Friday, April 11, 2014

Ignoring the stereotypes of expats, Saudis

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 1/4/2013
The knock against Saudis from expatriates is that Saudis rarely mix with foreigners; that it is virtually impossible to get to know Saudis and that Saudis are not particularly hospitable.
Like most generalizations and stereotyping, there is a grain of truth in the portrait painted by expats of their Saudi hosts. I was thinking about this the other day when I took a brief break to visit my family over the weekend in Madinah. There, my sister invited a couple over for dinner. The husband was Lebanese and the wife was German.
The wife told me that when she first arrived in Saudi Arabia, she didn’t like it and after a few months returned home. But her husband encouraged her to give the Kingdom another chance and she returned. She soon picked up Arabic and began socializing with her Saudi neighbors. By the end of the night of our dinner, she was dancing with my sisters and carrying on long conversations in Arabic.
The woman made a concerted effort to blend into Saudi culture, although she was clearly an outsider from the very beginning and had little incentive, beyond the pleadings of her husband, to assimilate into our society. There are plenty of expats like her who take the dive and all but find a way to make friends of Saudis.
I know of expats like her, but I must admit there are not that many who can make friends as easily as her. From a distance, Saudis can look and behave rather stern and unforgiving, sending the wrong signals about his or her true nature.
I recall once at the airport, a Saudi shouted across the baggage claim area to a porter to come and collect his bags. The Saudi pushed aside women to retrieve his bags from the belt, and then demanded loudly that the porter come immediately. For many foreigners, it was probably their first impression of Saudi Arabia as they entered the country. In another instance, my husband recalled waiting to make a transaction at a Western Union office when a Saudi woman entered the office full of expats, grabbed her maid by the hair and pulled her out of line and literally threw her into the car. That was years ago, but my husband, an expat, remembers the scene to this day.
First impressions often cement in our minds the ideas we have about other cultures. Saudis often feel there is a spotlight on us whether it’s the fallout from the Arab Spring, 9/11 or simply the women’s driving issue. It can be a little much sometimes. We are also held to a high standard among Muslims because we live in the birthplace of the Prophet (peace be upon him). But for reasons absolutely unknown to me, some Saudis appear to have lost their national and religious identity.
On a recent visit to the airport again, I had a three-hour wait for my flight. I decided to go pray at the airport mosque. I stepped inside the women’s section of the mosque to find women and children using it as a waiting area. They had food spread out on the carpet as if they were at a picnic. They were sleeping or changing babies’ diapers. They talked loudly and children screeched. As I prepare to pray I could smell urine in the carpet. Expats clean the mosques and foreigners traveling to other destinations or waiting for their own flights use it. I wonder what impression they have of Saudis after a visit similar.
If an expat works for an employer that has a sizable number of Saudis on the payroll, then there is an opportunity to meet Saudis, become co-workers and colleagues, and eventually become friends. If one’s exposure to Saudis is more or less in public there is little chance for an extended conversation. Then bad impressions can be made and the prospect of socializing among expats and Saudis is minimal.
Last year I went to the states with my husband for a holiday. Jet-lagged and sleepless at 3 in the morning, we drove to our favorite all-night coffee shop for breakfast. A couple of tables away was a loud and obnoxious American with two other couples. He dominated the conversation and used vulgar language. He spotted my husband and I and began directing comments to us. It became so bad that the restaurant manager had to tell him to quiet down. His boorish behavior would have continued, but two police officers entered the restaurant and he piped down.
If this was my first visit to the United States, this crude man may have given me the impression that all Americans were like this. I know better, but I have heard stories from some Saudis about similar experiences, and their perception of Americans is tainted.
Just imagine the impression we sometimes give to foreigners based on reversed circumstances.

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