In the enchanted desert

By Zainab Khawaja
Tue, 09, 18

People are always fascinated by bizarre places and lifestyles that are different from their own.....


People are always fascinated by bizarre places and lifestyles that are different from their own. Hence, it is no wonder that the world is so captivated by the unique personality of this place called Saudi Arabia. My family migrated from Jeddah to Riyadh in 2001. We lived in the capital for almost 17 years, before finally moving away for good. Living in Riyadh has been a rich and delightful experience. If you are tolerant and flexible enough, you can make sense of what goes on in the country, which is rarely understood by other nations. However, there are some strict rules set by the religious police, known as the mataween. These include forcing women to sit in specially designated family sections in restaurants, and to wear an abaya along with a headscarf. Many of the schools are segregated, which makes it hard for students to deal with the opposite gender.

As a girl who has been brought up in Saudi Arabia, I can tell you that there are hidden joys behind these restrictions. For instance, being reduced to a black figure in public and not being able to show off your sense of style might feel degrading; but wearing the abaya has its perks too. I still remember how comfortable I felt after slipping on my beautifully embroidered abaya over my favourite pyjamas. Furthermore, these robes have now become fashion statements. In the midst of the black sea, a woman can now stand out by wearing abayas of various hues, which would give others a peek into her personality. A few years before, mataween patrolling malls and streets made women nervous about wearing anything that would capture attention. But now, my friends who live there frequently send me pictures of them wearing blue, brown, and even pink abayas!

For a big, bustling city of about 5 million, Riyadh’s lifestyle is quite slow-paced. It is only during the weekend that most families go out. It is crucial to mention the existence of sparkling malls, which add to the grandeur of the place. Most of them are surrounded by gracefully sprouting palm trees, and have a lot to offer. They are a shopper’s paradise and a foodie’s favourite hangout venue. Groups of boys often have a tough time getting into these classy malls, and it is quite common to see the mall guards doing their best to keep them out, away from the flocks of girls within. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I still think of those artistic fountains, elegant perfume shops, and enormous food courts. Losing weight in this food hub can be close to impossible, because it has a flavour to offer every taste bud. Whether you feel like having Bengali food in silver thalis or savouring the perfect shawarma (without ketchup!) accompanied by some fresh Saudi champagne, Riyadh has it all! If we felt too adventurous, my family/friends and I would go to bowling alleys, camp in the dusty valleys, or ride quad bikes. Unfortunately, there is no beach in Riyadh. Hence, we would zoom off to Dammam for satisfying the desire to feel the salty water against our skin. Lastly, there are sumptuous compounds which were originally constructed to house expatriates. Gyms, grocery stores, and mixed swimming pools are open throughout the day. Furthermore, there is no strict dress code and wearing abayas inside these compounds is not necessary. Despite the in-built conservatism, the kingdom has undergone immense changes over the last couple of years. Mohammad bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince in 2017, and since then Saudi Arabia has seen an increase in women’s rights. For instance, women can network more freely and have been finally given the opportunity to take over the driver’s seat.

I always knew that I was a guest in the country, but leaving was still a bitter pill to swallow. The nature of the place has definitely frustrated me at times, and yet it has also helped to sculpt who I am today. To make this article interesting, I talked to a lot of Pakistani women who have lived or are still living in the kingdom, in order to find out about their experiences. Below are some of the most interesting answers I got.

“I have lived 18 years of my life in Riyadh, so I like almost everything about it. However, there is one thing which I despise. During my last visit, I noticed that life there goes by slowly. If you are not a working person, you are pretty much on your own. This really brought me down in the dumps. All day long, I used to mope around. How much social media can a person use? The lifestyle is sluggish, as compared to the lifestyle in Pakistan which keeps me on my toes. Despite this, if given the choice, I would definitely opt for living in Riyadh.”

- Hiba, student

“Living in Jeddah for almost 35 years, I have led a peaceful, sheltered and quiet life, while the proximity to the Holy Cities has made it special. Yet, I feel as if I have lived as a hermit crab, unable to meet my full potential and with a gnawing feeling of being locked in. Given a choice, I would leave for a life of freedom, where I can gain independence, discover my innate potential and achieve more in life. I would like to breathe free!”

- Rubina, 4th year teacher

“The part of my life spent in Riyadh will always remain the best one of my life. Although, the place has my heart and soul, it does have its shortcomings like the many rules that are imposed on women that don’t allow them to do much. Another drawback about it is that it doesn’t have many places for entertainment - although, this year they did open their first cinema ever. The women are heavily reliable on their male guardians. You have your taxis there but they pretty much rob you just to get you from one place to another. Now thankfully, they’re building a metro around the entire city for easy commuting. Some might argue, but I personally love the abaya. It gives me the liberty to go anywhere and everywhere just in my pyjamas and still look put together. The city has beautiful malls which offer you the latest fashion from around the world. The best thing the city has to offer is the food. It is so simple but holds so much flavour. The amount of love I have for the place can never be matched and in the future, no matter where I am, I will definitely go back to my home.”

- Wallia, student

“I was born and brought up in a modern and diverse environment. Then one day, I was told that I will be moving to Riyadh because of my husband’s job. The very first trouble I faced was being dependent on another individual for most of my work! Be it visiting a doctor, getting medicines or just hanging out with friends, I had to rely on my husband. Most of the people couldn’t understand any other language except Arabic, which was again a drawback. Despite all this, I did have a peaceful time. However, I wouldn’t want to go back as most of my friends and relatives have all left. Secondly, Saudi Arabia still needs to work a lot on its people, environment, and communication.”

- Nazia, homemaker

“The current crown prince of Saudi Arabia is focused on women empowerment. Finally, ladies here are allowed to drive. Although it is still not very common, I have seen a few women driving already. One market specifically had a ‘ladies parking’ signboard. Apart from cinemas, dance shows and other kinds of entertainment programmes now happen publicly. I dislike the fact that the government has now imposed heavy charges on every expatriate. If given the choice, I would move away for a while, but eventually return because this is ‘my place’.”

- Sidra, student & administrator

“I have lived in the United States for more than two decades, but due to my husband’s recent posting in Al-Hasa, we now live in Saudi Arabia. I like how all the malls have mosques, so there’s never a reason to miss prayers. Grocery stores are made more like superstores that not only have groceries but are also equipped with household stuff. Going to a typical grocery store makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop! Also, I love eating out at American chains, as all meat is Halal. There’s no need to investigate in detail. However, I think the gender segregation is bothersome, especially in restaurants and malls, where shopkeepers don’t even like to talk directly to women. Another thing that constantly annoys me is that I can’t try clothes on before buying. Apparently, it’s too much for them to allow women to use fitting rooms in stores.”

- Uzma, homemaker