Saudi Sojourn (Part Two)

Some reflections on life as seen and experienced

The classic questions of mankind often begin with where, why, or what. Especially through these last years of fire, flood and Covid-19, these questions can multiply into anxiety, loneliness and sometimes despair. What is the latest newscast telling me?

Where is God? Why is this happening to me? What is the point?

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. It brought about again how God addressed such issues for me, and my need to remove those things which distract from God’s presence.

Throughout the city of Riyadh, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there is a network of buses, many supplied by workplaces, but the many expatriate female hospital staff were instructed to use only the hospital bus, or hospital supported taxies, for transport and never to travel alone. (Even in the western style supermarkets, where married men and women shopped together, and single men and women shopped, it was usual for women to shop in pairs.) I could take a hospital bus, and, at specific times, buses would travel to women only souks. (The word SOUK originally described an open-air market, but now in Riyadh, the souk may be open or enclosed; a series of stalls or individual shops.) Rob and I were allowed to sit together on the hospital bus but, even on this bus, men travelling alone sat at the rear, women at the front of the bus, entering and leaving by separated doors.

Throughout the hospital one was not required to wear an abbaya. In spring, a hospital “parking area” was paved to become a month-long fundraising souk. One evening, as Rob and I disembarked from the bus, my headscarf slipped off; knowing we were on hospital grounds I did not immediately bother to replace it (I was busy trying to keep my abbaya closed!). I suddenly became aware of angry shouting directed at me; confused, I noted a member of the Muttawa* gesticulating wildly at me but needed to be rescued by a near-by Egyptian stallholder theatrically whispering, “cover, cover woman”! I did! Rob gallantly stepped forward then, as it had appeared to the Matawa that not only was I uncovered, but also unaccompanied! Therefore, most shopping was done with Rob at my side!

* Muttawa (pl. muttaween) are Islamic religious police. They focus more on such issues as preventing the consumption of alcohol, mixing of men and women, playing of music and public display of affection and that women (but also sometimes men) observe Islamic dress code.

There is a rather beautiful picture of family life and tolerance in one of the habits, we noted. There are, as you may imagine, not many grassed areas in Riyadh, only in wealthier developments can lawns be sustained. But such garden areas are maintained along the main highway which leads south-west from Riyadh. And so, we observed that in the warm evenings, families would come, bring their picnic blanket and food and picnic on the green! This was also replicated in the cool tiled area of the Plaza in the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ). Again, families would bring their square of home; and simply putting it on the ground, even up against the next blanket, created a “private” space which was respected by one’s neighbours. One evening, we were in the plaza when the call for prayer sounded. The men and boys attended, and two families sitting across the plaza from us continued with women only. I was interested in them because I had already noted that, for two girls of around six and 10 years, wearing abbayas was no impediment to their boisterous and happy play. Yes, you can ride a scooter in an abbaya! Robert and I were chatting, when a young woman wearing her abbaya and niqab, approached, carrying a covered tray of home-made delicacies from the families’ spread. For us it was a very precious display of courtesy, kindness and welcome. “Shukran, Shukran” (Thank you in Arabic) and much bowing to one another and genuine smiles all round. A realisation that we are called first to love one another.


One of the things we had been advised was to always carry our papers and marriage certificate with us – hence Robert often carried the “handbag”! Toward the end of our stay, we were walking with another western couple around the DQ gardens and the security car came alongside. The men were asked to produce papers (for their wives too) and marriage certificates, and much time was spent to ensure that each woman was walking with her own wedded husband! Interesting to note that, had we been out of order, or we women not properly covered, it would have been seen as our husband’s problem for “not keeping their wives in good order”! I must confess that is my liberal interpretation of the ruling! But a realisation came that we are to count as precious our roles and uphold respect for one another within our marriage.

The final cameo is the one that God has kept with me since that time:

It being Easter, for this weekend only there was a Sunday service to be held in a beautiful garden at the rear of an embassy, at a fresh and sunny 7am. And for me it came forcefully as a real reflection on what Christ has won for us.

On reaching the Embassy, I entered through the high-walled black-grilled security gate, and in a shaded corridor became part of a black shrouded community, as all women were wearing abbayas. As we came into the garden there was a stand for the abbayas. As I removed my abbaya the reality became very clear, it is only because of Christ that I don’t have to be covered in shame, or practise certain works to appease God’s wrath; or try to gain his approval. It was at that point as I stepped out of this black covering, out of the darkness into the beauty and colour of this garden, that I recognised afresh the life which Christ won for us. The joy of that morning, the joy of the abundant life in Christ, the true reality of our being; living in darkness, until we are called out of darkness into his marvellous light, until we come into the light Christ’s life has won for us. May we praise God that he is the answer to our where, why, and how, and love each other as he has loved us, encouraging one another in these truths.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:27

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion,

kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:9-12

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *