Will the Real Saudi Arabia Please Stand Up?

Chicken is simmering with lemon, olives, and garlic on the stove, and the table on the patio is set for a late supper. A neighbor called from the bleachers, at her son’s soccer practice, with a question about IKEA bookshelves. The repairman came to fix the dishwasher earlier today. My husband is out for a run, and the house is quiet for the moment.

Just another day in American suburbia, right? Wrong. I am living in Saudi Arabia—but this isn’t “real” Saudi Arabia, to be sure. My husband Michael and I are Americans, and he is working for a large company that maintains a series of compounds—they call them camps—for upper management and foreign employees. Our community looks like a manicured small town in southern California. There are neighborhood parks and tennis courts, a school and a little movie theater, a library and a grocery store, a swimming pool and a post office.

The commissary here is the size of a small-town American grocery store, and is reasonably well stocked. Fresh produce includes locally grown mangoes, peppers, mint, cilantro, carrots, and melons, which are cheap; you can also get imported tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, which can be pricey. I checked out a couple of Middle Eastern cookbooks from the library, and will start shifting my everyday cooking to include more common and thrifty ingredients. Already we’re drinking mango juice instead of orange juice (cutting it with water because it’s so thick and sweet), and having some kind of yogurt dip or raita with most meals. The milk tastes richer and sweeter here, so we’re drinking more of that, too. We have been adding lemon slices to our drinking water because it tastes a bit odd to us, and yet we know we have to drink water all day long to stay hydrated here in the desert.

The water here is piped in from the sea and desalinated. All of the tap water is technically potable, but it tastes brackish. There is a single “sweet water” tap in each house for filtered drinking water. Like those found in some American houses, ours is at the kitchen sink; it’s a smaller tap right next to the normal kitchen faucet. I have not yet visited a home outside of our compound, so I don’t know how their kitchens are typically set up.

This is our first experience with a western enclave in a foreign country, and I understand there are quite a few. The lifestyle is so lush and easy that it makes me a little nervous. By American standards, we don’t make all that much money, and in fact part of the reason Michael has taken this job is so that we can recover from the collapse of my small business last year. Here, though, we are living in a big, comfortable townhouse in an eerily safe, clean village that rises like some kind of strange fantasy out of the sand, dust and wind of the Arabian desert. This place was created and stays standing thanks to untold amounts of oil money and desalinated water, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply (in quantity and in energy) of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers.

Lots and lots of labor is needed to keep a compound like this going. I have been here just a few days, so this extremely high level of everyday busyness and maintenance is still a complete shock: gardening, window washing and sidewalk sweeping is done daily to keep the dust at bay. Also disconcerting is the razor-wire fencing around the compound, and the double set of armed security gates. If you have fair skin and speak English, like me, everything seems to go smoothly coming in and out of the compound. Darker skinned people tend to be scrutinized more carefully. (Hmm. I guess that part is a lot like home.)

Some Muslim women on the compound wear abayas (an abaya is a thin black cloak that looks like a choir robe) and headscarves, and some Muslim men wear thobes and ghutras (white robes and red-and-white headscarves with a black ring that sits like a crown on the head to help keep the scarf in place). However, here in the camp most people wear western clothing. I took a walk in the cool of this morning wearing cargo pants and a short-sleeved t-shirt, and didn’t feel at all out of place. One of my biggest concerns in coming here was that I would have to “cover up” every time I walked out my front door. That has not been the case at all. However, I have been dressing in loose, cool, and, I suppose, more conservative clothing during the day in order to protect my skin from the sun. I don’t appreciate the notion of having to hide myself under yards of black fabric in order to avoid ridicule and persecution out in the local town (about which, more next time). But from the standpoint of someone who has already had melanoma once, the covering up thing makes a whole lot of sense.

It is November 9, and today the temperature at 7:00 am was around 73 degrees Fahrenheit. At noon it hovered around 90 degrees, and by evening it was back to a perfect, breezy 70 or so. We arrived at a great time of year. In the summer temperatures can top 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I will try to plan my travel so that I’m not here then!

While we are living in the Middle East, it is my intention to do as much travelling as I can, since we are now so centrally located to Europe, Africa, and Asia. In this blog I hope to convey some of what I experience as an American, and as a woman. I am interested in people’s home lives, their family and culinary experiences. I want to talk about the domestic pleasures that bring people together. I recognize that there are serious social injustices and dangerous, ever-shifting political issues unfolding here. I don’t wish to make light of these or pretend that they don’t exist. But there are many other places to read about those issues, and they are not going to be central to this discussion. 

Next: shopping for an abaya!