The process of acclimating to the Kingdom is a common topic of discussion for the expatriates here in my compound, and I've found that it definitely varies with each individual. For some it takes many months of frustration and anxiety to fully come to terms living in Saudi culture, while for others the transition from life at home to life in a compound is relatively smooth sailing. Seeing as I was left completely in the dark about what life was like here until I met my roommate during my layover at O’Hare, I was left thinking I would be living in squalid housing in the center of the tri-city area, forced to learn to speak Arabic in a matter of days in order to survive, and wind up trying to learn to adapt to an Islamic mindset that is entirely outside my own. Obviously, things turned out much better than I anticipated.
The only issue I’m dealing with so far is the absence of genuine Saudi Culture. Yes, I live in an incredibly restrictive environment in which I almost never seeing a woman’s face and am supposedly free of vice and libations, but living in a compound is much like living in a retirement community in Arizona, and my outside contact with genuine Saudis is largely confined to the Boys’ School. The students I teach are about as Americanized as could be; nursing obsessions with popular music, movies, Ed Hardy clothing, and, for some insane reason, John Cena the professional wrestler. American style food is just as if not more easily obtainable that traditional Middle Eastern food at most grocery stores, and just about every outlet mall on the major routes to and from work are lined with American chains; Hardees, KFC, Harley Davidson, McDonalds, Ford, Chili’s, and so on. If they can get by without explicitly needing to serve pork, booze, or sex, it’s here and it’s everywhere.
I may be disheartened about the lack of cultural originality, but I’ve found a nice little bit of salvation here:
That's Mufia Al Nashid. It’s a wonderful little food shop across the street from the student entrance of the Boys’ School. It’s the equivalent of a corner sandwich shop, and caters to working class Saudis who can bop in and out for a quick bite before or after prayer. It’s a hole in the wall with a counter of warming trays filled with spicy smelling food, several spits of meat roasting over a grill, and a few coolers filled with a variety of fresh juices and other refreshments. Opposite the counter is a row of plastic lawn chairs covered in a thin layer of fine tan dust because there's never any need for them.
Quick side note: taking pictures in the Kingdom is a very touchy affair. Some Saudis are easily offended and are very adamant about not being photographed. Others couldn’t care less. Most large establishments have signs that say whether or not taking photos is allowed, but small restaurants and shops are rather ambiguous. I liken it to walking into a McDonalds and taking a picture of the employee as they take your order and thus err on the side of caution. I take pictures discreetly whenever possible, which is why I have no pictures of the inside of Al Nashid.
Al Nashid is a fairly established and does a significant amount of business. No one at my school knew this however, because up until this year all the teachers were women, and, as per usual here in the Kingdom, women are not allowed inside Al Nashid. I walked over for lunch one day at the suggestion of the Brit before he left, and was very surprised at what I found.
A shawarma, a falafel, and strawberry pop (the only drink they had in English).
They are basically wrapped in toilet paper, and, yes, that's
a stale cold french fry sticking out of the shawarma.
The food there is wonderful. They have a fairly large selection of traditional Middle Eastern and Saudi dishes (although I can’t read the menu to figure any of the names or ingredients) and everything is incredibly cheap. I bought the entire meal in the picture above for 5 Riyals. That’s slightly more a buck twenty five. Its prepared hot and fresh after you order, and you can be in and out in less than 5 minutes (it usually takes longer to cut across traffic than to actually get the food). It’s nice to be able to experience something genuine, too.
The first time I “ordered” I was handed food before I could open my mouth and, unknowingly, asked not to come back. Filled with touristic bravado (or naiveté), I had my students teach me some phrases I could use to place an order, and went back the next day fully prepared to surprise the people there with my newly practiced Arabic skills. I was greeted by an entirely different crew of employees and after ordering in Arabic the man behind the counter said with an Indian bop “Oh, well, okay. That wasn’t so bad. So you want a falafel and a shawarma then. Do you want any of the spicy type sauces?”
As with everything else here in Saudi, you never know what to expect.