A Few Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About Saudi Arabia
12 May, 2012
What’s in a name?
First of all, let’s start with the name, Saudi Arabia. English-speaking residents often refer to the country as Saudi—never as Arabia—and commonly address envelopes with “K.S.A.” If it is not already obvious, K.S.A. stands for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and so it goes without saying that, yes, there is indeed a King, a monarch, who rules this country and who very much has a say in whether you get to visit this country and how you are allowed to behave during your stay. Big Brother is watching you.
Getting the “law” of the land
The king’s people, at least, are watching you. They take the form of religious police, aka the Muttawa. And you better hope he doesn’t have his people talk to your people, because then somebody’s people are gonna get whupped. Just kidding. No, not really. In Saudi, religious law, or Sharia law, is implemented in full force, and quite thoroughly at that. Riyadh is the capital, but it is also the most conservative city in the country. And there, the muttawa carry around long whips that they do not hesitate to use on locals and foreigners alike. Thus, for travellers, a little preparation is required in the way of researching social norms and rules of conduct (and perhaps repacking your suitcase with more appropriate clothing; though the abaya [black full-body cloak for women] is [in]conveniently available at airport stores). Jeddah (formerly K.S.A.’s capital), I have heard, is rather liberal—in as much as a Sharia-law-abiding city can be liberal; but make no mistake about the rigorous, ironclad capital city of Riyadh, where I grew up, and where the word “liberal” is a foreign extraction that as good as has no translation.
Kids hang out
That being said, it’s all fun and games for kids in the kingdom. Life is one big party. You’ve got your siblings (if you have any), neighbourhood kids, and school friends to play with. You aren’t expected to act with any particular propriety, to wear an abaya, or to even cover up (though, as in any normal society, some article of clothing is advised). You go to school, you get dressed up for themed school events, you go to amusement parks and restaurants and shopping malls and swimming pools, you sleep over at friends’ houses, you go along for the ride when your parents visit their friends (and languish in stifling boredom for a few hours)—it’s all normal kid stuff. Better!—because, in your little parent- and city-monitored cocoon, there are no rapists or pedophiles or murderers out to get you or accessible city streets to get killed walking across. The upside of Sharia law is no crime. Not literally; sure, there are always some furtive acts of violence here and there. But it is well understood that thieves have their hands cut off, killers, their necks, and lesser crimes are rebuked with public lashing and jail time and fines—let’s just say, it’s enough to let potential offenders know that the crime is not worth the punishment. In addition, there is no violence, coarse language, or mature content on public television to corrupt your kids. Public television is censored and to a certain extent, so is satellite TV. The closest your kids may get to risqué television programming are through Lebanese shows, which often show—gasp!—scantily-clad women, singing or dancing or—cover your eyes and ears, daughters—leading talk shows; tsk, tsk, what poor role models for little wives-in-training. But the very fact that kids have all of the pleasures of fairytale kid world, without any of the civic dangers, makes it a wonderful place to raise kids, and a great place to BE a kid. (The flipside being, of course, that it would suck to be an adult in K.S.A. if you hailed from a democratic, post-feminist nation.)
Saudi Arabia being, essentially, a desert, it has all the vagaries and extremes of desert climate. In the summer it is scorching hot. You could fry an egg on the hood of a car. And so with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius, the only vegetation intrepid enough to withstand the sun’s fury are palm trees, especially date palm, and shrub. In the winter, it is freezing cold, and long johns, as well as winter coats and hats, are in order. And through all this, the arid desert air is extremely dry, sucking all humidity out of the air and leaving no prisoners, so that if you did not slather your skin with industrial-strength lotion—Nivea or Vaseline (I kid you not)—you would have to be hospitalized for cracked, bleeding skin. Speaking of which, nose bleeds are quite common as a result of the dry temperature. Rain is rare, and when it occurs (every few years?) inevitably causes flooding. But the most exciting natural phenomena—at least for me, when I was a kid—were the sand storms. Picture a city, dark, lit by winking lights all over, its residents cleaning up after the evening meal. Picture an unearthly calm. Then picture a low rumbling, a turbulent sky, and at lightening speed, a flood of sand whipping through the air at full force, bending tree branches, blowing away unhinged objects, and rattling the windows of houses. Sand storms are as exciting—and dangerous—as tornados; the only difference is, you don’t have to seek refuge underground. Before the arrival of the storm, residents would have gone around their houses closing doors and securing window latches. And it would be the one night when kids would be forbidden to go out to play. I do not remember these storms ever occurring during the day; I’m sure they do. But that would probably be like watching a horror movie during the day—not as scary. I much preferred the nighttime.