I love making lists.
Just ask anyone. Sticky notes be all up in my room.
I even made a comprehensive, color-coded souvenirs list for the trip, hehe.
But really, here’s my cultural Top 10 for Saudi Arabia:
1. Almost everyone knows English. Lots of people on our trip spoke Arabic and were looking forward to practicing it. But, the Saudis were looking forward to practicing their English even more! I learned a few words—enough to barter in the markets and answer simple questions—and I tried to use them to get good prices on souvenirs. It worked on a few, but the rest just laughed and tried to rip me off in English.
2. There are no dressing rooms in malls. Saudi malls in of themselves are strange. SOOO many stores, zero dressing rooms. Having never been to an H&M or Forever 21, I wanted to try on all these cute clothes! Whatta bummer it was to see my friends buy multiple things that didn’t fit.
3. Your abaya will make you sweat. Also, it will come unsnapped at inopportune times, causing stares and haraam. You will trip on your abaya. Your hijab will make you break out. And keeping it secure is a great mystery.
4. The women are beautiful. Every single one of them! They all have fantastic eyebrows and dress immaculately.
5. Don’t forget to pack your sunglasses. Your eyes will suffer and you will look dumb in pictures! And pictures. LOTS of pictures will be taken of you. Every university, business, and institute we went to had a paparazzi following us around. So. Many. Group. Photos. I felt famous. :)
6. The shishah (hookah) here is divine! But also really frickin’ strong. I don’t smoke it too often because of singing, but I smoked it a few times in Jeddah, the most liberal city we went to. Lemon mint is where it’s at. P.S. Don’t try to take pictures of anyone smoking it, unless you want to pee your pants. We all looked totes ridiculous!
7. There is no “p” or “p” sound in Arabic. Any word with a “p” is changed to a “b.” Pepsi to Bebsi, people to beoble, pizza to bizza. It’s absolutely hilarious! And on rare occasions, it can be flip-flopped. I don’t know why, but one of our guides, Sultan, was telling us about how much he liked Bob Marley. I mean, Pope Marley, haha.
8. Driving and traffic there is horrendous, especially in the capital, Riyadh. And you think NYC or Boston is bad… Police sirens and ambulances aren’t the normal city sounds, tire screeching and crashing is. If you drive safely, you will get into an accident.
10. Hospitality conquers all. Take note, America. I can’t begin to tell you how many gifts we received, how many meal invitations we got, and how many networking connections were offered to us. All of the Saudis have business cards and I have at least twenty. We did take up a few of those offers! Dr. Mody, a wonderful and charming woman who works at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States in D.C., met with us before we even left the country to share about her experiences in KSA. She was coincidentally going to be in Riyadh on the same day we were there, and she invited us to her family’s personal home for dinner! Of course, it was palatial and gorgeous. We were served a huge sit-on-the-floor meal with a whole lamb, hummus, salads, pastries, dates, coffee, sodas, and fruits and desserts. Some of it was catered, but some of it, the family made themselves! We went there on the last night of the trip and it was the perfect ending. The dinner experience truly encapsulated the essence of Saudi hospitality.
I can’t even begin to write down just how much I’ll miss the Kingdom. As a Western woman, I don’t think I’d be able to live there full-time, just because I’m used to my particular freedoms. But it is a safe, welcoming, and beautiful place. I’m so grateful to have spent ten lovely days there.