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    Living in La-La-Land...or Escape from the (un) Magic Kingdom

    By bragabond
    Jul 29, '14 12:31 PM EST

    Nothing I was told or that I've research could've prepare me for a real taste of Saudi Arabia. But, hey I am an adventurous urbanist, a curious observer,  I've left my dear New York craziness for a great job in the outskirts of Washington, DC which was already very daring for a New Yorker, then moved to Lisbon, Portugal, a place with a great quality of life, so....taking this "fantastical-sounding job" in Saudi Arabia was a sort-of no-brainer (for me anyhow).

    The first shock was when I arrived in Riyadh and people's answer to anything was "no problem", that should have tip me off....if people say no problem so very often, there were problems galore coming up. The second was the incredible chaotic way in which the driver sent to pick me up at the airport navigated the parking logistics (refusing to paythe fee and trying to get out of the parking lot without paying) whilst holding-up an extremely impatient, increasingly long line of unhappy Saudi drivers. The third was that although the Head of Talent Acquisition -the very person who hired me and with whom I had negotiated my salary package called me at the hotel upon my arrival at almost one o'clock in the morning, to welcome me and assure me "someone will come to collect you from the hotel late tomorrow morning" a good sign I though, yet not a single person showed up; when I asked the concierge if anyone from my new company had call or come to pick me up, he said: "they will not come Sir, you'd be better off going on your own"...How come he so surely said they won't come I wondered....? La, he said: la, la la Sir, they won't come.

    La? A musical man perhaps? I soon found out that "la" means NO in Arabic...Welcome to La-La-Land, I told myself.

    Following the advice of my hotel concierge I decided to go to my new firm's HR department by myself, where i was greeted warmly and respectfully (nobody came to collect you? No problem, you are here!). As I was sitting at HR in the middle of document signing and form filing, a tall, dashing South african fellow came to pick up some letters of his own, we introduced each other; it was my first day, it was his last...he was happily leaving the Kingdom and going back home. He gave me a piece of advice -two things he said: first, arm yourself with patience, in this country you are going to need it; a lot of it. And then he said "you are in good shape, do you practice any sport?" I said I like running, lifting weights, jumping rope, swimming and wanted to try my hands at kick-boxing..."Good!" he said, "you will need a strenuous physical activity to channel your frustration with the work, the culture and the environment". We said goodbye and I was left to serious this all was. 

    Turned out he was very, very serious and "on-the-dot"; thank God for being a gym bunny and liking to exercise regularly, it help me keep my sanity, as I was about to find out there were not many outlets for recreational activities in KSA -the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -most forms of  Western entertainment are not allowed, especially cinema, music and dancing.

    Movies have the power to shape our perceptions of love, of adventure, and of growing up. More subtly, movies also have the ability to shape our perceptions of small things, like how we interpret different cities, clothing brands, and even transport – who uses transport, how they use it, and why. The fact that cinema -amongst other Western forms of entertainment we take for granted- is forbidden was quite a shock. However, like many things; you get used to it, we have many cable TV channels so the influence is still latent, you can see it with the younger Saudi men who, although respectful of their religion and traditions, do want other experiences that TV and especially the internet offers. And we foreigners can watch news in English and keep up-to-date with what's going on in the rest of the world. Football -that universal male language, is alive and well here too; this year's World Cup offer us an opportunity for male bonding and enjoyment, and a chance to get to know our Saudi acquaintances and colleagues better over a non-alcoholic beverage.


    • chatter of clouds

      Hehe, good luck. I hope the money is worth it (and I'm sure it is)! That place did some damage to my soul (Jeddah though; Riyadh is worse). 

      Couple of things - be wary of taking pictures...and turn gay, it'll be easier for you that way, unless you get caught of course. 

      Also, there are of course the "compounds" (gated communities) where most westerners and some privileged others lock themselves up and create a little model of an american town. 

      Jul 29, 14 1:16 pm  · 

      I'm very much looking forward to this series. I've been tempted to apply for jobs in Saudi Arabia (and the middle east, generally) - not only for the rumored pay and appealing 'expat packages' - but because it's a culture - and architectural tradition - I know so little about. 

      Jul 29, 14 3:00 pm  · 
      chatter of clouds

      Saudi Arabia, culture, architectural tradition? 

      Please this indiscriminate  orientalist "middle-east:"  nonsense. You want culture and architectural tradition, you to Baghdad, Damascus you to Cairo and Alexandria, you go to Beirut, you go to Tunis, you go to Istanbul, you go to Isfahan. 

      but then again, thanks to the likes of Saudi Arabia, you wouldn't really want to go to most of these places anymore due to security issues. 

      Saudi Arabia is very far from the "Middle East". It is its own "special" place. Anyone who visits around the region knows that. Its really more about the appealing "expat packages"than the "architectural tradition".

      Then again, good luck and will be an interesting blog nonetheless.  Just don;t get caught with your pants down, literally :o)

      Jul 29, 14 3:52 pm  · 

      Great post man on many levels and the amazing thing about your life now and this blog - its all true, no fiction necessary..........I think the Saudis did learn something from Vegas and Disneyworld and they'd be wise to learn from the Mormons religiously at least...once the oil is all gone, What you going to do with all that desert?

      Jul 29, 14 9:03 pm  · 
      Los Angeles

      It's rather Ironic what has happened to KSA. The entire gulf region had a huge cultural impact after the spread of Islam. Before Islam, the gulf was quite isolated and the two reigning empires (Persian / Byzantine) really did not care for that region. After the spread of Islam, you had Persians, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, etc. trying to follow and learn from old scholars in Medina and other parts of the "Hejaz." Ironically, the Ottomans are the ones who really revitalized Mecca and Medina and expanded those two places into proper cities. What's even more tragically Ironic is that when the Wahabi movement started, they literally destroyed so much RELIGIOUS and cultural history that the country is as you view it today: bare, sterile, rigid, and empty, even with all of the shimmering infrastructure, it's all a vessel.  

      If you want to find the true culture of KSA, you need to come in contact with the Bedouins, go out deep into the desert and see if you can find Bedouin tribes, that's the root of arab culture in the gulf.

      My response sounds like it's filled with ironies but if you really want to find the apex of Islamic / Arabic Culture, it's in Baghdad / Kufa / Mosul / Damascus / Cairo / Alexandria / Tunis / Mali / Niger / Mauritania / Spain / Sudan / Nigeria – I guess what I am trying to say is it's almost everywhere except the place it started...   

      Be patient and observe, and definitely try your best not to blanket your judgement on the entire Islamic / Arabic culture from what you see in KSA, because they give a horrible impression. I will say this though, when you find true hospitable locals in that region, they treat you like family. 

      Aug 2, 14 5:42 pm  · 

      Interesting thoughts, thanks guys; yes there's no architectural history here. Recently I read a NYTimes article about Mecca, which is very telling of the Saudi (and Muslim) mentality;

      "The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.

      The “guardians” of the Holy City, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the clerics, have a deep hatred of history. They want everything to look brand-new. Meanwhile, the sites are expanding to accommodate the rising number of pilgrims, up to almost three million today from 200,000 in the 1960s....

      Mecca is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens to and in the city has a profound effect on Muslims everywhere. The spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount. It is hardly surprising then that literalism, and the murderous interpretations of Islam associated with it, have become so dominant in Muslim lands."

      Since my arrival in Riyadh, I've learned not to take pictures; they are extremely zealous of privacy. Only one time I got  to see and was actually allowed to takes photos(!); it was at an AIA event- a tour of a site that that has been designated World Heritage by UNESCO- but other than that everything's new. Even at this site where they are enforcing (thanks to UNESCO, mind you) ancient construction methods, they emphasised that the project will also include a clashing modern "pedestrian" bridge (with structural capacity for very large vehicles) because when the King and his guest do eventualy visit, they certainly cannot be expected to walk.... 

      That said, yes; the pay is good, the work is challenging, and you live in an isolated world.

      And, as Tammuz mentioned, in regards to being gay and although I had  seeing and experienced sexual advances, well...I do not want to loose my head so, mum is the world...!

      Oct 7, 14 7:45 am  · 

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