Many thanks to Lori for recommending FHWS and to American Bedu for allowing me to repost it here. Tara Umm Omar
Saudi Arabia: A Love Story That Almost Was
By American Bedu
8 March 2011
Lori is an American who attended university abroad. During that period she met a fellow student from Saudi Arabia. Lori has agreed to be interviewed by American Bedu about her relationship with a Saudi student and how it has impacted on her and her life today.
To begin with Lori, where did you study abroad? What factored into your decision to study abroad as compared to the United States? I studied in Manchester, UK. I had originally intended to start working after receiving my undergraduate degree. However, it was difficult to get a job in my chosen field at the time due to my location and the global and national economic situation among other reasons. I really wanted to travel abroad, specifically to Spain. In order to qualify for a professional type of work visa, I’d need a Master’s or two years work experience, I believe? Attending university as a student was the fastest way to legally work in Europe. Although I have found some since then, at the time I couldn’t find any programs related to my major in Spain. Since I was applying last minute, I decided to go with an English-speaking country. I could have gotten a Master’s in the United States, but it would have ended up costing about the same and would have taken twice as long. Plus, I wanted to experience something different than what I’d already experienced.
Did you feel like an international student considering that you remained in an English speaking country from the West? What adaptations and adjustments did you make? Yes!!! The university system is completely different from what I was used to, although the classes are somewhat similar. The weather is a lot different. The food is different. I missed Mexican, Cajun, Italian, and Thai food the most, although later I found a good Thai restaurant. It really bothered me that the fruits and vegetables weren’t as fresh as what I was used to. On the plus side, though, I got to taste a lot of great Indian/Pakistani food. The first time I went grocery shopping, it took me maybe 2-3 times as long, and I still didn’t find everything I was looking for. The grocery stores are laid out differently, and the food packaging is much different. (Note: Baking soda comes in a white plastic cylindrical container with a blue plastic label in the UK.) Most people in the area take the bus and/or walk to and from the grocery store, so I switched to cloth reusable bags because they’re easier to carry. There’s a lot of more subtle differences, such as when you bump into someone you say “Sorry” instead of “Excuse Me”. I still am readjusting to this now that I’m back home. Most of my friends were international students as most of the graduate/postgraduate local students live off-campus. Out of the British friends that I did make, most were 1st or 2nd generation. So, I not only had to adapt to another culture, but multiple cultures within that as well. I felt most comfortable around my Arab friends because they reminded me the most of home.
In addition to students from Saudi Arabia, you also made friends with other international students. Tell us about that. How easy was it for you as an American student abroad to meet and interact with the other international students? Where were these students from? Did you all “hang out” together and if so, what did you do? It was very easy for me as an American student to meet other people. In my building, I was known as the “American girl”. Once someone said, “You know the American girl, too? EVERYONE knows the American girl!” LOL. I am generally a friendly person, and most international students are very interested in the United States. I have some great friends that I made from there. These students were from all over. The largest groups were from Spain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. However, some were from other places, such as Turkey, Pakistan, Palestine, UAE, Qatar, Slovakia, Latvia, and Ghana. Then, of course, my roommates and classmates were from Italy, Romania, England (ironically), China, Taiwan, India, Tanzania, Malayasia/Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. I am sure I am leaving some out. Sorry! We didn’t all hang out together, although I tried once to mix the various groups, but it didn’t always work out. I am not sure what to say about what we did. Sometimes, we’d go out dancing (I love ballroom dancing), sometimes we’d go and eat food, and sometimes we’d go out for sisha and tea (although I don’t smoke). Sometimes, we’d meet at someone’s place and enjoy music and talk.
How much did you know about differing cultures, customs and people of differing faiths before going to study abroad? How has your knowledge and understanding of bi-cultural relationships and differing cultures and customs changed? I am not sure how to answer this question. I’ve been exposed to various cultures growing up, but not quite to this extent. I wasn’t raised in what I would call a “traditional” environment, so I’ve had to adapt to other cultures throughout my life. My parents took what they liked best from a variety of cultures, and then used that to determine how they wanted to raise their children. People may not have always agreed with their decisions, but it works for us. Even as a child, I had to adjust to differences in culture between various places we lived within the US, and also differences between the home and school environments. There were times when my decision for lunch and dinner was what flavor of ramen I wanted because that’s all my parents could afford at the time. Sometimes, we couldn’t even afford milk unless we borrowed money from someone else. At other times, we’ve been able to eat out as much as we want and have lived quite nicely. In some ways, I feel like I’ve already lived two completely different lives. In the past, I was also exposed heavily to both Mexican and Korean cultures, though I mixed with people of varying cultural backgrounds that are too many to name.
Although I had studied other religions some, I did not know nearly as much before life in the UK as compared to what I now know about Islam. I am more open to various ways of living and am more comfortable with my family’s chosen lifestyle now than I was before. Knowing more about other cultures has made me more comfortable with who I am. I hope that answers your question.
When and how did you meet the Saudi student who became a focal point in your life? This is a long story. The first time (or one of the first times) I met him was at a shisha and tea place. I was there with one of my friends, who I had met through one of my flat-mates (also Saudi). There was a belly dancer at the restaurant. I was wearing a long sleeved-shirt and jeans at the time, but I really wanted to belly dance because I’d missed dancing so much. I did, and got a lot of compliments! The Saudi student who became a focal point for me happened to be there at the time visiting with our mutual friend. I guess that’s more or less how we met. This was in October, I think. I was in a long-distance relationship at the time with someone back in the US, so we were just friends until the following May when I was no longer in my LDR.
In what ways did he stand out from the other international students and especially from the other Saudi guys you knew at the University? He listened well, we seemed to agree on more issues, he was patient, and more open-minded than some of the others. He was very respectful and kinda quirky (smile). He was kinda cute, too!
What was your relationship like? What kind of things did the two of you talk about? What activities did you do together? Were you known to his friends? To his family? At the beginning, it was great. He helped me during a difficult time and asked me out very respectfully. We talked about a lot of different things; just whatever happened to be on our minds. He told me that I’d “never have to be alone” and that he “hoped we’d be together forever”. I was known to his friends because they were my friends. It’s kind of hard not to know people that you already know LOL. I was not known to all his friends, however. I also know that he made it clear to others that “we love[d] each other”. In other words, he basically told his friends not to flirt with me. Also, he tried to hang out with me and our mutual friends separately. A brother of his knew about me, and one of his cousins did, but that was it. We’d do things like get coffee/tea together, go out to eat, and go spend time with friends. Later on, before he went home for Ramadan, he started acting more distant. We were both under a lot of stress for different reasons. I think that’s about when we started having problems.
Was it easy for the two of you to communicate to each other? Do you feel like you and he understood one another? Why or why not? I think we had a lot of problems with miscommunication. There were times when he would tell me something, and I would think he meant something different, and vice versa. Then, we’d get into an argument and discuss it all. In fact, when we broke up, we went over everything in the relationship, worked out all the communication problems, and got along much better after that. The biggest difference, as far as culture goes, is that I am used to people telling me exactly what it is that they want whereas he would infer things sometimes, and I didn’t always understand. Personality-wise, we have a lot of differences. I do not like to be told what to do. I like to know what’s going on. However, I try to be very accommodating. He would try to handle everything so I wouldn’t have to worry about it, but it ended up making me worry more because I didn’t know what was going on. Also, he kept pushing me to teach English in Saudi Arabia because it pays well. However, I don’t care how much it pays, if it’s not what I want to do then it’s not what I want to do. I don’t mind living in KSA, but that’s not what I want to do while I’m there.
If I’m correct, at one point, you were pretty sure he could be “the one” in your life. When and how did that begin to change? It began to slowly change. At first, it was lovely. He treated me so well like I mentioned. I am still deeply attracted to him, or at least I was the last time I saw him. Around the time he told his brother about me, he became more distant. I wanted to make it work but he wasn’t meeting me halfway. He wouldn’t forgive me for something I said to him, and kept acting wishy-washy. I truly believe that (and I could be wrong) he was afraid to tell his parents about me. He had a hard time trusting me when I asked simple things about his life in Saudi (he thought I was asking too many questions too fast), which was what caused me to doubt him in the first place. Right before he went home for Ramadan, he started acting completely different. I honestly think he is an okay guy overall, but he would do better with a more traditional arranged marriage. He seems to want to be able to go out with his friends regularly without her (whether or not they’re Saudi- as in he has his friends and I have mine), doesn’t want to have to explain differences in culture, and wants to make all the major decisions for himself and the woman. However, he also wants to shower his partner with gifts, words of love, spend time together with just her, listen to everything going on in her life (he’s a great listener), and (from what I heard) helps the women in his family with household chores. He wants her to be happy and will listen to what she has to say. He is also a very devout Muslim, so it might help for him to be with someone else who is equally as devout in their beliefs. I think it would make life a lot easier on him if he chose someone that his family helps pick for him. Plus, when there are arguments, the woman will have more support because her family will be near. All of my friends were telling me for months to dump him because he didn’t deserve me. This had nothing to do with his nationality and everything to do with how he treated me.
Do you think you could ever see yourself at some future point with a Saudi man (as a partner/husband)? Why or why not? Right after my relationship with this Saudi, I didn’t think I could handle dating another one. I didn’t want to have to go through the torture of making an inter-cultural relationship work. I was worn-out emotionally and mentally from all the different cultures I’d been around. I just wanted to be at home for a while. Now, I would say that I could see myself with a Saudi man. I have recently met one and am doing an Arabic-English language exchange with him. So far, I seem to have a lot more in common with this one. We are both more down-to-earth, open-minded, and independent people. This one is also a lot more giving than the Saudi I dated in the UK. I think we have more in common as far as how we grew up, so I think that helps some, too. Based on the striking differences between these two examples, as well as among my Saudi friends, I am not against marrying a Saudi. To be honest, nationality is not as big a deal to me as who the individual is as a person.
What characteristics did your Saudi have whether in his personality or actions that you feel were unique because of his nationality? He is very caring and protective of his family. His family is very important to him, and he wants to make them happy- especially his mother. He implies things more than I am used to, and I think this is partly because of the culture. When asking me about going somewhere, he’d mention a place. Then at the end, would say something like “Would that be alright?” It took me a while to figure out that him elaborating about a place was his way of asking me if something was okay or not. Also, he couldn’t stand it when I raised my voice at him when I was angry. He would want to discuss arguments in person in a more quiet voice rather than get into a big argument.
How do you feel your understanding of Saudi Arabia and its culture, customs and traditions has increased as a result of your own relationship with a Saudi? I think my understanding has increased as a result of the relationship because I took a deeper interest in the culture, customs, and tradition. In some ways, I’d say my understanding increased in spite of being in a relationship with a Saudi. The Saudi I was in a relationship with did some really weird things (which is part of what I liked about him), so to be honest I’m not sure how much of it was simply his personality and how much of it was shaped by his culture, family, etc.
What do you think are essential facts for a woman to know if she is involved with a Saudi? Essential facts are: 1) First and foremost, that Saudi students on scholarship are not technically allowed to marry foreigners while studying abroad. Furthermore, the age limit established (though I am having a hard time finding a link to the actual Saudi government website stating this) is 35 years old in order for a Saudi citizen to have a marriage to a foreigner recognized by the government. Please check out this link to one of AB’s older posts: http://americanbedu.com/2008/05/28/what-you-need-to-know-about-saudi-students-outside-the-kingdom/
Additionally, I’d recommend reading Tara Umm Omar’s blog, “Future Wives and Husbands of Saudis” and other related blogs on the subject.
I’d also recommend reading this: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_931.html. It’s information compiled from experiences US citizens have had in their marriage to Saudis while in Saudi Arabia. Although each person’s experience will be a little different, I think it brings up some major points to consider. I’d also check travel warnings on the US embassy’s page to see if there are any special travel advisory warnings for US citizens (or whatever your nationality is, check with your own embassy).
2) The majority of Saudi students go back home after graduating from university.
3) It is difficult to get a visa to KSA. It is nearly impossible to go to KSA as one wanting to visit the country (excepting family, hajj, and umrah visas). My understanding is that you have to somehow go through a travel agency which falls under the heading of business visa, and you are only allowed to go to specific locations with a tour guide on a pre-determined route. It gets very complicated very fast. However, if you’d like to work there, then there are some opportunities to work in KSA for limited time periods (such as 1-2 years) depending on what your experience is in. Most of these opportunities for women are in medical and teaching related positions.
4) Once inside the Kingdom, if your marriage is not approved by the government and you are seen out in public together by the police, then you can be punished according to law. There is separation of men and women within the country, and a man is not allowed to be with a woman he is not related to. Women, even those from “Western” countries, are expected to dress conservatively in accordance with the law of the country. Yes, women, this means no string bikinis in the hot, summer heat! (Unless of course, one is wearing an abaya over it! j/k j/k)
5) As expanded upon in the links mentioned above, it can literally take years for a Saudi’s marriage to a foreigner to be recognized by the government.
6) If and when your marriage to your Saudi is approved by Saudi government, then he becomes your mahrem. This basically means that in certain legal situations, you will require his permission (or at least his signature) in order to do something. However, I’ve heard of situations where if the man doesn’t want his wife to work, then he has to pay her what she would make working for her to stay home. I’m not really sure how normal this is as I’m still learning about the culture myself.
7) Women cannot legally drive in KSA. Furthermore, there are not really any driving regulations there, resulting in a high number of driving-related deaths.
8) Chances are that if your marriage is approved in Saudi Arabia, and you later divorce after having children, the custody of the children would most likely be awarded to the Saudi male.
Additional advice I’d give is as follows:
1) Not all Saudis are alike. In fact, the differences can be quite striking. If he does something that seems really weird, chances are that it’s him and not a cultural thing.
2) If he acts like a player, sounds like a player, then chances are he is a player. Some are. Some aren’t. Use your judgment. As a whole, I’d say that most aren’t, but then I’d also say that many would be hesitant to deal with the issues of marrying someone from another country.
3) Many plan to move back home because they miss their families. However, a few are open to living abroad.
4) If he can’t handle an inter-cultural relationship, then it’s best to end it unless you plan to change for him (which I don’t recommend). The same can be said if you can’t handle an inter-cultural relationship. They aren’t easy, but can be well worth it if you meet someone you don’t want to live without.
5) Be realistic about the lifestyle you want. Ask about life in Saudi Arabia, what his family is like, etc. Talk to others from there, both men and women, to get a more realistic perspective. KSA is undergoing massive changes right now, so I imagine life in 20 years will be a lot different there than what it is right now. However, there still is a lack of legal rights in some situations for women. It is important to feel confident in your significant other’s ability to take care of you and make sure your needs, including those relating to independence, are met. If you really love each other, I say go for it. As with most relationships (but even more so in inter-cultural relationships) it takes open-mindedness, perseverance, and love on both sides. If you want to stay in the US/some other country, be realistic about that to both you and him. I know some people will disagree with me on this, though. It’s important that both of you respect each other.
6) If either of you are unhappy now, no matter how much time you’ve already invested in the relationship, you need to ask yourself if this is going to change or not. If it’s not going to change, break up with him. I know this sounds like a “duh” thing, but it took me a few months to figure this one out. Think of it not so much as giving up as learning a valuable lesson.
7) Learn as much as you can about Islam since it is such a large influence on the culture, people, and country of Saudi Arabia. Also be aware of differences between the different sects of Islam, and how the Saudi Arabian government chooses to interpret Sharia Law.
8) I can’t stress this one enough: Know that the laws in KSA are strict about approving Saudi marriage to foreigner!! There are ways around this law that I have heard of, but it’s going to be difficult if the Saudi guy is younger than 35 years old. One compromise I thought might be nice is living in the UAE and/or Qatar. These are nice, American-friendly countries that represent more of a compromise between the USA and KSA.
You have since graduated and returned to the United States. Do you and your Saudi remain in contact? Why or why not? This is a tough question to answer. My Saudi at one point made me promise that, even if we couldn’t be together, we would have to “never leave each other alone”. He told me that he loved me like he loved this one girl that he had gone out with for a couple of weeks before she went home to her country. It was “destiny” that she went home, because she met the right guy within a month of her going home. So, when we both went home, he said it was our “destiny” to not be together. There was also one night before we left the UK where he told me this, tried to set me up with another guy, then got mad when I told him I was through with guys like him. So what does he do? He comes to my place and waits outside –in the below freezing temperatures for a good half hour- because he told me he’d “never leave me alone” and he was going to keep that promise. o_O?? I really don’t understand this, but neither did anyone else that I mentioned this to. We ended up talking through it and almost got back together.
Anyways, even after I went home, he wanted to keep his promise to teach me Arabic by talking on Skype 3 times/week. He’d get mad whenever I was late signing on, but was okay signing on late himself. (This type of thing happened throughout our relationship.) I had heard that he had told our mutual friends that he was going to look for a wife this year. I realized then he wasn’t serious about me, and even if he was, he wasn’t telling me that. I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life with another person making decisions for me. I needed to separate myself from him to help me forget him and so I told him something I knew would upset him. So, I broke contact with him. Later, he messaged me on Skype just to argue with me. I thought maybe he wanted to try being friends again now that I was over him, but he was understandably mad at me for some things I had told him. So I’m not even sure why he contacted me. I think he just wanted to blame me for everything so he wouldn’t feel guilty for treating me poorly, but I could be wrong. I think he’s going to just “forget me” now. I am kind of apathetic to the whole thing now. Amazing, that the two of us could come to this when he is someone I used to think of as my soulmate and the sexiest man alive. I guess that’s life for you.
How do you think Saudi men are different because of their nationality? I am not sure how to answer this because I tend to see people more as individuals and deal with them as individuals. The Saudis I met didn’t seem so different to me than being around a bunch of people from any other country. I think they appreciate the freedoms in the UK more than the ones they had back home. They all seem to like children and love their families. Almost all, if not all, wanted to move back home after graduation to be near their families. Most of them also seemed to miss their home culture after a while, too. I guess this is true to what my mom told me: “There are things to love and hate about every place you live. The key is to focus on the good things about the place”. They’re good listeners, and treated me very respectfully. They didn’t flirt with me quite as much as some of my other friends tried to, so I felt more comfortable around them
How do you feel about Saudi Arabia as a country after having had a relationship with a Saudi man? Are you more “pro” or “anti” Saudi? Please explain. Knowing more now, I’d say I’m more pro-Saudi simply because I’ve learned more about the place. I have a lot more respect for King Abdullah whereas before I didn’t know enough to comment. There are things about the culture I absolutely adore, like how close family is there. The men do their best to treat their family, especially the women in their lives, really well. I like that the family spends a lot of time together because my family does too. My parents got a lot of criticism from others for choosing to support their children after we turned 18. I still live at home not because I couldn’t make it on my own, but because I enjoy my family’s company and it makes good financial sense. This would be quite normal in Saudi Arabia because families spend more time together there (from what I have heard). I love that I finally found a type of coffee I can stand to drink. I love learning about the traditions of Saudi Arabia because they are in some ways so different, yet in others so similar, to what I am used to. Most of the Saudi people I’ve met are very caring and kind. I know there are some perceived problems with the government system that people are quick to point out on here, but these things are changing faster than most people realize, I think, and for the better. I believe there’s a lot of opportunity in Saudi Arabia right now because there’s a lot of growth right now in the country and a lot of changes being made. I think it would be a lot of fun to work there as a personal fitness trainer (for women, obviously, possibly in the home at a reasonable rate), fashion business owner, and/or dance teacher. However, I think it would be fun to do these things a lot of places, and I’m not quite sure how well any of these would work there. I’d have to look into all the legal stuff if and when I decided to do it. I would also want more experience first in these industries before doing so. Chances are that I might just end up working for a few years in KSA as an expat. I really don’t know where life is taking me, but it’s sure been an interesting ride so far!
Who has to sacrifice more when there is a relationship between a Saudi man and Western woman? Please describe and explain the sacrifices. I think it depends on the two people involved in the relationship. I think that if the relationship works out for the best, neither has to “sacrifice” more. Life is a series of choices we make. We make one we think is best for the time and place we are in. In this way, we are constantly “sacrificing” one thing for another. So I’d say that when you decide to spend your life with another person, you are giving up some things in order to gain something better. Just make sure you choose wisely.
When two people choose to be in a relationship with each other, they are agreeing to make compromises for each other. Sometimes, the “Western” woman will make more compromises, and sometimes the “Saudi” man will make more compromises- the same as any other relationship. For example, depending on where they choose to live, one or both will be compromising to live further from family. They may both have to stand up against their families’ wishes if and when they decide to marry. When it comes to parenting (if the couple decides to have children), then they will have to work together to deal with all the issues as they arise such as religion, sleep schedule, food, etc. When it comes to working, one or more may have to choose a field other than the one he/she is used to working in simply because of job availability in a given region. When it comes to household chores, it will depend on what the couple decides together. I really don’t see it as being all that different than being in a relationship with anyone else, other than learning (possibly) another language, religion, and culture- which would be required from both sides. One culture is not better than another. They are both unique and come with their share of good and bad. I think inter-cultural relationships have the potential to result in something beautiful because there is a wider range of experiences to use when making decisions, especially ones regarding parenting. However, this requires both people seeing that there is good and bad in both cultures and being open to mixing the two together no matter where the couple may live. Anyways, that’s my opinion.
Any additional comments you’d like to add? To be honest, I’m not sure what to say. I’m expecting that many people will disagree with me and tell me how I’m wrong and Saudis are all evil or the government is or something like that. However, I am not going to say that because that’s not what I believe. That hasn’t been my experience. And while I wouldn’t have moved to Saudi Arabia with my ex-boyfriend because he’s not as independent as me and is more likely to give into family pressures rather than stand up for me, not all Saudi guys I’ve met are this way. If and when I happened to marry a Saudi, I hope that I’d trust him enough to move to Saudi Arabia with him if that is what we decided was best for us.
Thanks Lori for taking the time to respond to these varying questions!