Over a week in Saud Arabia…Marina Mall, Shoes, Pizza Hut.

Visiting Saudi Arabia always makes me want to look for trouble because of the pure controversial nature of the country, and the contradiction that I have to face everyday. But every time I come here I realize how much it has changed, aka became liberalized. Going through immigration for me in KSA is much easier than other places, because they have everything in record and they see that I have been here seven times in three years and my dad works here. The guy at the boot just looked at me, my passport, made a comment about the amount of pages I have to make me laugh (I just got bunch of pages added to my passport because I ran out of visa pages due primarily to KSA’s entry and exit visas) and let me go without ever looking at my immigration card I had to fill out, and gave me a nice smile. Yes, you can get a smile from the opposite gender a single woman in this country.

Jubail looks as beautiful as I left it in June. Average temperature of 75 degrees, beautiful beaches, summer shwarma stands still open, and soccer games being played late at night, still. It is nice to watch international cabel, like BBC World, Al Jazeera, cricket channels, MTV Arabia, and all the Lebanese music channels and Italian fashion shows. Clearly I do not get out much.

Yesterday me and my family went to Dammam, first to Marina Mall, and then to the city to look at some gold stores. The mall like other Saudi Malls had an indoor amusement park, restaurants, prayer rooms, and lots of couples pretending to be siblings so as not to get caught. At Marina Mall, I found nothing interesting except avoiding men who freely smoked inside, trying not to get mad at rude salesclerks after refusing to buy their knock off Gucci heels, and avoiding religious police. The shoes are quite amazing, I will say, and there were so many that Lady Gaga would have much appreciated (five inch wedges made out of white lace all over, and a hot pink four incher with rhinestones on the heels and gold spikes). And Saudi women DO actually buy them. I almost bought suede grey booties covered in metal belts and random zippers but then walked in them and realized they would only enjoy the interior of my closet if purchased.

At the gold stores, I had to step out of the store with my sister because the smell of incense was a bit much. Outside, people do look since there we are, two girls, by ourselves, without headscarves, minding out own business. These two boys, probably 13 years old walked by and I guess I was not in the mood and yelled at them to stop staring. Response: “You shut up”. My sister: “Asshole”. Them: “Arabic gibberish”. I don’t think they knew any other English. They may have attempted to use the F word. I am not sure. But we sure did stop getting snickers after that. Seriously, if more women just simply yelled at these men in the middle of the street there would not be such a problem with street harassment. I learned this in Morocco where I was taught that all you need is to embarrass these men in front of people, because that is exactly what they do not expect.

We also went to eat dinner at Pizza Hut last night, which in Saudi Arabia is a big deal. Like most American chain fast food places outside of America, they are fancy, huge, usually two stories high, and have real menus and cleanly dressed waiters. This one had glass doors separating the “single section” and “family section”, and had a play station room for kids. We had a booth with our own divisions so it was like our own little room. And the food included these amazing pasta and halal pepperoni and yellow cheese because they have not caught up to the U.S. in using artificial flavor and products. Needless to say it was delicious. Reminded me to when I was in Delhi two summers ago and me and another intern went to Pizza Hut because we were tired of vegetarian food and ordered the meat lovers pizza that had every kind of spiced chicken and mutton possible. Ah, love.

Abaya Does Not Equal Islam

Click here for the CNN article on “Islamic Fashion”

Why this bothered me: An abaya does not mean Islamic. Just because there are varied forms of abayas in this fashion show, it does not mean that this is Islamic fashion. Abaya is not even worn by the majority of Muslim women in the world. Rather, it is a piece of society in the Middle East, in particular the Gulf region that may have religious ties, but has largely become a cultural aspect of society.

I will agree with this:

“Modesty is not the opposite of fashion, and fashion is not about showing more of my body,” said Amina al-Jassim

I have been forced to wear the abbayah, and I don’t like it. I do not like it more because it is forced upon me to wear it when I visit Saudi Arabia, not because of the plain, straight forward style. Rather, it is sometimes nice to not have to dress up and coordinate clothes since no one is going to see it anyway. It is a kind of freedom I will never expect in the West since wearing an abbayah out in the streets of Boston where I am is going to get more attention than anything else. Anyways, I don’t know if I will buy into the more “fashionable” abbayahs since it never meant anything to me but something I have to wear in my short visits to the Gulf. Perhaps it is of course a different story for those who grew up wearing the abbayah and therefore, part of their upbringing. I agree with the author in that as more and more go abroad and leave their smaller communtiies, they bring back ideasof individuality that are going to have to be dealt with in the home country. A way to do so is incorporation without total rejection. Not at first anyway.

“It’s not so much a conflict, but an amalgamation of east and west that works quite nicely here.”

Incentive for Saudi men to get married: give up smoking

Here is something interesting I read on the Associated Press-

Saudi Arabia’s new anti-smoking campaign is a contest where if you prove that you have quit smoking, all of the expenses of your wedding will be paid.

It is a known fact around the Middle East that getting married is arguably one of the most stressful aspects of a young man’s life, as the culture expects them to fund all of the wedding from costs to having a furnished home and support system for their partner. It has led to the average age of men getting married in countries like Jordan and Morocco from early twenties to early thirties or even later. So it is interesting to see that Saudi Arabia, the region’s most conservative country and one of the richest as well as populated, is now offering a new incentive for its single bachelors- quit smoking, and they will pay for your wedding.

Smoking has simply become part of the culture in the Middle East. I have stopped being surprised to see men light up right in the terminal as we get off the plane in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, or in Cairo, Egypt. One of the smells I associate with Cairo is the smell of cigarettes and sheisha, both overwhelmingly popular and cause of unfortunate addiction among Egyptians. So Saudi Arabia’s new proposal and its catch phrase, “kicking the habit is on you, and marriage is on us” is two folded- it is aimed at reducing smokers, and at getting the large number of their single men married.

In the Middle East, the younger generation’s population far outnumbers

An image known around Egypt: The anti-smoking message on every cigarette box.
An image known around Egypt: The anti-smoking message on every cigarette box.

those over the age of fifty and above, which in its own is linked to the unemployment issue as there is more supply of workers than demand. Many, if not most of the men I have met in Cairo as well as in Rabat are single, unemployed, and living off of the family wealth (and these conversations are usually joined with a cigarette, of course). The pressure to ‘succeed’ while facing a downturn economy has been connected to many types of aggravation. It has even been linked to the growing sexual harassment taking place in the streets, with frustration from boredom and employment leading to men trying to press their authority over women.

The new anti-smoking efforts in Saudi Arabia have also been met with criticism. For example, there is the sentiment that this effort reemphasizes the objectification of women in the country. Writers like Maha al-Hujailan complained that the campaign was sexist since it was using women like an object as an alternative for smoking, the recreation.

The new effort is essentially a contest- if you can prove that you have quit smoking, your name will be entered, and there will be a draw in August, with the winner having his wedding paid, and twenty runner ups getting free furniture. According to the Associated Press, hundreds have already called in to express interest. I am curious to see what happens, and also if they are going to monitor the winner after the wedding to see if he goes back to old habits. While I can see where the criticisms are coming from, it really is not as if Saudi Arabia is selling women or saying that a bride will come with the package. Rather, because this campaign is unlike many that have taken place, it has gotten people to talk and discuss the issue, and come to some kind of awareness.



Feel exclusive- beauty parlors in Saudi Arabia

The first time that I went to a parlor was with two Saudi sisters whom I had befriended that wanted to show me a “Saudi experience”, and took me to their mall (their father owns the entire complex). There was a shabby looking door between the electronics store and a glitzy ice cream parlor, and through it I went, only to fine myself in a large, marble floored, mirrored and chandelier glistening salon where not a single women was covered in a headscarf. The waiting room was decorated with paintings and plush couches, European magazines, flat screen televisions, as well as a little stall that were selling all kinds of goods from makeup to Gucci wallets.

A Philippine woman (they primarily make up the workforce in these salons) took me to one of their highly equipped leather chair as they gave me a set of books to choose a hairstyle from, massaging my hair, calling me “darrrrling” and “sweetie” every now and then as they complimented me. Once I chose, or rather one of my friends did for me as she pointed to a  blond model with a multi-layered straight cut (“It’s so modern!”) for myself, I was handed a menu of their coffee service. With a cappuccino in hand served on vintage china, I just stared in awe at the other women who came in and out ripping off their abbayahs to reveal designer clothes and heavily highlighted hair all looking simply radiant. With one of the best haircuts I had ever received, I had to politely refuse their other services (mint massages, arm waxing, Persian manicures, to a full body oil massage, to name a few) as my friend paid for my service so I never got a chance to look at how much all of this cost me. The hospitality Saudi women that I have been able to friend have been truly generous.

Most beauty parlors are run by expats who are usually sponsored by a male relative and work under a Saudi family name, or another sponsor. The city of Jeddah alone has about 7,000 beauty parlors. In 1968, a ruling was passed that states that women are not allowed to open a place for styling for fashion. So, salons usually operate under women’s tailoring shops. While social norms are made clear in all possible ways, these beauty parlors are highly demanded.

Going to a beauty parlor in Saudi Arabia is something no women should miss out on if they are ever lucky to even come to the Kingdom. I have been to beauty parlors twice in my three visits here, and they left me in quite a state- not only do you get to meet Saudi women underneath all of the covering, but you are made to feel like an exclusive star (especially when they hear that you are from a Western country).

I thought that my experience was unique, but I learned through asking many that parlors are indeed as amazing as I experienced on my few encounters. One woman told me how it was the only place that she could go to and makes herself feel good about her, mingle with her friends, and indulge on things that would be otherwise frowned upon in the public eye. It was a place for women to show off to other women. And also a place that one young, newly woman told me was necessary as her husband wanted her to look “perfect” for him everyday. And of course, the place is just fun- clean, low stress, and at least two stylists always on your case whether it is because you want more coffee or demand a change of nail polish. Coloring the eye brows and shaping them is apparently one of the most popular services as often they are the only things you will see of a woman on the streets. And in a culture where luxury is parallel with day to day living, paying for beauty is rarely a concern.

Locating a parlor is difficult enough, given the taboo of the subject. Parlors and salons are usually hidden, even in popularly termed “ladies’ market” that is found in every city. You almost always have to ask someone to get an idea of where you go for a much needed haircut.

They are usually gated; entrances marked by a tall door that will unlock once you press the buzzer. Signs that warn against male entry are mandatory. My last visit was a private home turned parlor that was equipped with a camera and three different buzzers that made sure that it was only women who were entering the vicinity. This makes the entire experience that much more exclusive, and further reinforces the segregation of genders in the Kingdom. So while we can endlessly discuss this segregation and its cultural implications upon women, in the meanwhile they enjoy this luxury without complaint.

Al Hofuf : Saudi Arabia : 2008

First- taking photos in Saudi Arabia is practically impossible, given the conservative nature of the country and its high regad for personal privacy. Not to mention how awkward the attention can be when they see a girl taking flash photography in a crowded market at night.

Othaim Mall


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I thought it was interesting how a country that tries to lead an orthodox Islamic way of life still has stores in the streets flaunting revealing cocktail dresses in its windows for display.

Al Rashid Mall, Khobar, KSA

The main website for one of the largest malls in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia states that it was designed in order to “serve you in a special way – to make your shopping convenient and fun”. With its numerous entryways (called ‘gates’), I have never been able to go too far other than the vicinity of gate 6 to 8 in Al Rashid Mall, Khobar. We went today just to exchange my mother’s Dior mascara and entered confused and walking into another large designer makeup store right next to the one that we needed.

Before entering we made it a point to not stay long- it was starting to get crowded as it was Thursday night, the equivalent of Fridays in the U.S. here in KSA. It was 10 pm- just four hours left until closing time. People, especially young men went there just like you would to a nightclub- not right at 10 pm because that is not “cool” yet, and stay the whole time checking out the scene until they kick you out at 2 am, dressed in their best jeans and accessories.

Malls in Saudi Arabia are not like the malls in the U.S. which basically serve the suburbia. You cannot be casual in a mall. Designed like a tradition Arab fort on the outside, the inside is glistening in marble, gold, and glass, and plenty of money. Al Rashid has hundreds of stores in its multiple floors, along with an indoor theme park, restaurants and cafes, and specialty shops of all kinds. There is a multi-story parking lot that usually looks like a designer auto show It has three fountains, one of which has a fire in the middle, another whose water hits at a height that can be felt in other floors, and one which has multiple sprays of water crossing each other in angular form. Crowds gather around these fountains- usually bored husbands who want to take a break and children who annoy the bored husbands as they squal in delight.

Crowded would be another word to describe the mall. This is especially true on Thursday and Friday nights when the ratio of men and women begin to be skewed towards the Y chromosome. There are men in their groups everywhere, especially  teens who use the opportunity to show off and eye flirt with women. It is a mall that attracts a lot of foreigners, meaning lots of women who are more relaxed in their outfit, such as not wearing a headscarf or adorning a shorter abbayah. More open faces of Arab women can be seen with their full makeup on. It definitely has a greater energetic, liberal atmosphere, even though an office of the muttawa (religious police that uphold dress codes among other things) is located here. And so it becomes one of the few public places that men, and women can check each other out, maybe even wink or whistle. A time to come so close to breaking social rules and enjoy the thrill of it. And there is plenty of that, ever so sly but detectable.

Today in particular, there were Saudi officials in walkmans checking all that entered into the mall, not allowing men inside unless they were with family- also termed as “bachelors” here. I at first thought that they were muttawa- and became slightly nervous because I was not wearing my headscarf (though I have always wanted to be caught by one just to see what its like to completely disobey them and walk away). This led to a lot of men outside hovering around the parking lot, still eyeing the girls that would pretend not to enjoy the attention. Fancy cars drove by blasting Akon or Lil Wayne, disregarding the looks from the older customers could not pretend to not notice. Even here in the parking lot my generation was rebelling in their own way.

If taking photos was not such a big deal here, pictures alone would say so much. Women in all black putting Roberto Cavalli animal-print cocktail dresses over their abbaya, or trying on heels over their socks in Chanel. Boys as young as twelve smoking in the food court, all wearing the same style of ripped jeans, rock-band fitted t-shirts and scarves around their neck in various patterns from paisley to the kafiyah. Customers literally carrying a small suit-case sized teal shopping bags out of Tiffany & Co. The blue-eyed Dutch salesman at Dior makeup counter wishing my mother a belated merry Christmas. The line at Krispy Kream doughnuts, all male. The way that this mall is able to bring communities together and say, “here is our people, people!” in one place.