Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.
A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.
Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites. We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.
The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.
Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.
Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses. Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt. We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.
They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother. “Even the Always,” Bedad said.
I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”
“You know Always?” The maxi pads. Yes.
“He put on his leg,” Medina said.
We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.
At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.
“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.
“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”
“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.
Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”
We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal. As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”
“Shattered,” I added.
P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.
P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.