It gives American Bedu pleasure to present this exclusive interview with Dr. Abdul Al-Lily, creator and blogger of “Sex and Beyond: Saudi Arabia.” It is not only unusual to find such a candid blog and one written by a Saudi man.
First of all, thank you very much, Dr. Al Lily, for this opportunity. I hope I don’t overwhelm you with the breadth of questions I have for you! I am also confident that American Bedu readers will likely have more questions in addition to their comments after reading this interview.
Let’s begin first with some background about you. Where are you from in the Kingdom? How would you describe your upbringing? Do you view your family as conservative or open?
I was born in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and lived there till I turned 21 when I moved to Canada for a few months, then to England for around 7 years, then back to Saudi Arabia till now. At the age of 11, I joined an ideological community that trained its members in so many skills (e.g. computing, languages, management, organisation and graphics) and, more importantly, educated them intensively in Saudi Arabian culture and its theoretical aspects. I was very active and disciplined in this community, to the extent that I became an authority in this community at the age of 17. Through this community, I got very ‘culturalised’ and managed to achieve a high level of theoretical understanding of Saudi culture, to the extent that this qualified me to become a cultural authority outside this community, becoming at the age of 16 a ‘mouezzin’ (i.e. the person who issues the call to prayer from a mosque) and then at the age of 18 an ‘imam’ (i.e. an Islamic leadership position, often the worship leader of a mosque and a Muslim community, who may lead Islamic worship services, serve as community leaders and provide religious guidance). At the age of 20, I managed to memorise the whole Quran with understanding of the rules governing pronunciation during recitation of the Quran, and therefore I became qualified as an authority to teach others how to recite Quran. I, moreover, was an educational supervisor in Hajj five times.
Because I was always very keen to influence the organisation to which I am attached, I was very politically and socially active at school and engaged even with the regional education agency. Likewise, at the university where I did my undergraduate studies, I was a leader of social activities. Despite me being politically and socially active, my academic studies still had a top priority, and for this reason, I managed to pass my undergraduate studies with distinction and to gain a royal reward for the highest academic achievement in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Beside my academic studies, I attended a great number of seminars and lectures in the theoretical and practical aspects of Saudi culture. When I got my BA degree, I decided to learn English. I always like to do what people find difficult to do, and since English is considered (at least by Saudis) to be something difficult to learn, my focus had become on learning English. But the problem was that my background in English was zero. I did not even know what the term ‘newspaper’ meant in English. So, since the second I finished my undergraduate studies, I started studying English intensively for a year in Saudi Arabia, and then moved to Canada to continue learning English, then to England to study particularly academic English and do my postgraduate studies.
What kind of experiences have you had outside of the Kingdom? To where have you travelled? How have these travels impacted on you and your outlook?
Moving to such multicultural countries (Canada and then England) gave me the opportunity to explore other cultures and compare them to Saudi culture. This has indeed improved my critical ability to analyse Saudi culture and look at it from a new perspective. I have decided to share my new perspective with the international community, believing that this sharing is of the essence given that the world is witnessing a high level of cultural exchange but the contribution of Saudi culture to this exchange was weak and limited. So, I decided to write about Saudi culture, thus enriching information about Saudi culture in this international cultural exchange. Many Saudis avoid critically and internationally writing about Saudi culture for various reasons, including not being good at writing in English, not being good at theoretically and critically analysing Saudi culture, not having the writing skill, not being good at expressing themselves and/or not feeling politically confident. Another reason why there is a lack of writings about Saudi Arabian culture is that Saudi Arabia is a collective society, and therefore anyone writing about Saudi culture thinks of himself or herself as a representative of Saudi culture, which therefore puts so much pressure on himself or herself, thus discouraging him/her from writing about this culture. Likewise, because of this collectiveness, Saudi citizens think of any Saudi writer about Saudi culture as a representative of Saudi society, and therefore they will be hard on him or her if s/he misrepresents the culture.
When did you first get the idea on starting a blog which address sex, intimacy, relations and customs thereof within Saudi Arabia?
I realised that my Western friends were fascinated by anything I mentioned about sexual practice in Saudi Arabia, even if it was a small and simple thing. This has indeed motivated me to blog about Saudi sexual practice. Another reason why I decided to write about sexual relations is that I am academically interested in relationships, including power relations and gender relations. For me, any connection between two social elements (here, the two genders) is fascinating, and I am keen to think about, analyse and write about such a connection. I decided to write particularly about sex because sexual considerations have been given so much attention to the extend that they have somehow impeded the progress of Saudi society and because sexual considerations actually influence fundamentally almost any decision and policy and shape fundamental aspects of the national culture, structure and even infrastructure. Yet, writing about such sexual considerations in English is weak and limited, and for this reason, I have decided to blog about them in English, hoping to help fill this gap.
I have chosen Saudi Arabia as the setting for my blog because of the nature of its culture which is seen to tend to resist strictly and uncompromisingly any socially deviant trend in behaviour or belief, making it very strong and so heavily protected that even those campaigning for change do not challenge existing configurations, but rather attempt to work within them. This culture is believed to have been politically protected not only from above by the social authorities, but also from below by most citizens – and moreover from outside by international Arab and Muslim communities. Some writers think that Saudis as a whole seem in no doubt as to where their values lie. It is believed that Saudis, as a whole, are still strongly attached to their culture and religion.
Did you have any apprehensions or misgivings on creating your blog and identifying yourself?
I am trying so hard to be diplomatic and charismatic as much as possible, which seems to have discouraged any cruel social reaction towards the blog. Besides, there has apparently become no (or at least hardly any) physical harm to anyone criticising Saudi cultural and social values and patterns – with the exception of the fundamental norms of the national political system which I intentionally avoid talking about in the blog. There, however, remains some social hatred towards such critics. That said, I have started to notice that some Saudis (whether young or old, liberal or even conservative) somehow admire, normally secretly, anyone who is ‘westernised’/’modernised’ and has its own distinctive way of seeing Saudi culture, especially when this person is successful and delivers his/her criticisms in a polite and delicate way. Frankly, given the fact that I hold a doctoral degree and am a faculty member in Saudi Arabia, this grants me so much prestige, which makes Saudis show respect to me despite my critical writings about their culture. Besides, the fact that I did my master’s and doctorate in the West and lived over there for a long time, this makes people somehow forgive me for viewing their culture through a critical lens. I am, as mentioned earlier, a faculty member in a Saudi university, teaching a large number of Saudi undergraduates, and since the relationship between me and my students tends to be good, these students are more likely to become influenced by my values, thus increasing the number of my followers and therefore my ‘protectors.’
How do you get ideas on which specific subjects you write upon?
I get ideas through talks with non-Saudi and Saudi friends and also through enquiries from the readers of my blog. I normally spend three hours on any post; an hour researching, an hour writing and an hour proofreading. I am obsessed with taking notes of any thought or idea that comes to my mind, thanks to Evernote.
How easy is it for you to write each post on a topic dealing with intimacy and specific within Saudi’s culture and religious beliefs?
I already addressed this question in my answer to the previous question, but what I should stress here is that writing about sex is not a new thing within the Saudi context. There are actually so many publications in Saudi bookstores talking about sexual practices. But what makes my blog outstanding and sensitive is that it is written in English and therefore directed to the international community, thus exposing Saudi society to the outside world and therefore destabilising Saudi privacy. Besides, almost all these publications are religion-driven and/or -oriented and full of citations from the Islamic history, whereas I am trying so hard to do otherwise as much as possible, which has raised a new perspective with which Saudi society is not familiar. Another aspect of my blog, which makes it outstanding and sensitive, is that it discusses only those issues that have not been discussed yet in the Western media, trying so hard to avoid talking about any issue that has already been shed light on.
What do you view as your most controversial post and why?
This question leads me to an important issue, i.e. that the increasing emergence of communication channels (e.g. online forums and blogs) has encouraged Saudi people to start discussing their cultural and social issues. Yet, many of these discussions seem to exist within a ‘bubble,’ sustain one-sided arguments and lack extreme opinions and ‘wild’ views. My blog, however, hopes to offer such opinions and views, just for the sake of argument, helping blow such a bubble. That is, what I write in my blog does not necessarily represent my own beliefs but can be written just for the sake of argument.
What are your views on writings about Saudi culture?
There are serious limitations in many of the writings about Saudi society by Saudis. One is that they are written in an emotional way and lack a scientific aspect. Another limitation is that some such writings are written theoretically with no empirical research given that the social authorities will not allow for such research to be conducted given its social sensitivity and given that it conflicts with the national culture. For example, any research on ‘gender mixing’ (the opposite to ‘gender separation’) normally faces the challenge that the social authorities will not allow researchers to conduct any social experiment (i.e. trail and control group) whereby the two genders are experimentally physically integrated, as such an action goes against the core cultural norm of gender separation. For this reason, writings about gender mixing in Saudi Arabia are informed by writings about gender mixing in other non-Saudi contexts. Yet, gender mixing in other non-Saudi contexts (e.g. the West and even in other Arab and Muslim countries) is different from gender mixing in the Saudi context. For example, Western single-sex schools and colleges are different from the Saudi ones, since parents, employers and employees of the other gender can access them in the West unlike in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, no one of one gender (e.g. parents, employers and employees) can access schools and colleges of the other gender. This means that findings of any research on single sex education in the West cannot and should not be seen as relevant to the Saudi context.
What have you seen as a most common theme or query which individuals like to see addressed?
I have realised that the Internet is full of merely dramas (i.e. not facts) about social life in Saudi society. I thus have built my blog in a way that avoids dramas and rather presents facts. That is, I have noticed that readers about Saudi Arabia seem to be keen to know about facts, being told in a factual and therefore not dramatic way. Such readers are also keen to know about those aspects of Saudi society that have not been discussed by the media yet. Such readers are aware that Saudi culture is more than just those certain cultural aspects that the media keep repeating and going through again and again. This awareness has encouraged them to become keen to expand their knowledge about Saudi society beyond these repeated aspects.
How much do the cultural customs, religion and segregation impact on a typical Saudi’s knowledge or understanding of intimacy?
Saudi Arabia is a highly structured, deeply directed and intensively religion-oriented society, and this is why the impact of its norms on its citizens is strong. This explains why a Saudi, even after travelling abroad and exploring other cultures, is likely to remain under influence by and loyal to his or her culture and can hardly be independent of it. Saudi culture, moreover, has the power to regulate not only public life but also private life, and this is why even one’s private sexual life is subject to regulation by the culture. Yet, science sometimes proves the culture wrong, and this is when some citizens feel they are left in a critical situation wherein they do not know whether to follow the culture or science.
In your point of view, at what general age range is sex and intimate relations usually explained to a Saudi male or female?
It is useful to talk here about sex education. As the reader might know, there is no sex education in Saudi Arabia. The question is therefore whether such education should exist within the Saudi context. Some might believe that one will learn about sex with or without sex education, thanks to the Internet. Others, however, might argue that the Internet might expose Saudis to only certain aspects of sex (e.g. how to achieve more pleasant sex, including positions) but not to other aspects (e.g. how to achieve safe sex). Sex education has the potential to, or at least should, cover all possible aspects of sex and give students a comprehensive view on sexual practice.
Subjective, but do you think Saudis (male or female) may be more focused on sex or the idea of sex, than other nationalities? Why or why not?
Inside the country, Saudi men seem to be less focused on the idea of sex than other nationalities given that their exposure to (i.e. the reminder of) the other gender is weak. Outside the country, however, Saudi men seem to be obsessed about sex just as much as other nationalities are.
Are you married or single? If married, was your marriage arranged? If you are still single, do you plan for a marriage in your future and would it likely be an arranged marriage?
I am 29 and single, although Saudis typically get married at the age of 24. Saudi marriage is typically arranged through mainly mothers. A main problem with the idea of arranged marriage is that it is arranged by mothers who belong to a generation that is different from the generation of the person getting married and therefore are less likely to truly know his/her real needs. The one getting married could be left in a critical situation where s/he feels s/he has to put up with arranged marriage given that s/he cannot actually hang around and find a partner himself or herself given the firmly applied gender separation. Even if the Saudi man decides to travel to the West to look himself for the right partner to marry, the Saudi immigration system makes it difficult for him to bring her to the country as a partner, or even as a visitor given that it is difficult for female non-Muslims to get a visa to Saudi Arabia, I believe.
So many foreign women engage in relationships with a Saudi while he is abroad. Most of these relationships are destined to eventual heartbreak. What is your advice to these women? What is your advice to the Saudi man abroad?
As I mentioned earlier, a Saudi man, while studying abroad, might have a Western girlfriend, but he finds it very hard or even impossible to bring her with him back home when going back for good to Saudi Arabia given that the Saudi immigration system apparently makes it difficult for him to bring her to the country as a partner or even as a visitor given that it is apparently very difficult for female non-Muslims to get a visa to Saudi Arabia, I believe. Yet, the best a Saudi friend of mind could do after going back home for good was to have a distance relationship with his European girlfriend, with him going regularly to visit her in Europe and her coming to visit him in the Gulf (not in Saudi Arabia though because she cannot legally get a visa and, moreover, because they cannot meet in Saudi Arabia given gender separation). He, moreover, cannot, I believe, marry her according to Saudi law unless there is actually a reason preventing him from typically marrying a Saudi woman. All this may have resulted in huge disappointment and frustration on the part of some of those Saudis being in a relationship with a foreigner.
Thank you very much for this interview and for sharing your blog with the world.
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