My 13-year old son said of our summertime in the States, “It kind-of annoyed me how almost everyone asked me if I ‘felt safe’ in Saudi Arabia.” It’s true, that was the number one question (or varieties of it) that we fielded this past summer. Upon our return to Saudi Arabia we took a trip to Taif where I was faced head-on with whether I truly feel safe:
We join the throngs of Saudi men and women working their way from the parking lot towards the Souk (marketplace) area. As I step up onto the curb and enter the Souk, it is apparent to me how out of place we were. The admonishing words of caution from our school echo into my mind of “avoiding large crowds” and “being aware of our surroundings”.
We have inadvertently placed ourselves as American expats in the middle of a large crowd of Saudi Arabians. There are no other non-Arabian faces in the crowd. Plus, my daughter and I are the only women whose heads are uncovered. The blond hair of the five members of our group seems to be a beacon that attracts a spotlight on us accompanied by a loudspeaker blaring, “Foreigners!” I momentarily question our choice to come here and wonder if I’ve put my children in danger. No one else in my party is even remotely concerned and we press forward.
A gathering of people line the street that runs through the Souk, apparently waiting for the horses and camels that momentarily race in front of the crowd, hooves pounding the earth and kicking up dust on the way. We push our way to the edge for a better view. There are other competitions including horses jumping over flaming obstacles. Then, a procession of men dressed as merchants and travelers of old, horses decorated with bright colors carrying anciently clad riders, and a loaded camel caravan parade in front of us. Someone explains that this is a festival tradition to display how tradesmen traveled anciently. As we all peer at the spectacle on the road, many are also peering at us, the spectacle at the side-lines. Some begin to talk with us and ask us where we are from. They enthusiastically tell us of a brother, sister, aunt, uncle or cousin that lives in the U.S.A. From California to New York, their relatives are happy there.
We move deeper into the Souk past small shops and we find what we are initially looking for: some local food for dinner. Each person who passes us looks with interest. Some attempt discreet photos or videos of us with their phones. When we turn to look at them they whip their phones around into the air, pretending to record something other than us. Our meal in hand, we find a seat next to other Saudi families enjoying picnics together. As people continue to photograph us we begin to wave and smile at them, letting them know it’s OK with us. It startles a few but it emboldens others. Soon requests for selfies are being made. Then, children are pushed towards us or pressed into our laps for additional photos. The children are confused at our appearance. Some are even frightened. Is it our lack of covering? Is it our blue eyes? Is it our straight blond hair? In any case, they soon realize that we aren’t a threat and begin to enjoy this spontaneous photo session with strangers.
A young woman requests a photo without her niqab (she is in the clip on the left before removing it). I wonder why she wants to remove it for the photo and what gives her the personal freedom to do so (because I know of examples where women are very uncomfortable with the thought of removing it in public). Later, as we are saying good-bye, she asks me, “Do you like my culture?” It’s impossible to mask my hesitance as a thousand thoughts race through my mind regarding the rules imposed upon women and the laws surrounding the interaction between men and women, the laws preventing non-Muslims to certain areas, and the laws prohibiting pork and alcohol. Many questions are bursting within me nearly bubbling out. Instead I reply, “We really like it here. We like living here.” She smiles and presses me further, “But do you have a problem with my culture?” She knows my reply masks something but I insist, “No, I do not have a problem with your culture.” She smiles and bows slightly as she shifts away into the crowd of shrouded women.
As we exit one of the exposition buildings, another woman’s voice calls to us, “Did you see the art?” I search the eyes peeking out from behind the niqabs and I see a set of familiar eyes from the camel races. Her eyes sparkle with warmth and friendliness as she continues, “Did you see the art?” “What art?” we reply because no, in fact, we saw no art. I didn’t even know there was art in Saudi Arabia. She eagerly beckons us to follow her. We pass by the furniture exhibits to a small enclosure off to the side and sure enough, as we enter, there are paintings hanging from the make-shift walls. Our guide introduces us to the artist of some of the paintings. The creativity, beauty and depth of these works touch us. I wish I had taken some photos. Our Saudi Arabian guide is clearly proud of this exhibit and makes sure we see all of the paintings.
We meander with the crowds, heading in the direction of our car. People continue to smile and wave and take pictures. As I slip into the back seat of our car behind the protection of our tinted windows, I remove my abaya and look out at the crowds of families moving to and from the Souk. My son turns to me and notes, “This country is nothing like what American media wants you to think”.
We bask in the delicious memories of an enjoyed evening with the people of our host country. Our Saudi Arabian friends were with their families, as we were. Side by side we were entertained by the races, we enjoyed delicious foods and we meandered through the crowds taking in the sights. We took interest in each other and had genuine exchanges of good will.
Did I feel safe and welcomed? Absolutely. In fact, I have never felt unsafe in Saudi Arabia. I have, however, felt unsafe in downtown Chicago, New York, or even Las Cruces, New Mexico.
I am reminded of the glorious conclusion I’ve heard my Muslim and Christian students reach following a discussion on their religions and family traditions, “So, we’re just the same.” Before casting judgment on any region or group of people in this world, I challenge you to find a way to get to know who they really are. Chances are, you’ll realize that we really are all just the same. We are human beings trying to make sense of this world, etch out a happy existence, and keep our families safe.