Monday, 23 January 2017

My Riyadh Experience - Part 1

Image: Taken at Thumamah Desert, Riyadh, KSA 
About 6 months ago I decided to take my career over seas. The school that I applied at was  based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Before arriving at King Khalied International airport, I knew nothing about Riyadh. In fact, I knew very little about Saudi Arabia besides what the net was telling me. And we all know what a GREAT source the internet can be! Two things that it didn't fail to mention -this may shock us liberal Westerners- is that firstly,women are not allowed to drive and secondly when heading outside your door it is mandatory to wear your Abayaa (traditional black thobe). Do I hear a sudden gasp of surprise? So let me back track here a little...
The first thing that you need to know is that The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is governed by Islamic law known as the Shari'ah. The Shari'ah is the Islamic canonical law based on the teachings of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Hadith and Sunna- and should be followed by all people living in the country.

 Initially, we thought that it would be a hassle to throw the Abayya over our "normal" clothing in EVERY encounter with the outside world. After giving it a month, we just didn't feel right leaving our apartment without it. Even popping over to your friend next door, we unconsciously knew that we had to throw the Abayaa  over our clothing.When I tell some of my friends that the Abayaa is mandated upon women but wearing the Hijaab (head scarf) or Niqaab (face and head covering) isn't, they find it pretty strange. And who wouldn't? 

 I mean, I literally wore Khloe Kardashian braids with an Abayaa. There's no problem at all. It's just that you'll get weird stares and it kind of singles you out as a foreigner. It seems that Saudi Arabia is the kind of country that you'll feel more comfortable "blending" in rather than standing out. Standing out usually attracts the locals- which are pretty friendly by the way- the endless "Oohs.." and "Aahs.." after finding out I'm from South AFRICA is often quite amusing. Locals usually point to their face in utter shock miming to the fact that "I am not black..". This then leads to a lengthy explanation about how not all people in Africa are in fact black, and NO lions do not roam the streets. (Laughs)

The bottom line is that we can choose to view woman living in Saudi Arabia who are restricted in their dress code and not being able to drive as primitive, outdated, stereotypical and sexist (these are just some of the adjectives that I imagine a Westerner saying; in fact this is something I might have said myself!). As difficult as it may seem, the truth is that it's pretty pointless fighting an entire Shari'ah (Laughs) but rather to seek the positives in what we perceive as draw backs. 

I mean, the Abayaa in some ways is a total time saver. If I was ever late for an appointment, I could literally just go out with my PJ's beneath my Abayaa. Similarly, getting to a restaurant and mall hasn't been easier. By ordering an Uber or Careem, your ride is there in under 10 minutes and I can just depend on these reliable forms of transportation to get me to where I need to be. In some crazy odd way travelling with a cab was so liberating that it developed my independence in a lot of ways. Being on my own helped build my self confidence especially in the work place. 

For one, traveling home from the mall required me to get a taxi one way or the other. Myself and friends would bargain with the drivers for the best price. If they didn't budge, we would walk away and say "Ah! it's okay.." "Leave it.." waiting for the driver to reluctantly beg us to use his service after we go on searching for another taxi. The crazy paradox is that women may be seen as "oppressed" by Western culture but let me tell you, women are so protected and liberated in their rights that men will never want to mess with you. If you just raise your voice in protest about something that didn't suit you, you'll have an army of men by your side defending your honor (Laughs). On a serious note now, you are protected and so are your rights. I have never been to a country as safe and secure as Saudi Arabia. When people say that they can sleep with their doors open, the KSA is def a place where that is the reality. 

With every right comes a drawback. In a social setting, women are often the most restricted. With about 70% of coffee shops, restaurants and chill out places reserved for men, women are often left to be home with kids and so on. But that doesn't stop these ladies from having the most decked out pamper parties wearing the most glamorous gowns. Arab woman know how to do glamour and entertainment in the confinement of their homes. There are a few restaurants and chill out places reserved for women. For example Kingdom Tower (also known as Mamlaka, one of the must see tourist destinations in Riyadh)  is a mall housing all your luxury brands, has a section where only women are allowed to shop and dine. 

Often times I get asked what there is to do in Riyadh. People view Riyadh to be somewhat boring. Prior to my travelling this was a topic that interest me as well. When I looked up the topic on the net, I remember seeing someone exclaiming something along the lines of "Riyadh?... social life? what social life?". Being a free spirited person, this really shoved me up the wrong way. But what I want to say is ... You can go out every single night of the week if you know the right people. I mean, its pretty damn good hanging out with like-minded people. People who are expats like yourselves who share more or less the same experiences as your'll is amazing.

 I suppose where you will find solace in a social life is getting in touch with compounds. But note: these compounds are by invite only. Therefore, it would be a good idea that when you get into the compound, you make friends with restaurant managers and people who are residents in the compound. Get on that list and you'll be able to have a fun night every night. The "fun" includes Smoking Shisha beside the pool and eating some of the best Arabian and Western cuisines. If you like a little bit of adventure the way I do, opt for a hike to "the edge of the world" or a BBQ under the stars in the desert! 

I hope you enjoyed reading the part one experience of Riyadh. Don't forget to like and share this post. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through my journey. I am so grateful to you. Stay tuned for part 2. 



Selfie with students on my first day//Sunrise in the desert//Sabiha sleeping next to the fire in the desert//Sabz and I//View of a beautiful compound//View from my hotel room// First day of school and also my birthday//In my element with the kids//Smoking shisha//Pictured in the desert (back in my Abayaa 'cause we were heading home)


  1. Beautiful read. Masha-Allah. Can't wait for part 2. :)

  2. LOVED this post! so honest and REAL .. looking forward to reading part 2 :)


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