A Shift in Perspective

Religious differences create interesting situations. This is true pretty much everywhere in the world, but its particularly interesting in places where well understood and respected human rights, such as having the freedom of religion, do not exist. Such is the case here in the Kingdom. Obviously, Islam dominates every aspect of life here, but it has much farther reaching effects than the outside observer might initially perceive.

Officially, the only legally recognized religion is Islam, specifically the Sunni sect, while everything else is banned. The King is the religiously appointed ruler, and his title is The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. A council of religious elders, The Sharia, advise him on legal matters, and the King’s word is final. It is taken as law with the same authority as those written in the Quran because of his supreme Divinity. The only holidays aside from National Day are Islamic holidays, and any outward display of celebration of any other holiday, religious or political, is strictly prohibited. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Armistice Day; they’re all technically banned, but so long as they’re celebrated or observed in private things tend to work out ok. Non-Muslims who are allowed into the country can practice whatever they chose in private (except Jews, who are banned from entering the country entirely), but they are strongly advised to keep their religion to themselves when out in public. In more conservative areas things like cross necklaces may be perceived as offensive and can be confiscated. I’ve never actually found or heard of anyone attempting it, but proselytizing is a definite no-no, and the punishments vary from deportation to death. As restricting as this is, it really doesn’t have much of an effect on day to day life for the average person, outside of the fact that everyone observes prayer time regardless of how inconvenient it is.

Culturally speaking, most Saudi’s are relatively intolerant. It’s hard to accurately describe the typical attitude towards non-Muslims, but for the most part, if everyone keeps their opinion or beliefs to themselves, there aren’t many problems. If asked to speak their mind, they’ll make sure everyone around them understands just how little they care for those unlike themselves. The common scenario westerners usually associate with this mindset is an Arab man shouting Infidel at a random light-skinned non-believer. Stereotypes aside, that word gets thrown around much more often than one would anticipate. From there, the stereotype continues to get worse. Islam and the Arabic language are closely intertwined, so many of the sayings in Arabic stem from historical Islamic intolerance. The worst insults throw around are words like Christian, Jew, and the oddly associated, donkey. Once you learn how to recognize the phrases and sayings associated with these insults, you start to notice how frequently they’re used. Sometimes it’s lighthearted and the person is just using the only language they know, but most times it’s specific and intentionally hurtful.

Aside from language, Saudis also tend to be isolated to a religiously centered mindset. It isn’t much different than most American children growing up blindly celebrating but not really understanding many patriotic federal holidays, or their school year revolving around specific Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. The big difference here is that it plays an enormously integral part of everyday life. Islam is everywhere, and it’s the basis for just about every function of life. Language, dates and times, business hours, titles, the layouts of buildings, what you can wear, what you can eat, even the ability to enter certain buildings; they’re all determined by religion. This never really gives the people living here a chance to learn or understand how other people might live, and tacitly reinforces their intolerant mindset. Most westerners don’t think about these things much, usually because their purpose here is very specific and understanding cultural norms isn’t part of it.

Personally, this is much more challenging because my job puts me at the center of this dilemma and the expectations of working with young impressionable minds creates a morally and ethically ambiguous situation. I’m basically tiptoeing between respecting the status quo and staying true to my personal beliefs, which happen to be quite contradictory to those of my students, their parents, their government, and their religion. Thankfully many of the potential problems that arise from this are solved by never letting the topic come up in the first place, but some things still come up from time to time in the form of an innocent question or a casual remark from one of my students. As much as it pains me, the only thing I can really say is that I’m not allowed to talk about it. There have been times when I’ve sat down at the end of the day, completely bewildered and incredibly frustrated with the limitations of what I can and can’t say. Sometimes I wind up reminding myself that it is still the twenty first century, and though it may not seem like it here, things aren’t entirely hopeless. My students are some of the lucky few who don’t attend a public school where all they might learn is basic math and memorize verses from the Quran, but the confines of what I can say as a teacher and the limitations this puts on my students’ ability to understand the world around them makes this a very small consolation.

The experience of losing something that you value so deeply but have never really taken the time to think about before is confusing. There are a few famous quotes about not truly understanding freedom until it’s been taken away from you, but I can’t really say that losing anything here has helped me understand what I’m experiencing. For as much as I’ve been subjected to, I can’t really express how I feel. At times it’s depressing to think about it, while at others it’s just plain aggravating. Recently, I’ve found myself being much more apathetic about everything, and I’ve been questioning myself about what being a teacher is really worth if I don’t care about what I teach. For me, teaching has always been about trying to help others achieve their greatest potential, to help them understand, and trying to leave a positive path for others to follow. I don’t know if that will still be the case at the end of this experience, but I hope so.