Mind Your Ps and Qs

‘Early to bed, early to rise’ is not something any Saudi has taken to heart.

As I mentioned previously, things here operate on two schedules; Real Time and Saudi Time. An interesting aspect of living on Saudi Time is the daily routine. Aside from building their schedules around Salah (daily prayer), living in the middle of a barren ocean of sand means avoiding doing much of anything during the heat of the day. Some Saudis still work normal hours, relatively speaking, but they don’t accomplish much (mindsets and cultural norms aside). Lazy as it may seem, it makes a fair bit of sense. After sunset and the last of the daily prayers the heat dissipates, and attending to any personal business becomes much more bearable. Typical Saudis, including children, eat their evening meal well after dark, usually between 9 and 11, and stay up well past midnight. They’ll awake for morning Salah, which occurs just before sunrise (currently around 4:30am) and then head back to sleep until midmorning. Breakfast isn’t really that big of a meal and isn’t usually until 10 or 11, and lunch is taken around 2pm. It’s a wonderful schedule for coping with the heat and monotony of the desert. It’s also almost entirely incompatible with those of us living in Real Time.  

We have several Saudi employees at the Boys’ School, and after tweaking our schedule to relegate most of their responsibilities to the afternoon, things have taken a turn for the better. Sadly, because school starts at 7:30, the students are still trapped in a world of little sleep, low standards of parental supervision, diets with incredible amounts of oil and sugar, and a very ambivalent attitude towards exercise of any kind. It makes for an interesting day.

Our newest staff addition is the Vice President of Education for the company. After his quick orientation to what was supposed to resemble a school last week, he decided to spend more time sorting out exactly what was going on. He arrived every day this past week (surprisingly) a few hours into each school day, and seeing as his designated office is on the third floor of the Girls’ School which no male is allowed to enter during formal school hours, he spent his time wandering around our barebone facility. His first order of business was to upgrade our teachers’ lounge.

Swanky, eh?

It was a nice gesture, but aside from providing a nice spot for a nap during my prep period, it didn’t amount to much. What repaired his image in my book was his invitation to dinner at a traditional Saudi restaurant last night. It made for an exceptionally late night, but I walked away with a better sense that he wasn’t as dense or detached as he had originally seemed. I learned about his formal education as a teacher and the many years he lived in the States and the U.K. (he has an American accent but a British vocabulary), and he confided in private with me that he was just as frustrated with the current state of affairs at the school as I was.

The dinner itself was set around a long low table surround with pillows and throws in a semi-lavish private room hazy with incense and candle light. The food was delicious, and the experience was memorable. The image you probably have in your mind is much more picturesque than it actually was, sadly. All but one of the attendants were Western, and the most common topic of conversation was awkward chatter about women’s rights. There were many relatively unintentional but nonetheless incredibly culturally offensive statements made by a few of my female coworkers about our host’s home country, which left the South African and myself a bit upset about being associated with their viewpoints. There was a bit of animosity on the bus ride home.

It’s a very different experience living in the Kingdom, one of which I don’t think many people are well suited to undertake. It’s easy to live within your own ignorance here, but being educated enough to realize that many people here don’t know any other life than the one they currently live makes it hard to sit around and let others label every Saudi as the crazy person they superficially seem to be. I keep my mouth shut, however, because karma usually has a funny way of handling these types of situations.

That, and I make all their booze.