Saudi Sojourn (Part One)

My introduction to life in a Muslim country

My husband, Robert, is involved in medical research and had made two shorter visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I had not previously accompanied him, but as this was to be a three month stay with the possibility of ongoing collaborations, we decided I should accompany Robert.

King Faisal Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh

Since our visit, Saudi Arabia has opened for tourism, and from 2019 people from 49 countries have been encouraged to visit and compromises have been made – meaning that female tourists no longer have to wear the traditional abbaya* and headscarf, but are required to dress modestly, refrain from public displays of affection and avoid using profane language or gestures. However, it is still recommended for women visiting Riyadh (where we stayed) to wear an abbaya.

We arrived at midnight, and I was grateful for a borrowed abbaya which allowed me to blend in. (Interestingly, one of the problems that later emerged, was that Robert could not identify me if we became separated!) Accompanying my husband, that is being a wife, brought clear advantages for a female coming into Saudi Arabia:

  • less scrutiny of luggage; so, despite the Bible being listed as a banned item at that time, I did bring my Bible and study books, and my luggage was not searched on entry;
  • safe travel from airport to accommodation as Robert’s host supplied a car and driver to take us to our home;
  • our accommodation was supplied, but as nothing was available in the hospital compound where Robert was working, we were allocated a house in the developing Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) on the outskirts of Riyadh. Seen by many as less desirable because we lacked a swimming pool and other community amenities, I grew to appreciate the space to think through the differences of life in Saudi Arabia, without the pressures of an ex-patriot community living close together.

The courtyard at our home in Riyadh

Our house was brand new, two storeyed, fully air-conditioned, and fully furnished (including linens); both quietly luxurious and very private in design – allowing for ready separation of front rooms, open to male guests, and private family rooms, with separate entrances as needed; eight- to twelve-foot-high garden walls all around and opaque fixed screens over all upstairs windows, as required for Islamic families. There were also basic supplies – including Carnation milk, a can of Ghee, dates, and coriander – both dates and coriander were fresh, plentiful, and cheap and regularly on our menu.

I was ill-prepared in many ways, but keen to find why God would have me experience this; and this article relates to my lived lessons in a very different and somewhat isolating society. Because I was recognised as a westerner, though required to wear an abbaya and headscarf, I did not need to fully cover hair or face. (Historically, all westerners are labelled as Christians which does give a very mixed witness, but which we might consider when thinking of the concerns of Islamic immigrants being welcomed into Australia).

In our first two weeks in Riyadh, Robert’s colleagues presumed he had travelled alone again so I was literally ‘climbing the walls’! The only way I could see beyond our fenced house was to climb the side of the bath; get my head and shoulders through the partially opened window and peer over and under the opaque screen; above I could see only the flag of the nearby UAE (United Arab Emirates) Embassy and below a corner of the roadway round-about, but there was a sense of being a part of society! There was even a period of establishing how I could manage. Being among the first non-diplomat residents living in the DQ, became an experiment in evaluating the possible! The DQ has a beautifully tiled square or Plaza – then quite small with post office, small general store, and mosque – reached by walking through well designed and maintained paved gardens. I was allowed to walk during daylight by myself! It also resulted in a unique human relationship – each time I stepped through my wooden gate, a security car would come alongside. A man would make a statement in Arabic, I would explain politely in English (not gesticulating of course) that I was simply walking to the plaza and would then return home. We each nodded, having not understood a word and would go on our independent ways. This happened at least three to four times each week for our three-month stay!

I also learned here how dear it is to be able to make the sign of the Cross, with hand discreetly under abbaya, and to sing hymns under one’s breath!

I also learned here how dear it is to be able to make the sign of the Cross, with hand discreetly under abbaya, and to sing hymns under one’s breath!

Saudi architecture and traditional female dress

It is easy in the west to find negativity in the dress of women and other obvious restrictions, and I do not undermine this, but the idea that these limit the place of women in Saudi society changed for me. One morning I realised that, in reality, the greatest constraints or oppression came not from gender, but from the fact that it is not a democracy! The hospital where Robert was working, was the hospital of choice for the Royal Family, therefore it was well funded. But if the king awoke one morning and felt poorly-treated, could he wipe out the funding for scientific research, change the laws that governed lives at a whim? Clearly even in a monarchy there are restrictions on power, and in Saudi Arabia there is a “governing council”, but I was suddenly grateful for being born into a democracy where my voice could count, male or female, thanks to those who had worked to achieve this right for me. Strange that it took the isolation and distance for me to consider the privileges of where I was born!

Because of restrictions on women travelling alone, most expatriates and locals have an approved driver for their cars. (Even now when females may gain their driver’s licence, many do not. The question is one of “what to do in an accident where woman may require/receive assistance from a man”; the basic tenet of needing to be attended by a suitable male – i.e., any male one cannot legally marry – still underscores much thinking). These drivers are mainly from Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Many spend much of their days idle – waiting! This might be on the floor outside the door or fire-exit stairs to be called at a moment’s notice. A banana lounge under a tree was considered appropriate provision. It caused me to rethink the attitudes we take as acceptable toward those with less worldly standing.

There are, of course, many ways in which female expatriates look after each other and welcome a new member – from “welcome packs” which include yeast; weekly “stitch” groups which are known as great sources of gossip; generous invitations for weekend trips out of Riyadh; concerts at other Compounds (in which the classical “Spring Concert” featured music from the Messiah); the Anzac Day commemoration at the Australian Embassy, with Anzac Biscuits served afterwards; to occasional get-togethers for lunch. But for me it was the extended periods alone that made Saudi Arabia an important place, in driving me to God for “company” and purpose.

Even after I was discovered and became part of the expatriate community, there was a remoteness in the way we lived. I was living with less distractions and being “forced” to face some new realities about how I used my time; “who I was” both when alone and with others; how I “allowed/honoured” God’s promise to be with me at all times? Already I had discovered that as I was not so distracted by radio, neighbourliness, phone calls etc., I was more aware of God in everyday situations. Even so, the awareness of the lack of Christian fellowship was very affecting. Then, at a morning tea, I overheard a two-word comment from a New Zealander to an Australian. It “just sounded” like a Christian comment. Later, I cautiously asked the New Zealander whether she knew of any Christian gathering. God had arranged! This lady and her husband had long planned their extensive stay in Saudi Arabia and had prepared to serve. Church gathered in the staff recreation room at an embassy (note: technically then not part of the Government managed embassy) and held on a Saturday morning – the weekend being Friday and Saturday. Robert would walk me to the embassy, and I would enter through the rear gate with Embassy security personnel waiting inside the security gate, but with a marked presence of Saudi security personnel noting the arrival of each person.

The first time, as we were preparing to leave for Church, I happily picked up my Bible to put into the carry bag and I was aware of an instruction that I was not to bring the Bible. Surprised, I put it back on the bench and, wondering, we left home. Further down the road we were stopped by the security car, the men spoke with Robert and for the first and only time during our stay, our bag was taken and searched. The security guard took it into the car and rifled through – the Bible would have been found. As at that time, planning was under discussion for students to come to Australia for internships, discovering a Bible in our possession would have been detrimental to any such planning. But as we had not put the Bible in the bag, without any quarrel with the authorities, Robert and I continued our walk; astounded at the sequence of events, of God’s arranging and of my being quiet enough to hear.

It was in Riyadh that I first really appreciated a liturgical service. I learned that many lapsed or ambivalent people of a Christian heritage, when isolated in a non-Christian country, rethink their values and beliefs. Perhaps like me. With the distractions of western life removed, I became part of a Christian community of a very mixed heritage. Hence the use of a clear and known liturgy was helpful to all, no matter where we came from – the one in Christ! And our one thing in common was Christ. So, conversations after Church naturally continued around the biblical theme of the morning, and it was a very encouraging community.

*NOTE: The garment called an abbaya in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or a burqa elsewhere, is a thin flowing robe that covers the entire length of the body, from head to foot. It is fastened at the neck and sometimes mid-chest, otherwise one holds it closed when walking, leaving no clothing or shape visible underneath. Westerners and some local women do wear a garment that flows from the shoulders not the top of the head. The abbaya has an accompanying headscarf, also called a hijab, to cover the hair (for Muslim women) and head, leaving the face exposed. Some women additionally wear a cloth covering the face to varying degrees, called a niqab, veiling the face from the bridge of the nose downward.

 (to be continued)

About the Author

Vivienne Rush

I am blessed to be a member of Bethlehem Sanctuary Guild and recently my husband Robert and I were asked to share something of the time we lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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