Friday, July 30, 2010

The Anti-Freedom

Some people that I have met on my journeys (especially those living in the United States...) have never gone further than a few hours away from their home base. Let me tell you now that these people have every right to stay within a certain distance of their home if they so desire, and other people actually have little or no choice BUT to stay near their homes for more devastating reasons, but I do not wish to have their life. I need to travel, it is something within my circuitry, and it lives within the blood being transported within my veins. It clings onto each cell like haemoglobin*.

Having said that, dear LORD is it difficult to travel in and out of places sometimes! It's extremely different to leave or enter Saudi Arabia, as many people who have lived/tried to live here know. This is because of two pieces of documentation that need to be settled, and you need money, wasta (influence/favours) and a lot of patience. Oh man, patience isn't a virtue here, it is an absolute necessity.

I do not work here in Riyadh; I am just a dependant who lives under her parents. This means that leaving the country, especially as a woman, SUCKS. Getting in is another very similar story. Let me explain to you the craziness that you need to go through as a foreigner. As a note, I'd like to say that I do NOT understand the ins and outs of these processes. They do not make much sense to me! They truly wish to make everyone's lives more and more difficult here. That's the best reason I can think of, sometimes. I guess it is really about national security, but damn, it's ridiculous.

First of all, to live/work here, you need to have an iqama. An iqama is like a national ID and it is not allowed to leave the country. Everywhere I go, I need to have my iqama with me. If I don't have it, and a government official or someone who is a part of the religious police force here can get me into serious trouble.

Second of all, in order to exit, enter, or have permission to exit and enter several times during a one year period, you need to have a visa - the one that I have currently is a one year exit re-entry visa. Sounds nice and poetic, doesn't it?! It means that within one year of leaving, I can enter the country within one year. This is a piece of paper that is stapled into your passport. It looks really ghetto and whenever you go to a different country, they open it up and look at it with a complete "what the fuck" expression on their face. It looks really shoddy, but it is official. You just have to tell

Here's the third and funny part: in order to get you a visa, you need to surrender to the office a passport, your iqama, and other things that I didn't bother to ask my Dad about. Do you realise what this means? I don't think you do yet, so here's a little breakdown:

a. You need your iqama to go anywhere. When they take it away for their strange black magic visa-granting rituals, guess what? I can't go anywhere. They give one letter to a family that states something along the lines of "These people are being processed for visas, sooooo they don't have their iqamas. It's totally cool, man. Salaaaaaamu-alaikum, brutha!" Well, no, they don't talk like my Islamic bruthas**. I wish they did; Saudi Arabia would be a much easier place to live in.
Also, you cannot leave the city of Riyadh, where the visa is being issued. Awwww, my dreams of getting my awesome driver to take me to Dammam are ruined (for now)!

b. If there is one letter for the whole family, then I cannot go anywhere without my father (as the letter is in his possession). Even if my Dad said "Heyyyy take this letter and go to Faisaliah mall and have a BALL, my dear! My treat!!***" It would suck for him, because what if he randomly needs to go somewhere and needs his iqama, like in an emergency?
Also, what if that letter gets lost? Ohhhhh man. Don't even talk about that.

c. This whole process takes weeks. IF you have wasta, I mean. If you don't, haaaahahahaha! Good luck, yaar****! This means weeks (or more) of complete dependence on whoever ends up holding that letter.

d. No passport? I freak out without knowing where my passport is. For me, it's like a wallet, cell phone, iPod, or laptop - whenever I travel, these are the things I NEED by my side! I constantly heck my bags to make sure all of these things are in there, safe and secure. Knowing these strange guys have their paws all over my passport is personally irritating! Also, they put a big ugly orange sticker on my passport and it looks bad. :( In combination with the ghetto stapling, this SUCKS! My passport must look SO suspicious, and with my Muslim first name, strange "ethnic" looks, I don't need any more of that while travelling!

e. When I say everyone in the family, including all dependants with residency, need to be there, they ALL need to be there. Hence my visiting Riyadh every summer whether I liked it or not. I usually had to be there for at least 3 weeks. Although I didn't mind going back to Riyadh during the summer, I wish I had a choice. I remember being extremely angry and resentful for the decision of the summer already being made for me by a country that wasn't even mine. Damn.

Oh, LORD. Now, another thing they have added to this process is that they need to have proof I am leaving for a year to go study. Apparently, if I feel like spending a year in the steppes of Mongolia, finding spiritual peace, TOO BAD! I need a letter from some official something something that I am going to an institution to study. My acceptance letter to the university I am going to counts, and I also needed to show some kind of school ID, which would help. Uh, let's see: I am about to start a NEW school, in a NEW place, and they expect me to already have my ID card? Do these people understand how schools work? You only get IDs and all that fancy stuff when you get there. Wow. I gave them my old school ID just in case that helped, but I think that letter was enough.

Lastly, you have to pay. Because I have not gone to the office myself (since I am a dependent) and I have not asked my Dad, I had to look it up on this site and it says 500 riyals for a multiple exit re-entry visa, which is about $133. The single exit re-entry visa is 200 riyals ($53 ish).

Wow! Most of the time, people have trouble only getting into a country for study or work or whatnot, now Saudi, of course, has to take it one miserable step beyond. It's as difficult to get out as it is to get it. Nice job, guys! If you want to stress me out more, give me a call! I have a whole list of things that might help!

Uggggh all of this is giving me a HEADACHE!

Okay, I think it is obvious that this whole visa thing is stressing me out. If I do not get this visa stuff settled, I cannot go to graduate school. Within these past weeks, I have found and paid a deposit on an apartment in Cambridge, MA, where my new university is going to be. I have also become extremely excited at the prospect of starting a new program in Intercultural Relations*****, something I am very passionate about. How on this Earth will I deal with it if Saudi Arabia forces me to stay, now? Finally, after all these days of worrying, I have made a decision to leave by the end of August, but what if destiny has something else in store for me? I only pray that my destiny is not in the hands of a government that seems to dislike making things easy for me.

Like I said earlier, you really, really need to have patience here. Everything is done at a snail's pace, and I heard someone say one that if someone is too insistent, the people supposed to be helping you will back off and say, "when things have calmed down, then we will continue the process." You have to just sit back and let them do their thing, otherwise you could make it much worse. I don't have any power or say in these matters pertaining to my visa, which makes it all the more frustrating, but I have to just deal. There is no other choice right now. It should be okay, from what I have heard, but these past few days have been getting to me.

On the bright side: at least I have more of a path in my life, now! I have more of a plan than I did when I started this here thing. I hope that this plan works out for the best, whatever the best for me is. That said, I'd really like to get to Massachusetts! I'm pretty excited.

*Or should I say oxyhaemoglobin? Thank you, Biology class at Le Bocage!

**Muslim-American bros from the black community in or around NYC are some of the funniest, coolest, and entertaining people I have ever been around. Salaam and chill, y'all! You know I'm a sista. And you know I suck at what you call "dark chocolate muslimah talk" so I'll stop now.

*** I wish! My Dad is awesome and does take me shopping a lot, every weekend actually (because our supermarket is part of a mall that I loooove) but if I could go on a Faisaliah centre shopping spree I'd LOVE to have the retail therapy. And the chance to go somewhere I haven't been in a while.

**** In my recent bouts of insanity due to being stuck in my villa, I have been injecting Mauritian creole and Bollywood phrases into my everyday speech and writing. Dekho, I've been alone with my multilingual thoughts, dakor? [yaar = friend; dekho = look; dakor = okay/alright]

***** Damn, all these footnotes! But really, I know - me doing Intercultural Relations? I seem so annoyed with some places in the world (like Riyadh sometimes), how will I deal? Hmmmm I should write about that some time...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Love vs. Fulfillment vs. Me vs. Almost Everyone Else

There is something I have seen in cultures across the world that disturbs me. It concerns women, but I think it definitely also concerns men, too. This is the question of love and fulfillment.

A beautiful, or sexy, moment - depending on who you ask.

When we watch our heros on TV or on the silver screen swooping the lovely lady into his arms, we sigh. What a gorgeous match! Oh, if only I could have a gorgeous Clark Gable of my own! Or, well, in my case, Shah Rukh Khan of my own. Or, maybe, a Sarah Michelle Gellar of your own if you swing that way.

This here is what I call a kickass babe.

But what are these expectations that we are creating? Yes, there is this idea that films, TV, art, and advertising create these fantasies that we can never have. I completely agree with this. However, that is not what I want to talk about today.

What is much more dangerous, to me, is that media can create a desire for a partner to begin with. Usually, this partnership needs to be heterosexual. We have this thing drilled into our heads that a single lady or man is not a complete lady or man. They are lacking something. One of the components of the American dream is a family with 2.5 kids, we all know that - but then, why do we want this? Why is this so important?

If you really think about it, only thinking about life in terms of finding someone else to complete you really sucks. What kind of self esteem must you have to believe that you are SO incapable of finding happiness for yourself, that you absolutely need a life partner to be truly fulfilled. Are you not an individual with your own individual dreams? Can you not focus on yourself and let love come your way, when and if it comes?

But no, that is not what we do at all - yes, we focus on career but we also go out on blind dates, and feel miserable all alone in that apartment you earned. When you think about a great life, usually you think about someone by your side who can be there to support you. It's the next logical step, if not the FIRST logical step, for some.

Am I saying that this dream of a partner is wrong? No, not at all. I, too, wouldn't mind finding a nice person to spend my life with, if I do find that special someone. However, this dream, if you fulfill it, is not just going to be great and well once you get it. A relationship is work, and the idea of a perfect relationship has become so incredibly skewed.

Is every romance really going to be a picnic for the rest of your life?

This is where my experiences come in. Every country I have been to, I have met too many women who just need to get married or be in some kind of relationship, usually with a man because being with another woman is a no-no. They think constantly of marriage or a perfect man, and if they do get married, they do everything that is possible to keep that marriage alive even if it is really, really not working. I have met men like this too, but for whatever cultural or societal or family-related reasons, it is different. I see guys basically being the ones doing the choosing, while the women are there begging to be chosen. It's kind of sad.

I am making a generalisation here, of course (I have met different kinds of men and women in every place I have been to) but I can think of specific cases in every country where I have seen women who are desperate to "find love" and be "happy" with a new partner. I put "happy" in quotation marks because to them, happy meant a husband with a good job and a desire to have children. That's it. Is that real happiness?

Yay! I am jumping with joy because I will have a nuclear family that is expected of me by society! Yay for fulfilling expectations!

Let me tell you what I have seen in different countries. Maybe this will give you more of idea of what I am thinking of:

U.S.: I see women prettying up and going on dates with several men they consider to be "successful" - like businessmen (these women don't even really know or care to find out what the "business" is or what the men actually do), lawyers, doctors, etc. At a younger age, they should be attractive and fun. At an oler age, they should be "marriage material" or whatever that is. I know someone who dated a guy for two years, and basically became known as "[Guy]'s girlfriend who is a theatre major." Not many people knew much about her besides her name. Neither did I, until she actually broke up with him. Is this the guy's fault? Probably a little. But I still think that depends on a case by case basis - some women are genuinely proud to be "[Senator, Doctor, Lawyer, etc.]'s wife."

Mauritius: Similar to the U.S., girls throw themselves at whatever guy is decent on paper and who says they are in love with them. They get romanced by guys at school, and guys at weddings who are specifically there to sit with their guy friends and look at the pretty, well-dressed ladies. Guys and girls engage in this "wedding courtship" from when they are 14 years old, or even a little earlier. When a guy spots a girl he likes, he tells his parents or another older relative and they go and negotiate with the girl's parents. THEN, they can get engaged and start the dating, if the parents are okay with it. Playing hard to get is usually a sign of "being a girl" - another phrase I have heard that makes little sense to me. Apparently, girls don't give themselves away that easily, but if you are playing hard to get on purpose, then to me you have practically become engaged to the guy. These girls get married very, very young and rarely date more than one guy. If they break up, it is the END OF THE WORLD. Cue tears and Bollywood-style speeches.

Note to girls and guys in Mauritius: THIS DOESN'T HAPPEN. NOT IN REAL LIFE.

Saudi Arabia: Because Saudi is such an eclectic mix of different people of different nationalities, I am going to describe what little I know about Saudis and leave it at that. Women and men who are not related by family or marriage can't just hang out. It doesn't happen, especially in public. This means that dating does not happen in the way that it happens in other countries. Marriages are usually arranged and need to be accepted by the parents, especially the father. Women have expectations of a huge dowry and a guy who, again, looks good on paper. If women do not marry at a younger age, the older they get, the less of a chance they have to marry at all. These women are basically looked down upon (as they are in other countries, but here to a greater extent). Someone once told me that not getting married is "a sin" and "unIslamic" or something. And oh yeah, forget about sex before marriage. It happens, but if it does happen, things are done to hide it - I know "embroideries" exist here, as well as other means to hide a loss of virginity in women. Men don't have this same issue because of their physicality but they are sometimes caught due to the diseases they give their virgin wives.

Oman: I was young when I lived in Oman, and again the friends I had were of different nationalities and cultures, but I talked to an Omani girl recently who said the following: "I cannot wait to get married and hang out with the married women. We'll finally be able to find things to talk about! I want to shop with them and buy baby clothes with them. They have such experience in life, these women. I really want my mother to find me a nice guy. Of course, he should treat me well. That's important, too." The girl was really a girl - she was 13. I don't think this reflects on all Omanis, but I am sure she is not the only girl her age who thinks like this. There are women of different ages who definitely think like that, I assure you.

As cute as this cover is, um, yeah. YYYYYEAH. Women of different ages, indeed.

I think I have such a problem with this because I want to believe that I can have a fulfilled, happy life without the presence of a husband, partner, or children. Because I want to meet someone on my own, and I don't want anything arranged, I might never bump into the person who makes me want to live and grow old with them until our years have passed. If that does happen to me, I want to be able to live the rest of my life without feeling inadequate. I also don't want to lose my identity to another person if I do find someone I fall in love with. I want to be strong, independent, and happy forever, in more ways than just marriage or relationships.

The reason I am writing about all of this is because I have previously felt like I lost my identity to a partner. It was no one's fault but my own, and I never want to let that to happen to me ever again. Here, in this desert I am growing to accept, I truly feel that I have discovered one source of my unhappiness - that I forgot how to enjoy being on my own in my own company. When I was with them, I gave my heart completely to everything that would make them happy. It was selfless, but also self-damaging. I have since become very lost. Now, I want to get my heart back - not to hurt them, but so that I can love myself and rely on myself again.

Every woman and man should be able to say of themselves, "I have had a good, happy life. I am happy with what I have accomplished." So what if these men and women have not necessarily gotten married, or ended up with a significant other? I truly believe that true happiness is not found within the other person, but within yourself. That is what everyone should be looking for.

NOTE: All of these images were found randomly on Google image search or Bing (sometimes I like to switch it up!). Besides searching for Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bollywood and Desperate Housewives in particular, I found the rest by searching for things like: "women in love", "happy women", "love", and "romance."