Had I not scheduled a test on the calendar for my students today, the date marking my halfway point in the Kingdom would’ve come and gone without me even realizing. In a country like Saudi Arabia, the Western notion of “time” is often undefined. As a teacher, this can create some infuriating problems when trying to corral 15 students into five consecutive 50 minute sessions. The only timepiece that matters to most of my students—whether they regard its religious implications or are simply adhering to the society’s strict cultural norms—is the one handed down via the Quran that is required of all Muslims: prayer five times a day, specifically before sunrise, just after midday, mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and from dusk again until dawn.
You begin to shift your life around prayer from the moment you land in country. I first discovered this as I was fighting off jet lag during my first night in Riyadh following the 15-hour transpolar flight from Los Angeles to Jeddah. Around 4am my fitful slumber in silence was disturbed by the deafening sound of a muezzin making his call to prayer through a loudspeaker at a local mosque, which happened to be right across the alleyway from my hotel room. It was shocking, but, from what I had already understood about living in a Muslim country, not surprising.
My second encounter with prayer turned out to be a far more dumbfounding moment; a clear reminder that said “yes, you live in Saudi Arabia now.” My plan of action whenever I arrive in an unfamiliar location is to walk concentric circles outward from my home base (in this case, a hotel in central Jubail) until I get a lay of the land. By day three I had exhausted the most appealing room service options and decided to set forth on an adventure for some legit local food. A friendly Nepali porter told me about a Pakistani restaurant—seemingly harmless advice that turned out to be foreshadowing—nearby. I made the five minute walk, without checking the time, and arrived at the restaurant’s entrance only to be ushered directly back outside. “Salat, salat” insisted one of the waiters. I joined some equally confused looking Filipino men on the street and a few seconds later, an unmistakable voice made tinny by amplification rang out in Arabic for the call to prayer just down the street. The Filipinos shrugged and sat down on the restaurant’s stoop to stare at their phones. I made a mental note to check for an app that would be of use to schedule my meals and errands. Turns out there was. And apparently salat meant prayer.
When I was back in the United States this summer, most everyone quizzed me about what my life is like over here. But I often found it tough to vocalize my thoughts on the subject. There’s an ambivalence to my daily life that only can be described by experiences like I first had in dealing with prayer. To me, it’s a fascinating inconvenience. And it’s one of myriad observations and encounters during my first six months of living in this area of world. Here are a few more:
You are defined by your nationality. Remember that Nepali porter with the restaurant recommendation? He didn’t offer that suggestion because it was a particularly good restaurant. But he knew my face and, more importantly, knew my name. By adding those factors he figured all signs pointed to a Pakistani looking for food. I would later ask him why he decided to choose that restaurant, and he confirmed my theory immediately. Sir, I think you are Pakistan from your face—an expression, I might add, that I now hear on the regular. Telling him I was an American was irrelevant because without European features I can’t really be American. Such is the worldview that I’ve witnessed here on many occasions.
Take my students, for example. They refer to anyone who isn’t Saudi by their nationality, even if they know his name (except of course, following an exhaustive lecture on my family history yours truly.) My English director is referred to as “that Sudanese” as are those Filipinos, that Indian, that Pakistani, these Bengalis, that Egyptian, those Jordanians, and this Syrian. Anyone who looks European is just “English” unless you establish that you’re not. The minor identity crisis that I faced during my first month has morphed into a common but stumbling conversation about how I could possibly be a true American if my father is from Pakistan, and now, even more importantly, why my father would allow me to be raised as a non-Muslim. I suppose the underlying message to that line of questioning is: why did your father (a man) allow your mother (a woman) to have so much influence.
I live alone on a cultural archipelago. This may sound lonely (and it sometimes is) but the metaphor that best describes my life here is akin to living by myself on an island. My encounters with people of other cultures and nationalities are frequent, but a void still exists that creates distance, awe, confusion, and the occasional misunderstanding.
Here’s what the archipelago looks like. The Saudis occupy the biggest island, and people that live on the outlying islands commute back and forth from it for work. Non-Saudi Muslims—this could be anyone from the Middle East or the Arab world, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, or Western converts to Islam—are on the second biggest island. Adherence to Islam means they possess a strong cultural connection with the “main” island. They work in a range of service industries such as healthcare, hospitality, education, and—a term I use without irony—manpower. Indians have the third biggest island, and with many serving as the archipelago’s engineers, merchants, and administrators. Filipino men are on the fourth biggest, and work in areas like their Indian counterparts, but also dominate food service and preparation. Filipina women have their own island, and work exclusively as nurses, medical assistants, and housekeepers. Poorer islands are crowded with Bangladeshis, Sri Lankas, Nepalis, or Indians from Kerala, often eight or ten packed into a single living space, primarily serve as drivers, laborers or servers or, as a 45 year-old man at my work is referred to, “tea boys.” Westerners (those from North and South America, the EU, or any Commonwealth nation) as well as Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans live on exclusive man-made sand spits that would resemble the Palm Islands in Dubai. As highly trained professionals, they have easy access to the Saudi economy but for all intents and purposes live in walled-off oases.
As for me? Well, TEFL teachers outside the university system aren’t really afforded the luxury of compound life, nor can we tap into an readily available social system. Working at a big company provides that opportunity, but I don’t work for a big company. For the first four months I was literally alone on an island by myself. I was able to make visits to a few other islands inhabited by fellow English teachers, but for the most part I was on my own, aside from when I was connected to friends and family via the lifeline that is the Internet. I now live on a slightly roomier island with two other fantastic English teachers, But they, too, have created their own little piece of Americana; shielded from an outside world that is virtually impossible to integrate into, even if we tried. One of the most restrictive aspects of living on this archipelago is, outside my island I can’t be or truly express myself. My thoughts on topics such as progressive politics; beliefs in gender equality; opinions on atheism; love for the United States; and an undying penchant for pork and alcohol—as random and frivolous as some of it may sound—are, for the most part, ideas I don’t nor can’t readily air or share.
I’m confused about what I need. I discovered this in the Peace Corps, but it dawned on me one day with my driver that, apparently, my colleagues and acquaintances think I am somehow too naive to know what is best for me. After all, Saudi Arabia is far different from my home. As a culturally ambiguous Westerner, I do not know as of yet what is best for me. Our discussion centered around where I was living, which was in a small but adequate studio apartment within walking distance of the city center. For me, it was perfect. Close enough to restaurants and stores, but far enough from the crowded bustle of humanity that lived there. My driver believed it to be totally inappropriate for a person of my status (i.e., an English teacher from America.)
Sharif: Why do you live in that apartment?
Me: Should I be living somewhere else?
Sharif: You need a less expensive space. With more room.
Me: But I have the room I want, and the price is well within my budget.
Sharif: You can find a nice big room attached to a family apartment with a separate entrance and bathroom.
Me: But what about a kitchen?
Sharif: You can share with the family.
Me: Meaning, they would have access to my room?
Sharif: Yes, but they would not enter.
Me: Sorry, not interested.
A similar conversation arose with a colleague a few days later.
Khan: Sir, you are paying too much for your apartment (word about my rent got around.) You need cheaper accommodations.
Me: Yes, but it is furnished, month-to-month, and I don’t need a lot of space. And most importantly, it’s in a great location and within my budget.
Khan: Sir, I pay 700 riyals ($187) for my apartment!
Me: Is it furnished? Month to month?
Khan: No sir, but a bed is cheap! And you only pay 4200 riyals for a six-month lease.
Me: Do you live with others?
Khan: Yes, I share a room with four others!
Living arrangements aside, apparently I need a car. I need to learn Arabic (even though it’s almost unheard of to meet someone who doesn’t speak, at the very least, broken English.) I need an account with one particular bank and no others. I need to invest in a business. I need to drink the coffee that was just handed to me. I need to eat more. I need to lose weight. I need to consider following Islam. I need to start a business. I need to bring my family over. I need to move to a better company with a bigger salary. I need to get married and have children now. I need to visit Bahrain. At least with that last one I can find common ground with the overbearing advisor.
It takes a while to get your bearings, as it did the first four-and-a-half months I lived in the Kingdom. Now, with a magical summer in Europe and America come and gone, life is back to routine and a new normal for the next six months. My frustrations during the first six months have given way to knowing how to play up my nationality without being insensitive or paternalistic; understanding how to appreciate my little “island” as a place to be myself outside the routine of not being myself; thinking how I know exactly what I need here and what I don’t need here; and showing assertiveness while at the same time making the choice to act deferential in situations that often demand it in the culture in which I am immersed. In the meantime, the clock doesn’t really tick in the background so much anymore as the times of prayer, strictly guided by the position of the sun in the sky, carry me through another day and into tomorrow.
photo: camels and refineries, somewhere in the desert of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.