Friday, June 25, 2010

Femininity and the Kingdom

Today, I went grocery shopping. I think I could write a whooole post about how buying groceries here is like buying groceries on Mars compared to the USA. The products, the marketing, and the store itself is so different. This time, I won't be talking about that because there is something else I'd rather write about. It has to do with the idea of femininity.

Look, I'm a lady. I'm very comfortable with this fact. I like my boobs, and I have enough curves for 3 other women (and I am proud!). However, I'm not usually the ultra-feminine type. When I was little, like around 5 or 6, I'd wear little shorts and t-shirts and my hair would be cut very short in a no-fuss hairstyle. I could comfortably run around and do "boy" things like climb rock formations and play football (soccer, not American football - I was brought up in the British school system). The mothers of the other children all thought I was a boy, and my Mom would get a big kick out of it. It was hilarious. As I grew up, jeans and t-shirts stayed my thing, and rarely did I wear dresses and skirts.

When I was about 13 or 14, I started to wear lots of skirts and dresses. All of a sudden, I was this...girl. It kinda came out of nowhere, but it stuck. Compared to my two older sisters, I was the most feminine of them all. I LOVE perfume, makeup, creams, lotions, whatevers. I love wearing stylish, awesome things that show off my figure - when I can afford it, of course. During my time in upstate NY, my style kind of...fell flat. I was in the middle of nowhere, so fashion wasn't readily available. It was back to my jeans and t-shirts again, and I looked like butt. Really stinky, college butt. I gained a lot of weight, especially on my face.

However, every time I came back to Riyadh for the summer, I went shopping. I'd buy these beautiful, feminine clothes all over again and underneath the abayah that I wore every day like every other woman, I had on really beautiful clothes. I also wore GREAT shoes! I only wore sneakers to the gym, never to go out anywhere. When I went out anywhere, mostly to go shopping to buy even more clothes, I got dressed to the nines.

Also, when living in Saudi, I noticed myself buying toiletries that I would never use in the USA. I wax my eyebrows and upper lip at home, and wear moisturisers and body lotions and make-up...oh Lord, I wear make-up! I use perfumes and body sprays, and wash with body scrubs and gels and Lord knows what else. I buy the girliest body washes that exist. I could buy them in the US too, but I never feel like it. I go with the utilitarian stuff over there, like Arm & Hammer or Irish Spring (or whatever it's called). Here, I buy this fruity flowery creamy girly stuff that my friends back at college would never believe.

What is it about Saudi Arabia that makes me want to present myself like this? I really don't care as much when I go to the US. Saudi Arabia, without much prodding, brings out this stereotype in me and I think it is weird. I don't feel like stopping it, though, because it is so much fun. I feel really good, taking care of myself. Why should I stop if it actually feels good?

Today is my first real day back in Saudi and I did one of the girliest things ever. I took silly pictures of myself in Photo Booth because I had nothing better to do! I've been doing this since I first came to Saudi. I usually take these pictures of myself with random objects that I feel belong in the pictures. Here are a couple of me wearing a headpiece that my parents brought to me from their holiday in Turkey:

This is me "modelling" my new shower gel. It is "Creme delice" shower gel. It says the following on it: "Berry Sorbet - leaving your skin feeling silky with tasty aroma." Ugh. Can't get more girly than that - also, it's PINK AND PURPLE.

This is me showing a sweet thing I just ate. It's called "Bon Sweet." Good sweet? Well, it was delicious, so I guess it was! It's like a chocolate mousse thing with whipped cream on top. Mmmmm! Another girl thing, I guess, is chocolate, so this is fitting.

Finally, this is just me smirking at the camera. I've been pretty negative in my first two posts, so let this be SOME proof that I know how to lighten up a little! And boy, did I need it.

I asked myself earlier why Saudi Arabia brings this side out from within me. Well, I think I know one of the many answers: no matter what country I am in, I always feel like I am playing some kind of part. You'd think that in the US, I'd be able to be myself more because of the way the culture works...well I am sorry to say that that is not really true. Here in Saudi I have to cover my hair and body, in the US I have to cover up some of my personality. I don't really know why I don't pamper myself the way I do here in Saudi, but it might have to do with fitting in within American culture, or perhaps the culture of my friends. Although my friends in the US accept me as I am, most of them are male, so maybe their ways just rubbed off on me. I also know that here in Saudi a tomboy my age isn't really seen as a "real" woman. Yet, no one can even see me here, so why should it matter?

I think that is another answer altogether. In Saudi, I am not visible underneath the physical layers of the abayah and scarf, so I am making up for it. My shoes are usually fantastic (not AS fantastic as some of the other women, though! They have more money), my make-up when I wake up early enough is usually good, and I smell awesome. So what if people cannot see my hair or body? They can notice other things about me. And even so, I STILL wear great clothes underneath, because even if they can't see it, it gives me confidence and people can certainly see that, no matter what you are wearing.

For now, I totally embrace this feminine thing. I'm enjoying it now, so I'll just stop it when it gets less enjoyable. Up to this point, it has not done me any harm whatsoever.

Sidenote: I am totally still wearing that awesome headdress thing. It's GORGEOUS!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Drunken Arrival

I didn't really want to write yet. I was going to put things off until tomorrow. It's night time here and I should probably get some sleep. It's 9pm now and tomorrow at 1pm, we do the only thing that Riyadh is awesome for - shopping. Well, grocery shopping, to be exact.

The reason I decided to write even though I didn't feel like it is because I need to write about the weird disconnect I am going through at this moment. I have not been here for months, yet right now I feel like I've been here forever. When I got off the plane, it was like I was floating. I was physically light-headed and feeling heavy, but now on my bed in my small room, I feel like my body is 20 feet off of the soft blankets. I'm not really here, but I am here, so there is nothing that I can do about it.

When I got onto the street and waited for the drivers to come and pick us up, I was barely affected by the bright lights and the heat. Riyadh, I must say, is full of both of those things. I turned to my left and saw a mosque illuminated by constructed lights all around its dome and minarets. I remembered this blog, and thought it would be grat to take a picture. Sadly, there are a few things I have to be worried about:

1. Taking pictures in Riyadh's public places is a no-no.
2. My parents freak out whenever they see me take a picture of anything, anywhere.
3. My only camera is my phone, and I cannot turn off the obnoxious "CLICK CLICK" noise it makes whenever I snap a picture.

Therefore, to take a picture, I had to hold my phone as if I was checking my text messages, press the camera button inconspicuously, and make a yawning noise while that horrible "CLICK!!!" goes off. My yawn didn't cover it, so my parents' heads snapped around to look at me. I shrugged at them, and coolly said "Huh, text messages!" My Dad made a comment about the phone service provider and promptly forgot. I gave a sigh of relief. I knew I couldn't try to take yet another picture, so I prayed that this first one did the trick. Sadly, it isn't great. At least it is something.


Whenever I travel, there is usually a sense of release when all the flights are over and done with; when I am done collecting my baggage, and when I have finally arrived at the destination where I will be sleeping. This time, it's like I never left Saudi in the first place. I am extremely numb except for the burning in my head caused by the dryness of the air. It is irritating, that dry sensation, but it is only a reaction to my physical surroundings.

When I got inside the villa, I just wanted to eat and I knew I'd have food ready for me when I got back. This is thanks to a man who I have learned to call my friend. I am not sure yet, whether or not it is alright to post his real name, so I will have to stay vague for at least a few days. Deciding on whether or not to use a person's name in a blog is very difficult, especially in a country where privacy is not a privilege, but a way of life. My friend is from Bangladesh, and he works for the housing complex we live in (from what I understand). He treats me like a daughter while working as a housekeeper on the side. From my father's lips (paraphrased, of course) : my friend does not get enough money for his work, so he and other men like him are forced to do things like housecleaning, ironing, and driving so as to have enough money to send to their families. Some of these men and women, hailing from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, etc. have it worse than anyone else I know. I have a lot to say about their situation, but tonight I will write about my friend who works for us.

He came to our house as soon as he knew we had arrived in our taxis. He had food ready for me, including my favourite fried whole tilapia (a rather large fish) and rice. I say it was ready for me because I know that he is aware of my love for that food. My parents don't eat it nearly as much as I do! As I said: he treats me like a daughter, but he isn't an ignorant kind of Dad. He's loving, and enjoys spoiling his children. Anything I ask for, he will get it for me (or try, at least).

My friend has been working in Riyadh for over 25 years, and still he barely makes enough money to get by. When he came to our house, I stood at the doorway to the kitchen and watched him as he explained to my parents all the repairs he had done on our kitchen counters since they had left. He and his wife were the house-sitters and they took care of everything. Our house was spotless when we got back. He says that he is always happy to help us, and always happy to do what he can for us. This is why when I looked at him tonight, as he spoke to my parents, I felt like I was slapped in the face.

My friend, who is extremely loyal to me and to my family, looked so tired. Ever since I have known him, for around 4 years now, he has always had bags under his eyes, seemingly weighing the rest of him down. His eyes have since lost their light, which was faint to begin with. I hate saying this, but he did not look well tonight. When he finally noticed I was there, I smiled and acted the way I usually do - like I was only gone for a weekend, or that I was just popping in to say hello and leave, like an ungrateful person. I know that is what it looks like to other people. The truth, however, is not reflected in my face most of the time. The truth: I do not like seeing him so tired. I do not like seeing anyone so tired, but him even more so. He is my friend and no friend of mine has any business looking so drained and exhausted.

But how is he really my friend? I call him that, and I type that now, but sometimes I wonder how I could dare call him my friend. The truth is, I am really ashamed sometimes. He goes through a lot of hardships every day - he is worked very hard by his employers, is living in a small apartment alone with his wife who is quite unwell, and is far away from his family in Bangladesh. He is not a happy person. But so what? He can still be my friend, right?

He is my friend. I actually know that. He is generous and kind towards me, and he certainly acts friendly towards me and my parents. The real question is this: am I really his friend? I don't think so. I am angered by saying this, making this the first real emotion I can write about tonight. I am not his friend. I want to be his friend, but what kind of a friend can I be, when I am so distant to this country my friend lives in and this house he takes care of? How can I let a friend clean my room and make my bed? I am ashamed that I have someone making my bed when it is my own bed and I could do it myself.

If I am his friend, I am not a very good one at all. I couldn't even ask him today how he was feeling, because I felt upset just looking at him. I know tomorrow or the day after, when I see him again, I'll talk to him and find out why he looks as down as he does, but what can I do about it? I am a helpless, hopeless friend.

Maybe my intentions do count. In Islam, everything is about your intentions and the purity of your intentions. Whatever I feel about Islam in the end, this idea is something I can appreciate. I know that if I had all the money in the world, I'd give a lot of it to this friend I am talking about. If I had the means to do so, I would take him and his wife back to Bangladesh and help them help their communities and families. I know what I would like to do, but I know that I cannot do it. Does that not count for something? I hope it does.

I am extremely disconnected to the fact that I am here in Riyadh. However, I am not disconnected to my friend. When I was in the US, I still cared about him and wondered if he was okay the whole time. What can I really do about the fact that he is taking care of our house? I understand that the salary my Dad gives him is actually helping him out. I don't want my friend to be seen as a charity - no, my friend deserves his pride and I want to give him that.

Even if I feel like I am not even in this world right now, I think it is seeing my friend that made a bit of a difference. Being subject to him in his depressed state brought me back just a little to the reality - I am really, really here, in Riyadh, a place where people can make fun for themselves, but also where misery exists in a form that I have not yet seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Excerpt from an email

To my best friend, in an email written today, on June 23rd 2010:

"[T]his morning before we left for the airport I felt terrible. I felt like I really didn't want to leave, although only a few days earlier I was saying how glad I was that I'd finally be out of the US. The US, with many of my relatives, college, and friends, also carried on top of me a great burden which has always hard for me to deal with, but especially so this vacation. The transition from American college life in the middle of nowhere to the world of adulthood is more difficult than anything I have ever had to experience in my life. Basically...I feel really really bad right now. I don't want to be in the US. I don't want to be anywhere. However, the fact that I am going back to Riyadh is not exactly my idea of a vacation from my life, either. Although I find peace in the solitude I have there, I am never really alone either. I am constantly under the "sponsorship" of my father. I love my Dad but you know what? I don't want to be associated with anyone else. I want to take my life back and knowing that I need his permission for EVERYTHING in Saudi is extremely irritating.


Wow. I've become so depressing, I am sorry. But well, to let you know, I am trying to use a Freudian mechanism to make my anger and frustrations work for me. I'm starting a blog."

Hey. I'm Khadeja. I've started writing today, right after ending that email. Right now, I am physically on my way to Saudi Arabia. I am actually in the airport in New York City, waiting to board my connecting flight to Dubai. Mentally, I am in a frustrating state of depression and anxiety that doesn't allow me to be positive or happy at this very moment, but that changes from day to day. I started this because I wanted a place to let out all my feelings. I'm really selfish a lot of the time.

However, I'll have you know that when I love something or someone, I love it with all my heart. Like cats -- I love cats. I love cats more than people, to be frank. If I had the money and resources, I'd save every cat I could find and I'd try to give them a happy life. Besides my other ambitions, I'd love to learn veterinary first aid so I could always help a cat in need. Yeah, I can be pretty serious when I want to be. And I am serious about writing this.

What I also want, deep down in my heart, for other people to read about how I am feeling. I know people are interested in that kind of stuff, but they are probably even more interested in knowing about what it is like being a lady in a country that has an oppressive and controversial reputation. I am interested in indulging that curiosity, making this a perfect match.

My parents work in Saudi Arabia for a hospital in Riyadh, the capital city. It's way more conservative than its counterpart, Jeddah, which is a coast city on the opposite side. Trust me to get stuck in the most stuck place on Earth. My Dad has been working there for years and my Mom started working there recently. They like it there for the pay and benefits, but working there (from what I hear) isn't exactly a walk in the park. My parents are pretty private people, especially my Mom, so I don't hear all that much.

For about 7 years, my Mauritian Mom and I lived in Mauritius on our own (well, not REALLY on our own considering I am half-Mauritian - my other half being American, sort of - and I have a lot of family there) while my Dad lived in Saudi Arabia. Although my Dad and Mom wanted to be together, living in Saudi wasn't really okay for my own safety. This was post-9/11 crap - living in Saudi was dangerous because international schools were constantly being threatened by terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia. I guess it makes sense - they target the foreigners, always.

When I was done with the IB exams, i.e. secondary school, I went to Saudi for 9 months. It was boring, but I watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which ended up working out for me just fine. I read a lot of books, and surfed the internet a lot. I also got to go to the gym and swimming pool whenever it was open to women or families (which was most of the time, men's hours are actually pretty few, I noticed). However, I was really alone. I got really used to it, and I still cannot decide whether that is a good or a bad thing. After those months, I went to college in upstate NY with an International Studies degree in mind. That did not end the way that I had planned at all. Everything changed. I got accepted to a handful of schools for an undergrad degree in places all over, but I chose to go to the middle of nowhere, which was instrumental in the changes that took place in my general attitude towards life. That part of my life could take up a whole different blog, but I won't do that.

I just graduated with a degree in Art History (or, to be exact, a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts with a Concentration in Art History) last month. I have my diploma and everything - it's beautiful, and printed at the college itself, which is known for its awesome Book Arts program. However, it's not enough to get me anywhere in the world. Now, I am accepted to graduate school near Boston, but I am having problems getting the logistics working out. That is a story for another entry.

I am going back to Saudi Arabia only temporarily. If all things work out with the graduate school I got accepted to, I leave Saudi around mid-August. If they don't, I am probably staying in Saudi for about a year. I'll try and get a job to save some money while I defer attendance. The truth is, there is no way in the current economy that I'll be able to work and save money in the US. In Saudi, I get a pretty good salary that I can keep to myself. In the US, I can't even get a job. What else can I really do? I feel like I barely know how the world works at this extremely crucial point in my life.

I am a 21 year old chick with a bachelor's degree. I don't really have much of a future because I don't even know what I want, and I don't have good enough qualifications to follow my actual dreams which I barely talk about anymore. I don't mind Saudi, but I don't really like it there either. It has a lot of problems, and I have a lot of problems with it. While the people may be awesome on their own, the red tape and political shit is a little too enraging for me sometimes. I have only one hope now, and that is the hope that I can find solace and stability in the country that is far from the land of my dreams.