I interviewed Denise Winston (a friend and former co-worker) a few months back as she embarked on her journey to take the world by storm. She moved from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina all the way to Ha’il, Saudi Arabia to teach English at the university there. After seeing all the exciting pictures she’s been posting on her Instagram feed, I decided it was time for a follow-up interview to check in and see how she’s doing.
How are you settling into daily life and teaching there in Saudi Arabia? Is it everything you expected?
Daily life in Saudi is completely unexpected. Everything from the people to the culture to how expats are treated has been completely unexpected. Before coming here I did research on what life was like here but practically all the advice I read online was wrong. Maybe the experiences I read about online were true for bigger cities in Saudi like Dammam, Riyadh, or Jeddah, but in Ha’il, where I’m living, it is much different. Ha’il is a very conservative Muslim city. The Mutawa- the morality police- are always watching to enforce the laws and culture, mostly with respect to the dress and proper conduct of women. Did you know that it is unlawful for a woman to laugh in public here? Laughing, at least for women, is literally a punishable crime! I laugh a lot so this law has been one that is extremely difficult for me to adhere to. For the most part the Saudis are welcoming. There are many foreigners working here so Saudis are used to seeing different people. When people see me they assume I’m Sudanese (there are many people from the Sudan in Saudi Arabia) until I start talking and then they ask me, “Where from?” When I say America they give me a big smile and a vehement welcome. I can honestly say I’ve never feared for my life here. That being said, the most difficult part of adjusting to everyday life in Saudi, for me, has been relinquishing my independence, especially where transportation is concerned. Women in Saudi are not allowed to drive. As a Western woman who is used to do everything herself, it has been a bit of a struggle to getting used to depending on someone else to take me places and help me run everyday errands. That has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.
What are some of the interesting culinary finds you’ve made, and new dishes you’ve tried since arriving?
Culinary finds… since I last wrote to you I have found a place that makes a decent shwarma. Most places make it dry, just chicken and potatoes folded in a wrap. This place makes the shwarma with vegetables and sauces as well. A lot of us buy them in bulk and freeze them to eat during the week or whenever. There is also a nice Asian take out place here. They do Chinese and Indian food and they are not too pricey. Besides kabsa (a huge chicken on top of a bed of long grain rice with vegetables) there aren’t many exclusively Arabic foods to speak of, at least none that I’ve experienced thus far.
What was it like four wheeling in the desert?
It looked epic! Four wheeling in the desert was, in one word, AWESOME! I will definitely do it again. It is important to note that the deserts in Saudi Arabia are lawless places. Meaning, women aren’t required to wear abayas or have their heads or faces covered. But the flip side is that because the deserts are lawless it is not recommended that women go there alone. In Saudi, women are alone if a man is not present. Women out with no man present are considered “loose” or flat out prostitutes and will be treated as such. But, for someone who hasn’t left Ha’il since arriving on the first of January, going to a place and not having to wear all the normal trappings of womanhood was liberating. As was operating a transportation vehicle that goes pretty fast. We had the best time. I did accelerate too fast at one point and I ended up falling into a ditch. But I got right back up and kept going. It was pure adrenaline. Note, the ditch contained briar thorns that are about an inch long which is typical of thorns in Saudi. Several of the thorns ended up in my bum. That was not a laughing matter (giggle here). During the ride we got to see tents of real Bedouins and a herd of camels! It was such a great time.
What is the atmosphere in a souk compared to say a farmers market in the US?
The atmosphere in a souk differs from a farmer’s market in a couple of ways. Souks sell everything from food to gold to clothes to textiles and beauty products. Farmer’s markets generally only have food or sometimes local artwork and pottery. Also, the souks are louder than farmer’s markets. Cars constantly honking their horns as they drive through to drop off shoppers or pick them up. People are haggling for a cheaper prices. And there is conversations happening everywhere. There is no rhyme or reason but it is a colorfully organized chaotic shopping experience. Plus they tend to stay open late because of having to shut down multiple times throughout the day for prayer. I really enjoy going.
What kinds of things to they have for sell?
The souks in Ha’il sell gold, costume jewelry, food, beauty products like oils for hair and skin and eye make up, face creams, and perfumes and cologne. They sell incense (which they burn here all the time, even in school!) and scarves for men and women, prayer rugs, carpets, drapes, and seating cushions for the home, sweets, coffee, tea.
Is there anything especially unusual that you’ve seen at the souk?
The most unusual thing I’ve seen was at a market, not exactly at a souk. I haven’t seen anything really usual at a souk. But just last week at a market I saw two freshly slaughtered goats hanging from butcher’s hooks when I went to go get eggs. I’m a carnivore and I pretty much know where my meat comes from but it was still a bit of a shock to see the goats hanging there, heads still attached. I stood there for like five minutes trying to take it all in. I have a picture.
Have you found yourself picking up more Arabic since you’ve arrived? How hard is it for a native English speaker to get around?
I have picked up more Arabic but only in a conversational sense. I can’t read it at all and Arabic numbers are still a mystery to me. It is difficult for a native English speaker to get around without working knowledge of Arabic. It is doubly hard for an English speaking woman to get around because culturally, most of the men here do not speak to women they are unfamiliar with. So, you have to get past their apprehension to even talk to you let alone have a whole conversation. Here, male or female, you must have someone who can speak Arabic and English to take you places and help you get things done. One of our drivers is a really big help in this way. So much so that we’ve taken to calling him ‘The Oracle’ (referencing a character of the same name from The Matrix) because he knows everything. I do make an effort to learn some Arabic phrases from my students and they are always excited to hear their English teacher learning their language.
You mentioned as a woman you have to have a driver to take you places?
How crazy is the driving over there compared to drivers in the U.S.? As I said before, women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia. However, males or practically any age are allowed to drive. I’m not sure of the legal driving age but I have witnessed on several occasions kids that couldn’t be more than 8 or 10 years old driving cars and trucks. Sometimes they will have adult supervision in the form of their mother or older sister or brother in the car but most times they do not. Also, child safety seats are not a thing here. People drive holding their infants and toddlers in their arms or on their laps. It is not uncommon to see a child climbing around in the car while it is moving! This is a sight that never ceases to be shocking. Though I consider myself a very independent woman, I think I would still hire a driver to get around here, as the driving and parking in Saudi is crazy. I would also have road rage here because practically no one uses a turn signal or respects traffic lanes. I would go bananas.
What is the most amazing experience you’ve had since your arrival?
Since my arrival, the most amazing experience I’ve had has been the people I’ve met here. Other expats from different countries like South Africa and England and foreigners living in Saudi from Jordan. Hearing their life experiences, their attitudes and opinions about politics, religion, and social issues and culture. I can’t say they’ve changed my opinions but they have opened my mind to different perspectives. This has been my favorite part of living here so far.
Thanks so much for sharing, Denise. I look forward to our next catch up. Hope you can find a way to stay cool in the Saudi Arabian heat!