Monthly Archives: January 2014

What’s So Great About the KSA?

I must admit that I do feel some frustrations in this Kingdom: sometimes, and very rarely, I want to run an errand by driving myself. But, I have to sit and wait for a school driver, a private driver, or a taxi driver to take me. There are also times I want to go and see a movie. I love the whole experience of movie-going. I love the smell of the theater, popcorn falling on my lap, the enormous screen, and especially my fellow movie-goers. When everyone in the theater gets engaged in a great movie, and they start to yell and clap, there is nothing else like it.

And I miss live music. I have never appreciated Yoshi’s Jazz Club the way I appreciate it now. The small intimate club where I saw so many jazz greats. Where I would take my young daughter who squirmed through a lot of the music, but developed a deep appreciation of jazz. Where Afro-Cuban bands would play and they would open up the dance floor. Where you could buy a relatively cheap matinee ticket and hear phenomenal music.

I miss the rolling, green hills and parks. Walking near the water at Point Pinole. Watching the dogs play at Point Isabel. Shopping at the Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning.

All of these things have become very precious memories for me, and at times I wistfully ache for them.

But, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gives me comfort. The city of Riyadh is large and wide. But I don’t think I have ever slept so peacefully. There is the noise of some very, very low key traffic, but no sirens, no drunken brawls, no music blasting from passing cars, no neighbors partying and playing loud music.

And it is a color-blind culture. I feel freer than I thought would be possible from the constraints of a constant barrage of racism. When you are Black in America, it never ceases – it is just open, debilitating and poisonous in some places, or subtle, insidious, and soul-stealing in others. But it is a constant, daily ritual that every person of color must face on any and everyday of their lives. That burden has been lifted. I now wear a skin suit of no particular color. There is no African-American me. No Black me. No part-this and part-that me. No curly or kinky hair me. I am simply me.

Also, where else will I be so close to so many ancient cultures? I can easily travel to north and east Africa, Greece, Spain and Italy. Dubai is an hour away, and Abu-Dhabi just minutes from Dubai.

Unless I am a politician, CEO or a high-ranking employee of a public or private organization in the U.S., I will never, ever get free housing, free transportation, and comprehensive medical care – as well as a tax free salary – in my home country.

That’s what’s so great about the KSA.

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Segregation Part Two

From age 3 or 4 on, girls and boys are separated in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My students told me that it is for the best, because boys are rougher, tougher and more competitive than girls. Girls are delicate, easily bruised and need gentle handling. I protested that I know some very gentle boys, and some rough and tough little girls. Are they the exception? Perhaps. And perhaps not.

I explained to them that I hated delicate, lacy dresses, frilly socks and straightened, bow-tied hair. Maybe I was the exception. I told them that I know boys who are particular about their hair, their clothes and sometimes even wear a little make-up. Maybe they are the exception. I thought about macho, strong women like Laila Ali, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and metrosexual men like Bradley Cooper, Ludacris and Ben Affleck. I thought about intellectually strong women like Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and bell hooks. There are too many exceptions to name, and the exceptions begin to become more the rule and less the exception

In the KSA, girls do not compete athletically. There are no physical education classes for girls. There are no sports programs for girls. The exception to that exists in private, exclusive and expensive schools. There is a pervasive belief that girls do not need to exercise or compete athletically. Only boys compete, only boys are athletes, only boys need physical education. I am reminded of the USA during the post-Women’s Liberation Movement, not so very long ago.

Nevertheless, the KSA is becoming the world leader in the education of women. Princess Noura University, located in Riyadh, is the world’s largest all female university. This university education is free, and students are in fact paid to attend. There are many independent businesses owned and operated by women. Women are leading Saudi Arabia to changes in attitude, tradition and practices.

My students also went on to argue that while girls may need more exposure to physical education, men and women should absolutely not work together. That is far too much temptation. Married men will cheat and married women will cheat. I argued that if a man or woman wants to cheat, he or she will find a way, no matter what. I think that my students considered that this may be true, but it is better to keep men and women separate in the workplace. But, not all of them agreed.

I have seen Saudi women working in mall shops, in hypermarkets and supermarkets, and working alongside men in those places. Things are changing.

I have heard some of my married students complain that their husbands do not and cannot talk with them productively, and I admitted that this is not a problem particular to the KSA, but a common complaint among women all over the world.

However, how far should segregation go before it hinders the ability of men to effectively interact with women, damages the self-esteem of those women, and halts the social, communication and economic development of both?
In the KSA, it has gone far. But, things are changing.

Laila Ali
Laila Ali

Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel
Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel