Saudi Arabia/Germany: Again

A German woman announcing that she is going to accompany her partner as an expat wife to Jeddah and will be living in Saudi Arabia for several years? Impossible!

Suddenly, even your most conservative relatives from rural small-town Germany will turn into staunch defenders of “Western liberty”, reminding you that you will be sitting all alone “somewhere in the desert”, unable to drive a car or eat even a bite of your beloved roast pork, veiled from head to toe, threatened with heatstroke by five layers of black cloth at 50°C, and placed under the legal guardianship of your husband. (The last point is invariably raised by that annoying elderly uncle who’s usually prone to making jokes about “women’s libbers”.)

Indeed, since Saudi Arabia is not a tourist destination, there is little German literature available about the country, and no travel anecdotes to share with friends. Thus the expat spouse-to-be may board her flight to Jeddah with some trepidation…

Upon arrival in “the Bride of the Red Sea”, the “honeymoon” period of the culture shock experience probably sets in. Jeddah’s geographic location – which makes it the designated gateway to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina – also predestined the city to grow rich with trade, to acquire a cosmopolitan touch from the millions of Muslims arriving for the hajj from all corners of the earth, and to basically explode with growth due to the oil-boom. So, the first thing to do, once the suitcases have been unpacked, is to tour the town and then share plenty of Facebook photo galleries with the gloom-and-doom naysayers back home: a bikini-clad girls’ volleyball team at the private Hilton Beach Club – the Gucci and D&G boutiques at Al Khayat Mall – the tennis court in the local compound – the palm trees along the splendid Cornice waterfront.

But soon, the inevitable disillusionment, the next stage in the culture shock process, will catch up with you. Employment opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia are still limited after all, and even laidback Jeddah is not an exception. Without the right qualifications (e.g. for teaching) and the necessary language skills, you may not stand a chance. If you have kids aged between three and 16, you can at least socialize with the tight-knit, friendly community of the German School in Jeddah, but in other cases, you face the plight of expat wives everywhere: isolation and alienation.

You may feel as though you had the same small talk with the same expat neighbors every day. You’ll long for a time when you’d take the underground to the office or cycled to get to the beergarden and weren’t stuck without a driving permit in a city clearly not made for walking. You will grit your teeth while battling to keep your lovely little compound villa free from sand and desert dust. German curses (such as a heart-felt ‘Sch***e!’ ) will be on your lips when you forget about scheduled prayer times again and stand before the closed doors of a shop. And when you happen to schedule an appointment with a Saudi dentist who used to work in Germany for eight years, you might almost burst in tears as he greets you with a smiling ‘Guten Tag!’ (It’s only your stubborn pride that keeps you from writing lachrymose emails or posting self-pitying Facebook updates for everyone to see…)

Most expatriates in Jeddah are lucky enough to overcome those feelings of rejection and proceed towards recovery and adaptation. There are several hundred German expats in the city, with a small infrastructure to accommodate them. For example, the General Consulate used to host a women’s club for all German-speaking ladies and organizes an international film festival together with the German mission (a definite bonus in a city without theaters or cinemas). While it’s not always easy to make friends among Saudi women, you will notice a certain “Saudification” in your daily habits: You might try out your newly acquired Arabic phrases during your next shopping trip to Jeddah’s famous Tahlia Street – and receive a slightly amused smile in return. (Non-native speakers are normally taught classic standard Arabic while the average denizen of Jeddah speaks the distinct local dialect.) You are getting accustomed to using two calendars concurrently, the Gregorian and the lunar one. You don’t shy away from taking a taxi on your own and have lunch in the “family section” of your favorite shawarma restaurant.

Once you go home, on your first extended holiday, your family and friends will probably throw you the occasional odd look because you automatically slide into the backseat of a car, get Friday and Sunday mixed up, or refuse to drink tap water. “How’s life in Jeddah?” they ask, and you can safely say: “Not bad. No, not bad at all.”


5 Responses

  1. There is a nice book written in German by a Swisse lady of her love story with an Emirati sheikh (including secret marriage and first wife with six children). Its by Verena Wermuth called “Die verbotene Frau”. The writing is not Pulitzer-level, of course, but its quite grabbing for any woman living in the region.

  2. I follow your blog for few years already, and for me it is quite interesting what you write about Saudi-German connections lately, cause I am from Germany. Is there a special reason for picking up this subject, maybe knowing some germans there? As a german I can say that most of people here don´t know much about Saudi Arabia, usually the typical stereotypes of oil-sheikhs and sand. 😉
    Best regards and please keep on blogging!

  3. Thanks for the recommendation, Zue.

  4. @Zue: I fail to see why you bring up that book. This is a blog about Saudi Arabia, not the UAE. If someone goes to Italy I don’t give them a book about Spain.

    @American Bedu: You try to seocnd guess rural Germans… and do so by using American stereotypes [meaning: entirely American-based, they don’t resonate with German actual ‘annoying uncles’]. Not a good idea when writing about why one should try to not make presumptions and try to get into other people’s shoes.

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