]> Sojourn in the Middle East

Sojourn in the Middle East

Part 1 of 9
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This is a blog of some of my impressions during a seven-month period living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the "KSA") in 2007-08.

Foreign Labor

Slavery was abolished in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the late year of 1962 (Gregorian calendar). There are some who say even this is an exaggeration, and that there is little to differentiate the plight of many who ostensibly "work" here from that of an unpaid, immobile servant. The Saudis themselves do little or no menial work -- indeed little work of any kind aside from military and government posts -- and estimates range from 25 - 40% of the population of the country being made up of foreign workers. I myself am one of these.

I am in the white collar class however. My company furnishes me with a villa free of charge and places a car at my disposal. I am paid handsomely. The villa is spacious, gleams with marble tile and burnished wood; its ceilings are ten feet high. Outside my window a much higher wall rises up, topped with sheet metal and in some places barbed wire. It separates me from the world outside. Most of us live in these so-called "compounds". Whether this is to provide us with a sense of security or preserve Saudi society from foreign corruption, it is not clear.


In through our windows we can hear the muezzin calling out the daily prayers. Six in the morning. Twelve noon. Three-thirty, six, seven thirty. And four A.M. -- the devout must rise to pay respects to Allah. It is illegal, however, to practice any religion besides Islam.

From some towers the prayers are called out in monotone, but other times melodically, almost chanting. It is not an unpleasant sound, and although I shall practice neither Islam nor any religion of my own whilst here, I find it brings a certain shift in focus to the atmosphere, a slight elevation in plane that brings one to attend a little more to the quality of things.

In the lobby of my company's main office I stood on my first day, watching a man in a suit and one in the traditional robes remove their shoes and kneel upon a carpet facing the wall. This particular wall stood at an angle of perhaps 30 degrees offset relative to the opposite one, unrelated to any other in the building. For that was the direction of Mecca. The two men bowed forward, touching their heads to the ground, straightened, bowed again. Words that I could not understand passed their lips as they repeated this motion several times, then remained kneeling in an attitude of reverent contemplation. Devotion, if I have ever seen it.

In the government computer center where I actually work an entire room is set aside for prayers. Again it stands at an odd angle in relation to the rest of the building. At 12 and 3:30 pairs of shoes collect outside the entrance, and the Saudis who work with us shuffle in and out for their turn at prayer.


The Saudis, I should mention, generally wear a body-length white shirt / robe, called a thobe, and topped by a hood (the gutra), sometimes red-checked -- and a double-twisted circular or hexagonal black headpiece. This is a traditional dress, and a practical one. The loose, flowing thobe served to ward off the sun and circulate air to cool the body. The headpiece, on the other hand, was taken off and used to hobble a bedouin's camel when he stopped. When he continued, he would just remove it from the camel's legs and put it back on his head to keep his hood from blowing around. Practical.

A Saudi gliding across the cityscape in these flowing robes exudes a graceful and dignified air. Partly, perhaps, this effect is psychological: because no others wore this attire, and the Saudis are masters in their own country as has already been said. However as far as I could determine there is no law against a foreigner wearing the same garb, and I'm determined to procure a set for myself as soon as practical.


Perhaps the biggest incursion of the Arab culture into our daily lives as westerners relates to the fact we are presently in the midst of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Ramadan is similar to the Christian Lent, except that people are much more serious about it, and it's scheduled according to the lunar calendar more seriously as well.

Said calendar, unlike, say, the Chinese one (or the method used to determine the date of Easter), has not been synched to the solar reckoning. Thus the holy month retreats by four weeks or so each year, and the "Hijri" year, currently 1428 (reckoned from the time of Mohammed), advances a bit more rapidly than our "Gregorian" counterpart.

During Ramadan one is supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset, and here in Saudi Arabia people do. In fact, even unbelievers such as ourselves are expected to do their share by not eating in public during those times. "Public" includes our workplace, where many Saudis also work, and penalties are said to range up to deportation. Needless to say, times have been a little tough. No restaurants open, no real sources of coffee, and the only eating or drinking we can do at work is whatever bites and swallows we can manage to sneak in an alley out behind the building. Smokers have it even tougher, I imagine, since cigarettes are covered under "fasting" as well.

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