Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s: SAME THING

Landing in this country was like going into a time machine. I was struck with the 1970s design of the airport as soon as we stepped off the plane, and the decades just kept rolling back the farther and farther we got from the tarmac. It's well known that this country is very much in its youth having only been founded about 79 years ago. But the similarities between modern day Saudi Arabia and the United States in the 1950s grow each day. Here are a few of the more obvious ones:

Smoking is crazy popular. It was so bizarre when the Mister and I went to a restaurant for the first time and were asked whether we wanted seating in the smoking or non-smoking section. I guess you've got to give it to the Saudis, they don't have many legal vices. Alcohol is illegal, as are drugs. It's haram to be addicted to a substance. But nicotine? Bring it on! Sure, there are "no smoking" signs in places like malls--INSIDE THE MALLS. Are they obeyed? No. But at least they're there. The best part is that these "no smoking" signs are located directly above ashtrays. It's like they know the citizens of Saudi are just going to do whatever the heck they want.

I will say that I've only ever seen men smoking here. I've been told that I'll never see a Saudi woman smoke because it's considered unattractive. Not sure why that social norm doesn't apply to the males, cause those guys are constantly lighting up!

Littering. I've started to rant about the littering habits of Saudis before, but have never gotten around to posting it. Well now is the time. Saudi Arabia, you are a land full of litterbugs! It was totally shocking to me when I first saw someone open their window while driving down the highway and chuck a bag full of trash out onto the road. I've seen children finish their candy bar and drop the wrapper without skipping a beat. I brought this bafflement up with my students one day and they told me that if you try to use a trashcan instead of littering, you'll get made fun of. PEOPLE WILL MAKE FUN OF YOU! What?!

I was venting my frustration when a colleague--a fellow American--reminded me that the States had a littering problem until Keep America Beautiful came around in the 1950s. Remember Iron Eyes Cody? That crying Indian convinced us all to find a trash can instead of using the roadside as a dump (apparently no one was offended by the obvious don't-trash-the-land-you-stole-from-my-ancestors message being sent there).

To further prove the fact that Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s are the same, Saudi Arabia has started an anti-littering ad campaign of its own. Here and there you'll find awkward billboards with an old man's face pleading you to "Keep always Saudi Arabia clean." or "Stop! Way vandalizing?!" I'm sure it's much more grammatically correct in Arabic, but the translated message only causes me to chuckle.

Of course, I don't have a littering problem.

Women's roles. Granted, women have never been prohibited from driving in the United States (or in ANY other country in the world, for that matter), but American women in the 1950s and the modern women of Saudi Arabia have a lot of similarities.

At school a few weeks ago, we had a "progress party." This was essentially a celebration of making it just more than half way through the school year. Part of the celebration was a little goodbye ceremony for a few of the teachers who were resigning. I'm just going to ignore the fact that a). we were celebrating progress before the school year was over and b). we were celebrating teachers resigning in the middle of the school year. I asked why they were resigning and my fellow English teachers responded, "She's getting married," as if this was explanation enough.

"" I asked.

They turned and looked at me just as befuddled with my response as I was with theirs. "Well, she will be very busy with things."

"Like what things? You get married, you go on your honeymoon, khalass that's all there is to it! I know that weddings last like a week here, so at most you would need like 2 weeks off from work and then you can get back at it!" I said, laughing.

"Oh no! There are many duties for a new wife! You have to set up house, take care of your husband, there are lots of things that must be done. A new wife shouldn't have to work."

I almost gagged. It was like I was watching a scene from Mona Lisa Smile.

Women are extremely limited in the kind of jobs they can have in Saudi Arabia. Like 1954 America, the acceptable employment options are: teaching, nursing, or being a secretary. And women can only have a job if it's ok with her husband.

Of course you'll find the odd female doctor or prominent business woman here and there in Saudi Arabia, but it is most certainly NOT common. To quote the Labor Ministry: the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home. Sick.

Seat belts (or the lack there of). After the littering, the most shocking norm of Saudi Arabian life is the total and complete ambivalence towards personal safety. Saudis don't buckle up! They don't buckle ANYONE up! Drivers, passengers, newborns, toddlers, everyone is invited to the flirt-with-death-party!

Unlike the United States in the 1950s, cars in Saudi Arabia have seat belts! Saudis just don't use them. And it's not because they're extra cautious on the road! We regularly beat death every day on our morning commute! Fathers are swerving and speeding down the highway and their school-aged children are hanging out the window finger-gunning the passing cars. I'M NOT EXAGGERATING!!

(this is often how I feel when I see such families)

Trust me, the irony of US legislation on seat belt use being pushed through Congress by an Arab is not lost on this girl.

No sex in the movies. Oh, just like the 1950s, there's plenty of suggestion of sex, but no real proof of reproductive acts! (I should mention that there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, so any movies we're watching here are being watched on television) Kissing scenes are minimized, and sex scene start with the initial kiss and jump right to the post-coital snuggling, naked under the sheets.

That'll keep the kiddos from knowing what's up. mwahahaha

Vicariously yours,

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