Fun and Games in the Desert

It feels a little weird to be writing a blog about Saudi Arabia while sitting at my folks house in Southern England, but, after coming home to celebrate reaching another milestone, it’s given me a good chance to reflect on my last month’s activities. After the extreme excess of celebrating the said milestone, I think it’s quite interesting to compare the differences and similarities of the respective lifestyle you can find in one of the the most conservative countries in the world.

After meeting a few new people and getting a few invites into compounds and embassies and so forth. It’s given me a bit of a different outlook on how you can live in a place that should be so dry and unforgiving, but people always seem to find ways to entertain themselves. I’ll start with the desert itself. When I imagine the desert I think of a barren wasteland of nothing, or rolling sand dunes that stretch for hundreds of miles like you might have seen in Lawrence of Arabia or something. In reality it is quite beautiful really. At the moment the desert is in bloom, thanks to the unprecedented levels of rainfall through the winter. It’s really quite lovely to see. I’ve been on a couple of little trips out to the desert, one trip hiking over some little cliffs and another trip to a little cave relatively near my house and where I work, just hidden on the outskirts of Riyadh. It was quite humbling to go hiking  and walk up one cliff face for about 3minutes, to realise that you are probably one of the most unfit people on earth, all the while trying not to step on the wrong piece of sandstone so you don’t go tumbling down to a sandy/rocky death at the bottom. Still, the views from the top were quite lovely. On the other side, my trip down into the cave was equally death defying thanks to my clumsiness, as well as my lack of fitness. It was all a little odd at the cave because there was a mish-mash of people all with the same idea. When we arrived there was a big group of Filipinos all hanging around at the entrance, the women uncovered thanks to the relative remoteness of the area and lack of fun police to shout at them. It was a bit weird when we climbed down to the bottom and the guys were all trying to take photos of the Western women. One girl wanted to go swimming but couldn’t thanks to the likelihood of her picture being passed around all these guy’s mates for god-knows what purposes. When we came back to the top there were even some Saudis with their families taking a few snaps and enjoying the cave’s location. Both trips were also nicely rounded off by my new friend’s tradition of bringing his camping table and chairs and making everyone tea and biscuits. It was very British and oh so civilised, it made me feel like an old school colonialist, conquering the wilderness through afternoon tea. It’s also kind of a weird feeling to be out in the desert with no restrictions placed on you, as long as no-one knows where you are, it makes you feel very free indeed.

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The desert in bloom

The other side of fun in Riyadh is a little seedier than the wholesome fun to be had in the desert. There have been two events which have stuck in my mind for their strangeness in relation to the place where we are. Firstly, I went to a disco, found in the basement of a hidden room located somewhere in Riyadh to remain unknown. It was yet another surreal moment of my time here. I would describe it as something similar to a disco at a holiday camp. If anyone used to visit Pontins or Butlins or Haven holidays when they were a kid like I did, then they’ll know what I mean. It was a room full of the biggest mix of people all doing what people in the West do at discos, dancing to a variety of music and having a little bit of fun. There were all sorts of age ranges and nationalities but definitely no Saudis. The thing I remember most though is the way it defined the term ‘sausage fest’. Endless guys looking around for the four moderately attractive young women who were alone on the dance floor waiting for them to come up and try their luck. I felt like it needed narration from Sir David Attenborough – ‘Here we see the alpha male of the pack trying his mating routine on the young female, grinding on her leg to the sound of his mating call, at the moment it’s ‘Diamonds’ by Rhianna. She’s clearly not impressed though, she’s giving him the palm to the face, a familiar sign of disapproval for this particular species. Now the path is clear for the beta male to try his luck….’ And on and on it went. The girls clearly loving all the attention that maybe they wouldn’t have got, had there been more than 4 of them on the dance floor. On the other side you also had the middle aged women trying their luck too, I particularly remember the slightly rotund middle-aged woman, cleavage down to her belly button, trying her luck on the guys who failed with the four in the middle, with limited success. I have honestly never had so much fun people-watching in all my life. After getting chatting to a couple of guys there, the attention turned to after party, which I was assured was going to be good, as this particular place always has them. I went and it was eventful, unfortunately too eventful to have any mention in this blog.

The second event that is worth a mention is the Embassy brunch I visited. Seeing as the embassies are sovereign soil of the countries they represent, it means they tend to have full bars and things otherwise prohibited in Saudi Arabia. It leads to an interesting scenario where people obviously go for a bit of a jolly and a bit of social fun, but in this case it was a little weird as it finished at three in the afternoon. As you can imagine, people from England or wherever tend to overdo the booze if they haven’t had any real stuff for a while. So you’re faced with the image of guys doing endless jagerbombs at midday, like they’re on a stag-do in Prague or something, then getting turfed out onto the streets of Riyadh in the middle of the day, hopefully not to get arrested for being a pissed up nutter, while stopping to take a piss on a building or something. It was again a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon though. The music was fine and the bar particularly enjoyable, if a little pricey. When I arrived I was immediately informed falling into the pool warranted a lifetime ban from any future event. Ok, no problem, give the pool a wide berth. The buffet was looking particularly good. I managed to fill up on about twenty slices of bacon, 10 sausage patties and half a suckling pig, pork being one of the joys of home I miss the most, all washed down with several cans of Heineken and some Jager. Now the key was to find a seat out of the sun and try not to fall in the pool. All very difficult but manageable nonetheless. The social scene is very interesting in Riyadh. It’s very much a networking scene and it seems very cliquey. People have their groups and their crowd and it can feel a little difficult to get into sometimes. I mean I know people who have been in the country a year or more and have very little to no access to these kind of events. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to go again, maybe with a bit of a crew next time. I’m thinking maybe it’ll be better in the evening though, so the darkness can hide the inebriation a little better 🙂

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A Day at the Races

Well, it’s been a manic last few weeks professionally, socially and personally. Work seem intent on making us work as many hours in a day as possible regardless of the quality of lessons we are able to provide. At the moment we are teaching 7 periods in a day (the contracted amount is 5, so we are at least paid for the overtime), and spend the day moving like zombies from one class to the next, monotonously working through the books and paying no real attention to the quality of education we are providing these guys. Unfortunately, this is more or less what we have to do at the moment and it really isn’t a problem. It’s a feature of the system here (and perhaps in other education systems around the world) that we must finish the syllabi we are given and get the students to pass the tests. This doesn’t really translate to practical learning, more just a bunch of kids who are able to memorise test questions and barely get through the exams. The books we use are also far too hard for most of the levels we teach – asking an elementary level student to read a four page article on environmental issues the world faces, for instance, and then infer meaning in order to answer various questions, all the while the kid is unable to say ‘Hello, my name is Khaled’ correctly. Similarly with the writing component, we have guys that rarely write in Arabic, being asked in lessons to compose pieces far too advanced for their levels, when in the end, during their exam, they’ll just be asked to write 100 words about their best friend or something. It’s not difficult to see why the students start to lose interest after a few months. When they arrive they are usually quite enthusiastic and try and learn a little, but by the end they seem to be so disillusioned and bored that we just have to battle with them in the class. Recently I had a class that was just coming to the end and they were doing review packs in preparation for their final. My 45minute lesson was spent trying to get them to do just one page containing about 9-10 multiple choice grammar questions. ‘Come on guys we need to prepare for the final!’ ‘Ok teacher, 1 period, 1 page, ok?’ ‘ yes just please do something, put your phones away and no, you can’t go to the bathroom!’ This is basically how every class went until they finished, and maybe 3 of the 12 would actually manage the page, the rest would just relentlessly try and go to the bathroom. There is a rule that only one at a time can go and just for 5minutes. At the beginning of each period there would be a little debate as to who could go to the toilet when. ‘Teacher I will do the page and then I will go to the bathroom at 14.50 for ten minutes. Deal?’ This was a favourite negotiating tactic of one of the brighter students in the class. Fair play to him I thought, at least he did the page.

In amongst the manic working schedule, I was also afforded an opportunity to go home for a long weekend following the death of my grandmother. Not the best of circumstances for a trip home but it was nice to get back to England. I was a little worried actually about getting the permission to leave. My work and the principal were all very understanding about the situation and agreed with me that I should go home for the funeral. Great. Unfortunately, I still needed to get the protocol and permission for how to take such a trip from my contractor. Thanks to the bureaucracy here there are actually 7 people who have to approve any leave for the employees, including the principal of the institution and my contractor. Who the other 5 are, I have no idea, but their names were in the system so they had to check it off too. I emailed my contractor who failed to respond for a couple days by email and I was forced to call him. He claimed to have not received my mail. For me there was no real problem in the end, and I was able to go home and conduct my personal business there. I do dread the day that there is a real emergency though, and I have to fly back immediately. It took like 4days to get all the approval I needed to take the trip. I was also lucky in the fact that I had already been given my passport back (late, incidentally, so I had been unable to take a trip to Bahrain the previous weekend). I think it would have been an even more stressful week had I been relying on them getting me a visa and getting my passport to me in the 6 days we had until the funeral. I heard one particularly sad story of a former co-worker trying frantically to get approval to go home, as his father had fallen deathly ill and only had a few days left. Only to be fobbed off until his father had actually died, then finally being given the permission to go for the funeral. There is a definite sense that the contractors we work for are not only incompetent, but they also couldn’t give a fuck about us as people. But hey, I shouldn’t criticise my place too much as I didn’t have any real problems (this time).

There were a couple of interesting things that I noticed at the airport too. Firstly, the massive racism in my favour, and secondly, the apparent relaxation of segregation and women covering up. The racism was quite  unusual but interesting nonetheless. When I was going through security there were several lines. As I understood it, it was non GCC men on the left, GCC countries on the right, and women on the right as well. The men on the left were all from Pakistan, apart from a few white guys, and there were a few families on the right. The Pakistani guys were moving quite slowly through the check and the women went through very quickly. When the women were all through and it appeared no more were joining the queue, the National Guard security guys came along and pulled all the white guys out of the lines and made a new queue for white people only. When the Pakistani guys saw the small, fast queue to their right, they naturally tried to join it as well. However, the security guys didn’t like that much and started shouting at them ‘No! Pakistanis on the left, Pakistanis on the left!’ and aggressively chucking them back to their line. It was was all very reminiscent of colonial racism or something, don’t mix the white people with the riff raff, They deserve better. I felt quite bad for the Pakistanis. Not only for this slight, but in general they really are treated like cattle here. Something for the Saudis to work on I think. When I got back to Riyadh after the trip I had a funny chat with a British Pakistani guy I work with, who had been on the receiving end of this very same racism. When he’d got to the front of the ‘white’ line, the guard noticed him and tried to drag him to the back of the ‘brown’ line. Needless to say he was somewhat peeved by that and had a big confrontation with the guard in front of all the security and he was allowed through. Must have been a tense situation though, the National Guard are not used to people telling them no, I fear.

Anyway, the other thing at the airport was the relaxation of the segregation laws. It was immediately noticeable that a lot of the Western women in particular, had removed their abayas and were just sitting around the place. Also the eating areas were seemingly not segregated either. It was like a portal into a world without these type of rules. Kind of like Saudi limbo I guess. I remember when I left Saudi for the first time I noticed the same thing. I was flying to Beirut in Lebanon and had already noticed the gradual removal of the headscarves and cloaks in the waiting areas. It was when I got on the plane that I really noticed it though. It seemed that they had sat all the women at the front of the plane, and when I got on, I was confronted with the sight of all of these strikingly beautiful Lebanese women whipping off their headscarves and shaking out all of these big bouffant curly hairdos that had been unseen outside their homes until now. It was like a great big communal sigh of relief – ‘Finally, we’re free! Let’s go home and have a glass of wine and hang out with some boys’. I’m guessing this is what they were thinking, but hopefully it’s true.

I’ve had some interesting social encounters in the last few weeks as well. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to my friends house on Saturday afternoon for no particular reason. After I arrived I realised that my mate had organised a barbecue, I was a little annoyed he hadn’t mentioned it, as I had come empty handed. Anyway there were a few guys there and his wife was inside, doing what I had no idea. My friend, I should mention, is a British Pakistani Muslim and the other 4 or 5 guys were all Muslims from the US or the UK. My friend came and whispered to me that we had to keep the wives separate for this little get together as some of the guys were following a very strict interpretation of Islam and didn’t like to mix the men and women together. Not a problem I thought, we are in Saudi Arabia, I can get on with the guys and eat some good kebab and chicken. Anyway, after a couple of hours cooking and socialising with the guys, prayer time rolled around at about 3 o clock. The guys started to take their leave and go do their prayers. After the praying guys had left my mate proceeded to get all the wives and girls outside. There were like 6 or 7 women hidden away in the room, that I had no idea about. One was again following the stricter form of Islam and stayed inside. I found it funny that now the men were gone the girls were able to come out to play. That wasn’t all though. It turned out to be my mate’s and his son’s birthday and they had a cake. But, of course, they couldn’t get that out until all the guys had gone either, as birthdays are also forbidden. I was again annoyed he hadn’t told me that it was a secret birthday party but at the same time left wondering what the people there were thinking. Ten minutes after all the guys had left for prayers, we now had birthday cake and women to talk to. It’s very difficult to know the protocol though, things like ‘can we talk?’, ‘do we shake hands?’, ‘kiss on the cheek maybe?’ It was all very confusing because you don’t know who is a more liberal Muslim, and who is stricter. After a bit of time I was able to figure it out. When the guys came back from prayers, some of them left, I guess because of the desegregation of the party. It turned out that my friend had actually organised it so his wife could make friends with some other wives who had only recently arrived in the country. I guess It can be difficult for the housewives here, it must be a little boring sometimes. Still, it was a good opportunity for me to mix with some different people and make some new friends. One person I met actually invited me to the horse races the following weekend, and that was an experience in itself too. It was a very formal private party that I had to get a ticket for. It again showed the different sides to Saudi Arabia. In our private function, there was no segregation and women were allowed to be uncovered, I guess as it was a private event. It was quite weird though, to go onto the balcony of the private room and look down at the families who were there in the crowds, all covered and being watched by the Muttawa (the religious police – aptly named as ‘the committee for the prevention of vice and propagation of virtue’, nice mouthful there), who were roaming the crowds making sure absolutely no-one was having any fun whatsoever. Thankfully they weren’t invited to our private party. I heard another story recently about how the Muttawa are actually made up of a lot of ex-criminals who are given the choice of prison or memorising the Quran and joining the Muttawa. It kind of reminds me of the ‘Night’s Watch’ in ‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘They were given a choice, take the sword or take the black – most choose the sword!’ I’m not sure as to the truth or number but it is a commonly told story here. Anyway, while one group of covered women and their kids were waving at us like we were some kind of visiting foreign dignitaries, I wondered again what they must be thinking. They could see all of us sitting up there uncovered and intermingling with one another and for them the same thing is absolutely forbidden. It’s all very hypocritical. I was also left a little confused by the whole concept of having horse races. I thought that it was all about gambling and I had imagined that if you removed the gambling aspect then it would be no fun. In terms of atmosphere I was correct, there were no crowds frantically cheering the horses. I mean if the King had a horse in the race, it won. If the King didn’t have a horse but a Prince did, it won. It wasn’t that difficult to pick winners, even without a form book. At our party they did have a type of gambling but it was not that exciting really – You could pick a horse for 20Riyals and if it won, your name went into a raffle for the winnings. All very unexciting. I made a comment that this was halal gambling, only to be informed that it was technically still a sin. My only thought was ‘if we’re sinning anyway, why don’t we just do it the normal way and then we can have more fun and win some actual money’. Even if the actual races were a little disappointing, the event was still a good social occasion and a good chance to again meet some new friends. The food was also fantastic, a full buffet of Arabic delights, seafood and desserts. I wanted to take a picture, but seeing as it was a formal event, it was a bit stuffy. I didn’t want to look like the pauper at the feast – ‘wow, we don’t have food like this in the ghetto where I live…’ After the races had finished we were also able to go to a party in a compound and enjoy a little bit more normalcy, but that’s a story for another day 😉

‘Tis the season…

Spending the holiday season in Riyadh has definitely been boring and depressing, but there has at least been some brief respite from some quarters. I spent Christmas Day at work as usual with absolutely no mention being made that it was Christmas. I mean aside from the other westerners who hadn’t had the foresight to arrive four months before the holidays began, that is, and therefore be eligible for holidays. I was also wished ‘merry/happy Christmas’ by one of the cleaning staff and the guy who serves me breakfast, both of whom are from Pakistan, which I thought was a nice touch from them. It really did seem like Christmas was a bad word to be avoided at all costs. Before one of my supervisors returned to England for his vacation he wished the people in his office a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, but was told by his colleague (a very serious bearded fellow) that he wasn’t able to return the wishes as he didn’t believe in Jesus. When asked what relevance that had on him wishing someone else to enjoy their holiday season, as the said supervisor had previously wished him ‘Eid mubarak’ on one of the Islamic Eid holidays, he refused to be drawn on the matter and plainly continued to refuse. Fair enough I guess, if it’s against your moral code, but it definitely leads to some ill feeling at the office. The thing that kind of got me down wasn’t the fact that very few people wished me a happy Christmas, I mean, I hadn’t expected the students to have any idea it was even a holiday for me, just as non-muslims have no idea when the Islamic holidays fall. Some of the kids did offer me some wishes but mostly after the actual day. It was more the British muslims avoiding the topic that got me down the most. I’m sure they knew it was Christmas, but they still said nothing to their non-muslim colleagues. I figured I could read this in two ways. Firstly, that they knew I was probably pissed off that I was working on Christmas Day and didn’t want to appear to be rubbing it in. Or secondly, that they were following the same example as set by the bearded fellow a few days before. Either way I was a little let down by this, as I like most of those guys and we have a good, friendly working relationship in and around the office. I actually  have no idea if it is haram (forbidden) to wish someone a happy Christmas, so if any muslims read this blog, please let me know if I’m getting my knickers in a twist for no good reason.

After I finished work I went home to KFC for dinner and tried to call some family and friends, which proved impossible as my internet mysteriously stopped working for the entire duration of the evening. This lead me to suspect the Saudi government of leading a conspiracy to stop me from having any enjoyment whatsoever on Christmas Day. Still, at least I had some of the Colonel’s finest to drown my sorrows with. On a lighter note, I had now reached 3months in my job and finished my probationary period. This meant that I was able to request a multiple exit/re-entry visa and get my passport back from the guys at head office, and perhaps feel a little less like they actually own me. I immediately applied for this and was told by the guy to send him the receipt for payment (500Riyals for a 6month multiple use visa – very much worth the cost), all done very simply through my online banking, and he’d get on it. After I paid he then requested a colour scan copy of my Iqama (residence permit), seemingly to make my life a little more difficult. Please bear in mind that the same guy got me the Iqama and sent it to me with a photocopy. Yet this was the third time I had been asked to send them a scan copy. ‘What have you done with the other copies?’ I wanted to ask, but in order to not piss off this guy who’s going to get me my passport back, I bit my tongue. It’s the same thing with photos. When i first arrived on my first stint they told me to bring 10 photos for the Iqama process and other bureaucracy, yet when I finally got the card, it had the photo of me that they took at the airport when I went through customs. Same thing this time, they got me to bring all the photos and then the photo on my card was the same as the first one from three years ago. What are they doing with all these photos? I have an image of an office full of filing cabinets and drawers bursting at the seams with passport photos. Then some guy sitting amongst them all making a giant collage or something. Perhaps one of those posters of Yoda that is made up of hundreds of other peoples faces. Anyway, back to the scan copy. As I don’t have a scanner I went to a little print shop across the street with my USB stick, assuming I would be in and out in five minutes. This was not the case. Unfortunately, the guy doing it for me had no clue how to operate the scanner and spent an hour trying to save the file as a PDF. There was clearly a problem with it, but he had no idea how to fix it. He was a polite, well mannered guy, but spoke no English whatsoever, so I couldn’t help him. He had even given me a seat next to him so I was able to watch the whole frustrating process. Finally when he’d had enough he gave me the mouse and I saved it as a JPEG file, and was done in about 30seconds. So after spending an hour on Christmas Day watching a guy try and scan my I.D, I definitely felt happier. It was yet another surreal moment sitting in a shop surrounded by people staring at me – I stick out like a sore thumb – watching a guy who can’t speak any English try and operate a program that is made in English, and me not being able to help. He didn’t make me pay him for the service, bless him. He was probably a little embarrassed.

Over the Christmas period I was also given one of the worst classes I have ever taught, fortunately just for a week. It was bad because the students had actually finished the academic part of their course and they were just waiting to go to the practical training department. This meant that their motivation to do anything was absolutely non-existent. They pretty much refused to do any work I gave them and it was a constant ball-ache at the end of the day. I asked my supervisor what he expected me to do with them and he said ‘just babysit’. So that’s pretty much what I did. Just sat in the room in the corner and told them to keep the noise down if they got too loud or boisterous. On the second last day I saw them, they were particularly animated and noisy. Me waving in the corner, ‘hello, hello, be quiet please’ was having no effect. I managed to get one of their attention and I asked him what they were talking about. ‘Sex, teacher’ he said. They were immediately all silent and now focussed on me. ‘Can you believe that in this room only two of us like to fuck girls’. To say I was taken aback is the understatement of the century. Now we had crossed into dangerous territory and I had to be very careful what I said. This kind of discussion is absolutely forbidden and I would probably lose my job if someone came in. ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘What’s this thing in-between a woman’s legs?’ he asked me, slapping in the inside of his thighs. I was again stunned by his question and one of the other students fortunately saved me by shouting ‘pussy’ from the other side of the room. ‘Only me and him like pussy’ he said pointing at another student. ‘All the others fuck boys’ – There are 11 guys in the class. ‘Why? I asked ‘Isn’t that absolutely forbidden?’ ‘Yes teacher, but if I sex with a girl, I must marry her. He say that with a boy you can sex and then sex again with another. What’s it like in your country teacher?’ He asked me right at the end. I managed to deflect the question until I was saved by the bell at the end of the class. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to them about it. It’s something that they could have used against me in the future. It’s quite common here that if you discipline or fail students, they may well go above your head and make some claims about things you’ve said or done in the class. So you do have to be very careful what you say. This whole topic is again interesting though. In this country homosexual acts are punishable by death, yet these guys were talking about it openly with a stranger. Another colleague of mine told me how at his last job in a military institution, the students would joke that the pretty boy of the class acted as their ‘wife’ in the barracks. He would just sleep all through the day, as he was presumably being rooted all through the night. How much of all this is just my students pulling my leg, or just hearsay and rumour is difficult to tell. It is, however, not what you would expect from this country.

I actually managed to forget it was New Years until I was reminded by all the Facebook posts. I was at least wished a happy New Year by a lot of the students, as I guess it’s not associated with any religion and it’s easier to notice on the calendar. I still didn’t celebrate it though and this holiday season has gone down as one of the most unmemorable in my life. I guess I’ll have to make up for it next year 😉

Ode to boredom

You know things must be bad when the highlight of the week is the new Burger King that’s just opened 100 metres from your front door. That makes it at least 75 metres closer than KFC and 500 metres closer than Maccy-Ds. Looks like I’ll be eating a lot more whoppers from now on. All in all it has been a poor week. It seems my enthusiasm for my job since my last post has waned somewhat, and perhaps the build up to Christmas has had some kind of an effect. All the cheery messages on Facebook and my colleagues going home for the holidays has put quite a dampener on things here. I’m wondering if my supervisors at work are going to arrange some kind of extra work for us to do on Christmas Day just to rub salt into the wounds. A favourite of theirs is to arrange exams after the working day has ended and making us stay to invigilate them. I haven’t had to do it yet but if there was ever a time for them to do it and really piss me off, Christmas Day would be the day. Hopefully they won’t be such utter bastards. 

Unfortunately things are going to to be quiet on the social front over the holiday period too, as many people have gone home as you would expect. As well as that there’s a lot of sickness/manflu (for those who don’t know: manflu.info) going round at the moment thanks to the dramatic decrease in temperature we’ve had here – the temperature’s gone down to single figures and they’ve even had snow in the North of the country, leading to quite a funny video from this young man.

I haven’t seen the snow myself but if the catastrophe that is the rain I witnessed is anything to go by, then snow would probably be a cataclysmic event if it were to ever fall in Riyadh. Until then I’ll just have a laugh at the ostrich boy. It really does feel cold in the mornings here at the moment though. When I get to work some of the students look like they’re about to go ski-ing they’re wrapped up so much. I mean, I say cold but by the mid-afternoon, it’s back up around 15 degrees again. I don’t own a winter coat or anything. Just a a little scarf for the chilly morning air.

In the last week I’ve also started teaching a couple of new classes, one of which is quite interesting. They’re a rowdy bunch with a couple of good spokesmen in there to keep me entertained. ‘Teacher let’s go Bahrain’ One of them suggested on our first class ‘There we can get some whisky and meet girls!’ He said it whilst simultaneously making a hand gesture where he slapped the palm of his hand onto the top of his fist – ‘Do you know what this means? We can do it in Bahrain, no problem.’ From the context it’s pretty clear what he means and I just laugh along with them. ‘Not this weekend, maybe next time!’ I tell them. ‘Oh, Ok teacher come to my house, I have whisky there too. And white wine. Do you like marijuana?’ It’s difficult to know if he’s being serious, but I guess probably not. On the other hand he did show me his pipe and the queue along the bridge to Bahrain every Thursday (the working week is Sunday to Thursday here) usually takes about 2-3hours to get through, or so I’m told. The people here are definitely getting up to no good behind closed doors or across open borders it would seem. The only experience I have of this here is on the Western compounds which seem to be exempt from the strict restrictions placed on Saudi society and afford the foreigners who live on them a little bit of Western comfort and lifestyle. I mean we’re all going to burn in hell anyway so why not let us live our heathen ways. Consequently, Saudis are usually not allowed into these places so I guess they have to entertain themselves in other ways.

In another lesson with the same class the topic was socialising. So, I asked them how they socialised with their mates, expecting the same shitty answers as always – ‘go drifting, go cafe, watch football, smoke shisha.’ I’ve said it before, there really is fuck all for the young people to do here. When they gave me a new answer – ‘Teacher, we do turqissam.’ I’m not sure if that’s how to spell it or if it’s even the right word but it sounded strange. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘I’ll show you, pretend you’re shopping at the mall teacher’ another particularly chatty student enthused. He then wrote something on a piece of paper, popped his collar and coolly walked past me and dropped it in my pocket. ‘So what’s this? I asked him, looking at the paper. ‘It would have my phone number on it’ he said. ‘This is what we do when we go to the mall, we find girls and drop our phone or BBM numbers in their pockets. Turqiiiiissam.’ I immediately assume this is the reason that young single males are not actually allowed in the malls when families are in them. ‘Of course teacher, but how else can we talk to girls?’ Another student then said another, older method was to simply drive past groups of girls and just throw the paper at them out the window. Less classy, I thought, but it does give new meaning to the term ‘drive-by’. An old friend of mine here told me a couple of years ago he’d heard that the Saudis would hook up with each other in the malls through their Blackberry messenger, and whenever we went to the mall he would switch on his bluetooth and hope for a connection somehow. ‘What’s your phone named?’ I asked him one day. ‘Badboi1’ he said, ‘so they know I’m game’. I always used to ask him how the girls would get his password, but he could never answer. Now it would seem that ‘turqissam’ is the answer. If only he’d had that knowledge back then, he might have been up to his eyeballs in affairs. I think the whole thing does go to show again how the teenagers or youth of Saudi Arabia are again no different to the youth anywhere else in the world. They all still want to fuck each other even if it’s absolutely forbidden. The difference here is that instead of a tongue-lashing from your parents if you get caught, you get an actual lashing across your arms from the police instead. At least that’s what the guys told me when I quizzed them a little further. ‘It seems risky’ I said to them all – ‘Yes, of course teacher. But it’s worth it.’

In a different class we got talking about women driving. Regardless of what you might read in the foreign press, the general feeling I have from every student I’ve spoken to on this matter is that women are definitely not going to be driving here any time soon. It really does seem like a big cultural issue that the women can’t drive, and even if, by some miracle, the government allows it, I think many men won’t. The people seem to be adamant that the women don’t need it. ‘Our women are queens, teacher’ is a general response I’ve heard many times. ‘If they need to go somewhere a driver will take them, they don’t have to do anything.’ A lot of people have also told me that they think it’s unsafe for women to drive on the roads as men might try and crash into them on purpose, so they can talk to them. Or the police might stop them for no reason, in order to have their wicked way with them. I told one group that I have a driver and I hate it, I’d much prefer to have my own car. ‘Yes but you’re a man, teacher, all men hate this, we need to drive’ was the response. I think that the cultural divide is too big here and the conditioned thinking too ingrained, so I drop my argument as our fundamental views are clearly too different. Back in October there was a planned driving protest in the country, and some women were going to get behind the wheel and drive around for a day. Apparently some women did it but the whole episode seems long forgotten now. There was even a news report at the time that a cleric had come out and said that it was dangerous for women to drive as it might damage their ovaries and hinder their ability to have kids. Apparently sitting in the driver’s seat is more dangerous than the passenger seat. On a lighter note, there was another rather amusing video going round at the time that explained the situation far better than I can ever hope to –

In another effort to stave off boredom, I did actually decide to go and get my driver’s license so I can drive a car, that is if I ever build up enough courage to get on the road, and go somewhere for the weekend (at about 12p a litre for petrol it definitely pays to drive here). Getting the license was an experience in itself. I told work I would be late in and went down to the Dallah Driving  School at Al Soly, arriving there at 7am. I was told beforehand that, as a white Westerner, I may well be bumped to the front of the queue. Another quite racist but beneficial  (for me at least) aspect of Saudi society. I may not have to wait around with the rest of the riff-raff. After I arrived I was immediately grabbed by one of the guides outside who took me to organise the paperwork. Because I have a UK license I’m not required to take the driving test (which apparently involves driving a car around a corner and reversing, and takes all of 4 minutes) and I just get my own license transferred to a Saudi one. To sort out the paperwork I had to go across the street where a whole row of shops to facilitate the needs of the license had popped up. As with anything in Saudi Arabia there is a lot of bureaucracy. I needed photos, a translation of my UK license, a medical, photocopies of my UK license and Saudi I.D and I needed to pay for the Saudi License. I brought my photocopies with me and the first guide took me across the street to sort out the rest. Great, I thought, everything’s across the street. That seems disconcertingly easy for here. While everything was across the street, just to keep it massively confusing, everything I needed was in it’s own individual shop. Fortunately, I had my guide who did the first part, starting the file of papers I needed, paying for the license itself and translation. He then took me to my next guide who took care of the photos and paying for the medical. He then handed me to my next guide, who drove me 5 minutes round the corner for my medical. He almost crashed no fewer than three times on that 5minute journey. At one stage he was careening into a T junction where it looked like we would be met at the same time by a big truck. The question ‘has he seen the truck?’ went through my mind as I tightly gripped the door handle. I needn’t have worried though as he just decided to hammer his horn all the way to the junction, I guess to let the truck know he wasn’t stopping. Anyway, we arrived and I wiped the sweat off my brow and headed into the clinic for my ‘medical’. The woman behind the counter looked at me and said ‘what’s your blood-type? ‘O+’ I replied. Then she wrote it down and said something else to my guide. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘you wear glasses?’ ‘Yes, I’m wearing them now.’ I wasn’t sure if it was a question or statement but it didn’t seem to be a problem. The nice lady stamped my file about 9 times in various places and sent us on our way, all of about 90 seconds after we’d walked in. Not the most thorough medical I’ve ever had, but I was beginning to like the well-oiled machine that is the driving license process at Al Soly’s Dallah Driving School. When we got back to the shops, my previous guide came out and told me where to take the file – ‘go inside’ was his descriptive instruction. So 45minutes after I’d arrived I went in and had to queue for another hour or so to get another stamp on my file. I wasn’t pushed to the front unfortunately, maybe I didn’t flutter my eyelashes enough when I got there, or maybe it was because I was wearing a hoody. I had thought to wear my business suit. I think they wouldn’t have let a white businessman wait around with the rest of the plebs, but hey, comfort first and all that. And I really don’t mind waiting my turn, perhaps it’s in my British nature to queue for things properly. After I got my stamp, I had to visit one more window with the complete file and then they brought my license out exactly 2hours and 460Sr (about 75quid)   after I had arrived. For the Kingdom (and considering how many shops, clinics and windows I had to visit) this is a lightening fast bureaucratic process, if I’d have been bumped up it would’ve only taken an hour. I was amazed at the efficiency of it all, I mean I was confused as hell with absolutely everything, but the guides had just enough English to get me to blindly follow them to the end of the process. Brilliant. Now I just have to build up the nerve to get on the road. Not something I’m really looking forward to, but I’m sure a weekend road trip to Bahrain will make a good topic for another post 😉

Working nine ’til five

My job this time round is a good one. In my opinion anyway. Some of my colleagues are less than enthusiastic about it. We teach a lot of classes in a day and have a seemingly endless amount of paperwork to work through. For me this is good, even if it’s tiring – it’s better to be busy than sitting around doing sweet f.a all day, as was the situation with my last job here.

For the first couple of days I had my induction, which was a baptism of fire in itself. Over the course of two days myself and two other new colleagues met with various supervisors and higher ups to learn about all the various systems in place; attendance, absence, lateness, lesson plans, pacing schedules, safety, different courses, books, holidays, payroll, lesson observations, smart board systems and on and on. I should also mention that they are obsessed with technology in the Middle East and everything is organised through their computer systems, all of which was explained along with the corresponding topic. Unfortunately all the systems are different for each topic and to say we were overwhelmed with all the information is an understatement. About a quarter of the way through the first day I just thought to myself ‘nod your head and just pick it up as you go, what do they expect? I’m not Johnny Mnemonic over here.’ There was absolutely no way of remembering all the info I was given. ‘Where can I find the attendance registers for my classes?’ I asked on my first teaching day. ‘Tut, don’t you now?’ was the rather condescending reply ‘didn’t they tell you on the induction? It’s in the shared folder’. ‘Where’s that?’ ‘Tut, don’t you know? They should’ve mentioned that too.’ I learned that one of my less socially adept supervisors would condescend to me every time I didn’t know something. That’ll teach me for not remembering all of those 17000 things they mentioned. One of my colleagues is an older gentleman whose memory is not what it once was, and he still gets condescended to on a regular basis whenever he asks this particular supervisor a question. Although I think he suspects it might have something to do with the fact that he has a Jewish last name. ‘So and so (not the same guy as the supervisor) asked me if I was Jewish earlier’ He said to me on one afternoon. ‘Ooooh, what did you say?’ I said back. ‘I said no, even though he saw my nose enter the room before I did’ was one of the funnier things he’s said to me on this topic. At risk of stating the obvious, they do not like like Judaism here. Quite a common sentence from the students if you bring up the Second World War is ‘Hitler, very good man, kill many Jew.’ I mean I’m paraphrasing a little, but you get the gist. I try and explain to them that Hitler is in fact the embodiment of all evil and that he probably didn’t like Arabs much either, but they don’t have any of it.

The best part of my induction was the meeting with the head of the academic department, one of the few Saudis who work at my place (the highest positions are usually reserved for Saudis) on the first day of induction. He’s a pleasant friendly man, who I’ve come to see as quite reasonable and far less authoritarian than some big bosses I’ve had here in the past. During our meeting he gave us a long speech about what it meant to work for the company and what the company expected from us, how we should act and be and so forth. He went on to put extra stress on how we should be flexible to the needs of the company, for instance, if they needed to transfer us to another location or teach a different subject, like maths for example, this is the way to get ahead. ‘Ok, so they like yes-men here, people who do what they’re told. No problem, as long as he doesn’t ask me to move to the desert or teach maths, I’ll be fine.’ I thought to myself. Up next he asked us to give a thorough description of our teaching careers so far and indicated that I should start. I then went on in detail about all the various teaching institutions, countries and environments I’d taught in, as well as all the various types of English I’d taught. ESP, EAP, General English, Business English, kids, adults and blah blah blah. Before I’d finished he seemed to get bored and cut me off. ‘So, you have a lot experience.’ He said, ‘When you were teaching business English, you probably had to teach some math, no?’ – Fuck, he wants me to teach maths, dammit – ‘Unfortunately, business English involves no maths sir, that would be taught in the maths department…’ He looked disappointed and immediately turned to the next guy. ‘Ok, now you tell me about your experience’. My colleague was smarter than I and reminded him that we had an appointment to go and observe a class being taught and we had to go. Nice one I thought, smart move, but alas no, the boss was equal to it – ‘oh I have to give your colleague a surprise observation, I’ll just do it now while you’re there.’ Uh-oh, now not only had we not lost him, we’d stitched up our new colleague with a surprise observation too. ‘I think this guy’s desperate for a math teacher’ I said to my new colleague, and he nodded his head in agreement. Luckily, when we got to the class his Saudi side came out. He sat in a chair at the front, reclined it to the max, immediately got bored, got his phone out and left within ten minutes. Phew, my induction colleague wiped his brow – dodged a bullet there, no maths for him. The next day when we got our schedule for the induction, I noticed another meeting with the bossman. ‘Didn’t we have this meeting yesterday?’ I asked the guy organising it. ‘Yes, but boss said you didn’t finish it’. Touche, he’s going to get his math teacher, I thought. Anyway, the meeting turned out to be unrelated to maths, as, for reason’s unknown, he wanted to show us a tree diagram with the hierarchical structure of the company on it. This was a tree diagram that would put King Henry viii’s family tree to shame. Never before had I seen such a complex structure within a company, layers upon layers of bosses and departments. ‘Where are we?’ I asked, he pointed us out – oh, at the bottom, one position higher than the students, great. I guess it’s good to know, although I suspect he was just indirectly asserting his authority, seeing as we’d all seemed to dodge the maths bullet. In hindsight, now I wish I’d accepted the maths position. I invigilated a high level maths exam once and noticed the level of the questions was some of the most basic maths I can remember. What is the volume of this cube? What is 8×8? It really was maths for middle school kids. Dammit I thought, I could’ve got on his good side. Even I can teach this maths, now he’s probably marked me as a no-man.

For the first month or so I was only teaching two or three classes a day so it was a good way to get to know the students and get used to all the systems in place. The students themselves were as I expected. Some nice kids, but generally the worst students on earth. The kids from the East and West, Jeddah and Dammam are generally a bit more open and better students, with a better level of English. Whereas the kids from Riyadh, particularly the Bedouin guys, are quite terrible really. I mean, they come from an education system where everyone passes and no-one has to really work for anything. They also lack, what for me are, basic manners, things like waiting for your turn to speak. Basic rules of conversation here seem to be that the first person starts and then the next one doesn’t wait for him to finish, he just starts speaking over him. The next one does the same and so on, until everyone is speaking. I walked into a class in progress once and it was like a nightmare school scenario with 20 students all yelling and throwing things and the teacher just sitting at the front ineffectively shouting something about pronouns, I could barely hear him and I was about two metres away. This is a worst case, but frequent, scenario. I’ve been quite lucky insofar as I’ve been able to maintain good rapport with my guys whilst also asserting a level of authority over them. It’s a difficult balance and I have to kick their arses sometimes but generally it’s not too bad. The thing you have to remember in this country in general, is that they do everything possible so the kids can’t fail. I go back to the maths exam and they had multiple choice answers. For maths. What’s the area of this circle? A) 1200, B) 16, C) 0.1, D) 0.004. You didn’t even need to do the maths half the time. The English exams are a little harder but they’re still carbon copies of the same questions we give them in class in the review lessons right before the exam. I had to assess the speaking level of a particularly weak class a month or so ago and I hadn’t done it before, so I asked one of the supervisors to give me a hand with the scoring. ‘So, you’ve got to give them two marks out of five, one for grammar and one for vocab’ he said. ‘Ok, can I give this guy zero and zero? I’ve never heard him speak one word of English, he’s basically useless.’ ‘Noooo, no, no you can’t do that, he’ll fail if he gets zero. Give him two and two. That’s the lowest’. So you see, it’s not really about teaching them anything, it’s about getting them to pass the course. Which I think is not so different from the concept of standardised tests that we have all over the West too, maybe it’s just a bit more blatant over here in KSA.

As I’ve said before, there are some very nice kids here and we do have a laugh and a joke sometimes. I say kids when, in fact, they vary in age from about 18-24. They do seem much younger mentally. It very much feels like teaching 15year olds sometimes, maybe because of the closed nature of the country and the fact that they are very much molly-coddled and spoilt by their families. They do have a very cheeky sense of humour though, and usually do everything they can to get on your good side. Some of the most obvious buttering up of the teachers goes on – ”Teacher, you are the best one teacher, and the most handsome.’ ‘Why, thank you, but you still have to finish the exercise Khaled.’ ‘Ok no problem teacher, we all love you.’ These are quite frequent exchanges with students, which they quite clearly say to everyone. On another day I got quite angry with a class when one of them jammed the wrong end of a pencil into the electric sharpener and broke it. I shouted at them and let them know how disappointed I was, about their lack of respect for other people’s things and I demanded to know who had done it. Silence. Ok then I’ll have to report it to the academic supervisor, I told them. Then one of the smarter students raised his hand and said ‘ It was me teacher, I’m sorry’, then another said the same, and another, until I had half the class all taking the blame. I had guessed which one did it and after the class the guy who first took the blame confirmed it to me. I thought it was nice that they all stuck together to protect the one bad egg. ‘He has a brain of a child, teacher’ the kid told me, ‘I have to help him.’  It’s very much a tribal place, and a tribal culture that dominates. Even in class the strong students think nothing of sharing their work with the weaker students, regardless of the fact that if the students somehow manage to fail enough exams they will get kicked out in the end. ‘No copying’ I say, ‘it won’t help you in the exam’. ‘Not copying teacher, helping. Just helping.’ It’s always the same answer that comes back.

Getting settled

On 23rd September I was picked up by a polite chap from Pakistan who worked for my contractor in Dammam, and he was entrusted with my safe passage to Riyadh. As it’s only a four-hour drive, they prefer to send someone down to drop me off and then drive back the next day, it’s cheaper I guess and then he could also handle the paperwork involved with reporting at work on the first day – as this was between my contractor and my company, I had no say in the matter. Not a problem for me and at least I had some company on the drive and could find out a little bit about where I was going to be staying in the city. For three nights the contractor would put me up in a hotel called the Rest Inn Hotel, just off exit 9 on the Eastern ring road, and then I was on my own. I was familiar with the area from my previous stay and was quite happy to be there, mostly because I knew there was a decent mall with a good European supermarket inside. Usually I’m very fond of sampling the local delights and Arabic food is pretty darn tasty, but it’s still nice to have a few home comforts, especially in the harsh environment of Riyadh. One thing that was bothering me a little was how far I would be from work, but seeing as I couldn’t extract this information from my driver, I just figured I’d wait and see when we had to drive into work the next morning. So, after a rather uneventful 4 hour drive into the city we arrived at my hotel. I say uneventful because we only saw one jack-knifed 18-wheeler going in the opposite direction. I mean, it was Saudi Arabia’s national day and a day off work, so I guess most of the mentalists were yet to return to the roads. My driver paid the receptionist and told me he’d be back to pick me up at 7.30am the following day and off he went. I had more faith that this driver would at least remember who I was in the morning. I took the evening to explore my surroundings and visit the aforementioned supermarket for some grub.

At first glance the hotel in itself was really nice and looked quite luxurious, with a massive openly spaced reception and foyer area, with gold elevators and a huge reception desk – I was quite impressed they’d put me up there. However, as with many things in Saudi, things are not usually as they seem at first glance. In spite of the glamorous entrance the room was quite a disappointment. Firstly the key didn’t work, so I had to return it to the reception. Twice. Not a good start. The room was a suite with a living room and bedroom with all the things you would expect, but it was quite unkempt – I guess previous guests had let their kids draw with crayons in certain sections of the walls, which gave it quite a bedsit feel, quite different from the opulence of the reception. The electricity also didn’t work. It ended up being that every time I took the key out of the key holder/electricity thingy, I had to reset the switches in the breaker-box to activate the electricity. Bless them for trying to make a nice hotel, but it seems here that things only have to look good on the outside, they don’t have to actually be good on the inside. I can draw a parallel with this from the previous education establishment that I worked in – The final grades achieved by all the students there were usually very high, mostly A and B grades, which looks great on the advertisements for the university. It didn’t seem to matter that the scores needed for those grades depended greatly on what the students actually scored. When the results came in some very skilful moving of the goalposts took place and afforded just about everyone on the English course with an A or B – quite a hollow achievement but hey, look at all those lovely high grades, we must be a good school!

After I’d checked out the room and figured out all the teething problems I decided to go for a walk to the mall. I had noticed several people walking along a path next to the hotel and was very curious as to where they were going. In Saudi Arabia people rarely walk anywhere as I’ve said before, because the roads just aren’t built for pedestrians. I asked the receptionist where they were going –

Me: Where are those people walking, is there something nearby?
Receptionist: They are walking.
Me: Yeah, I can see that, where?
Receptionist: Nowhere, just around.
Me: Around where? In a circle?
Receptionist: Yes, it’s a walking path.

I went back outside and investigated further and that was it, it was one big square block for walking. I felt glad to see the Saudi men and women walking around and enjoying a nice evening outside, as it’s quite a rare sight to see. But on the other hand, it was just an empty block, it looked like they had forgotten to build a skyscraper on it or something. Empty. Just dust and a little rubble. I felt sorry for the people, I mean it’s great that they’re encouraging the people to get out and have a walk – laziness and a lack of physical exercise is prevalent – but they could’ve at least put a tree on there or something. I also noticed that in spite of the hotel looking quite nice from the outside, on the opposite side to the walking path there was also a barren plot of land and some rubble, it was kind of like the hotel had just been placed in a random spot without any thought of it’s use or function.

fancy a walk?

fancy a walk?

at first glance...

at first glance…

next door

next door

The next morning I was picked up promptly at 7.30am and we headed to work. Now Riyadh is a huge city, made to feel even bigger by the overwhelming congestion problem in the city. On our drive the roads weren’t gridlocked and traffic was heavy but moving at least. We had to drive for about one hour from the hotel (in the North East) to my place of work (in the South East). ‘Why am I staying in that hotel? It’s an hour away.’ I asked him. ‘It’s the only one I know.’ He responded. Well I guess that’s fair enough then. I think he meant to say ‘it was the first decent hotel I came across when I drove into Riyadh the first time. It felt like miles away, which it quite literally was. So he took me into work and we went into to meet one of my new supervisors, where he gave him my ‘reporting to work’ papers to be signed. Then off he went.

Driver: Ok, see you later, good luck with your job.
Me: Wait, where are you going? How can I get home? You’re my ride.
Driver: My job is finished now, I’m going back to Dammam. Just find someone here to take you.

That wouldn’t be a problem, I thought, if you hadn’t placed me in a hotel on the opposite side of the city. My workplace is also inaccessible to taxis I might add, so I’ve either got a 45minute walk to the main road and flag a cab, or I have to go around all my new colleagues I haven’t met yet, begging for a lift home. Great first impression there. When I mentioned where I was staying they were all a little shocked at the distance, ‘why did they put you all the way out there? that’s a little inconvenient’. Yeah, no shit. It turned out that one other guy had been in the same boat but he didn’t have a car – so damn, no sympathy lift. Fortunately my first day was pretty easy and I basically only had to receive a few key nuggets of information about the systems in place – computer networks, rules etc and I was able to devote my time to figuring out how to get home. In the end one of my colleagues informed me of a place where a group of the teachers were living relatively near the office so I agreed to go with him and his ride after work to check it out. I also had to figure out how I would get into work the next day as I didn’t fancy forking out for a cab. The place I visited is the place I’m still in now and my same colleague still gives me a lift to and from work. Another teacher who we rescued on his first day said that it was ‘like staying in a dingehole’, but I think that just sounds like some kind of horror-porn and I view it a little more favourably. But only a little. It’s a furnished apartment building with a reception, which just makes it a glorified hotel really. At 3000Riyals a month (£500) for my apartment, it’s quite pricy considering it’s in the arse-end of Riyadh and it doesn’t have a sit-down toilet, just a squatter. At least I can take 10 minutes off my gym time every time I use it thanks to the exercise my thighs get. The rest of the apartment is pretty standard, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, a.c, t.v with cable. Other downsides are that it’s a little dark and the windows have bars on them, which is quite usual in all the places I’ve stayed here actually. The darkness comes from the intense privacy Saudi’s require. All the windows are covered with layers of thick curtains to keep out the sun and prying eyes. The bars are supposedly for keeping people out, but they do have a definite prison vibe. Come to think of it, maybe ‘the dingehole’ is quite an apt name after all.

prison windows

prison windows

On my first day when I decided to move in here I thought it would be better to just sack off the Rest Inn Hotel, and move in immediately so that I could get a ride to and from work and have one less thing to worry about until I got settled. I told them at the reception to expect me back later and I went to get a cab. It was then that I realised I had no idea where I was. I went back into the hotel to find out and he told me – ‘go to dar al baida, azizizah, panda’ and he even wrote it down on the back of a business card for the hotel. I now know that ‘dar al baida’ and ‘aziziah’ are actually different places which are next to one another and ‘panda’ is a local supermarket chain. This would have been useful to know when I got the cab back. When taking cabs you’re expected to know where you’re going. There doesn’t seem to be much of an address system and not all the roads are even named, so you have to know landmarks, which exit off the ring road and things like that, in order to get around in cabs. I knew where I was going when I went to the Rest Inn, but on the way back I wasn’t so lucky. My driver was nice and I was going by the meter, (it’s normal here to haggle with the drivers for cheaper than meter prices, but it’s not really fair if you don’t know where you’re going) so he didn’t mind driving me round in circles for about an hour an a half. He ended up taking me to a different ‘Panda’ in Aziziah, not the ‘Panda’ in Dar al Baida where I wanted to go. Finally we had to call the hotel. I should mention that I speak only English, the driver spoke only Urdu, and the hotel staff only Arabic. Firstly I had to get the number from the card. It was written in Arabic numbers – my driver wasn’t much help so I had to use car license plates (which contain both Arabic and English letters and numbers) to translate the numbers and make the call. After about another thirty minutes of my driver and the hotel staff trying to understand each other, and give and receive directions I finally made it to my new home. I got in and prepared myself for the next couple of days at work, when I was going to have my induction. I thought that would probably be a barrel of laughs and I was ready to enjoy it without the worry of how I was going to get there.

10 days in Dammam

When I arrived in Saudi Arabia about 2 and a half months ago I had to spend a little bit of unspecified time in Dammam. This city is the capital of the Eastern Province, the most oil-rich region of the world and the base for the oil industry here in KSA. The metropolitan area surrounding Dammam is actually made up of three cities – Dammam, Dhahran, and Al Khobar, with Dammam being the city proper, Dhahran seemingly the industrial centre and Al Khobar being the more upmarket area, where the middle classes can wine and dine. Well, dine at least. Anyway I wasn’t there for fun, just to complete some ‘paperwork’ for my employer and then rendezvous down to Riyadh to hopefully start my job as soon as possible.

The residence for my stay in the city was the Dammam Palace Hotel, which I was informed of prior to my arrival, in the centre of Dammam. Seeing as this was not my first stay in a Saudi hotel I was a little skeptical as to the quality of room I would find there. On a previous visit to Jeddah I stayed in a hotel (I unfortunately can’t remember the name) which looked nice on the outside but when we got into the room it was as dingy as it could possibly be. Then after I pulled back the covers on the bed I noticed a rather large bogey that the previous guest had kindly left behind, presumably for the next guest to enjoy. My previous stay in Dammam was a little better but still left me with enough of a worry about what to expect. I decided to check the website, www.dammampalacehotel.com, the fact that it is one of the worst hotel websites I have ever seen didn’t do a lot to allay my fears. My favourite section is the picture gallery – vague to say the least. My fears did turn out to be unfounded however. I would describe the hotel as a standard 4star hotel, with clean rooms, clean bedsheets, a (very expensive) gym and room service that was cheaper than the food outside in some cases –  my favourite being the shish tawook sandwich, with fries and some pickled vegetables, at a whopping 15Sr (about £2.50) it was a definite winner. Shish Tawook is some kind of cubed, grilled chicken covered in various spices and deliciousness. When I asked what they were, I was informatively told ‘tawook spices’. I decided it was better not knowing and left it at that.

As I’ve said, my reason for being in Dammam was paperwork. I’ve already spoken a little about my first day in the city in my first blog post, Riyadh take 2. The horrendous medical and Mr forgetful the driver taking centre stage. Another aspect of the day was at my contractors office, doing said paperwork and finding out a little information about the job. As I was there a day early, however, I had to return the next day to complete the paperwork for my work I.D and Iqama (residence permit). Because of this I was told to await a call informing me of further plans. Since I didn’t have a working sim card for my phone, they told me they would call the hotel. I didn’t really fancy waiting around in my hotel room for an unspecified amount of time for these guys to call so my driver, old Mr forgetful, said he would get me a sim card and bring it to me in a couple of hours, around 5pm, so they could call my mobile. I waited in my room for the next three hours or so before I finally gave up, and assumed he would call me the next day with the details. The next morning at around 8am I was woken by a call on the room phone –

Me: ‘Hello?’
Driver: ‘Are you ready?’
Me: ‘I just woke up’
Driver: ‘I told you we have to go to the office at 8am’
Me: ‘That was yesterday morning and you forgot who I was, you said you’d come by yesterday around 5pm’
Driver: ‘No, we have to go, 5 minutes’

So after a quick splash of water on the face, I threw on some clothes and I went and got in the car, quite bleary-eyed and slightly pissed off. The driver did at least have my sim card. After several feelings of deja vu, because I had a carbon copy of the previous day (minus the medical), I was able to sort out all my initial paperwork and find out a few snippets of useful information. My date of going to Riyadh was unknown. It was Monday, the mobilisation co-ordinator I was dealing with said: ‘I think you will go, maybe on Saturday, Inshallah, at the weekend’. ‘Inshallah’ is a word you frequently hear in the kingdom, it means ‘God willing’ and it peppers the spoken language here very frequently. Most teachers will tell you it means something like ‘I hope so but most likely not..’ i.e – ‘will you do your homework for tomorrow Khaled?’, ‘yes, of course teacher, I will do it inshallah’. Translated, this means ‘are you high? there’s no fucking way i’m doing it, I have way more important things to do, like go drifting and sleep’. Teachers often get in trouble for saying things like, ‘please not inshallah! Just say yes!’ Needless to say I was less than convinced by the ‘maybe on Saturday, inshallah’ comment from my guy at the office. I was also told that I would at least be paid for my time spent waiting for deployment, but only for a maximum of ten days. This left me a little confused:

Me: ‘Why did you fly me here on Saturday if now you can’t get me to Riyadh for another week, probably longer?’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Because we need to do paperwork.’
Me: ‘But the paperwork should have only taken one day.’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Yes, but it’s better to have you here and waiting.’

So I have to twiddle my thumbs while they get their arses in gear, Ok I understand now. Let’s hope they get me there in ten days so I can get paid for waiting around at least. It is a feature of business here that disorganisation reigns supreme. Another lad with me in the office was based in Dammam. They told us that while we were in Dammam our hotels were paid by them, but when we got to our location we only had a few days before we had to find our own places. He was a little concerned by this:

Colleague: ‘How many days do I have in the the Dammam Palace?’
Mobilisation guy: ‘You? 7.’
Colleague: ‘But I’ve already been here 3 days with no contact from you.’
Mobilisation guy: ‘Yes, you’d better start looking soon.’
Colleague: ‘Whaaaaaat? Where? How?’

The poor lad had never been in the kingdom before and was learning the hard way that nothing is organised here until the last minute. You wait for days doing nothing and then you have to do everything immediately all at once. He freaked out a little in the office but as I understand, he went to his work location the next day and probably one of his local colleagues would have helped him find a place, at least for the short term.

The other interesting information we got from the meetings was twofold. Firstly, that we would get a cash advance. This would amount to quite a healthy amount to get me through until my first payday and pay for any housing I would need. Secondly, was the news that we would have to hand in our passports in order to get our Iqamas. It is a common occurrence in the kingdom that foreign expatriate workers have to hand in their passports to their employers. It takes about 4-6weeks to get the Iqama, but after that they will keep the passports ‘safe’ at the office. I was already aware of this from my previous stint in the Kingdom, but this makes a lot of people, understandably, feel pretty uneasy. For myself, for example, I will be working in Riyadh but my passport will be sitting in a drawer in the office in Dammam. ‘What if the shit hits the fan and I have to get the hell out of here?’ Too bad, basically. As a western expat, I am afforded some hope in the knowledge that after my 3month probationary period is over, I can apply for a multiple exit visa (that’s right, you need a visa to leave the Kingdom too) and at which point I will have my passport given back to me, as it doesn’t make logistical sense for them to have to keep getting my passport to me every time I want to travel. They don’t like giving it back though, control of the workforce here is a key priority (according to the Arab News there are about 9.2million foreign expat workers in the country). Workers from other countries, The Philippines or Pakistan, for example, are afforded no such luxury. It’s worth mentioning the sponsor system here too actually. In order to work in the Kingdom you need to have a sponsor (your employer) issue you with visas, Iqamas and a reason to be here. Once you are here it is standard practice for your sponsor to keep hold of your passport. It is also illegal for you to work for anyone other than your sponsor. If you change jobs you usually have to leave the country and start the process all over again. The sponsor is the one who also has to get you your exit visas. This is a lot of power to hold over people. It can happen that workers fall out with their sponsors and then get refused exit visas because of disagreements over money and things, and then be stuck in the country illegally. As a British citizen, my nationality offers me a little protection from this. Workers from the developing world, Asia or the subcontinent are offered no such protection and are often completely under the thumb of their sponsors. I have no real experience of what they actually have to go through, but I dread to think what their living and working conditions are like, as they really have no say and no voice.

Anyway, after all the paperwork was done and all the information was given I headed back to my hotel to await the next phone call. I spent a total of ten days in Dammam. The Saturday was pushed back to the next Monday (which I was told about on Saturday afternoon) and I was left pretty much to my own devices. It was around 40-45degrees outside and I was pretty bored with ordering room service and watching the T.V, which had a fair amount of English movies and T.V shows. This made me think about the many contradictions of this country. One is that you cant look at women or talk about sex and things, but the T.V here is full of American shows and films that show and do just that. I mean the bad language and sex is comically edited out, but the censors seem suitably lazy and often miss things – I was watching ‘Me,Myself and Irene’ and the word ‘mothefucker’ was cut but ‘pussyfart’ managed to make it through. They often leave the word ‘cunt’ in as well, which usually makes me chuckle. I guess it’s not written on their list of bad words. Another contradiction became apparent when my colleague went to a computer shop to have his laptop fixed and they offered to sell him a VPN in order to circumvent the internet restrictions here. ‘Immoral’ material is prohibited online but the means to circumvent the blocks is sold legally in the shops. With my sim card, it’s illegal to get one without an Iqama, but my driver just got me one with his Iqama no problem. I didn’t even have to be there. It all makes no sense whatsoever.

After a few days of waiting for a call and spotting swearwords in movies I thought it might be nice to go out one evening to smoke some shisha (smoking the traditional Arabic water-pipe is one of the few vices that is actually condoned) with one of my colleagues instead. I had visited a nice shisha cafe on my last visit so I thought we could go and find one. When I asked at the reception I received an odd answer:

Me: ‘Where is the nearest shisha cafe?’
Receptionist: ‘There are no shisha bars in Dammam.’
Me: ‘Are you sure? I visited a nice one here about 2years ago.’
Receptionist: ‘There are no shisha bars in Dammam. About 5 years ago they were prohibited.’

Interesting, I thought. The guy was seemingly programmed to deny the very existence of the bars. I persisted with my argument for a few minutes saying that I’d been to one before and I know they have them in Riyadh, but he was adamant they didn’t exist and had been outlawed. I guess he was under specific instructions not to tell people about them. Anyway we just got some tea in the hotel and went back to our rooms, foiled for the evening. The next day I decided to get out and have a little explore around the city where I was. I had been told that the corniche promenade along the seafront was at the end of the road next to the hotel. I had a little look at the map and decided it was walking distance and set off, hatless and waterless, for my little walk. Thankfully I did put on a little sunscreen before I left. My walk turned into a 45minute trek down one long road in absolute searing heat. Fortunately, there were some shops open and I was at least able to buy some water and stay in the shadows of some of the buildings along the way. When I got to the end of the road I was faced with a mall on my left, and in front of me was a huge dual carriageway, probably 3 or 4 lanes wide in each direction between myself and the corniche. First things first, I thought to myself, I’ll go in the mall and buy a hat as my head is hotter than the sun itself. It was about 1pm and all the shops were closed. It’s quite typical for the shops, particularly in malls, not to really open until the late afternoon. I guess this is because the people here mostly sleep through the day as it’s so hot outside. So, no hat, fine, time to cross the road. The dual carriageway really was a beast of a road and there were no pedestrian crossings (pedestrians are non-existent here, hence no need for pedestrian crossings), but there was just a short railing on the central reservation and the road was offering some windows to cross periodically, so I just took a jog to the centre. When I got there I realised that the railing was metal. And black. ‘It’s probably hot’ I thought to myself, so I gave it a couple of taps with my finger to test it and it felt alright, so I thought ‘no problem’. I immediately realised my mistake in just tapping the metal. The feeling was quite different from pressing down with all your bodyweight in order to jump a railing. I was also wearing flip-flops, which got caught as I was jumping, as I was so distracted by the intense burning sensation in my hands. I finally managed to throw myself over and almost fall into the road on the other side. Thankfully, I still had half a bottle of water that I could pour all over my hands to cool down the burn. I walked over to the promenade but with the pain in my hands and feeling the onset of sunstroke, I really wasn’t that interested in the corniche any more .

The Corniche

The Corniche

The corniche is actually one of the nicest places I’ve been probably in the whole of Saudi Arabia, thanks largely to the the large grassy area along it. There is water too, I mean it looks and smells pretty dirty but you can’t have everything, can you? After I’d gathered my senses I decided I was pissed off enough to head back to my hotel. I definitely wasn’t walking or jumping the rail again, so I walked about 15mins until I found the end of the road, a place where I could cross without having to jump the rail. Then I picked up a cab and told him to take me home. When I mentioned that I had walked to where he had picked me up he looked at me like I was an alien. ‘Why would you walk anywhere here? Just get a taxi’ he told me. Because it’s 45degrees outside, I now see why this is the dominant attitude to walking, thanks to my dizziness and burnt palms. As we continued along the way home we started chatting, he told me he’s from Islamabad (most of the taxi drivers here are from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan with a few Saudis thrown in for good measure) and his name’s Arslan. He carried on to randomly tell me that he was desperate to see Tiesto in Abu Dhabi the following weekend. Fair play I thought, then I asked him about the shisha cafes or supposed lack of them, and he informed me that the shisha scene is alive and well and there was one about ten minutes away, which he kindly came back and took us to the following evening. That one was closed but we headed over to Al Khobar and there were a few to be found over there. The receptionist’s denial of their very existence was lost on the hundreds of people who we saw in the cafes (there were two or three right next to each other), it seemed like everyone in the city was there.

On another day I was told by one of the Filipino waiters in the hotel restaurant that the staff were all planning to go to the beach at Aziziyah after work when it is cooler. I declined to go to the beach as I had in fact been there once before, to the same beach at Aziziyah and it had been a monumental disappointment. We took a taxi for about 40minutes and when we arrived we were faced with a huge plot of sand full of garbage and people walking around with camels. The smell was just awful but the worst thing was all the cars. The people had driven all the way to water’s edge, the waves licking their front tyres.

Scenes at Aziziyah beach

Scenes at Aziziyah beach

It really was a disappointing beach, I think it was so disappointing because the Filipino guys who mentioned it to us had spoken so highly of it. It was also impossible for us to get a taxi home from that location so we had to hitch-hike back to Dammam. That would’ve been ok if the guy who picked us up (we thought it would be safe as there were three of us) hadn’t been an absolute mentalist. I think he only spent about 10percent of the journey looking at the road. The rest of the time he was trying to speak to my buddy in the front, or shouting racial slurs at Bangladeshi people out the window, ‘Ali Babar! Ali Babar!’ – I guess insinuating that they were all thieves or something. He tried to give us a gift of an in-car incense burner for the cigarette lighter. Presumably you just plug it in the lighter slot and fill your car up with smoke. Great, thanks for that. Finally, when we got back he told my mate that he wanted to come and ‘see his room’, we hadn’t realised he was ‘cruising’ until then, so we got him to drop us off and ditched him in a restaurant, as that’s not what we had in mind when we took the lift. I can say that it was an eventful trip to Aziziyah beach but one I was unwilling to repeat again.

One quite funny thing that happened, was when I got my salary advance. I got called by my mobilisation guy one evening and he told me he was in the reception with my money and that I should come down and get it. This was after I’d been in Dammam for about 5days. When I got down to the reception he asked me to take a seat and gave me the receipt to sign. The reception was quite crowded with people and workers and this guy proceeded to count out my money on the table in full view of all the guests and workers milling about the reception. Not a problem you might be thinking, it’s just that he was giving me about 15000Sr – the equivalent of about £2500. Now, of the 9million expat workers, about 85% of them are said to earn below 2000Sr a month (thanks again Arab News). For some of the workers staring at me while I was being handed this massive wedge of cash, it represented like 6months wages or something. I was embarrassed and a little worried to be the rich white guy in the hotel, because now everyone knew I had a fat stack of cash sitting in my room. Incidentally, I’ve been here for about 11weeks now and have just finished the advance. It really was an excessive amount for them to give me, in the most unprofessional way possible.

So, after ten days my time was up. I’d spent so long in the hotel room that I felt kind of like Morgan Freeman in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. I didn’t want to leave I’d become so accustomed to the hotel, sitting around doing basically nothing day after day – ‘I’m an institutional man now’. Still it was time to move on and get on with the the four hour drive into Riyadh.