Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dating in Saudi Arabia

A caveat before I start. Part of the goal of this blog is to stay away from the blatantly personal: the tales of my daily routines, frustrations in the office, and my private life. However, this is too illustrative of a story to hold back - if you want a good idea of what life is like in Saudi Arabia, this is the best I can give you. Some identifying details have been changed to protect the reputations of those involved and to ensure that they can continue to defy the authorities. And, as always, this is just my personal view and in no way represents what the US government thinks about the religious police. I'm not even sure what our official policy is in that regard...

Nothing's easy in Saudi Arabia, especially if it involves appearing in public or the opposite sex, so it shouldn't be a surprise that dating is a logistical nightmare here. I could have taken the easy route of dating someone in the embassy community, but having seen a few intra-embassy relationships disintegrate very publicly, I thought it wise to avoid that. I could also have sought the affections of someone at the US military installation 45 minutes away from the embassy, where there is a population of largely unmarried officers looking for distractions as desperately as we are, but due to security restrictions and transportation limitations, arranging to visit the base by oneself is surprisingly difficult. So I took what is clearly the easy way out - I found someone outside the embassy community. And not only that, I found a non-American from a country whose nationals are usually assumed to be basic laborers in Saudi Arabia. What this means is that anywhere we go, we automatically look out of place - white women are always associated with European embassies or with the big military contracting firms, and he is always assumed to be a laborer, no matter that he's an educated polyglot with a white-collar job.

About the only thing we can do in public in Riyadh is go to dinner at one of the handful of restaurants that aren't patrolled by the religious police, individually known as the mutawwa (volunteer) or collectively as the haya (commission, from the official title of the Commission to Prevent Vice and to Promote Virtue). Mutawwaeen are easy to spot - they don't wear the iqal (the black cord on top of their headdress), they have massive beards, and their robes fall to the mid-calf, as opposed to the ankle-length robes most Saudi men wear. I wanted to show you a full-length photo of a mutawwa, but such photos are surprisingly hard to find online.

A room full of mutawwaeen (angry glares are standard issue for them).

A normal Saudi guy.

In theory, a mutawwa by himself (no females work in this position, unsurprisingly) can't arrest anyone without an accompanying policeman to enforce the order. In practice, the mutawwaeen have been known to travel in packs, to chase down suspects by car, to shut down by noisy disruption any event they deem sinful, and to launch public campaigns to discredit people who challenge their authority. Better yet, these are just the "official" mutawwaeen who work for the CPVPV - there are also vigilante bands of mutawwa wannabes who aren't actually employed by the Commission but who take on those prerogatives anyway. What we're left with is a group of government employees whose job is to enforce a phenomenally strict code of social behavior and gender segregation, and a group of unemployed louts who think that the government isn't doing enough to enforce this code. Every week there are new reports of mutawwa going overboard somewhere in the Kingdom, so here's a selection to show you what's been in the news recently.

On a more personal level, here's the story of what happened to a friend from the embassy. He was out with an American, non-diplomat friend for a ride around town. Evidently they'd just turned up the radio to hear some song that both particularly enjoyed when three cars appeared from a side street and boxed them in - one in front, one behind, and one forcing his car against the curb. My friend, being a diplomat, couldn't be arrested, but his friend wasn't so lucky, and she was booked for the crime of being alone with an unrelated man and for dancing in public. (We're still waiting to hear how she'll be sentenced; if her charges are reduced, she shouldn't face any lashes.) One mutawwa asked them both where the third person in the car was, the person in the back seat that all of the mutawwaeen had seen. The two of them were very confused, and denied that there was another person in the car. Ah-hah, you're wrong, said the mutawwa. The Devil was in the car with you.

The most common crime with which the haya charges people is khulwa, or being alone with an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Basically, a man and a woman can be alone together if they are A) married to each other, B) siblings, C) parent-child, D) grandparent-grandchild, or E) aunt/uncle-nephew/niece. Pretty much any blood relationship farther apart than that - two first cousins, say - is fair game for marriage, and thus it's illicit for those two people to be together unchaperoned. Now, if this is the level of scrutiny applied to two people from the same extended family, you can imagine what people of different ethnicities experience. We're clearly not related, and in the Saudi racial hierarchy no one can conceive of a white family consenting to their daughter's marriage to someone with darker skin. Therefore... there must be some sin going on behind the scenes if the two of us are out in public together. It's like all the joys of interracial dating in the American South, but with the added chance of being arrested by the Taliban.

It must be said that a lot of Saudis despise the haya as much as the Westerners do - and in truth, they're much more likely to deal with them than I am. The only reason I'm likely to run into them is because my relationship doesn't make sense - there's no way they'd believe we're married. Two white people out at a restaurant together? Not a problem, it's just Americans or Brits being themselves - just ignore them and they'll go away soon. Among college-age Saudis and recent college grads (especially those who have studied abroad), the mutawwaeen are a sign of the forces holding back Saudi progress. The haya is openly vilified and mocked in many publications, from national papers to student blogs. Even many religious conservatives disapprove of them, believing that a police force whose goal is to enforce public morality undermines the moral motivation to obey religious commands. However, the haya still has a lot of public support outside the cities and among older generations everywhere, who see the changes happening in the cities as a threat to social stability.

But back to the restaurants. Thankfully, some places in Riyadh owned by people so powerful that the haya can't afford to offend them, which means that in a precious few spots - mostly the big hotels - there are restaurants where the tables in the family section aren't hidden away in individual booths and where we can be seen in public together. However, getting to these restaurants isn't easy for me. He can't come pick me up at my house, because getting into the DQ after working hours is very difficult for non-diplomats - the Saudi soldiers who work the gates try to keep the general population away from us as much as they can, and it's six-five, pick `em whether that's for our own safety or to keep our dirty Western morals from rubbing off on the locals. And bringing me back to my house after dinner? Absolutely out of the question - the Saudis would hold him until the haya arrived to arrest him for being out with me. Unfortunately for him, my diplomatic immunity would protect me - but the same doesn't apply to him, and if the mutawwa were in a particularly bad mood, he could be deported for his crime of driving me home from dinner. (Also, most of the major roads have random checkpoints, and we'd raise suspicions there for all of the above reasons.) So, when we plan a dinner out on the town, I have to take motor pool to the hotel and call when I'm ready to be picked up to go home. However, you can imagine how this makes me look to our motor pool drivers, a sweet group of men who are not the most highly educated people in the world: every week, a young and unmarried woman goes to one of the big hotels by herself, and she always looks happy and sated when she's picked up three hours later. Telling them that it's the tryptophan from dinner that makes me so sleepy doesn't really seem to work. Motor pool gossip has already had me married off to two embassy personnel and dating three or four others, just since I got here in August; however, once I started going to my weekly rendezvous - I mean dinners - at different hotels in town, the gossip has utterly ceased. I think the drivers believe something so horrible is going on that they can't even discuss it.

The logistics inside the restaurant are pure tragicomedy. We always try to find a table that affords us a view of the front door but that doesn't put us in the direct line of sight from the entrance, so that we can detect and evade any bearded threats. The waiters - always expatriate workers, usually Filipinos - refuse to make eye contact with me and ask him what I would like to eat for dinner, as if making eye contact with me will call out the mutawwaeen hiding in the lamps. (Interesting side note: our word genie comes from the Arabic djinn, a supernatural creature in which most religious Arabs believe, because the djinn are mentioned in the Qur'an.) A few times we've had close calls, where we'd see a mutawwa in a place we thought was safe, and he'd sprint off to the bathroom in the middle of a sentence. I can't fault him for a that; the worst the mutawwa can do to me is yell at me, and since they generally don't speak a word of English, I can feign ignorance, wave my diplomatic residency card, and just walk away. We try to alternate paying for meals, and I haven't yet decided which is worse: when he pays, I get a look of admonishment from the waiters, who assume that I'm a prostitute; but when I pay, I am clearly a wealthy Westerner using him as my playboy. Even when we deal with no Saudis (or indeed, any Arabs or Muslims) in an evening, it's clear that all of the staff in the restaurant have absorbed some Saudi ideas about what is appropriate and what isn't.

Luckily, I can usually get him into some of the parties that happen within the embassy community, so there at least we can have a semblance of normalcy. Last weekend we went to a party at a Saudi friend's house, just outside the DQ, and we decided that we were so sick of the restrictions and sneaking around that he'd drive me over - I'd ride home with other embassy people once the motor pool shift had changed, so no one would remember that I hadn't taken embassy transportation to the party. Since it was so close, I didn't bother putting on an abaya - we'd be between the DQ and his compound for a total of four minutes, maybe. As we left the DQ, it started to rain, and by the time we exited the highway, it was coming down in buckets. While we waited a stoplight, he turned to me with a huge grin on his face. "You know the haya is never out in the rain, and the checkpoints aren't manned when it rains. Let's go for a ride around town!" So off we went, giggling like idiots at our unspeakable bit of rebellion in driving around together. We did a huge loop around the city, driving through residential neighborhoods so he could point out where mutual friends lived and showing me sites that I'd heard about but had never had any reason to visit - the most famous restaurant in the city, for example, which has no family section, so I can't go inside. At one point we hit a low spot in the road and hydroplaned, nearly hitting another car with the same problem. We both looked out the window and froze - the car was filled with bearded men with no iqals, glaring at us for crossing into their lane. I don't think either one of us breathed until the carload of mutawwaeen turned onto another street, after which he quietly turned his car towards our friend's house.

Update, 1 May: Today we decided to be bold, and we tried a restaurant that isn't in a hotel but in the posh area of Riyadh. We timed our meal for 3.30 PM on a Friday - between prayer on a day when most people are at home with their families or at a mosque. The meal was wonderful (seasoned, perhaps, with risk) but when we got ready to leave, the sunset prayer had just started. Not a problem, our waiter assured us - the front door will be locked, but go out this side door. This is pretty normal; you can stay in restaurants if you're already there when prayer starts, and someone loiters nearby to let you out if you're ready to go. But when we tried the side door, it was bolted and barred shut, as was the front door, and the keys were with the wait staff, which had completely disappeared. Seriously - we were the only ones in the restaurant, and I could see my car out the front window, waiting for me. We finally found the kitchen and went out through the back door between the refrigerators, which luckily was unlocked. I darted around to the front to catch my driver and saw the reason why this restaurant was more stringent than most - the large mosque across the street that I had failed to notice on my way in. Whoops.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Principles 0, the Law 1

Yesterday, during immigrant visa interviews, I came across a case of clear marriage fraud that I hated to refuse. The applicant, a Saudi male, wanted to go to the US to marry his sweetheart, an American woman 25 years older than he. He didn't know details about her, like what she does at work or where her children live. It was clear that he was not in a bona fide relationship with her. When I asked how he'd met her, he spoke about his friend from college, an American man, who lived next door to her and who had introduced them. I asked how frequently he goes to visit this friend, and the applicant spoke warmly and in great detail about the friend, including how frequently he goes to visit him and what they do for fun.

When I looked up the man's prior tourist visa information, notes indicated that he had gone to visit the same friend numerous times over the last two decades. It's obvious what the case is - the Saudi man's true relationship is with the male friend, not the female neighbor. Unfortunately, there's no immigration benefits for that, nor is he legally even able to marry him at the state level. I disagree with this, strongly... but what can I do? I don't condone fraud, even if I don't like the underlying law.

Rough day.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Compound Living

Right now I'm in the middle of a two-week stint in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, covering a staffing shortage at our consulate in the Eastern Province. I'm right across the causeway from Bahrain - it's about a thirty-minute drive to downtown Manama. It's been an interesting experience - I'm the only person doing visa interviews, so a lot of the work I'm doing is self-directed, and I'm enjoying the relative freedoms that come when one is outside of Riyadh. I'm also enjoying being around many more Americans, as the vast majority of the American expat population in Saudi Arabia is here, where the oil wealth and jobs are. I'm living in the recently vacated apartment of the person I'm temporarily replacing, as will my colleagues from Riyadh who will be cycling through here every two weeks until the person who is permanently assigned to Dhahran arrives. It's my first time living in "normal" embassy housing: that is to say, this is the first time I've lived in a privately owned home that the US mission leases for its personnel, not on the grounds of the chancery itself like my home in Riyadh (I can see the embassy from my front door). This is the norm in most of the world, I understand - in Riyadh all of my neighbors are embassy personnel, but here there are just four of us in my building.

I often refer to the Diplomatic Quarter, where I live in Riyadh, as a compound, but in the strictest sense it's not - outsiders can get inside without knowing someone who lives inside (for a visa appointment, for example), and Saudis are not actively prevented from going inside. In Saudi Arabia, most Western expats live in their own compounds, usually affiliated with their employer. The word "compound" brings to mind the Waco siege or breakaway Mormon fundamentalists, and if you take the concept to mean a group of heavily armed people living together in an attempt to ignore the outside world, it's not too far off. Of course, I doubt that David Koresh's followers had stills running in their bathtubs to produce the Saudi expat nectar of life, homebrew alcohol, or that the homes of Mormon splinter groups are guarded by an array of Saudi military checkpoints and mercenaries from South Asia. (Nepal is the preferred source of hired guards here, for whatever reason. Maybe it goes back to the gurkha tradition?)

The larger compounds in Saudi Arabia are designed for and wholly owned by the HR department of a large firm that needs to bring in Europeans or Americans to work in the Kingdom. The biggest compound by far belongs to Aramco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia that brings thousands of Americans here every year to run its plants and to train its employees. (Aramco used to be known as the Saudi ARabian AMerican Oil COmpany, hence the name and the historical ties to the US, even after the American shares were all bought out.) Other big compounds are run by BAE, Lockheed Martin, Shell, and Exxon Mobil - the usual suspects in Saudi Arabia. Smaller compounds cater to the expats who work for other Western firms but who aren't here in enough strength to justify having their own walled-off city. Inside these compounds, anything goes - western attire is allowed, women can drive, people drink the PGA that they brew in their spare bathrooms, and they generally try to forget that they live in Saudi Arabia. Saudis cannot live in these compounds, and people from countries other than those in the EU and North America have difficulty moving in. Everyone knows what goes on inside the compounds, but the Saudi government appears to be happy to keep the Westerners locked away and apart from the locals. Wealthy Saudis have their own semi-compounds, neighborhoods with guards to keep out the riffraff, but theirs aren't quite as licentious as ours are.

Styles that are considered normal in Saudi Arabia would be called ostentatious or even gaudy in most people's eyes back home, and housing is no exception. I had never used the word "villa" outside of a discussion of medieval Italian architecture until I came to Saudi Arabia, yet here it's the term that's used for large single-family homes. (And yes, I have had such discussions about Italian architecture. You probably already knew, or suspected, that of me anyway.) A villa in Saudi Arabia means a large home, two or three stories, in a nice neighborhood and with its own perimeter wall. Ideally, it will have ornate flourishes on the exterior in an attempt to set it off from the other homes around it, even if they were all built by the same developer at the same time. The interior of these homes is also given the star treatment: high ceilings, ornate moldings, expensive tile floors, and gold hardware - lots of gold. Oh my God, Saudis love the color gold.

However, like much else that I've noticed in the Gulf, a lot of attention is paid to the external appearance at the expense of true quality. The ornate "gold" doorknob on my front door? The gold lacquer has worn off in parts. The lovely wooden floor? Cheap laminate that is peeling up in heavily trafficked areas. The fancy carved glass screen on the shower in the master bathroom? It doesn't disguise the poor design of the shower that funnels water into the floor if a shower takes more than thirty seconds. There are two thermostats in the apartment, one by my bedroom door and one in the living room. Neither one is connected to anything. (I completely disassembled both in failed attempts to turn my air conditioning on when I first arrived.) Instead, the actual thermostat is on the compressor, hiding in a dark, cool closet in the back of the house, and it resets itself to 80 degrees every three days. Sound insulation is a fiction - I can tell what TV program my neighbor watches every night. The apparently granite countertop in my kitchen has split along the edge of the sink - and better yet, it's been "fixed" with a rubber sealant, so there's now a flexible hinge of faux stone in front of the sink. This is in a building that's fewer than ten years old, in a compound that is considered one of the most lavish ones in town! So many things that could have been fixed relatively cheaply, especially in comparison to the price of the apartment itself, but the attention to detail just isn't there.

Of course, no gated community would be complete without its own set of rules. I was idly flipping through the welcome book in my apartment when I discovered the residents' code. Strictly "international" attire is to be work on the grounds - which I take to mean no abayas and no niqabs, since I've seen some women in my building wearing the veil over their hair. While visiting the compound's private beach 30 miles away (because of course, why wouldn't it have its own stretch of beach?), only Western clothing may be worn - anyone not adhering to this rule will be asked to leave. While we aren't explicitly told not to bring Saudis onto the grounds, the strong implication is that locals have no reason to come inside, nor should we have any reason to want them to be inside. The very name of my compound, Oasis, implies that we are separate and isolated from our environment.

Of course, the notion that living in a compound keeps you separate from reality only lasts as long as everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief, and not everyone is thrilled about these anomalies. In 2004, there was a series of coordinated attacks in and around Dhahran, and one of the worst sieges was in the building next to mine, inside the same compound. I found this out when I was googling the site trying to find a map to give to a friend coming to visit me last week - instead of the compound website, all i found were news reports and photos. Whoops. On the plus side, US consulate personnel have been moved back in to this facility in the last year, according to what I assume is the barn door principle: once a place is attacked, it's going to be safer than everywhere else for several years thereafter, as the authorities give it extra security patrols and attention.

All in all, I have no real complaints about my accommodations here. I miss my cat, and I don't like living out of a suitcase, but I'm still in housing that's far bigger and plusher - even with the warts - than any housing I've ever had in the States. However, I will be glad to get back to the States, where my home will be smaller but more livable, less ostentatious.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Wherein the Author Gives Up on Long Expository Pieces

Okay, I admit it, I'm a lazy bum. What do you want from me.

Here's the news from the Kingdom.
  • We had a bomb scare last week - a live duck-and-cover, "this is not a drill" event. Embassy guards heard an explosion outside the Diplomatic Quarter, and they sent us under our desks until they figured out what was going on. Turns out it was a controlled demolition in a construction site nearby - how nice of them to warn us in advance! (I imagine the contractors responsible for this snafu have already been deported; the last thing the Saudis want is for us to get any jumpier.) I am rather proud of the fact that I stayed calm and didn't panic during the scare, like some of my colleagues were starting to do. All I did was put my running shoes on, had my gas mask at hand if it was necessary, and sent text messages to people in the States to let them know I was okay, in case something hit the news.
  • We had our national day celebration on Tuesday, which is like the 4th of July but held at a time when the weather is actually tolerable. It was a fine event from all accounts, very little of which I actually got to see because I was working outside at the check-in tables for most of the night. I did get put on escorting-drunk-guests-out duty at the end, and while I've heard that this level of intoxication is normal at all national day events worldwide, I've also heard that ours is a little more out-of-control than most, since all of Riyadh turns out to have access to the open bar(s). Supposedly we ran out of whiskey in under 90 minutes. Suffice it to say that Saudis, while often very sweet and hospitable, get very touchy-feely when they've been drinking for several hours.
  • We're doing record numbers of visa interviews - we hit 350 people interviewed on Tuesday, which is a country-wide record. My friends at other posts will probably laugh at such a relatively low number, but when you spend 5-10 minutes on each person, going over 300 in a day feels pretty good. Other nations' embassies issue far higher numbers of visas than we do, but after 9/11 we switched to a system where almost everyone must be interviewed (diplomats, critically ill patients, and the very young are exempt), which is beneficial but does go much slower than merely adjudicating paper applications, as happens for most visas at the EU embassies, for example. At any rate, we're gearing up for the summer rush, which promises to be more fun than anyone could ever dream of. If you ever want to meet a Saudi family, go to Disneyworld - I swear this country is obsessed with Mickey Mouse.
  • A few weeks ago I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life - I interviewed one person in a thirty-member midget dancing team, who regularly accompany their employer on his business trips around the world in his private jet in order to keep him entertained. I'm still struggling to come to terms with this concept.
  • I have 121 days, or 36% of my tour, left in the Kingdom. Not that I'm counting or anything.