I left Tabuk some four weeks ago. When I boarded the plane from Jedda to Casablanca, I had very mixed feelings about my year-long stay in Saudi Arabia. This has been a rather intense experience but I certainly don’t regret my initial decision to go there, and to those who are at the point of committing themselves to a job in the country, I say go ahead, for beside the money you probably might enjoy your stay there if you know what to expect.
In fact, since I wrote my last post, I have received a few emails from individuals who were considering offers of jobs in Saudi Arabia and were not sufficiently informed about the conditions of life and work they expect to find there. I was asked to write more extensively about my experiences. While I sympathized with those appeals, I did not feel I could resist my own subjective (or shall I say prejudiced?) views on the country. I needed a little break to see things in their proper dimensions uninfluenced by my agitated and sometimes self-pitying frame of mind.
Moods change. I am now back into the comfort zone and have a greater appreciation for the many unexpected and rather absurd hardships that punctuated my life there. For one thing like those possessed of Nyctophobia, I was nervously groping in the dark fumbling for the switch when perhaps with little patience and relaxed composure I could see my way through and make out everything in adequate proportions.
That is easy to say now in retrospect. Nothing could be more frustrating than constant lack of information and stiff and rather arbitrary bureaucracy. The first weeks are notoriously very challenging and cause a great deal of worry and anger to the newcomer. The information comes piecemeal and you have to be patient and poised. If you ask too many questions, you risk becoming a bore, a parasite. The employees at the office charged with processing the paperwork of newly recruited faculty are very nice and helpful. I became a frequent morning visitor and was always welcomed to their collective breakfast. The jokes and funny remarks create a rather mild and relaxed, even too relaxed ambiance. One early lesson I learnt was that for Saudis business and pleasure were mutual activities.
When my Iqama (residence card) was finally issued and delivered to me, I was required to submit my passport to the officer in charge– a big rather churlish man with peremptory voice; it will be held until the end of the term and will be delivered back to me only if and when my application of travel is approved. Travelling outside Saudi Arabia will now depend on the full cooperation of the officer in charge. Application for an exit visa must be submitted in time and a fee paid online, it will be processed and the passport will be handed back on the very last day. When you book your flight, you are never sure that you will have the travel document with you.
When I arrived in Tabuk, I had brought a little money with me, enough I thought to keep me going for the first few weeks. I had imagined that after signing the contract and starting the job, the housing and furniture allowances promised as advanced money would not be long coming. Wrong! “Blame it on our centralized bureaucracy; you will eventually get all your rights, just be patient.” I nodded my head in frustration and went off to Dr Khaled, our Department Head who was known to lend money to new recruits. To be fair after this first delay, payment was regular and the salary was punctually transferred to the bank account on the 25th of each Hegira month.
I had spoken about the difficulty of getting to the university from the city center in my previous post. This is the ordeal of all new faculty members. During the first weeks you could see them at the gates of college buildings hitching a ride back to the city — a pitiful sight by all means; fortunately, there are usually older faculty to save the day — colleagues who had gone through the same trial and remember the embarrassment of standing under the scorching sun. The students in the meantime drive past them in their big, comfortable American or Japanese cars. What a dramatic reversal from the classroom situation!
After the first month or so, these humiliations gradually become a thing of the past. One has finally acclimatized to Saudi environment and even begun to relish the advantages which one’s status as a university professor offers. You try to brush it aside but once your profession is revealed you are addressed as Dr. The shopkeeper, the waiter at the restaurant, the neighbor next door, the worker at the gas station — all insist on conferring on you the privileged title. Some colleagues even learnt to abuse of this collective esteem. In the bank or at the post office, for example, you don’t have to stand in a queue; you just walk straight to the clerk behind the counter, or better to the manager or the director in his office and with a beaming face and a stretched hand declare that you are Dr so and so from Tabuk University; you are almost sure your gimmick has worked its magic instantly. Not only is your business done, but you now have made a powerful acquaintance; amid a pleasant conversation coffee is served and a card with personal phone number is offered to you.
Alas I am not a gifted charlatan, and sweet talk has never been my specialty. I never felt so awkward until that evening when I was invited along with my Syrian colleague to have dinner at a Saudi family. We were led to the Istiraha or Majlis (salon) where thick mats were laid on the ground and along the walls several couches were lined up separated by hard rectangular cushions for the men to rest their elbows. In a typical male gathering, Saudi gahwa (coffee) would be served by a young member of the family in rounds. gahwa is a symbol of Saudi hospitality and it wouldn’t do to refuse it, even if you are not used to its bitter taste and strong cardamom flavor. After gahwa comes tea, also served in small cups poured from a brass teapot.
I had not been aware that in formal Saudi gatherings, one is supposed to wear the traditional thawb (white linen gown) which is more comfortable for cross-legged seating position. I was the odd one out with my tight khaki trousers and black T-shirt. I made the clumsy gesture of receiving the first gahwa cup with my left hand, the young host in a discreet voice, directed me to use my right hand. The eyes were already looking at my direction. I did not fully understand Saudi dialect, and I depended on my versatile colleague to maintain the conversation.
Our hosts were a large family. The father was an old man in his seventies. He was once a military official and in youth he had experienced numerous hardships when there were only tents, camels, and the vast desert. He sounded very proud of the olden times and little impressed with the economic and industrial boom that overcame the country. The other males were his sons and kin, some of whom were attended by their own kids. My Syrian colleague did most of the talking from our side. There were obviously some common cultural bonds between Syrians and the Saudis of the northern region; names of tribes and villages sounded familiar. Memories of past events and political figures unknown to me were recalled and discussed. As I listened to their chatter, I felt so redundant.
The dinner was going to be served presently; thin plastic sheets were quickly spread out on the mat. There were no chairs or tables round or rectangular. We formed two groups, and sat or squatted in a circle on the ground; several salads, drinks and utensils were placed along the edges of the plastic sheets leaving enough room for two gigantic Mansaf dishes. Mansaf is one of the traditional dishes in some Middle Eastern countries; it is made of steamed rice or bulgur served with copious quantities of lamb cooked in white fermented sauce. Most of the attendees used their hands. The rice was soaked in white yellowish sauce. It tasted sour in the mouth; my first formal encounter with a Saudi meal did not apparently look very auspicious.
The dinner over, it was time for us to leave. Over the next months I would frequently be invited to eat Mansaf and Kabsa. The sour taste bothered me much less. You should certainly avoid sleeping after the meal, because you are likely to wake up with a burning stomach sensation. Unlike our Eastern Arab friends, we North Africans are not very fond of saucy rice or bulgur; save for Couscous, however, bread is an indispensable staple in virtually all meals. Traditional ovens and modern bakeries are ubiquitous, and meals such as Tajines, grilled fish and meat are unthinkable without loafs of fresh bread.
I had to sort out the food question; I am naturally a poor cook, but not a fastidious eater. I learnt a few tricks from my wife. Knowing of my mediocre skills, she had left a step-by-step recipe of a couple of fast-cooking dishes. My favorite was a kind of grilled chicken or turkey slices with natural tomato sauce. You take five fresh and ripe tomatoes and squeeze them; their juice is cooked with coriander, olive oil, salt, pepper and cumin in a separate pan until its color turns into crimson. Sliced chicken pieces are fried on low fire with few drops of olive oil and a pinch of oregano. Both sauce and chicken pieces are then mixed in one pan and cooked for 15 minutes. The mix is then put into a dish and left for a few minutes to grill in the oven. You may want to spread cheese on top or better whisk an egg and a spoon of cream together and spread on the dish, leave in the oven for three minutes and then serve. Bon Appétit.
Cooking is a big hassle. Fortunately there was the Rukn Al Magribi (the Moroccan Corner) – a little basic restaurant at the end of the street. When I walked up King Khaled’s street for the first time, and saw the restaurant sign written in traditional Moroccan calligraphy, I decided immediately to rent an apartment in the vicinity.
I found out later that it was the only Moroccan restaurant in Tabuk. The Rukn was run by Abderahim originally from Boulmane and Brahim, the cook from Marrakech. Besides meat and chicken Tajines, they also serve Couscous and Harira.
Mint tea is served throughout the day and until late at night; it has a large clientele among Saudis and other nationalities. All over the country there are stalls with Ashay al Magribi (Moroccan tea) signs, particularly at the gas stations. However, there is no comparison when it comes to the tea prepared by Brahim. For one thing he had all the appropriate paraphernalia including large red brass teapot and various smaller pots. An impressive array of Moroccan tea brands is displayed on the shelf for sale and domestic use. The strong tea scents and the savory smells of Tajine are sure to wreak havoc with any hungry stomach. On my way back from university, I often rang Brahim and made my order. Abderahim, the boss helped in the cooking too when he was around. He had been in Saudi Arabia for over twenty years and spoke Saudi dialect with ease. To them both I say thank you for the food and friendship — Al-Azz lmgharba!
Food shopping in Tabuk was a pleasure. There are several supermarkets: Astra, Panda, Ben Jahlan, Ali Hafez and Alotheim. The products vary from one place to another. My favorites were dairy products, dates and fruit juices of which there are various brands. At the checkout counter, there is always beside the cashier someone to package your items for you and carry to the car in return of a tip. Why does anyone need help with their bags when they already have trolleys?
Saudis are nocturnal beings. After Evening prayers, a new energy is breathed in the town. Families including women and kids are herded into massive JMC cars and driven down to the shopping malls. When I first arrived in Tabuk, I did not know why most of shops were closed in the early afternoon. Only later I drew the obvious connection. In my furnished apartment I was often woken up in the middle of the night by the noise of children playing upstairs. They had just come back perhaps with new toys or gadgets to explore. However, the day of celebration par excellence is the 25th of each Hegira month, the payment day. I made the mistake twice of going to the supermarket on that day. Not only was there a big crowd of shoppers, but each customer bought enormous quantities of food to last for the whole month. The size and structure of Saudi family in Tabuk, I was told, necessitate a different shopping arrangement.
The most annoying thing in Tabuk and I daresay in many parts of Saudi Arabia is irresponsible driving. Ask anyone what is their first fear and the answer is getting hit by some reckless driver. Among colleagues our customary topic is the driving incident one has seen on the road. Almost every week on Duba road leading to the university campus, some strange accident is reported usually perpetrated by a careless student. Young Saudis in particular have a crazed love for driving. On repeated occasions I had seen very young kids drive big cars downtown. After suffering a couple of traffic incidents myself, one of which I was fortunate to get away with minor car scratches, I decided to start earlier for my job. Better arrive early in my office and have coffee than be hit by some lunatic.
When you talk to the students about this, they just smile and wink to one another. They were not insensible to the terror some of them caused on the road; but in truth they enjoyed driving fast. There is a whole culture to it. On further inquiry I discovered that they have an exclusive sport they call Tafheet in which the driver (or Mufahet ) attempts to show mastery of the technique of drifting left and right with the car speed exceeding 160 km per hour, fast enough to cause loud screeching noise, and reduce the tires themselves to smoking rubber.
Saudi mosques are the coolest places of all. I don’t mean just temperature which, considering the hot climate outside is an advantage unto itself. But indeed the mosques in Saudi Arabia are spacious and well maintained. The carpets are very thick and clean. Large quantities of bottled water are kept in the fridges at the front and back walls for the worshipers. When the mosque is open, you can sit for hours and immerse yourself in a peaceful reading of the Koran, and forget about the bustling world outside. If there is anything I miss about Saudi Arabia particularly in this month of Ramadan, it is this serene spiritual peace and the relative proximity to the Sacred cities of Mecca and Medina.