Saturday, August 26, 2006

Another Side of Saudi

Saudi Arabia isn't known as a great vacation destination. Regardless, it has been mine, every summer, for years. (Family reunions can't happen without the family. And the family's in Saudi.)

When most people first hear "Saudi Arabia", they immediately think "oppression, violence, extremism" and just about every negative adjective that can cross their mind. My American friends, especially, would ask me if i had to stay in tents when i was there and would worry about how i was going to dodge all the car bombs laid out by bloodthirsty terrorists. It was very hard for them to understand how i could possibly have fun there, like i always claimed to.

Saudi Arabia (or Saudi, as its called by many English-speaking Arabs) is not the battle field people imagine it to be. Malls, fast food restaurants, theme parks, and resorts are an essential part of today's Saudi culture. Yes, all the woman go out in black abayas and can't drive, but that's slowly but surely changing. And the thing is, many woman are okay with the way things are right now. The abaya is a sort of cultural costume, like a kimono for the Japanese. And it's really comfortable, actually. Makes life easier. No need to worry about your outfit every time you go out. Not to say that the abaya prevents people from making fashion statements. There are all kinds of beads and designs sown into the black cloth, leaving plenty of room for expressing your personality and individuality.

But before people attack me with comments on how i could dare defend "oppression", let me just say that i'm not. I think its wrong for someone to force people to wear something (or not wear something for that matter). Force itself is wrong, and even with the best of intentions, it never yields very pleasant results. I'm just explaining the point of view of many people in Saudi.

But not allowing women to drive is absolutely ridiculous. It makes no sense religiously, socially, or economically. That's just backward cultural leftovers from an era now long gone. And now there’s a general consensus that women should drive, even in the government. Its just a question of how to introduce it into the culture and make it socially acceptable.

Durrat Al Arus, a tourist village located north of Jeddah, is a live example of change in Saudi. This summer was the first time i went to it. How i managed to be ignorant of this 8 million square meter resort all this time, i have no clue. According to, the village has "conference halls, luxury villas, recreation centers, an equestrian club with a school for teaching equestrian skills, a golf club, a boat and yacht club and gardens". And lets not forget the "1,500 housing units in the area", or the shops and restaurants that line the boardwalkish street on the beach.

All this is impressive, but what really got me was this: the moment i stepped inside, i got to shed not only my abaya, but all of the restrictions associated with Saudi Arabia.

Waves of people swept up and down the street, shockingly multicolored. After the all-black of two weeks, seeing so many women in jeans and skirts was almost foreign. But not all the women chose to uncover. The amount of clothes people had on ranged from all-encasing black to bikinis on the beach. I, like many others, went half way. A jeans skirt and a cute long sleeve shirt, topped by a matching hijab. That's the look i go for anywhere other than Saudi, so it wasn't weird to wear it. What was weird though, was that i was wearing my "outside-Saudi" look in Saudi.

Oh, and who could forget the guys? Okay, they have wayyy more freedom here in regards to dress, so they were in their usual baggy jeans and shirts. They were out in packs, unused to mingling so freely with girls. Although the actual rules about interacting with girls were gone, the social norms they grew up with were hard to break. The guys (and girls) were just able to pole through those norms every once in a while with a quick hi or a pickup line. The concept of innocently talking to someone of the opposite gender doesn't exist. The culture there (which the youth contribute to) doesn't recognize that. Its either sexual or nothing.

Of course, there was music and a live show, which would have been great had the singer been any good. I was praying he would shut up every time i passed him with my friends. God chose to ignore that plea. I guess you can't get them all.

Overall, the trip to Durrat al Arus was fun. I loved being able to go around with my friends in an open atmosphere, chatting and laughing and having fun. But it left me wondering. Why is it that freedom has to equal sexual promiscuity? Youth see one side of the Western model of freedom, and think that's the only way freedom is expressed. Its a shame, because the freedom that's pushing its way through the Middle East could be used for so much more than makeup and endless music channels. Everything is good in moderation. We have countries and a civilization to build here. If we demand the rights and pleasures of freedom, we must be willing to take on freedom's responsibilities as well.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Viva Venezuela!

Hugo Chavez is one of the only world leaders with enough backbone to stand up against injustice. The world needs more of you, Chavez.