Blogging About The Saudi Experience
By Molouk Y. Ba-Isa
14 September 2011
With the coming of Facebook and Twitter, it might be thought that blogging would be considered old fashioned. After all, blogs, originally called web logs, have been around since the early 1990s. But not every thought can be expressed in 140 characters or less, so new blogs are created every day. BlogPulse.com has identified 170,639,380 blogs globally. That number includes 6,505 new blogs in the 24 hours between Sunday and Monday morning this week.
Blogs about Saudi Arabia are common now, but it wasn’t always so. The Internet became publicly available in the Kingdom 1999, so blogging started later here than in some other nations. One of the first blogs about Saudi Arabia, American Bedu (http://americanbedu.com) began in 2006. Written by Carol Fleming-Al-Ajroush, the blog is a mix of news and insights to the Kingdom, coupled with anecdotes from Fleming’s personal life. A former CIA officer, Carol began her adventure in Saudi Arabia after marrying Abdullah Othman Al-Ajroush, a Saudi diplomat.
“When I first started there was not the same plethora of blogs on or about or from Saudi Arabia,” Carol said. “Also, most of the bloggers were careful on what they would blog about. It is a fact that even with the opening up of the media and the society, there are still some restrictions and constraints that need to be taken into account when blogging. But over the last several years, and particularly in perhaps the last two years, I think that as bloggers, we have the opportunity to be much more open on the topics that we choose to write about.”
Carol never worried that she would face difficulty as a blogger in Saudi Arabia. This was in part because she had the full support of her husband, who would sometimes suggest blog topics. She admitted though that her blog was not there to sensationalize life in the Kingdom; rather to present a balanced point of view. As a consultant to Saudi Arabian TV, she was well aware of the government’s sensitivities and wrote in ways to minimize issues. Not hiding her writing gave Carol the opportunity to offer the perceptions of others through her blog.
“I was very fortunate because even my own dear Saudi mother-in-law, who was a very traditional, conservative Saudi woman, shared a number of her own experiences and gave me permission to post them on the blog,” Carol remarked. “She allowed me to interview her a couple of times too. She was fabulous. Her perspective was that if her experiences helped further open up eyes and teach folks about the beauties and so many of the hidden treasures of the Kingdom, she was happy to share that.”
Carol and her husband left Saudi Arabia more than two years ago to access advanced medical care in the US. Since her husband’s death in February 2010, Carol has remained in the US where she continues to receive cancer treatment. Despite her illness, American Bedu is still published daily. Carol tries to create posts in advance, so that the blog appears even if she is too tired to write. Approaching three million hits, AmericanBedu.com offers a comprehensive view of Saudi Arabia and its relations with the wider world.
Not every blog about the Kingdom has such a lofty mission. The new blog, Under the Abaya (http://undertheabaya.wordpress.com) is written by a woman who would only identify herself as “American Girl.” It is about the daily life of an American who has returned to Saudi Arabia for the second time to raise her daughter, despite a failing marriage to her Saudi husband.
The blog began in June and can be a very depressing read. The plans of American Girl and her husband have not come to fruition and he has left her in Riyadh to return to his life in the US. Money is tight and with her daughter, American Girl is now sharing a home with her mother-in-law, who is unaware of both the marital difficulties and that her daughter-in-law is blogging. Only American Girl’s parents, siblings, husband and a few very close friends know that the blog is hers — although anyone in the world can read it.
“I’m not comfortable with sharing my name at this point,” she said. “The sensitive nature of the things that I talk about including the rules and laws here in Saudi Arabia, have made me believe that it’s better not to announce who I am to everyone.”
Women in situations similar to American Girl’s do reach out to her through the blog and she has communicated with some of these individuals in more personal ways, such as telephone calls and email. American Girl uses Facebook to stay in touch with her family and close friends, but the blog has become essential to her mental well being. “I chose to blog because it’s really therapeutic for me. It’s kind of like my diary that I publish,” said American Girl. “It’s a way to get my feelings out. If everybody stopped reading my blog tomorrow, I would still do it for myself.”
Under the Abaya’s tone is frequently gloomy and presents a narrow view of the Kingdom. The blog, “Blue Abaya,” (http://blueabaya.blogspot.com) is less heart wrenching, as it tries to be lighthearted, yet still show the Kingdom as it is.The author of the blog identified herself as Laylah. She is a Finnish nurse, married to a Saudi, and with her young daughter the family lives in Riyadh. In addition to writing about Saudi Arabia, Laylah has a photo blog at http://imagesofsaudi.blogspot.com with some interesting candid shots of the Kingdom. Laylah’s husband is supportive of her blogging but his family is very conservative. She commented that it could be “very bad” if they found out. Laylah began her blog in 2010 as a way to express some of her thoughts on the culture of Saudi Arabia and our way of life. Her photo blog was started later to display images of the country, followed by short commentary about the scenes.
“I wish to promote Saudi Arabia as the colorful and interesting country that it is because I find foreigners often have a very distorted image of Saudi Arabia as a boring and unattractive place. That’s far from the truth. I write about some sensitive issues but I strive to keep a balance of the positive and negative. All countries have their good and bad sides. A sense of humor and a positive attitude are essential in dealing with difficult issues. I’m glad to get positive feedback from all over the world. It has given me motivation to keep blogging,” said Laylah.
In an effort to reach more people through social media, Laylah has recently started tweeting and has created a Facebook page for her blog images. “Taking pictures in Saudi Arabia is much tougher than in other countries because of the privacy issues. There’s also the heat, dust and humidity, which create technical challenges for photographers,” advised Laylah. “Most of the time, when shooting a photo, I get smiles and curious looks from onlookers but there are still people that frown upon photography. When I wish to photograph someone I approach them politely with a smile and that produces a positive response most of the time. People always think Saudi women don’t wish to be photographed, but I’ve found myself in situations where they are urging me to take pictures of them!”
The final blogger to highlight today is one whose blog has in her own words evolved to be “not be too positive, which I think I was at first, or too negative which I think I got to be. Now I’m trying to balance it and not be one way or the other,” said Susie Khalil. “I do get comments from people who think I’m presenting too much of a rosy view of Saudi Arabia and then other people think I’m bashing the Saudis. It’s really kind of funny because the whole thing about Saudi Arabia is that it’s quite confusing and contradictory.”
Susie is known as Susie of Arabia in her blog “Susie’s big adventure,” (http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com). She has a photo blog as well which has been on hiatus as she spent the last year in the US. Susie is however, planning to return to the Kingdom in January, and anticipates she’ll have more time for blogging then.
Her entire extended family knows that she blogs, but they aren’t bothered by it and her husband feels that it’s her project. He has jokingly said that if she gets arrested, “He doesn’t know her.” That sounds like a casual remark but a couple of years ago Susie found that the blog did get blocked after she commented on the censorship of a photograph on a CD purchased at a local shop. After ten worrying days, the blog became accessible through the Kingdom’s Internet once again.
“I think when I started blogging when I first moved to Saudi Arabia, I was more committed to it and it was engulfing my life. Then I reached the point after I started getting some not so nice comments from people and threats, that I stopped taking it so seriously,” Susie said. “If I wouldn’t have, it would have really continued to bother me a lot. I don’t write to please people out there I write because I’m expressing my opinion.”
Photo Credit: Geology (text designed by Tara Umm Omar)