Urban Vignettes

Observations of Urban Life in the City



Nov '13 - Dec '18

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    Back from La-La Land –and Other Urban Adventures

    By bragabond
    Dec 4, '18 3:27 PM EST

    Marhaba! (or hello in Arabic). So, back to Saudi Arabia I went, another job offer, another mega project too good to pass. And another experience in solitude, isolation, loneliness, frustration and patience. A lot of patience…

    As soon as I arrived, I was reminded of the "lost in translation" everyday surprises there: as when on my first trip to the supermarket I bought, laughing out loud, a container of "Homo salad" (hummus)...or the picture featured above, which I took in my neighbourhood displaying the often-seeing, hilarious translation mistakes, this one for "a room for rent" and which gave me the idea for, well, taking room for a rant....

    Just like my first job in the Kingdom, now with a European firm, I was advised on my first day that since my iqama -Saudi work resident card- was not yet issued, I should just make sure to tell whomever asked that I was a Za’ir (a “visitor”).

    But I digress; a new job and a -huge- new project; I was in charge of overseeing a very ambitious and challenging major urban design project that included design enhancements of the urban environment and streetscape needed to allow pedestrians, cars, buses and all public transportation elements to have proper and inviting access to support a new Transit-Oriented-Development project; endeavouring to deliver in a city that has no sidewalks nor respect for the walking folk, pedestrian-friendly boulevards with streetscape amenities such as tree-shaded sidewalks (remember this is Saudi Arabia, without proper shade people will not walk anywhere to catch public transport!), bike lanes and traffic-calming improvements.

    With the responsibilities and challenges of the concept implementation came a new set of rules as well; client’s caprices and a not-so-creative environment, yet a great job with the budget to match. I oversaw and performed design review, but under a client that made decisions on a whim, serious decisions made purely by emotion, likes or dislikes… Not a very conducive, nor a professionally-though out process. Ass-kissing is required to survive their business ways, specially working with “authorities” such as our client, and I am not good at that; ah, C’est la vie!  The Saudi way, they say. Needles to say, this proved to be a problem over and over, ultimately guiding my decision to search for better pastures elsewhere...

    In the meantime, I found myself working in a large campus not outside from the city but isolated from it and with no proper facilities, certainly not a decent restaurant nearby; only a “cafeteria” where we took our lunch. I hated that place; the food, the environment that resembled a military canteen and which I came to realize was a repetition of a high school lunch room; who do you sat at lunch with, which table you were a regular of told volumes about your standing in the project, as I found out. Oddly enough I ended up in a most coveted table; two colleagues and I were summoned by our boss to join him and march to lunch together most days, forcing us by default, to sit together -then he would proceed to tell stories, demand everyone’s attention and gossip about colleagues at other tables. If any of us dared to tell a story of our own he would jump and demand “What? Who? When? Oh, I knew that”... 

    “Mean Girls” comes to mind…. I mostly tried to avoid it, buying lunch out if I went to do a site visit in the morning, sometimes I brought my own lunch which allowed me to excuse myself (“Oh, you’re such an American; a sandwich! What? Just a salad for lunch? Imagine…!”). To my amusement prompting some people to inquire “what happened? I didn’t see you at your lunch table today…?”. Cue to roll my eyes…

    I did meet some nice people; colleagues that I genuinely respected and enjoyed working with, but had to deal with a lot bull… during our very long workdays. And then, when the weekend finally came, you're reminded have nothing, nothing at all to look forward to, nothing to do or places to go… So, off to the gym I went -to run, swim, boxing; “got to get that frustration out, mate!” playing in my head. 

    For us socially-starved expats embassy events and parties are not only popular but coveted events, so one must be in one’s embassy list, or better yet on especially popular embassies such as the French, British, German, Dutch or Belgium embassies which host concerts, parties and (during a Football World Cup season) game nights with food and drinks. Drinks! Some of these are paid events and thus sell out fast as, remember: alcoholic beverages and (for straight men), the opportunity to meet and mingle with the opposite sex are very, very, very, very rare. 

    Unfortunately for us Americans, our embassy sucks at that; they don’t have any interesting events. And, not even when an American president visits do they have a reception for the American community. Since must Americans there have brought their families, they have their sheltered, suburbia compound life anyway.

    So it was at one such event that I met another guy who, like me was in need of some intellectual stimulation. We met by Uber. Or rather, by my Uber driver not showing up to pick me up (that in itself is material for a whole new blog entry!), so we were both standing outside the French embassy waiting, his Careem driver (another local app service) did arrive and seeing me frustrated standing there by myself he asked me where was I going and, would I share his ride? I delightedly accepted, we rode together, chatted, found out we lived in the same general area, went to the same gym, and we were both starved for social and cultural interaction. We exchanged business cards and mobile numbers.

    I am grateful for this new friendship; we did actually hit-it-off and went out regularly for a coffee, or dinner after a workout and a swim. A European expat, he is a very decent man full of curiosity, a trait I share and respect; we discovered we have other things in common: an interest in books, travel, sustainability, the environment...

    Now, I had a playmate. It sounds funny for a grownup man to say that, but when you live and work in a country and an environment that is not conducive to any proper healthy, social interaction, you need to create outlets to keep your sanity. Making a friend in this frustrating place gave me a little sense of the normalcy I so needed, not being able to have my own mate -my husband!- with me nor even for a visit was painful enough (homosexuality in Saudi Arabia being forbidden meant that even though we are married, my husband couldn’t visit me) and of course, I was officially not gay by default -as the issue is never discussed, or asked of you; as my employer said: "we have no problem with your being gay, but do not tell anyone because if you do then we cannot be responsible for your safety"... And so, when you don’t take your family with you, you are regarded as another "bachelor". Nobody has family pictures at their desk; nobody asks questions -to answers they don't want to hear. 

    As Godard, one of my favourite filmmakers sometimes does, in Saudi Arabia we constantly have to challenge traditional concerns with the ethical status of history and looking to the Arab world, and indirectly examining our surroundings “under Western eyes”. Nobody asks questions...

    A new friendship helped to make my life more normal; we had some fun at times while trying to navigate this crazy city. Which of course meant that as Westerners we ran into frustrating and limiting laws constantly: one Saturday we went to the National Museum -one of the few museums available- just to find it closed. It only opens at 9PM (??) we were told. AND, only for families not bachelors, we were told...! The guards finally felt sorry for us and let us walk around the surprisingly pleasant landscaped gardens in the inner plaza of the museum; this let us admired the museum building design a little bit closer, a nicely accomplished structure; the result of an international competition, which included the museum and the restoration of certain historical buildings -a structure which has an exterior cladding in sandstone inspired by the form and colours of the sand dunes outside Riyadh- that unfortunately not many people know about; the restricted hours and separation of families and "bachelors" do not help an intrigued mind.

    I found out through a (married) colleague that there was a large park in the middle of the city we have not heard of, you can go and have a picnic or just walk around I was told. So I checked their website; "250,000 m2 of park" (how could have we missed that? Answer: the park is surrounded by a huge, tall wall…).  So, the following weekend we went down there excited about a walk in the park, carrying books and looking forward to an outdoors relaxing time… Got to the park’s gate and the security guards jumped; “sorry, no men allowed” they said. Excuse me, I said? No men, I checked your website and it says “All are welcomed”? Just families sir, was the answer. No bachelors allowed… 

    Frustrated we left and as consolation prize took a short walk to check the actually nice design (from a German architectural firm) and urban setting of the Courts Plaza complex which ironically, is near the infamous “Chop-Chop Square", a name that makes reference to the beheadings that apparently still take place there when say, a man is found to be a criminal, a thief or homosexual...  

    Za’ir back in La-la Land I was.


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