Being a teacher in Saudi Arabia

Compound Living: Teacher accommodations in KSA

Steve, my husband, outside our gates

Skyler and I have just walked from the photo shop not too far from our compound to obtain photos for his residence visa. The sun beats down upon us. We approach the gate of our compound and I anticipate the shedding of my abaya. The guards check our I.D. status and we enter our residence area. As soon as I’m inside the gate, the abaya is unzipped, removed and thrown over my shoulder for the remaining part of our walk.

Within these walls we can dress and act as we please. Members of the community can be found meandering, biking, running and swimming in what we identify as typical western clothing or athletic attire. There are also shrouded women but here I do not have to join them.

The “Villa”

Upon entering our place, we are greeted by a burst of cold air and cool marble floors. Slowly we're becoming accustomed to the constant din of the endlessly running cooling units that provide us with relief from the sweltering conditions outside.

Along with other teaching families, a row house on the compound has been commissioned to us. These row houses have been coined “villas” in contrast to the apartments that the single teachers and couples without children are assigned to. 

The school was transparent regarding the condition of these aging facilities. Beneath the fresh paint there is evidence of wear and tear. Often one of us must summon the others to battle a sudden swarm of ants in the kitchen. And frankly, there are couple of cabinets I am hesitant to use for food items because they feel too close to potential infestation. This is where we choose to store surplus soap, cleaning supplies, aluminium foil and plastic wrap.

Occasionally we turn off the air conditioning units. The absence of their noise calms my mind and my body is gradually enveloped with a heavenly warmth. And, I relax. However, soon the room becomes humid again and we must choose between enduring mugginess or cold.  The air conditioners go on again and I put on a sweater.

The best aspect of our “villa”? It’s right across the street from a pool and a 2-minute walk from another pool. 

The Pools

Standing at the edge of the pool I still have a feeling of dread, anticipating the cold shock of the water spreading across my body as I enter in. However, every night it is the same. I step on the top of the ladder allowing my toes to sense the water and the pleasure is all mine as my body is immersed in the balmy paradise of the pool. Truthfully, it’s more like a bath. Lap swimming was initially a challenge but now I’m accustomed to my swimming work-out in 27 oC (80 oF) water. In fact, I wonder if I’ll even swim again once I leave Saudi Arabia as I am becoming spoiled with my enjoyment of these temperate waters.  Plus, playing games with Skyler is easy because coldness never settles in. Thus, given that the pool is across the street from our house, we swim nearly every day.

Last night we met another family at the larger pool, a two-minute walk from our place. It was unsettling how difficult it was for me to enter the “cooler” 24 oC (75 oF) water. However, I can imagine myself opting for a work-out in that pool every now and then.

Teen Life

Laughter accompanied by Mario Cart sounds punctuated with outbursts of teenage exclamations permeate our living room. Skyler and three friends are in heated competition on the couches. The entertainment continues until a sudden announcement is made.

“We’re going to go get something to eat.” They depart for “City Station” the local restaurant on the compound offering American and International dishes. The boys opt for pizza and pasta though the hummus and tabouleh are delicious. It’s safe for these 7th and 8th graders to cross the compound for a meal out together on their own and I am left with no concerns about their safety or well-being.

On another evening after a board game of Risk Skyler and his friend head out for a work-out consisting of laps in the pool with a set of burpees on the pool deck in between each lap. Sometimes they also go for a run together. 

Skyler walks or skateboards around the compound to get to friends and activities. He has the spots memorised where the pavement is actually smooth enough to board. Otherwise he hikes his skateboard under his arm and trots to the next even location.

Skyler has a regular-sized room (as opposed to his closet-sized space in the Netherlands), orange sheets, his own bathroom, good friends, and freedom to move around as he pleases. In his mind, his world is complete.

The cats

One evening, out for a walk, passing a garbage bin on the sidewalk I was shocked by a creature leaping from the inside of the bin straight into the air while emitting an eerie screeching sound. As I stumbled to recover from falling off the curb laughter erupted from my 14-year old son as he exclaimed, “It’s just a cat, Mom”. 

The stray cats linger and leer at us from every corner of the compound. They come in every color but all of them are scrawny and tattered. None of them seek out human contact but some are more skittish than others, quickly scurrying under a staircase or into a bush as we pass. 

A white fluffy cat lies at our front door where it seeks out the cool air seeping from underneath the frame. It departs immediately when we open the door or when we approach from the outside. But it’s always there. Skyler has started trying to get it to become “our outside cat that we don’t have to take care of.” Meaning, it hangs around and we can pet it anytime we want without having any responsibility for it. He lures the cat with a fingertip of cream cheese. Within two days the cat will come up to him and allow itself to be pet. When he hears us stirring from within or sees us coming home, he begins to meow. We call him Fluffy.


A woman colleague attempted a bike ride with her husband and a group of other male teachers. She wore sweatpants and her head was covered. However, once outside the Jeddah city limits they were swarmed with arabic men that pestered the group to such an extent that the husband returned with his wife to the compound.

Thus, some might feel “trapped” in the compound because outside our walls restrictions and rules are imposed upon us to a point that it might dictate whether we choose to leave the compound or not.

However, in choosing to move to Saudi Arabia, I knew I was making a choice for a different kind of life. I knew biking and long-distance runs and even driving outside the compound would not be part of my activities. Furthermore, I’m determined to experience all I can outside of the compound therefore I do venture out regularly. So, though I miss some traditional activities (like biking), in these early days of my life here in the Kingdom, the compound is actually a haven for me. 

It’s a haven from abayas, racing cars, rubble piled streets, and being in crowds dominated by males. I can do as I please. I am comfortable. And I swim everyday. It’s a good life.

Freedom in Western Escapes

“No pictures! No pictures!” he shouts as he frantically waves his hands and approaches me.

“Just my snorkelling gear. No people!” In affirming the subject of my photo, I'm hoping to assuage his anxiety.

“No camera. No camera.” His curls are tousled from swimming in the sea and then drying in the warm breeze. With continued hand and head gesticulations he blocks any view of his wife and child as if to protect them from my evil intent.

I’ve just created the ideal scene: my fins, mask and snorkel artistically arranged on a rock ledge with the Red Sea stretching out behind. The snorkel gear would be in focus and the rocks and sea would be a blurry nostalgic background. It was to be the perfect reminder of this glorious day. 

Just hours before, the snorkel gear enabled me to slide into the refreshing waters of the Red Sea and discover, just steps away from the beach where we swam, a pristine coral reef alive with diverse and colourful marine life. Floating there and looking down 25 meters along the reef through the clear waters into the undersea world was a true escape from the heat, humidity, cement, rubble, constantly humming air conditioners, and rules of my new life. 

But here this agitated man is reminding me of more rules! I can’t even take a picture of snorkelling gear? I gather my items, without taking the picture, and stow them under the straw beach umbrella where my husband snoozes in his reclining lounge chair.

Later I notice the large “no video or still photography” signs accompanied with an image of a camera marked through with an “X”. I’m glad I didn’t insist on clicking the button on my camera for that one shot.

We are all guests at a private beach. We women have entered the premises wearing our abayas. However, once inside the gates, we immediately remove them. At other locations where women are allowed to swim, we would be required to wear head-to-toe swimming attire. But not here. We swim and enjoy the beach as we would anywhere else in the world. All afternoon families lounge, swim, and eat together in total relaxation. There are sounds of joy coming from the beach and bursts of laughter from groups seated in lounge chairs or around tables scattered throughout the property. 

It is a sense of freedom I have never before appreciated. But it is also a special privilege and no one wants official documentation of it. In all fairness, my frenetic opponent did not want his (or his family’s) picture from this location to be made public in any way. 

The burning heat on the backs of my legs (as I did not anticipate spending so much time floating on the water due to stupendous snorkelling and did not properly apply sunscreen) serves to remind me of the magnificent escape at the surface of the Red Sea this afternoon. And coming home I take a picture of my snorkelling gear on the floor of my house. Not the same but it’s the best I have. Images of vibrant coral, brilliant Bullethead Parrotfish,  pendulous Masked Puffer fish along with a host of other dazzling creatures observed today flutter through my mind. Those relaxing, peaceful moments on the sea are recollections that stay with me long into the night.

It makes me reflect on freedom. What does it mean to me to be free? Today, to me it means being able to act as I am accustomed within my cultural norms and within the laws of the land. Then, I am free.