Wednesday, April 4, 2012

You haven't lived in Saudi Arabia until...

Since moving over here, the Mister and I have become big How I Met Your Mother fans. We have downloaded or purchased all the seasons and have an iTunes season pass for the current one so we can get our weekly fill. Last week, while in Sri Lanka, we re-watched some of season 6 to pass the time. One of the episodes, "Subway Wars" came to mind after we had returned to the Middle East and were trying to get home from the Bahrain airport. Here's a CBS-approved synopsis of the episode:

Anyway, our drive home across the Bahrain bridge and the events that unfurled made me start a mental list of "You haven't lived in Saudi Arabia until..." items. The first item I would like to add to this list, and I think most veteran expats who have lived here longer than me would agree, is "You haven't lived in Saudi Arabia until you've had something irrationally confiscated at the border."

Here's what happened.

The Mister and I pulled up to the Saudi customs stall and we were expecting the typical open-the-trunk-glance-at-the-contents-get-the-needed-stamp-and-be-on-our-way routine that has been the standard operating procedure just about every. single. time. we've gone through the border before.

But this time, the guy made the hubs take our suitcases out of the back seat. No big deal. We weren't smuggling anything. And the few times they've ever actually opened our luggage, they've seen my tampons or my dirty underwear and just waved us on through. I figured such would be the case this time as well.

As I was looking through my email on my phone, I realized that this suitcase "search" was taking a lot longer than it usually does. That's when I looked over and saw the contents of my luggage spilling over, and the customs official rifling though all our stuff as half the population of Saudi Arabia drove past to their own customs inspection.

"Well that's just unnecessary," I thought to myself. We had nothing but laundry and our tchochke souvenirs we'd gotten at the air..port...wait.


We bought little hand made nativity sets as gifts for our parents. I did not even think about the fact that this would be considered religious contraband should our stuff get searched. Crap.

Oh well. They were cute nativities, but they didn't cost all that much (sorry, Moms!), so it wouldn't be a big loss if they got taken.

Just as I suspected, I saw the customs official pull out the first of the 3 nativities and say, "Issa?!" which is Arabic for "Jesus?!"


Now that he had caught on to this very short trail, the customs official was a man on a mission (or should I say jihad?). He found every souvenir we bought, and grilled the Mister on what each one was. We had bought this really, really cute abstract elephant carving for the Mister's sister. The customs official claimed it as a Buddha. We bought these really cute hand carved and hand painted statues of a Sri Lankan man and woman. He claimed the man (who was wearing a sarong, had no shoes, and had a Hindu red dot on his forehead) was Jesus. The woman, apparently, was His accomplice, so she got confiscated, too.

Ironically, he didn't bat an eye at the Ayurvedic spices and tea we bought. For those playing the home game, ayruveda is a traditional type of medicine from India that detoxifies and heals the body through nature. We liked the spice tea, and the curry smelled too good to pass up. These homeopathic remedies are technically part of a Buddhist/Hindu lifestyle (neither of which we adhere to), but they didn't seem to have been covered on the day the this customs official was taught about religious items that should be flagged.  ...Apparently he slept through the "what Jesus and Buddha statues actually look like" lesson that day, too. The Mister said the  guy was insistent that these items were Jesus and the Buddha, despite the fact that they would have absolutely NOTHING in common with any images that would come up in a simple Google search.

Throughout this entire experience, my blood pressure was rising higher and higher. Granted, in the grand scheme of things, losing these souvenirs isn't that big a deal. But I was so angry that this man was being so smug about catching the Christians in the act of trying to convert the masses through the cunning use of THREE hand made nativities and an elephant statue. To add insult to injury, he had completely turned our suitcases upside down, searched through my purse without allowing me to watch him, and dropped our laptop on the concrete without batting an eye.

As my purse was being rifled through, I said, "Aib! [you should be ashamed] You're going through my purse without letting me watch you! I have money in there! You've already thrown my dirty underwear out for all the world to see, now you go through my personal stuff?! Haram!"

He just laughed at me. As he was conducting his "search," the other customs officials were telling Tyler to go into the office (presumably away from his loud wife) and get grilled by their supervisor.

Being that I am the woman in our relationship, I had no choice but to just sit and watch that the smug south end of a northbound mule bossed two migrant workers around, telling them to cram our now completely disheveled belongs into the already-tightly-packed suitcase and "khalass."

"Aib! Shame on you! You've embarrassed me enough! You throw my dirty underwear around for all the world to see, you take my stuff and harass my husband! Now you don't even put back the mess you made?!" I yelled at the man. I was really driving home the fact that he touched my dirty underwear in the hopes of sharing some of my humiliation with him and freaking him out enough that he would just say, "Take your stuff and go."

His snobbish smile and condescending eye roll only served to send my adrenaline even higher. I was so. pissed.

But again, all I could do was just watch and give the man the stink eye.

As Tyler was in the office laughing at the men who were trying to tell him that we were bringing the elephant statue home so we could worship it, I was fuming. I felt so violated, and if I were in the States, I would be demanding the name and number of their management so I could lodge a huffy, strongly worded complaint.

But I'm not in the States. I'm in Saudi Arabia. I knew what I was getting myself into when I moved to this country. I knew that confiscations often happen at the border and there was absolutely nothing we could do to get our possessions back. Any complaints we had would fall on deaf ears. In the Kingdom's defense, we should have known better than to buy a religious souvenir like a nativity and try to bring it across the border.  Any sort of religious item was fair game when it came to this kind of seizure. Our only way of avoiding having to go through this situation again was to leave the country and never come back.

Hey! We're going to just that! 2 months.

I was suddenly struck with many memories of conferences with angry students and parents back home in the public school where I worked in Nashville. It seemed like the most common retort I heard from countless mothers that were upset at the fact that their angels had been caught cheating (or any number of other offences) was, "MY DAUGHER/SON'S NOT GOING TO THIS &%*% SCHOOL NEXT YEAR, SO...NYEAH!"

Oooh. Burn.

My favorite was when a puffed up, red-faced student angrily declared, "OooOH I can't WAIT to get out of this school next year!" as she huffed her way out of the office on her way to detention.

As I stood there huffing and puffing at the Saudi Arabia/Bahrain border, the only insult I could think of to throw at the offensive Saudi jerks was, "I can't wait to get out of your darn country!"

I'm sure they would have been just as hurt by that sentiment as I was by the mothers that threatened to take me to the school board for marking her student tardy every time he showed up late to class.

Vicariously yours,


  1. first of all, i would like to apologise on behalf of this guy's actions. Being a muslim, saudi, teenager, i feel very ashamed and embarresed, as i aknowledge that what he did was not acceptable nor appropiate. Please don't assume that the man was on "jihad" or a "mujahed" because that man shows the opposite meaning, because a "mujahed" describes a person who would fight for his reliegon if attacked, and this man's efforts were completely wrong because Islam forbids us to offend people or to not allow them to practice their reliegon whatever it was. Second, being one of your students, i was really shocked when i read one of your previous posts that you were moving to Kuwait, you are like the best teacher i've EVER HAD, English has became now one of my favorite classes, -along with math-, when it used be my worst subject for the past years. I know that sometimes i turn in my tasks late, but i'm like that with all the subjects, and i know that i shoul've put more effort into learning and i'm sorry that i haven't. I'm really sad that you're leaving, because i want you to be my teacher forever :(, but i'm even more sad that " you can't wait to get out of our darn country!" .i know that Saudi may not be the be the best place to live, but i never knew that you hated it that much and that you can't wait to move to Kuwait. When you go to Kuwait, don't forget about your Saudi students, because we wont!<3 And inshallah this year won't be the last time we see you! We will miss you so much :'(

    - Anonymous student

    1. Aww! Thank you, my dear! I really am going to miss my Saudi students so much! Y'all have turned out to be so much cooler than I could have expected! As far as hating it in Saudi, let me be clear: It doesn't matter where I live in the world, I will always have days that I will miss home and long to get out of whatever country I'm in at the moment. That day was an especially bad day for me. It was one of those "get me out of here" days. But for every day that I can't wait to leave, there's a day that I wonder if I'm making the right decision in moving to Kuwait.

      I'm excited to move to Kuwait for several reasons: I'll be able to practice my religion more freely there, I already have friends living there, my friends and family will be able to visit me there, and most importantly it'll help to advance me in my career as a teacher. I'll be getting training in Kuwait that I just can't get in Saudi Arabia.

      But just watch, there will be days where I will blog about counting down the days till I can get the heck out of Kuwait! You can take a girl out of the States, but you can't take her love of her home.

  2. I recently returned to Saudi. I needed a desk job. I have been here since April 1st. I will be leaving. Let the credit cards pay themselves off any way they want. All they are are aggressive cowards that lie.