I think it’s time to address a couple of questions and concerns that, apologies in advance, might be a little overdue. When I started to think about this grand adventure last year, there were several appealing destinations on my travel list. Considerations for my decision included, in order of importance, the following: what I would gain from the experience, geographic location, the students I would be teaching, salary, and lifestyle.
I must admit, how safe a place would or wouldn’t be wasn’t on the list.
On the whole I am not a risk averse person. Part of the reason I’m not is because I like a little adventure in my life. But another, more consequential reason is I am opposed to living within a culture of fear. Many of my life experiences have shown me that cultures of fear aren’t based in reality and, as Spock would put it, highly illogical. Of course, that truth is also skewed by a brutal irony. A more sinister way a culture of fear affects me is by triggering the very latent anxiety that exists just under the surface of my brain matter. Because past bouts with anxiety have been completely crippling experiences, my tendencies are to give myself space from those who say you can’t or shouldn’t do a given thing. My brain does enough of that irrational thinking on its own. And not doing something because there may be a remote possibility of an unknown factor occurring is not an excuse to avoid leaving the house to see what’s out there.
While I’m not going to court danger for the sake of teaching English overseas, I feel I am capable of looking at a situation and reasonably assessing whether or not I’ll come out intact. Saudi Arabia ended up meeting my criteria, beating out the trio of “T” countries on my list: Turkey, Thailand, and Taiwan. Perhaps somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious I decided that it was a perfectly safe destination for me to spend my year as an “accidental” teacher, an adjective I often use to describe how I ended up where I am in my life.
Ok, but if you’re still wondering whether or not it’s safe here, I can say that, categorically, Saudi Arabia is one of the safest places I’ve ever lived.* (I’ll get to the asterisk in a moment.)
Let’s check off some of the risk factors and see how they apply to my safety here. When people ask me, “do you feel safe?” I’m pretty sure the underlying context to that question concerns whether or not I should be worried by threats from extremist groups. Since just before Ramadan began, there were three suicide bombings that targeted mosques. Since then, the Kingdom’s security apparatus swept up a number of suspects who were said to have been associated with the Islamic State. Disconcerting? Of course. Reason to panic? Hardly. If I found myself in a situation where I was in the middle of some sort of attack, it would just be a terribly unlucky case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck is a factor in any sort of risk, just as if I was in the United States and a gunman decided today was the day to spray bullets inside my local coffee shop in the middle of an espresso order.
We can add another risk factor to that same equation. I’m an American, which means I could be a target. The Kingdom has had its fair share of attacks since the 1990s, many against Western targets, but they are far, far rarer than any sort of isolated shooting or mass shooting that happens on the regular in the United States. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in keeping its expats safe—they oil and grease (pun intended) the country’s economy.
How about a more sensitive topic that underlines a lot of our thinking these days: tension between the Muslim world and the West—the United States in particular. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t say this line of thought wasn’t on my mind. In a future post, I’ll write a few more words that outline my ideas on why a level of mistrust and a void of understanding exists. But for now, let’s just say that out of all the people that I’ve interacted with since I arrived, I have yet to meet someone who was angry or took an aggressive posture when he realized I was an American. Quite the opposite, most individuals I meet are welcoming and fascinated by America. Some simply inquire as to what life is like. Others look at me as if I don’t have my head on quite straight and bluntly ask why I would give up all that freedom to come here. And many, my students especially, ask with a dreamy smile and look in their eye if they can come visit me someday. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked about U.S. foreign policy. On the rare chance anyone throws any criticism my way, it’s only that the U.S. government is bad; the country and the people are great.
But Zain, you’re only a few border crossings away from the terrible and scary conflict that is happening in Iraq and Syria. And what about the war in Yemen? Since I covered the internal security situation above, this calls for a little geography. Mosul, the largest city controlled by the Islamic State is about 1400km away, or 870 miles. That is more than the distance between San Francisco and Seattle. The capital of Yemen, Sana’a, is almost 1770 kilometers, or 1100 miles, away; the driving distance between Denver and Los Angeles. My corner of Saudi Arabia is one of the most heavily defended areas of the country, because of its strategic importance. For added insurance, the U.S. 5th Fleet is headquartered about an hour and a half south of me in the country of Bahrain.
Kidnapping, robbery, muggings, or even harassment? In the world I live in, those crimes are virtually nonexistent. Saudi Arabia enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There may be a heavy-handed presence to it, but is designed to maintain order whether I agree with it or not.
What about being a woman? This is a question I get. I suppose if I was a Western woman I would carefully consider the pros and cons of living here. The handful of expat women I know who live here live comfortably. Restricted, yes, but that’s only outside the walls of their “archipelagoes.” Inside the compound walls, women lead normal and unrestricted lives. Harassment can happen, just as it does in the United States, but authority is swiftly brought down on perpetrators who dare cross the line.
If I was unfortunate enough to have a chronically weak stomach, then perhaps I would have a problem eating out, especially at local Indian, Pakistani, or Filipino restaurants. But waterborne and food-related illnesses are rare. I also have my choice to dine at any type of derivative American “family” restaurant just in case I wanted to ensure a clean kitchen, though my overall health probably wouldn’t thank me. On the topic of healthcare, Saudi Arabia has excellent medical facilities (for those who can pay; and I can) with highly trained doctors and nurses. Even going to the dentist was a less-scary experience than it was back home.
*There are two issues that could affect my safety. And here’s where that asterisk comes in:
There is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS; a coronavirus that can cause acute respiratory distress, fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, it can affect men and women with healthy immune systems, and has caused a number of deaths in the Kingdom and in the Middle East. But it is not widespread nor is there any sort of quarantine, yet. Epidemiologists say people who are at risk include healthcare professionals who are treating MERS patients. But my veterinarian-extraordinaire Dr. Katie scoured updates on the disease and informed me there is a chance that contact with camels could also expose me to MERS. Sadly, that means no drinking of camel’s milk, camel urine (yes, that is a thing which you can Google yourself,) or eating of camel meat. I will probably avoid riding random camels, as you do, unless I can find an authorized outfitter in Dubai or Oman.
Then there are the road accidents. A sad fact about living in Saudi Arabia is the country has a higher-than-average vehicle accident rate. Speed limits are ignored, no one wears their seatbelt, and aggressive driving is the norm. The good news is the government has invested a lot of money is campaigning for safer driving. The bad news is they still have a long way to go. A lack of public transportation means everyone is on the road. I am lucky that my driver takes good care of me and (generally) makes precautions to keep us out of accidents. Still, when I get my driver’s license so I can free myself on weekends, I will have to be extra cautious on the road. Times like this make me glad I learned how to navigate traffic in New York City.
I think the one factor that keeps me über-safe is a little cross-cultural understanding I learned in the Peace Corps. Seems simple, but it’s key to my whole well-being: get in good with the people. Saudis on the whole are gracious and welcoming. Their approach to education may not be as rigorous as some would desire—this is a country that opened its first university in 1957 with a national literary rate that barely scrapped 60% in 1972—but my students are as warm as anyone I’ve met. Make nice with the locals, learn how they do things, and realize you’re a guest in their home, and they will return the favor by bending over backward to offer you help, hospitality, friendship, or even just driving the speed limit when you’re a passenger in their car. It’s that protection that allows me to live in a worry-free environment, even though turmoil and instability may appear to rage around me.
photo: on the road to Jubail from the airport after landing in Saudi Arabia.