As-salamu-alay-kum (hello)…or…assalamuale-kuum (also hello)…or…assale-mu-ale-kum (also hello)…
Yes, just to throw a little more confusion into the pot, it just so happens that Arabic is a “phonetic” language. This means that things are spelled as they are heard - no right or wrong. Wouldn’t that have been dreamy back in grade 6 when you were hit with that spelling quiz covering “rough, drought, and through”?
This week has been spent mostly tying up loose ends (and replacing ill fitting clothing) in terms of acquiring ID badge, medical clearance to work, internet, gym pass, etc. I have learned that in Saudi, one should never expect to get something done upon first visit to said errand destination. It takes at least 3 visits, with three separate and increasingly prodigious (and often somewhat contradicting) explanations from those working the front desk positions as to why one must come back tomorrow. Once one is able to breathe through the sphincter-clamping, aneurysm-inducing rise in blood pressure brought on by this loss of control us North American women are so used to having (yes, yes, ok – and perhaps over exercising at times), one may actually find that it is a good opportunity to get to know some locals.
I was on my 4th visit to the “Employee Social Club” trying to gain access into the gym that was directly below me in my building. After a quick chat with the man at the front desk, I was told that I would have to come back in an hour. They had to look into things, as the computers had been on the fritz all afternoon, and sometimes the online applications get lost (yesterday I had been told that the online system was totally reliable, and no, I couldn’t apply in person). Anyhow, just before leaving, I was offered a small flexible branch full of little yellow fruit-like appendages. It was explained that they were raw dates, and that I should try one. I knew that dates were a symbol of Saudi welcome (though I had never seen or heard of raw dates), so I graciously accepted, and popped one into my mouth. I assumed the giggles which ensued were in response to the look on my face as I tried to think of something constructive to say about the sweet chalky grossness encroaching upon my offended palate. I was encouraged to eat another. With effort, I pulled back the corners of my mouth in what I hope passed for a smile, and compliantly choked back one more. Then, in his thick accent, one of the men grinned impishly and piped up “do not eat too many as they will keep you up”. A round of gut splitting laughter, punctuated by strings of Arabic that I thought perhaps best I didn’t understand. A little flustered, I smiled uncertainly and thanked him. I assured him that I would avoid nighttime nibbling and eat them in the morning instead of my morning coffee. Another round of laughter, and a few little waves goodbye. I left feeling rather like a champ - I had really broken through a barrier and been accepted and respected by these men.
Epilogue: I later found out from someone much more versed in Saudi culture that raw dates are considered an aphrodisiac. Ha.
The other story I will tack on to this post is of our shopping trip to Riyadh’s newest super-mall. The shopping here is utterly ridiculous. Imagine, all the same stores with REGULAR priced items at HALF the price of those in Canada. Then the sales come…50% off…75% off…seriously - I was giggling like a kid with a whoopee cushion at her parents fancy dinner party. The crazy thing is, you are not allowed to try anything on! No fitting rooms. It is completely forbidden for women to uncover in public, even behind closed doors in a mall fitting room (all the stores have great exchange policies so you can bring things back if your guesstimate was off…).
Anyhow, we arrived on our nightly ladies shopping bus (provided by the hospital as women are not allowed to drive in KSA) and tittered into La Senza (ha). We strung along past the thongs, and bust into the bra section (ha - sorry, I can’t stop it). So…have you ever been checking out a little red lacy number, turned inquisitively to the saleslady, chest thrust out for assessment, only to find that the “saleslady” is actually a hairy little Persian man (who just so happens to be “little” enough that he is face to boob to your thrust out, expectant chest)? Well, ladies and gents, unfortunately up until 3 days ago, I too could say NO. As it so happens, women don’t work sales jobs in the Kingdom, so it is men running EVERY store in ALL the malls. Now. In a country where sex is COMPLETELY taboo, and women are expected to be completely covered up at ALL times, does it not seem odd that men are working shops selling g-strings and teddies (that’s teddy BARES…ha…ok ok, I’ll stop).
Heading to a party at the Australian consulate tomorrow night. The word “bar” WAS on the invitation. Should be a gonger. Stay tuned for details next week.
Tesbahh Ala-Khair (Goodnight)