Tuesday, May 3, 2011

You might be in Saudi Arabia if ...

1. A runaway camel causes havoc in the university parking lot.

I missed the grand event, but a co-worker took this photo with her iPhone from the front window of our building. The wall you see here surrounds the entire women's campus, where we are free to walk around without abayas.

2. Instead of having the archetypal "naked" dreams, you dream about forgetting your abaya.
The first time this happened to me, I dreamed I was still working in a university in Saudi Arabia but that it didn't have a wall around it, which meant that we had to wear our abayas if we walked from building to building. In my dream, I had somehow left my abaya in another building which I had to get back to. As I crossed a street, all the cars started honking and I realized with mortification that I was abaya-less as I tried to hurry back!

In real life, our preparatory building has an additional wall around it to separate it from the main campus. There is a gate between the two sections, which is sometimes open. Once, a few colleagues and I had walked out that gate to the main campus, only to have the gate locked before we could re-enter. Even though our taxi was just out the exit gate in the parking lot, we couldn't leave until we had our abayas, which were locked inside the gate to our own building. Since finding someone with the keys was fruitless, we had a friend run down and throw our abayas and scarves over the wall. We could then cover ourselves and escape through the exit gate from the main campus, where all the male drivers were waiting to pick up the women. Whew!

3. You buy everything from make-up to bras from men.

All the stores are staffed by men, unless it's a women-only facility like the women's branch of a bank or the third floor of Kingdom Tower mall. So the vast majority of the time, you purchase everything from men, who are often from Bangladesh or Pakistan and have been doing the same job for years, possibly. Once I went to buy some mascara from a shop in the mall and found myself getting a detailed breakdown of different brands from the well-practiced attendant. "This one is waterproof, but this one is for every day use. However, if you want waterproof, I recommend this one because it has a much fuller brush," he said, and he proceeded to pull the brush out to demonstrate. Feeling most inferior in my make-up knowledge, I simply said, "That one looks fine" and went off to pay.

4. Your son can sing the Call to Prayer in a perfect Arabic accent.

Misha has a remarkable Arabic accent which Josh and I only wish we could reproduce. He has also gotten a close-up look at Islam. If, in the future, he sees women in abayas or men bowing on mats in prayer, I think he will find it quite normal and remember his days in this country with an open mind.

5. You don't get any snow days, but occasionally school is cancelled for a dust day.

This year has been exceptionally dusty, with more dust storms than previous years, according to several people we have talked to. Last year when we arrived, March was already quite hot (in the 90s), but this year the heat has held off until this month. March and April proved very windy, dusty, and rainy. The dust invades our eyes and nostrils, making everything taste like dust as well. The night sky is often pink, with the diffused dust reflecting back the light from the city. There are some perks though -- Misha's school was cancelled one morning because of a dust storm the night before which left a layer of fine red sand over everything. Even the university released students early once because of an impending dust storm (which, incidentally, never came).

6. When you ask your students how many bathrooms they have, they have to stop and think and count on two hands.
Recently I asked my students to tell me about their houses. They often have five or six bedrooms (depending on the size of the family) and almost always two living rooms (one for women and one for men) or more. When I asked out of curiosity how many bathrooms they had, many of them stopped to count as they mentally walked through their house and came up with numbers between five and ten. A few students only had two or three. When I told them that my parents' house in America only has one, they were extremely surprised.

Last year, Josh had his students show him their houses on Google Maps. After work, he told me in amazement that some of his students had homes on grounds that were bigger than our entire compound.

7. Your students get so excited when it hails that they make "hailmen" and photograph their achievements.
Naturally, it's a very exciting thing to see hail in Riyadh. My students love to see my photos of winter in South Dakota, so they were eager to show me their own hail creations. I was impressed!