Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How did we get here?

It's a funny story actually. Ok, maybe not so funny. But it began a few years ago. 

Before I begin though, you must understand, dear reader, that I had at no point in my life, ever intended or wished to come and live in the KSA. EVER. In fact, I had a very long list of places I wanted to live in - from Colombia to Tunisia, and even Japan - but Arabia was never even on the list. 

This is mainly because all my life, all I ever heard from everyone in our somewhat warped misogynistic patriarchal society was how it was IMPOSSIBLE to even get here without a Mahram. And having no son, husband, brothers, uncles or really any male relative that I could count on in that sense, nor seeing any potential for that to change, I had long put away any intention or will to come here or to visit any of the holy cities. I didn't even entertain the idea on any level, shelving it to the abyss of dreams not bothered being dreamt.

And so it was, that day in 2011. I had just read Paulo Coelho's Brida, which I thought was absolute shit (that's 8 hours of my life I'll never get back), and I was at my wits end with just about everything in life, as I usually am at sporadic points in time. That was the first time I had a strange and mystic longing to be in the desert. It was inexplicable because really, if you don't know by now, I'm very much a girl of the high seas and seven oceans of the world.

But in some unconscious way, that longing grew because a couple of weeks after that; after being frustrated over something that I can't even remember now; I declared in a voice devoid of any meaning or intention (basically, I was just talking absolute crap) (or so I thought) - I told my Mother: "I'm going to the desert, I will find what I'm looking for there". And my Mother did what she always does, rolled her eyes and asked God why she couldn't have normal children.

After that, every time I was irritated or annoyed, I told everyone I was going to the desert. Sometimes I even added that I'm going to become a shepherd - for extra fun. And of course, everyone laughed (including me). And every time, these were just words, said in jest, with no real meaning or intention behind them.

I eventually got another job - swinging in the corporate jungle from one branch to the next like fucking Tarzan chasing Jane - becoming increasingly discontent; either running after time, or running out of time, or running around time like a headless chicken, constantly agitated, questioning what I'm doing with my life. And all the while, that absurd longing and yearning to be in the desert hadn't abated. It became a running joke and was too outrageous to entertain seriously, yet the thought of the vast emptiness of the landscape was strangely comforting.

So when I was asked if I wanted to work in Saudi Arabia, I said yes without even thinking about it. It was all a big joke by then, only it wasn't, this time. Before I knew it, in barely two months, I was sent packing with only twenty-four hours notice to get here. And as I type this out, a warm midnight breeze blows across an arid landscape, not too far from here, scattering the hopes and dreams of Nomads and Bedouins alike in every grain of sand.

The great debate now, is whether the words I had uttered had materialized (words are indeed powerful - that is true), or whether I had somehow predicted that I would be here. I'm more inclined to believe the latter for two reasons:

1. I've been talking about getting a million bucks for ages, and that hasn't happened yet.

2. When I was very little, I used to live with my Grandma while my parents worked, and I only saw them on the weekends. But one day, my Mother decided to leave work early and come visit me without informing anyone. That afternoon, I insisted my Grandma run a bath for me, telling her that I needed to be ready for when my Mother came to see me. My Grandma, knowing my Mother only came on weekends, didn't think much of it so when my Mother pitched up, she said "Weet jy, die kind bly my vertel ek moet haar bad..." transl: Y'know, this child kept telling me to bath her...

I think some unconscious part of me always knew I was coming here, even when I didn't know. But contrary to the way things seem, it hasn't always been easy... every day brings new challenges. I've been tried and tested in every way, still am. I'm learning new lessons, about life and my religion, in a way I won't be able to learn elsewhere. There are some days I feel ready to pack up and leave. And then there are other days when it feels like "home". There are days I'm convinced that I've died, and that this is Hell. And then there are other days, when I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

10 things Arab girls like

Think "Saudi Arabia", and images of submissive women in niqab immediately come to mind. While most, if not all Saudi Arab women do cover their faces in public, the people they are behind the veil betrays every notion and opinion held by the majority of the world. Here's a little glimpse into their world, with a list of 10 things Arab girls like:

1. Koreans.
Specifically, Korean men. There are a few Korean soapies dubbed in English (with Arabic subtitles) that play on cable TV here, and the ladies LOVE it. Most of them would actually prefer to marry Korean men over Arab men (on the assumption that Korean men have the same traits and characteristics, and are as romantic as the characters on TV).

2. Fashion.
All kinds of it. Arabia is home to the largest Hipster, Bohemian-chic, and Designer-brand-conscious demographic in the Middle East. They spend a ridiculous amount of money on clothes, shoes and accessories. And they're all so immaculately dressed every given day (from head to toe) that it's quite possible to believe that you're at New York's Fashion Week.

3. Everything American.
Every single chain store you can imagine (some of which aren't even in the UK) is here in the KSA. Jeddah is a little like Las Vegas, but without the (overt) debauchery. 

4. Fast-food.
Ice-cream and cake and ice-cream ON cake - especially cheesecake. And McDonalds. And Pizza Hut. And Cheesecake Factory. And iHop. Fast food seems to be a staple here. So is diabetes - with the KSA having the highest rate in the world. Gluten free options are almost non-existent. Impressively, very few girls are overweight.

5. Technology.
Most people here are already "married" to their smartphones... which are more like necessary accessories than communication devices.

6. WhatsApp & Instagram.
Not that their smartphones are just accessories... they have to put all those ice-cream-cheesecake selfies and effortless style somewhere.

7. Malls.
That's where they usually buy the ice-cream and cake and cheesecake and fabulous clothes, and shoes, and accessories...

8. Dancing.
Getting married smack in the middle of the week or on a Thursday night (or having parties in general) and dancing until dawn (or until its time to pray) is quite the norm here.

9. One Direction.
Especially Zayn Malik. They hate Justin Bieber.

10. Sleeping.
Specifically between 1pm and 5pm in the afternoon, which is peak nap time. In fact, most people stay up all night long doing whatever it is normal people do, and then head to school/work until 12pm, after which they go home and sleep. Very few are willing to stay at school/work after 12pm and many shops/stores are closed during those hours too.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The next chapter... or book...

Is it blue or is it purple, I wondered to myself. Actually, I think it's more indigo, but with streaks of eminence and french lilac. So really it's 'blue-purple' I concluded, slightly amused with myself. I've never seen anything like it.

The smell of smoke wafted in my direction as I lay down and contemplated the night sky on the roof-top of our apartment building. The heat from the ceramic tiles seared through my back, much like the steak & chops being barbecued on the grill. Somewhere in the near distance Malika stoked the fire while Nada prepped a table, as we waited patiently for the others to emerge from their respective apartments with the drinks, salads and dessert.

You do know Nada means "nothing" in Spanish, yeah? I told her playfully.

Shut up, she said smiling, throwing a marshmallow at me - which I caught and shoved into my mouth simultaneously. 

That's "nada", pronounced naa-daa. I'm Nada, say it with me Nad-daa, she said in a thick British accent, brimming with sarcasm.

I giggled and rolled over to face her before saying, where is everyone?

I don't know dear, they're probably on their way... everyone's on Arabian time remember, she responded.


After some thought about my experiences and upon further reflection of this statement, I came to another conclusion, which I postulated to my friends later that night. 

See, the thing is, time doesn't really exist in Saudi Arabia. In fact, they don't even have names for their days which, for example, are usually called "Al-Ahad" ("the first day"), meaning Sunday as per the Gregorian calender or "Al-Ithnayn" (the second day) or Monday.

Instead, there are really only four concrete passages of time here, and they are:

1. Now (Arabic: Al-Aan or Al-heen): meaning, anytime between this very second and the rest of the day.

2. Tomorrow (Arabic: Bokra): meaning, anytime in the week, or just any.time.

3. Jumu'ah or Jummah ("Gathering day"): literally Friday, or meaning [modern cultural transcription] the-day-everyone-disappears-and-all-the-stores-are-shut-and-the-streets-are-emptier-than-London-on-Christmas-day.

4. Insha'Allah ("If God Wills it"): meaning [modern cultural transcription] I'm-not-sure-and-I-can't-promise-you-anything-but-it-probably-won't-happen-anytime-soon-if-at-all.

It's been almost 6 months since I've traded Rands for Riyals, Johannesburg for Jeddah and the RSA for the KSA, and many have asked me what it's like to live here... the only response I can give is: it's not what you think it is. I usually tell people (regardless of whether you've been here for Umrah and/or Hajj or not) to forget everything you think you know about Saudi Arabia. Staying in a hotel for 6 - 10 weeks and eating and praying all day differs vastly from actually living here and interacting with the people and the society. Its been a profoundly soul altering experience thus far, in many different ways, for many different reasons... stay tuned ;)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Five things I never thought I'd be doing in 2014

1. Eating Chinese Food. I never eat Chinese. In fact, I even managed to convince myself that I don't like it. But alas, lately, I do like it. I like it a lot.

2. Living in Saudi Arabia. The only place NOT on my (very long) list of places to move to.

3. Beginning the work week on a Sunday. Because here Sundays are Mondays and Fridays are Sundays and Saturdays... well, they're still Saturdays.

4. Missing winter. When it's 30 degrees centigrade at midnight and it's only spring, even the most die-hard summer lovers will start longing for rain and snowflakes.

5. Speaking more Spanish and Arabic than English. Because when you spend most of your time with a Mexican and you have to navigate your way through everyday life in the city, you need to adapt or die.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...

I've been a student of History for most of my life. Yes, astoundingly boring, but true. It began at a very early age when my parents acquired a fantastic historical book detailing thousands of significant events that had occurred over a period of 2000 years, along with an Atlas filled with beautiful photographs of places far and wide - among the many hundreds of books they had purchased over a short period of time.

I remember paging through this history book incessantly, fascinated up to my eyeballs at the various illustrations of events as they occurred over time. In the later chapters chronicling periods when camera photography was available, photographs were used instead of illustrations... photographs showing NASA's first venture into space and the first computer ever built, as well as people who changed the world... from Lenin and JFK, to Walt Disney and Elvis. Needless to say, I remained endlessly mesmerized and captivated by this book.

On other days, I would reach for the Atlas and stare stupidly at the pages, escaping through space and time, becoming hypnotized at the pristine images captured by the very best photographers in the world, desperately wishing to visit every place. Each country had a text box with summarized facts and figures, followed by in depth descriptions of their histories and socio-political-economic facts... it was like Wikipedia, but with pages and  pretty pictures.

I would read the pages completely at random and retain the most arbitrary information, often marrying the geographical demographics with facts I'd read about in the History book... 

The Lady of Shalott, an 1888 oil-on-canvas painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse, whose work is a representation of a scene from Lord Alfred Tennyson's 1832 poem of the same name, describing the plight of a young woman, loosely based on the figure of Elaine of Astolat from medieval Arthurian legend, who yearned with an unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, isolated under an undisclosed curse in a tower near King Arthur's Camelot...

My mind played out on a reel, a list of places and their histories indiscriminately, like a movie. And I would spend hours, days even, wondering what it was like for people to grow up there, to live there, to love there, to have families there, to die there... wondering what they ate, felt, saw, heard, did... I spent many nights wondering if The Lady of Shalott was indeed real... did she really live near Camelot... was Camelot even real... what did she like, and what were her thoughts...

Of course, my questions were never answered and I could only come to conclusions based on my own assumptions. On top of that, my Mother was convinced that I was batshit crazy, always telling me that "living in the past is not going to help you succeed in the future"... and that I was "wasting my time and energy".

And maybe she was right, maybe not. Sometimes I believe that we have a lot to learn from the generations that came before us... that there are secrets lodged in the annals of time that can help us live better lives, perhaps even be better people. And there are times when I don't think there is anything left for us in those dark passageways but shady narratives of dusty cloudy stories detailing too many conflicts, wars, sufferings and losses.

They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I don't know about that because there seem to be many people that are well acquainted with the lessons, yet seem determined to repeat the mistakes out of their own free will.

Still, the most important lesson that I've learned looking back into the ever fascinating ether of what once was, is that everything ends, eventually. Every age, every eon, every golden era, every reign, every war, every moment - good or bad - will come to an end. And if we're extremely lucky, we will leave behind a name and a story... but for the most part, we will only ever be carried on the wind, fading into eternity. And thus, we are reduced to nothing, but dust.