laugh. I went to international school, so I had friends from all over the Middle East, and I would be very curious about learning specific words and specific accents. So she doesn’t really understand when I make a joke that uses different words or different accents. I believe this is a part of my personality that she doesn’t know, and she can’t know because one, she’s not Arabic, two, she’s not Saudi, and three, she was not born and raised here.

Are there times when you thought it would have been better if you were born an American? If so, when and why?

Well, I’m really grateful that I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, for several reasons. One, I had access to excellent higher education, and it was extremely affordable. I didn’t have to pay for college here in Saudi Arabia or grad school in the States. I’ve never had to worry about that. And I’ve never had to worry about anything medical…I have insurance from my employer, but if I didn’t, I could still go to the doctor. My government is supporting the employment of Saudis, so that’s an advantage for me. I don’t have to pay taxes. The cost of living here is extremely cheap compared to the States…well, most places in the States. I don’t feel like, you know, being a different race or having a different color is a very big advantage here, which it absolutely is when you apply for a job in the States. I feel like there is a lot of racism in the States…modern racism, as they say. I’m really glad I was born Saudi. I mean, absolutely, there is racism in Saudi Arabia. Very much racism. But I feel like it is slowly getting better here, where in the States, it’s getting worse. The thing that has really gotten worse here is the Shia/Sunni conflict…it was not so much of an issue before. Lots of my friends in school and college, they were Shia, and we never felt like we were different or anything. But then, you know, things got worse, with the Iraq War, and other things.

Do you read all of Nicole’s blog posts?

Absolutely. I read them all, and I click like…and I don’t click like on a thing unless I really like it. If I read something I don’t like on the blog, I’ll discuss it with my wife…but I almost always press like. So yes, I do read, and when I press like, that means I really do like it. Sometimes I wish Facebook had a dislike button, so I could click it on some things…but like, not her stuff. Wait…what I’m trying to say is that, you know, I’m not being biased when I click like. Being my wife, and being a part of her experience, that doesn’t mean I automatically like everything. I’m just interacting with the blog as a reader. I try not to let my relationship with the blogger influence my opinion.

Do people in your office read the blog? Do they make any comments when they read about you?

Um…I don’t know. I don’t think so. I do share and retweet her posts, especially the ones that I really like, but I don’t really talk about it with my friends. I think that might be a little bit awkward, like if I stood up at my desk and yelled, “Heeeeyyy, follow my wife! She writes awesome!” They would laugh at me. But I follow her on Instagram, and on Twitter, and on Facebook. Everyone knows that she is my wife, that I’m married to an American. So my friends and colleagues probably know about the blog, but no, I’ve never discussed it with my friends or colleagues. But if the asker is trying to say, “Are you ashamed of your wife?”, the answer is I am not ashamed of my wife. I’m extremely proud of my wife, which is why I am always retweeting her and liking and commenting on her stuff on social media.

How do you contribute to or help with the blog?

Well, sometimes I have to take my wife to places, or I have to stop the car at a certain place at a certain moment so she can take a picture. If I don’t stop the car when she tells me to, then I will be in trouble! Sometimes I drive my wife crazy, I forget to understand that she cannot drive here, and she cannot go to places on her own. Aside from that, she doesn’t need my support or my help when it comes to blogging, except sometimes she will ask me, “Can you translate this for me?” “Can you tell me what does this mean?” “Can you give me the spelling of this Arabic word?” But you know, the only way I’m really contributing is by being a male in Saudi Arabia who can drive, and has to have his wife, you know, rely on him to take her to places.

What would you like the blog to be ten years from now?

Well, for me, one of my wishes…I’m not going to say it’s my dream, because it’s not my dream, it’s her dream, but in ten years, I want to be going to book signing parties for her. I want to see her signing her books. So maybe, you know, this blog can be a way to get to that dream for her, to publish books, because I know what writing means to my wife and I know she always wished to become a writer or a photographer. But even though she didn’t go to college for those things, I think she is extremely talented in them.

What do you wish for your wife and your daughter to be ten years from now?

Well, I think I just answered that question for my wife. As for my daughter…you know, I just want her to be happy. Healthy and happy.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

Me, ten years from now? Probably just…building my career, pursuing my dreams.

Do you see Lavender turning out to be more like you or her mom?

I hope both. I hope she will benefit from this unique relationship, that she will get the best out of both cultures, and dump the negativity and the trash in both cultures. And I hope that also she will take the best out of both of us.

How do you remain so sweet to your wife?

I’m not so sweet. She knows I’m not so sweet all the time. Sometimes I’m a pain in the butt. Sometimes she is a pain in my butt. But before we were married, we were very close friends. My wife is not only my wife, she is also my best friend, and I believe that is mandatory in the equation of a successful marriage. And you know, every relationship has its ups and downs.

What was one thing that you noticed in Nicole that made you realize she was The One?

This is just one of several things, but I’m just going to mention the funny one: I’ve always had a thing for country music, and I’ve always been insulted here in Saudi Arabia for loving that particular music style. And she was the only person who shared that interest with me. So that was one of the reasons that I felt, you know, the click. But you know, it was also the way she always added positivity to my life. I might be negative sometimes. But she always had that secret of comforting me. And actually, probably also even the disagreements were part of it. Before I got married, I never saw my future wife as someone that would just nod her head whenever I say something. I like discussion and debate. So that’s something I share with my wife.

Have you ever been caught in a situation between your mom and your wife? If so, whose side did you take? (Please take it as a funny question!)

I don’t recall one thing right now, but there were several times, especially, you know, after Lavender was born. But who hasn’t gone through these sort of conflicts, especially after a newborn baby comes into the family? I really don’t take sides. I try to understand my wife’s feelings and discuss that with my mom. Now, I realize that I’m a dumbass who does not understand women, because I thought when you just deliver the message, right away, they will understand and be fine with it. But they will pretend they are fine with it, but a couple of minutes later, or a couple of hours later, they get pissed. So I don’t take sides, but I try to understand and concur with my wife. I try to understand her side, and then go and discuss it with my mom. It has worked so far. Thank goodness, I’ve never been in, like, a really messy situation.

Hypothetically, if you were the king of Saudi Arabia, what would be the first order you pass? What other reforms would you undertake?

That is a tough question. I know what most people would answer, and I know they would want me to answer, “Letting women drive.” But I hope that will happen before I hypothetically become a king. And there is one other very big thing that concerns me: finding a way to diversify our economy, our sources of income. Right now, we are 90% reliant on oil, which is absolutely scary. It means that that we don’t have a really stable economy, in my opinion, because oil is not a renewable resource. So if I were king, I would be investing in other sources of energy, and two…well, I know this is not going to interest your readers, but Saudi Arabia does have a lot of surplus in cash, so why not invest it? Why don’t we have a sovereign wealth fund where, like, we can have investments in several countries and several industries to generate a source of funds to support the day-to-day operations and expenditures, you know? I’m talking like a king who is an accountant. But I guess that makes sense. Probably we need to also look into…like, we are the second highest country when it comes to outgoing international wire transfers, right after the States. Many expats working here are sending so much money out of the country. I think we need to reform the tax laws here in Saudi Arabia. It’s about time to apply income taxes on foreigners…like, you know, in America, foreigners have to pay income taxes. But not all foreigners should get the tax, just specific professions. We need doctors, we need engineers. But there are other professions where I believe we have the human resources and the capability to fill these professions, and again, I’m not talking about foreigners who are poor, like drivers and construction workers. But we need to start applying an income tax because our money is going out of Saudi Arabia. I mean, I don’t blame them, because that’s the only reason many are in Saudi Arabia, you know…they are working for the money. But a part of this money could be invested in supporting our economy, and creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone, and making a better country for the new generations of Saudis, and supporting and building infrastructure. I may sound Republican, but that’s how I feel. But I’m not 100% Republican, because I don’t want poor people to pay the taxes. That’s why there needs to be a threshold. I guess that’s all. But as I mentioned, I hope women will drive by then.

What do you like best about living in Saudi Arabia?

I mentioned that before, in the question about why I am glad and grateful I am Saudi. It’s a very family-oriented place. Probably the only thing I don’t like about Saudi Arabia is that people are nosy here. Sometimes I can’t even have a nice dinner with my wife or going out with my family without people staring at us.

Have you ever been to Hajj or Umrah, or both?

Absolutely, I’ve been to make Umrah several times. Never been to Hajj, but inshallah, I’m planning to perform Hajj with my wife.

Was it difficult for you to convince your parents to let you marry a Western woman? As you know, most Muslims are biased on this topic.

Yes, yes, absolutely. I’m not going to say most Muslims, but let’s say, it’s not going to be about Muslims, it’s about Saudis. Saudi Arabia is not an open culture. It’s not a country where almost everyone is an immigrant, like the States. That’s what makes it difficult. It’s probably one of the only countries where you have to apply for permission to marry a foreigner, which means, you can see that our government, our society, is not giving us the opportunity to get mixed with other cultures. It took me, like, two, three years to slowly convince my parents. And it’s really funny, I just had a disagreement with my wife about raising our kids and how we should help them make the right decisions, but if there’s anything I learned from the experience of marrying a foreigner, it’s that your parents might think that you are going in the wrong path, or you are making the wrong decision, but I’m glad that I proved to them that I did the right thing, it was the right decision. I’m glad that my family really likes my wife now, and they kind of clicked.

Would you prefer for your daughter to marry a Saudi or an American?

As of today, I absolutely prefer for her to marry a Saudi. I can’t handle the idea of not being able to see my grandkids and having to apply for a visa for them to come and visit, because a Saudi woman cannot grant citizenship to her kids, so I absolutely prefer for her to marry a Saudi. That was not a concern for Nikki’s parents, because that’s not the situation in the States; they know that, you know, they would be able to see their grandkids, because Lavender has an American passport, all our kids will have American passports. That’s my only concern. I would like my grandkids to be Saudis. I want them to share my citizenship, my language, my culture, and yes, my religion. But I hope the citizenship thing will change, and at the end, it’s not my decision. I believe it’s my daughter’s…because, you know, this what our religion encourages, it should be the woman’s decision.

Who do you think has it better in Saudi Arabia—men or women? And why?

Men, absolutely. It’s a men-oriented society. It is changing, because you know, Saudi women are showing that they have the ability to do great stuff; a lot of female Saudi scientists and scholars have done great accomplishments and are being acknowledged, both locally and internationally. But yes, most decision-makers are males. But even when you look to the States, which is the most liberal country, the decision-makers are mostly still males, not females. So yeah, it’s slowly changing, but it’s still kinda difficult to be a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Have you ever experienced culture shock? Tell us about it.

Culture shock? Yes, when I first arrived to the States. The driving, the waiting in lines…it was not so much a culture shock, I think, because I really enjoyed the experience. I had always heard about culture shock before I went to the States, but I did not feel it much. I absolutely enjoyed each and every experience. But I almost cried right after I arrived…I was sent to this old building on the campus, it was freaking Memorial Day weekend, everything was closed, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have internet, I didn’t have a phone yet. I was one of the first people that the scholarship program sent to that university, so there were only a few Saudis there…literally, all the Saudis who were in Springfield, we all fit in one small living room in a duplex. So I felt extremely lonely…I didn’t know where the heck to go. It was hard at first. But I made it.

I assume that since you married a Western woman, you have no problem with Saudi men doing that, but what do you think of Saudi women who marry/have relationships with Western men? And what are the differences in which your society perceives those women vs. men who do the same?

Of course, she has the right. Again, it’s her choice. I don’t really have an opinion about that. But I think, like I said, before making the decision, they really need to consider whether they are okay with her kids not carrying the citizenship, with them being treated differently than their cousins just because their dad is not Saudi. So, you know, again, it’s not my decision, and I don’t have any objection, but Saudi women have more to think about with that than Saudi men do. But you’re asking if the majority of Saudi families would be okay with their daughter marrying someone outside of Saudi Arabia…the answer is absolutely not. Many don’t even want their daughters or their sons to marry outside of the tribe. And there is a cultural double standard…all over the world, there is this idea that “boys will be boys.” Even in America, especially in the Southern states, like…I think your brother got away with many more things than you did. Girls are the ones parents worry about and want to protect. We don’t worry as much about boys. It’s not really fair, but it’s just how it is. And quite frankly, it’s always the boys who get into trouble, not the girls. From what I’ve heard, it’s much easier to raise a girl.

We all know that marrying someone from another culture can be a challenge, and we know it sometimes is for Nicole, but I wonder what the challenges that you have faced are, and what things you see differently than Nicole.

Probably I will have more challenges when my daughter gets older. I don’t know what these challenges will be yet. I don’t know, I hope my wife and I are making it easier for each other to be open-minded and understanding about cultures. I don’t know what life is hiding for us when it comes to raising our children. But I think couples, even if they don’t speak the same language, if they have that click, and if they are open-minded about each other’s culture, origins, background, I think they will not face so much difficulty. My wife has been open-minded, I think I have been open-minded, too. We try.

What do you really think about your mother-in-law?

I really like…wait, she is the one who asked this question, isn’t she? No, I mean, she always comes to our house when we are in Missouri, we always go to her house when we are there. We go out to dinner with her, we hang out together. I think she is a funny, caring person. Sometimes I feel like she takes sides when Nikki and I disagree; I don’t blame her, though. I would take my daughter’s side, too. But I really love my mother-in-law. I think she’s awesome. She’s a tough woman.

Whew, you made it to the end! If you want to, you can follow Mr. Mostafa on Instagram and Twitter. Thanks for reading!

dating in riyadh.

February 19, 2015

Now that we’re an old married couple, one of the things Mr. Mostafa and I can’t resist doing is speculating about the relationship status of couples we see at tables next to us in restaurants. The routine obviously began in the States, where the cultural standard for privacy is very different and families and singles sections don’t exist, and neither do massive partitions designed to surround tables so that families can dine without any other patrons observing them.

The first time we engaged in this covert ritual, I leaned over to him and whispered, “I think that couple at the table next to us is on a first date.”

He looked at me like I had just suggested that we rip off the woman’s top and feel her up to establish whether or not her boobs were fake. “No, no!” he exclaimed as vehemently as a whisper would allow. “Don’t listen to their conversation! Give them privacy! That’s terrible!”

But now, ever since he realized that it’s not about gossiping or making fun of the people at the table, but rather about appreciating the various stages of finding love, whether you’re on your first date or your 700th, he’s become more engaged in this activity than I am. Before I even notice that a couple is sitting at a table near us, he’ll lean over to me and say, “What do you think…third date?” And off we go.

Of course, it’s obviously much more difficult to engage in our amateur habit of relationship analysis while we’re in Riyadh, which is why when we find an opportunity, we jump on it. Since it’s technically illegal for unrelated men and women to consort in public in Saudi Arabia, dating is essentially prohibited. But of course, dating happens. Frequently. Sometimes in public, sometimes not. For example, I once saw a security guard at Tamimi who was obviously simultaneously on the clock and on a date. He strutted up and down the aisles like a proud rooster, accompanied by a giggly girl wearing a niqab. When they noticed a man with a long beard, a short thobe, and no iqal (i.e., a muttawa) eyeing them from the produce section, they split up and reunited a few aisles later.

But honestly, it’s rare to see Saudis out on dates in Riyadh…or at least, noticeably out on dates. It’s a lot easier to spot dating expats; we see them a lot in restaurants with open seating areas in the family section that imitate a typical non-Saudi restaurant. They stand out because it’s hard to squelch the delight of those first dates, especially while attempting to fake the sort of married couple familiarity that will deflect suspicion in Saudi Arabia. I always find myself wondering if the danger of the possibility of getting caught adds to the excitement, as well, since they, unlike Saudis, could easily choose a restaurant in the Diplomatic Quarter or on a compound where they could get to know one another with a much lower likelihood of muttawa intervention. I don’t know, because I’ve never been the kind of person that gets a thrill out of danger. I hate scary movies. I refused to ride rollercoasters until I was 14 (and much to my shock, I discovered that I loved them–not for the thrill of fear, but because they make me feel like I’m flying). I rarely broke rules as a kid. I lived in fear of Getting In Trouble.

Last weekend, Mr. Mostafa and I decided to go out for lunch at a restaurant near our house. It’s not fancy or groundbreaking in terms of recipes, but we always like the food. So, off we went.

When we arrived, the restaurant was closed for dhuhr prayer time. Instead of sitting in the car, we sat on one of the benches outside of the entrance to the family section while we waited for the restaurant to reopen. There were a few groups of men waiting outside the singles entrance, but we were the only ones waiting for the family section until, a few minutes later, a woman arrived by taxi. She was completely covered, including gloves; she wasn’t wearing a niqab, but she had her tarha wrapped in such a way that she had flipped it over her face in order to keep her face covered. She was wearing a beautiful, formal abaya. She carried an elegant handbag and she wore matching (very) high heels. Even though the tarha covered her face, it was not entirely opaque (as it mustn’t be, in order for the wearer to be able to see through it when it’s covering the face), so even though I wouldn’t be able to recognize her if I saw her without a tarha, I could see that she was wearing a full face of meticulously applied makeup.

After waiting for a bit, she approached us and asked, in Arabic, how long we had been waiting and if we thought the restaurant would open soon. She sounded young, and perhaps a bit agitated. A few more families showed up to wait for the family section.

Shortly thereafter, the doors were unlocked and the restaurant opened. We didn’t pay attention to where the woman went as we were escorted to our table, a booth near the windows at the side of the restaurant.

Within a few minutes, a waiter came and took our order. I told Mr. Mostafa to go to the soup & salad bar first while I sat with Lavender, and then I would go once he got back. Within a few seconds after he left, I heard the man at the table behind me call for the waiter and request a partition for his booth. Two waiters set up the heavy partition in front of the open areas of the booth, so that no one could see in.

When Saleh returned with his bowl of soup, he slid into the booth, leaned across the table, and whispered, “Hey, you know that girl that talked to us outside? I think she’s here on a date. She’s at the table behind us with a guy.”

“How do you know?” I whispered back. “I just heard the guy ask for a partition.”

“When I stood up, she had her face uncovered, and her makeup is done like she’s going to a wedding. Eyelashes and everything. Girls don’t get dressed up like that to go out to lunch with their husbands, do they?”

I looked down at my bitten fingernails and pushed my glasses up my nose. “Ha…well, some don’t. Anyway, she came here alone, remember? That’s a pretty good indication that the guy isn’t her husband.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. When I stood up to go to the salad bar and I saw her sitting at the table, she panicked and covered her face again.”

“So that’s when the guy asked for a partition.”

“Yep, it’s definitely a date!”

“Well, good for them,” I said.

Astaghfirullah,” he said jokingly.

“No, I’m serious,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “I understand. It’s a culture thing, but I get it. In the Saudi marriage way, it’s hard to really get to know someone before you marry them.”

I said, “I mean, there are certain experiences I think a couple needs to have before they marry. Not necessarily…you know…every experience, but like, you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat waiters. I know it’s a culture thing, and I understand folks who choose to respect that, but I don’t understand why people aren’t allowed to meet in public and have a meal together. Like, those two kids are now behind a partition, alone, because they’re so worried that people are going to see them sharing a meal in public. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? If they weren’t so scared of being seen, they’d just be sitting across a table from one another, amongst dozens of other people, getting to know each other to the point where they can relax and make an informed decision about whether or not this person might be a good candidate for spending the rest of my life with.”

He shrugged and said, “If they insist on dating, I’m just glad they came to a public place. Be safe. Take precautions. Don’t go anywhere alone with some son-of-a-gun boy. Don’t trust him to protect you. Protect yourself.” He paused, and then he chuckled, “Listen to me. A liberal guy with a beard.”

“You can be a liberal guy with a beard. And anyway, your beard isn’t just for religious reasons. It’s also because I love it,” I pointed out.

“That’s true,” he conceded. He sipped his soup as I stood up and walked to the salad bar, past the now-enclosed table of couple who were hopefully on a very lovely date.

on a date.

michelle obama and media mythmaking.

February 5, 2015

If you’re in the States, you may have heard a thing or two about the Obamas’ visit to Riyadh last week, in order to pay respects to King Salman. You may also have heard a bit about how Michelle Obama didn’t cover her head, the Saudi state TV blurred out Michelle, etc. You may have even read the comments.

It’s always a bad idea to read the comments, folks. Especially about Saudi Arabia. (Although I admit I’m terrible at following my own advice.) Because when it comes to Saudi Arabia, suddenly everyone is an expert except the people who actually live out their lives in Saudi Arabia. Now, to be clear, I’m not an expert on anything. But, I mean, I do live as a woman in Saudi Arabia. I live with a Saudi family. I have Saudi friends and relatives. I’m raising a half-Saudi daughter. I don’t know everything, to be sure, but I think I might know a bit more than Joe Schmo behind his keyboard in Wasilla, Alaska, who knows–knows–that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t permitted out of the house without a male guardian and if they show their faces in public, they will be beaten.

This is one of my favorite things about discussing life in Saudi Arabia with people who don’t live here, by the way. (Note: that was sarcasm.) When people really, really want to believe whatever terrible thing they think they know, I’m often treated like I’m lying, brainwashed, puppeteered, or just plain stupid, because I’m simply a feebleminded woman who is weak and easily led. For the record, these attitudes are no different than those attributed to the scary Muslim/Arab/Saudi who supposedly pulls the strings in my brain. Same package, different wrapping.

Anyway, even though misinformation abounds about Saudi life, Saudis aren’t immune to catching ridiculous ideas about American life, either. In my experience, Americans and Saudis are equally prone to believing awful things about one another’s cultures. For example, I’ve had Saudis tell me that American kids must move out of their parents’ house at the age of 16. American children are kicked out of the house at that age and must fend for themselves, often turning to prostitution and drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of being thrown away by their families. Because Americans don’t value close-knit families. Saudis value close-knit families.

And then I’m like, “Uh, no.” And I explain that there is occasionally such a case, usually after the kid and his parents have been fighting continuously for a long time, but in reality, the vast majority of American children are absolutely not thrown out of their houses at age 16.

And then they’re like, “Oh, really! Well, that’s very good! I am happy to know that!”

And that right there is the primary difference between my interactions with Saudis about cultural differences with America and my interactions with Americans about cultural differences with Saudi Arabia. You tell a Saudi that they’ve got a certain aspect of American culture blown way out of proportion, they’re like, “Oh, okay! Great!” They’re happy to be wrong about that awful thing they thought. Because who wants to be right about something like that?

This is generally not how it goes in similar interactions I’ve had with my fellow Americans (or at the very least, this is not how it often goes; I’ve not kept statistics on this, although maybe I should).

No, many Americans often seem like they really, really want to believe all these terrible things they “know” about Saudi life. Even when their information is demonstrably false, they insist that no, it’s true! Their cousin’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend went to Saudi Arabia once and told them so! These Americans need to believe that their culture is leaps and bounds ahead of primitive Saudi Arabia. They so badly want to believe that by not covering her head, Michelle really enraged those backward Saudis and taught them a thing or two. I guess folks need to do this in order to feel better about themselves and their own culture. That is really the only explanation I can think of for the almost entirely autotrophic American media firestorm that erupted last week when pictures and video emerged of Michelle Obama being greeted by Saudi government officials with a brazenly uncovered head.

And the media feeds into this sense of cultural superiority. Openly. Unabashedly. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating now: journalistic integrity flies out the window when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Fact checking becomes unnecessary. If it fits the barbaric narrative, it gets reported. And then repeated. Over and over again. For instances of blatantly incorrect reporting, sometimes retractions follow, but rarely. And even when a retraction or clarification is made, it never gets the same amount of press as the original false or misleading story. And all I can do is sit back and watch the misinformation proliferate, because when I offer correct information via Facebook comments or such (again, I need to learn to stay out of the cesspool that is internet commentary), I’m asked (after being told, naturally, that my husband monitors my internet usage, that I will be beaten if I dare appear in public with my face uncovered, and that I must walk behind my husband at all times), “So you know more than CNN?” Well, not about much, but about this, it seems so. But only because CNN (like every other American media outlet) is atrociously lax about fact checking basic information when it comes to the country that I live in.

So here is some clarification in regard to the Obamas’ notorious visit to Riyadh last week.

1. Michelle didn’t cover her head.

Within 24 hours of the Obamas’ arrival, the internet was abuzz with news of how Michelle Obama made a stand for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia by not covering her head when she met with the Saudi king. The overall sentiment seemed to be that Michelle flouted Saudi law when she did this, and good for her, because she pissed off those backward Saudis by letting her freedom flag fly, baby!

There was just one problem with all that. Well, actually, there were a lot of problems with all that, but here are a few.

Despite the endless American reports of “outrage,” Saudis were very largely unconcerned with what Michelle did or didn’t have on her head. When the Obamas’ visit was in the news, not a single one of the Arabic trending hashtags on Saudi Twitter had anything to do with Michelle. Saudis were pretty interested in Air Force One, though. And the menu for the dinner at the palace. And the fact that King Salman left President Obama briefly around maghrib, the sunset prayer time, in order to attend to his ritual prayers. Those were all hot topics.

“Listen, American media is going crazy about how pissed off the Saudis on Twitter are about Michelle not wearing a tarha on her head,” I said to Mr. Mostafa. “Is that in any way true? Because I’m not seeing it.”

He looked puzzled. “What? I haven’t seen anything about that.”

“Yeah, supposedly there’s a lot of Saudi outrage?” I said.

“Hold on, let me look,” he said. He was quiet for several minutes as he did some research. “Oh, yeah, I guess here are a couple tweets about it, from ignorant religious people. But most of the people on the hashtag are making fun of the people who started it.”

Two, despite what internet commenters may tell you, it is not required for any woman in Saudi Arabia to cover her head in public. I’ve also written about this before, but I guess it bears repeating.

Now, I understand how folks who have never lived here can get confused about this. Before I moved here, I, too, used to believe that foreign women were permitted to not cover their heads if they chose, but that Saudi women were required to. It was my in-laws who set me straight on this shortly after I arrived. It is not required for any woman to cover her head in public in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi women do, out of observation of social norms, a sense of religious obligation, other reasons, or a combination of many reasons. Many Saudi women also cover their faces. I cover my head, as many other Muslim expats do. Some non-Muslim expats do, as well, to ward off stares and deflect attention (much the same way a woman who covers in the States will be stared at, a woman who doesn’t cover will likely be stared at here, simply because in both cases, the view is out of the ordinary for many people). But plenty of women here don’t cover their heads. My mom never does when she visits.

momma and the giant hookahThis is my momma. In Saudi Arabia. With her head uncovered. Learning to smoke a hookah. A giant hookah, as a matter of fact. Taking a stand for Saudi women, one giant hookah puff at a time, or something.

A muttawa told my mom to cover her head once. I got snippy with him, we ignored him, and he kept on walkin’, because for better or worse, the muttawa can tell you they think you should cover your head, but they can’t arrest you for not covering your head.

Like I said, I understand how the average, everyday internet commenter could be confused about this. But the reason they are so confused, as I was, is that journalists tend to do such a crap job of fact checking these sorts of things. It seemed that everywhere I turned last week, I was reading yet another “news” site “explaining” that “foreign women in Saudi Arabia are not required to wear the headscarf.” “Women in Saudi Arabia must wear the headscarf, but foreign diplomats are excluded from this rule.” “Saudi women must cover completely, including their faces, but visiting women don’t have to.” Everyone, it seemed, had a reason why Michelle Obama didn’t cover her head. But it seems that nowhere was anyone getting it right: women are not required to cover their heads in Saudi Arabia.

Now, there is one garment that Michelle didn’t wear that is generally required for all women, Saudi or otherwise, to wear in public in Saudi Arabia: the abaya. It’s a long, thin, black cloak that goes over one’s street clothes. Every woman, whether foreign or Saudi, must wear one in public (unless you’re in the Diplomatic Quarter, a gated and heavily guarded neighborhood where almost all of Riyadh’s foreign embassies are located), and if Michelle Obama had gone mallwalking or something sans abaya, there probably would have been a lot more discussion on Saudi Twitter about her wardrobe. But airport to palace and back to airport does not exactly constitute public, and anyway, even though Michelle didn’t wear an abaya, her outfit was loose, modest, and covered every part of her body that an abaya would have covered, had she worn one.

So as much as Americans might want to think otherwise, Michelle’s outfit was not revolutionary, nor was her lack of headscarf. Her clothing was obviously carefully chosen to respect cultural norms. Now, if she had appeared at the gathering in a kicky sleeveless, knee-length summer dress with a pair of strappy sandals, a case could be made that she was trying to send a message. But as it was…nope. And even if she had chosen an outfit without quite so much coverage, none of the men present would have dropped dead at the sight of an ankle. Really. I mean, Michael Scott was a walking joke in almost every way, but it appears that far too many Americans believe his grasp of Middle Eastern gender politics was totally spot-on.

2. Most of the members of the Saudi delegation that greeted the President didn’t shake Michelle Obama’s hand.

From what I’ve heard, a few members of the delegation tasked with greeting President Obama did shake Michelle’s hand, but most did not offer a handshake to the First Lady (nor did Michelle offer handshakes to anyone, which, again, if she had, might have been an indication that she was taking some sort of stand…but she didn’t). The videos show Michelle politely nodding back at the delegates who chose to acknowledge her with a nod, but not a handshake.

This isn’t unusual from a cultural or a religious perspective. In Saudi culture, men and women typically don’t touch unrelated members of the opposite sex, unless the situation requires it (for example, if you have to see a doctor). Although I am Muslim and generally don’t ever decline an offered handshake, plenty of religious Muslims, men and women alike, do avoid shaking hands with or otherwise touch unrelated members of the opposite sex, and not just Muslims (Orthodox Jews do it, too. So do Buddhist monks).

Michelle was standing to the left of the President, behind him. She was also holding a black clutch handbag with both her hands. Also, she is not the President. I’m guessing that had a wife of the king been present (which, quite frankly, would have been very nice to see; I think everyone can agree that Saudi Arabia suffers from a dearth of public female representation in government, although currently, the percentage of women appointed to the Shoura Council, the visible but essentially powerless advisory body to the king, is greater than the percentage of women currently serving in the U.S. Congress), there would have been no uproar if the Americans hadn’t gone up to her to shake her hand. Or, actually, there probably would have been, especially if she had politely refused to shake the men’s hands on religious grounds. Then it would have been, “Do you see how oppressed the women are? She can’t even shake a man’s hand! I mean, really, what kind of sexual feelings are stirred up by a handshake? She’s obviously refusing because she’s terrified of what her husband would do to her if she did shake hands. Those poor Saudi women!”

In regard to headscarf-gate, American folks have been (correctly) commenting, “Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if Michelle had worn the headscarf? ‘See, we told you! The Obamas are closet Muslims! Sharia law is a-comin’!'” I would like to present another hypothetical: can you imagine what the reaction would have been if the male members of the Saudi delegation had made it a point to go up to Michelle and shake her hand, even though she was standing behind the President and out of the way, while holding something in her hands? “See, look at those repressed Saudis! So desperate to touch a woman that they’re practically charging the First Lady. So barbaric!”

3. Saudi state TV did not blur out Michelle Obama.

This was originally reported by Bloomberg TV, and it spread like wildfire. Except it wasn’t true. Although Bloomberg did later issue a retraction once it was roundly denied that Saudi state TV blurred out Michelle when they covered her arrival and meeting with the king, you can still find endless articles with references to “reports” that she was blurred out. Reports that are, once again, totally false. Heck, it’s even on Snopes.

As I always do when writing a post of this nature, here is where I must offer the disclaimer that I am not defending everything the Saudi state does, nor am I saying that every single aspect of life in Saudi Arabia is peachy keen, jellybean. But that doesn’t mean that ethnocentric, imperialistic, neocolonial, racist, Islamophobic, and just plain inaccurate media coverage about the country is okay. It’s dehumanizing and inexcusable. And if you’re a consumer of Western media, you might want to start thinking about why this happens, who it serves, how it shapes your worldview, who that serves, and what else you may not be getting the whole truth about. I know that as a direct result of living in Saudi Arabia, I certainly have.

Phew. And now, simply for the sake of my own sanity, I can’t help but hope that the Obamas don’t come back to Saudi Arabia for the remainder of Barack’s presidency.