Saudi Arabia: Interview with Saudi wife, Nicole – Part II

saudi airlines


When did you and your husband move to Riyadh?  Were you able to travel together or did he have to go before you?

We spent two years together when Saleh was in the States, studying. After that, he went back to Riyadh, and we had to spend two years apart, which was so difficult. It made it somewhat easier knowing that we would have had to spend those two years apart in any case, as I had to finish my classes for my PhD, but it was still really hard. Thank God for Skype, BlackBerry Messenger, and MagicJack! In our first year apart, Saleh got a job, got himself set up to marry, and then approached his parents and eventually got their permission to marry me. We were able to visit each other in that first year, but in the second year apart, we didn’t get to see each other at all. But we got the permission and got everything arranged for me to move to Riyadh. After eleven months without seeing each other, Saleh came back to the States to get me. J We got all of the American marriage paperwork taken care of, and we spent a week with my family. Then we spent another week in Washington, D.C., getting my visa from the embassy. Finally, we flew to Riyadh together!

What were your initial thoughts and impressions of life in Saudi?  Was it easy or difficult to adjust?  What changes did you have to make in your lifestyle?  Do you know Arabic?

There were definitely adjustments to make! J But my initial impression of Saudi Arabia was, “Well, it’s really not as bad as everyone makes it sound.” (My mom’s first reaction when she visited Riyadh back in November was, “It looks just like Las Vegas…but you know, without the casinos!” That got a lot of laughs from my in-laws.) I expected to live in fear all the time, and that hasn’t been the case at all. But without question, the most difficult adjustment has been not being able to drive. It drives me nuts that I have to call my husband to bring me home this or that from the store, or that I have to ask him to take me to do something. Most of the time he’s good about making sure I get where I want or need to go, but you know, he works outside of the house all day, so when he gets home, I know he wants to relax and not have to shuttle his wife around in the crazy Riyadh traffic. Sometimes I go places with the family driver with my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law, but even then, we have to call him and wait until he gets ready and brings the car around. Always waiting on a man. It’s so different from what I’m used to, being able to hop in the car and just take off. It’s frustrating to Saleh sometimes, as well; he often comments, “I just wish you could drive here.” In the States, he got used to being able to just hand the wheel over to me on a road trip, having me pick up something from the grocery store, or having me drive myself to meet my friends for breakfast. So it’s been an adjustment for him, too.

I don’t know Arabic, other than the basics—counting to 10, random words and phrases I pick up by listening and observing, and of course, swear words, which I learned from hearing my husband yell at Riyadh drivers and from hearing my mother-in-law yell at the cats. J Once I got really mad at my husband and yelled an Arabic obscenity at him (which I shall not share here). I had no idea what it meant at the time, but his eyes got huge and he said, “That is awful! Where did you learn that??” I had to tell him, “From listening to you!” That was probably a good lesson for him to learn prior to parenthood. J I do know the alphabet and can read slowly, kind of like a Saudi kindergartner. J But the difference between me and a Saudi kindergartner is that once they read the words, they comprehend what they are reading, and I mostly don’t. But I very much want to learn, and I love listening to my in-laws speak Arabic. I try to encourage my husband to speak to me in Arabic, as well. I tend to try to read Arabic signs while Saleh is driving, and the other day I sounded out a big word on an all-Arabic sign (no English translations), and I was amazed at myself when I realized I had read the word “falafel”! All by myself! Again…like a Saudi kindergartner. J

What is your typical routine like in Riyadh?  Are you working?

I teach online, so I work at home. And although I’ve finished all of the actual classes for my doctoral program, I’m still working on the second part of the PhD process, which involves writing…lots and lots of writing. J I’m determined to finish and graduate by the end of this year. So my typical day consists of researching, reading, and writing…with some housework, cooking, and crafting thrown in. Sometimes I go downstairs at lunchtime and eat with my in-laws. When Saleh gets home in the evening, sometimes we will go out and do grocery shopping or run some other errands. On the weekends, we usually go out and about…to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, to one of Riyadh’s many, many malls to shop or just walk around, to a park, or something like that. There’s so much I want to see, so on the weekends, I’m always bugging him, “Let’s go someplace!” J

   Have you seen any kind of changes in your husband since living in Saudi such as in his personality or demeanor? 

The only change I saw in him was his reluctance to show any sort of affection toward me in front of his family when I first arrived. In front of my family, and in public in the States, he would hold my hand, put his arm around me, kiss my forehead or cheek occasionally, that kind of thing. But of course, in Saudi Arabia, PDA is a major no-no. I mean, married couples will hold hands or the wife will hold her husband’s arm sometimes, but that’s it. No kissing at all between married couples, even just on the forehead or cheek. I honestly didn’t expect any sort of affection in public here, but it stung a little bit that he seemed to become standoffish to me when we were just in front of his family. It was especially frustrating because behind closed doors, he would transform back into the sweet Saleh I know and love! I talked to him about it, told him that it was really bothering me, and he was like, “I’m sorry—this is all new for me! I’ve never been with my wife around my family before!” He loosened up after that, though. He’ll hold my hand in front of his family now. J

Have you been able to make many friends in Saudi?  Are your friends primarily Saudis or expatriates?  How did you meet?  How often do you interact with your in-laws?  What do you all do together?

Thanks to Facebook, I had several lovely ladies to meet when I finally got to Riyadh! J Most of my friends here are other Western women married to Saudis. Sometimes I spend time with my sister-in-law and her coworkers, who are a mix of Saudis and expats, or with my husband’s cousins and extended family members, who are, of course, all Saudis.

I see my immediate in-laws—my mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law—all the time; I live with them! My husband and I have our own apartment on the top floor of their house, but we do live with my in-laws. We usually all eat lunch together on Fridays. Sometimes we sit outside at night in the hosh (the walled courtyard that surrounds the house) when the weather is nice. My sister-in-law often comes upstairs to sit and chat with me. Sometimes I go shopping with my mother-in-law. Every once in awhile my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and I (and sometimes Saleh, if we can convince him to join) will break out a board game and play (we like Sequence). J

I understand Congratulations are in order!  How do you feel about giving birth in Saudi Arabia?  Will anyone from your family be able to come and be with you during that time?  sonogram

I’ve heard horror stories about giving birth in Saudi Arabia, but I’ve just as many horror stories about giving birth in the States. (It seems that when it comes to birth stories, like so many things, the worst ones get shared the most!) So at this point, I’m not nervous about where I’m going to give birth, I’m just nervous in general about it. But hey, I am woman, hear me roar, and all that. J I know I can do it!

My mom is hopefully going to be here for the birth, and then she will stay with us for about a month after the baby is born. I’m so looking forward to having her here, although I wish the rest of my friends and family in the States could be here, too. We’ve been trying to convince my dad to come to Riyadh during that time as well, at least for a week or two…but aside from being reluctant to leave the farm, he’s not too keen on the idea of a 14-hour flight. I haven’t given up hope yet, though!

Are you nervous or apprehensive in any way about raising a daughter in Saudi Arabia?  Do you fear or want her to be a typical Saudi girl?

I don’t want my daughter to be a typical any kind of girl! J I’m nervous and apprehensive about raising a child, period, but not because she’s a girl. If she’s anything like her dad (or like her mom, I suppose), she will be a stubborn little cookie. I have no doubt that she will find a way to become who and what she wants to be in this world. So no, I don’t fear her becoming a “typical Saudi girl,” nor do I particularly want that for her. I just want her to be whoever she is meant to be.

You are one of the few who have married their Saudi –and- made it to the Kingdom to live.  There are so many Western women who have relationships with Saudi students.  Many of them believe that their Saudi is “The ONE” and sincere.  What advice can you offer them?

I feel like it’s really difficult for me to tell other Western women to just move on from their Saudis when their hearts are telling them to do otherwise—I would be a hypocrite if I did. J My main piece of advice—which holds true for all women, but especially for a woman in love with a Saudi—is to take care of yourself first. Don’t lose sight of your goals—don’t let a future with your Saudi become your only goal, because if that’s all you have, it won’t be worth it. Make sure your Saudi supports the dreams you have for yourself, rather than encouraging you to change them to be with him. I know that falling in love can be like a whirlwind and it may feel like it would be worth it to do whatever it takes to be together, but if he’s not willing to respect and support your goals before you get married, he certainly won’t afterward.

Saleh and I met as graduate students; I was a full-time elementary school ESL teacher while I was in grad school at Missouri State, and Saleh had worked for a year in his field before he decided to pursue his MBA in the States. But I know that a lot of young women meet their Saudis as undergrads. For a woman considering marriage to a Saudi, especially if moving to the Kingdom is a possibility, it is so important that she finishes her degree and gets some work experience under her belt before she makes the move. When she moves to the Kingdom on a spousal visa, her iqama, her legal status as a resident in the Kingdom, will depend on her husband’s sponsorship. Should the marriage go bad and the divorce become ugly, he unfortunately has the ability to revoke her iqama and send her right back to her home country—without her children. If she doesn’t have a degree, she has no chance of getting a job here in the Kingdom, and thus she has no chance of getting an employer-sponsored iqama…and no chance of staying with her children. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the man won’t do his best to prevent his ex-wife from seeing the children, even if she does manage to stay in the Kingdom…but although Saudi Arabia’s system in many ways facilitates them, awful situations involving custody can happen anywhere in the world. The best advice I can give is trust in Allah, but tie up your camel, as we say.

Do you think most Saudi men who are students in the United States are as sincere as they claim to Western women?  Why or why not?

I’m sure that many Saudi men are just like many Western men; they want to hook up, and they’ll say whatever they need to say (or hide whatever they need to hide) to make it happen. Like my dad says, “I know how young guys think; I used to be one.” But when it comes to Saudi men/boys, the difference is the culture behind them. Western men don’t have their moms waiting back home to choose their wives (and they don’t live in a culture where polygamy is legal). Western men have been hanging around girls their whole lives and can choose to date whomever they please, and the same goes for Western women. So honestly, most of the time, a lot less flowery language, a lot less surface chivalry, a lot less effort goes into it when a Western man woos a Western woman. It just isn’t necessary, and a lot of the time, dating is not one torrid love affair after another, but a lukewarm process of trying people on to see how they fit. So when a guy goes full out with all of the Prince Charming stuff, we, as Western women, are somewhat trained to believe, “Whoa, this guy is serious about me.” If we’re not interested, there’s kind of that, “Wow, he’s a really sweet guy…but no.” And if we have any reciprocal feelings for him at all, it’s not a far leap to end up at the conclusion, “He must be The One.” Meanwhile, Saudi guys have spent most of their lives separated from women. It takes effort and risk to interact with girls in Saudi Arabia, and it’s a major risk for the girl. And the guys have to make that risk worth it for the girls. So they’ve learned to use as a default setting when pursuing a girl the signals we Western women take seriously. And thus when they meet a Western woman they are interested in, they do what their upbringing has trained them to do in the presence of a Saudi girl they want to know; they offer up those signals that we as Western women have been culturally conditioned not to ignore. Meanwhile, I think that Saudi women have been trained, to an extent, to expect that flowery language, that chivalry, that effort from even the most mildly interested suitor…or to even roll their eyes at it if they’re not interested in the chase. So I think it’s not so much an insincerity epidemic among Saudi men as it is a perfect storm of cultural miscues—although I’m sure there are plenty of Saudi guys who get to the States and take advantage of that when they realize, “Hey, my skills really work on the girls over here!” And of course, once a Western woman is very serious about a guy and believes he is The One, our culture is such that she may do things with him that a Saudi girl would rarely, if ever, do with a guy before she married him. And then the Saudi guy may lose respect for the Western woman, because in his mind, hey, if it was that “easy” for him, who else has it been that easy for? And even if he doesn’t think that and does truly love and respect the woman, there’s always the significant chance that his parents will refuse the match, and the Saudi man who will defy his parents, especially his mother, is about as common as the Saudi woman who will sleep with her boyfriend before she marries him. So he may end up back in Saudi Arabia, never seeing his Western woman again, regardless of how much he had hoped and prayed it would work out. And I thus I get how some Saudi men arrive at the obviously erroneous conclusion that all Western women are easy and disposable, and how some Western women arrive at the equally erroneous conclusion that all Saudi men are creeps and liars.

What are the five most important things a Western woman must know about her Saudi if she believes he is ‘The One?’

I always hate to give “rules” about what makes a relationship between a Saudi and a non-Saudi work, because there are always exceptions, of course, and I’ve known of Saudi couples who shared culture, religion, etc., did everything “right,” yet the marriage imploded spectacularly within a year. On the other hand, I know of Saudi/non-Saudi couples that have started out “wrong” in every way, and have been married for decades. That being said, off the top of my head, I can think of three important things a Western woman should know about her Saudi, based on my own experiences and observations.

  1. Know about his family, and don’t be shy about insisting that he let his family know something—anything—about you, even if it’s just, “Oh, I’m in a study group with this really smart girl who’s better than me at math.” Personally, I believe that if he’s serious, he should be willing to make your existence known to his family in at least some small way before he approaches them to get their approval to marry you. Learn as much as you can about his family. How many brothers and sisters does he have, what are their names, what order are they in? Do the men and the women sit together? Do his mom and sisters wear niqab? What does his dad do? Are any of his siblings married? Did they find their spouses in the traditional Saudi way? Nieces, nephews? In American culture, we have this idea of “leave and cleave”—that is, when you get married, you’re leaving your family to start a new one with your spouse. But it’s important to remember that in Saudi Arabia, family is paramount. When you marry a Saudi, you are in effect marrying his family. In all likelihood, you’re joining his family and adding to it, not breaking away. Learn as much about them—and their expectations—as you can.
  2. Know what he wants for his life and his children. Talk about everything. Talk about polygamy. Talk about what he would do if his daughter grew up and chose not to cover when outside of the Kingdom. Talk about what he would do if his son—or his daughter—came home wanting to marry a Westerner. Talk about what he thinks about letting his daughter go abroad alone to study. Talk about what you want in your marriage contract. Getting these difficult conversations out of the way won’t guarantee that there won’t be more in the future; there will always be more. But it will help you better understand your deep compatibility, and how well the two of you can communicate when the topic gets tangly. It should give you a clue of what you are in for in the future. Some of these conversations may be easy, but most of them won’t be. Even if your Saudi is one of the most “liberal” Saudis (although I hate using that term in this context), there will still be fundamental cultural differences that you will need to work out, differences you may not even be aware of until you’re knee-deep in what you thought was an entirely different topic. Discuss your most fundamental beliefs and ideals, and find out which ones you can agree to disagree on, and which ones are deal-breakers. I would guess that if these conversations aren’t difficult, then he’s just saying what you want to hear, and he’s probably not serious.
  3. Know what kind of Muslim he is. Of course, religion does not automatically make someone a good person, and in my opinion, many elements of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam have a lot more to do with cultural precedent than with sound religious doctrine. But that being said, if he avoids the masjid like the plague, drinks, parties, has female friends, lets you hang out with him and his buddies…well, these are all things he can’t (and probably wouldn’t be willing) to do in Saudi Arabia, so you’re likely looking at a guy who is going to completely transform into someone you don’t recognize as soon as your plane lands in the Kingdom.

I understand you also have created your own blog!  What is it called and when did you start it?

rainbows end

It’s called The Same Rainbow’s End, at I started it in May 2011, about a year before I moved to Saudi Arabia. Now it’s mostly just about my life here in the Kingdom, although sometimes I go on rants about politics, society, or education. J I love photography, so I post pictures there occasionally. And I also love to cook, so there’s an occasional recipe there, too. But I’m definitely still learning at both of those things. J

In closing, is there anything else you’d like to say to American Bedu readers?

It feels like I’ve rambled on and on and on, so if you’ve actually read all the way to this point, thank you very much for taking the time to do so! J

I want to thank you for this interview and wish you all the best on upcoming parenthood and for a continued life filled with happiness!

Thank you so much for asking me for an interview, Carol; as a longtime American Bedu reader, I am honored. And I wish you the very best, as well!


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