While it is not considered unkind to adopt social norms of the host country, some can take this step a little bit too far
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, a wise guru once said while meditating under a banyan tree. In Saudi Arabia this can mean different things to different people. And while it is not considered unkind to adopt social customs and norms of the host country, some foreigners can take this step a little bit too far.
A while back, on a trip to Washington DC, I happened to be seated next to a lady of obvious western origins. In the closed and confined quarters of the aluminum capsule taking us to our destination, and with plenty of time to kill I introduced myself to my travelling companion.
After the opening pleasantries were exchanged I asked her of her origin, adding that she could not possibly have been an Arab. “I was an American.” Was? I inquired, my curiosity rising up several pegs. How was it possible to be an American in the past sense?
Although she was born and raised in the US to Southern Baptist parents, she had married a Saudi a few years ago and had moved to the Kingdom. Just as I was about to compliment her on her newly discovered loyalties; she interrupted me by adding rather vehemently that she wanted an absolute break from her past, her voice rising in anger. In a rather bellicose manner, she embarked on a tirade of anti-American and highly inflammatory oratory, adding that she had written to the US secretary of state to revoke her nationality. She wanted nothing from America or the Americans, and was now content to bask in her current citizenship.
Wondering to myself whether she was on the correct flight and destination, and not willing to indulge myself with this particular lady’s peculiar behaviour for the next 13 hours, I politely excused myself and found an empty seat a few rows back. I was not in the mood to hear how the West was the root of all evil as we flew over the Atlantic. I forgot about that incident until recently.
I was at Mustafa’s house the other day mulling over coffee and an argeela (water pipe) and discoursing on the meaning of life when his wife Trudy walked in. A blue-eyed brunette, Trudy is from San Francisco, and teaches English at a local private pre-school. She joined us shortly and commenced on the frustrations at her work place.
It was not the job, but the people she had to work with, she continued. The kids were wonderful, the facilities were great, but some of her associates…. uurggh! And why was that, I wanted to know. Weren’t most of her fellow teachers and assistants American to begin with? With similar language and cultural backgrounds, it would seem easier for Trudy to mix and mingle in, I presumed.
“Your presumption would be correct, Tariq, if you were dealing with rational people,” she snorted back. “However, these American girls are worse than the Stepford Wives, referring to a movie released in 2004 depicting the robotic lives of men and women in a quiet Connecticut suburb. “They come to school with blank and vacant stares; zombie-like shuffling their feet in small steps with their faces turned to the ground. When they speak, they adopt a broken manner of speech, as if English is a foreign language to them!”
“They have severed all cultural links to their background, even to the point of denial. Some adopt extreme values under the assumption that it is an Islamic thing to do. Others are pawns in a game manipulated by their controlling husbands who reinforce the dramatic changes in their spouses by isolating them from their own kind.
“Birthdays are not celebrated, and actually frowned upon as a flaky western pastime. Hot dogs and hamburgers become alien dishes to them, and quickly replaced with saleek (rice cooked in milk) or macarona bashamell (macaroni casserole). Their integration into this culture is totally distorted. No wonder several husbands of these women have ended up marrying on them,” she added emphatically.
“There is a growing number of these lost and befuddled souls,” she continued. “What perturbs me is that in this age of easy access to information and ideas, humans are still prone to be steered into a specific manner of thought and behaviour. These women are not merely imitating Saudis but attempting to behave more Saudi than the Saudis themselves!”
While such transformations are not necessarily obvious in the rest of the Gulf countries, the spawning of such behaviour does surface here and possibly due to the fact that the ratio of expatriates to the local population is in the minority. Another reason is in the level of quality education these women have acquired and particularly about Islam and their host country.
On my way home later that evening, I reflected on what Trudy had said. To all those Debbie-Salwas and Jennifer-Fatimahs out there, I quietly implore…Do not lose sight of your roots and above all, be yourselves!
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.