Sunday, 24 February 2013

Kingdom Tower (that's right, we ventured out!)

At the weekend we finally went into ‘town’ to see Kingdom Tower. The Mall there is massive and we mooched around for a bit, mainly just stopping at Taco Bell and Starbucks. As I’ve mentioned before, the Saudis are generally obsessed with expensive clothes and jewellery. Personally I would argue that this comes from a lack of other fulfilment's such as being able to go out and enjoy yourself, but hey that's just my opinion. I also think sometimes their obsession borders on worship, which from a religious perspective could be seen as equally bad, if not worse than, say, drinking alcohol. One of the shops was Saks, Fifth Avenue, which made me laugh. I feel like the whole point of a shop like that is to express not only the fashion but the lifestyle and culture that goes with it. To have it here is an insult to New York!  

Kingdom Tower from the floor
The journey up Kingdom Tower was much like going up any tall tower (the most recent for me being Taipei). We went up in a lift, and then we were there. The bridge, with it's glass walls is very high and very scary!
We thought it was funny that there was a sign saying ‘no photography.’ OK, so I don’t believe in taking photos in some situations, for example at a concentration camp, or in a theatre, but as Lee pointed out, for what other reason would you really go up a tower?

The report from the top of the tower is as follows: Riyadh is as shit all over as it is in our little area of it. We searched the mass of sand coloured buildings for something beautiful. I found one park and one swimming pool. At least I was reassured that we’re not missing much; that we're not stuck in the only crappy part of the city. I remember that at the top of the Stratosphere in Vegas I was struck by how beautiful the contrast was between the bright lights of the city and the canyon beyond. But the view from Kingdom Tower showed only the mass of endless sand coloured blocks, followed by a hazy sandy mist in the background. 
The most amazing (-ly disgusting) part of the view was the roads, leading in straight lines in and out of the city. The traffic was as fun to behold from way up high as it is unbearable to be in when you are stuck in it. From the Tower it was plainly obvious that the city isn't coping with the lack of public transport. How can a city this big survive with only cars and taxis? It’s ridiculous and not to mention bad for the environment.

Talking of the environment, I think Saudi Arabia is possibly the most wasteful and polluting country I’ve ever been to. I haven’t seen a single recycling bin since I’ve been here, they give you fifty nine million plastic bags when you go food shopping and of course they use so, so much petrol. Urgh. I've been doing a recycling project with my students and so far I think they think recycling means just not throwing their rubbish on the floor like they normally would. But I digress.

There’s also a restaurant at the top of the tower that’s meant to be really nice, which we might go to on our anniversary.
So that’s Kingdom Tower. If you’re ever in the area (haha how I joke) you should give it a look.

Sunday, 17 February 2013


When I think back to my childhood I'm fondly reminded of 'playing out', of riding my bike, making dens in the fields around the village, building tree houses and generally being outside with my friends. Good times. 
When I lived in London I used to think it was a shame that kids are generally deprived of this freedom, due to the roads being busy and there being a overall feeling of distrust towards others. I was a youth worker before I moved to London but it was only in London that I was introduced to 'Play Work,' a government idea designed to give the under 11's the 'right to play.' It was good because it meant there was lots of playgrounds and play centres, but still lacking that essential element of kids being able to have adventures on their own, without the supervision of adults.  

Now and Then

My Girl
(although childhood is of course better without the dead friend)

But now I can safely say that when it comes to the freedom of the child (or lack thereof) Riyadh blows London out of the water. People here live behind walls, and their kids are confined to playing on the small patch of concrete between their front gate and their house. The five year old girl I know was even riding her bike inside the other day. But the real reason Riyadh is worse is because things just deteriorate for children as they become teenagers. The fourteen year old I know dreams of having a sleepover with her friends, but for one reason or another she's never been allowed to have one. When I was fourteen I would stay at my friends house or her at mine pretty much every week and sometimes without even asking our parents first (shocking), or on a school night (doubly shocking). It just wasn't that big a deal. And then there were the party sleepovers with several people, watching loads of films and eating junk, telling ghost stories and talking about boys. And all of that fun from the safety of your own home. I don't understand why a parent would deprive a child of this joy when there's no danger in it at all.  
It's like the parents here worry that the other children will be a negative influence or something. As far as I'm aware, a lot of Saudi kids spend the weekends only with their immediate family, or sometimes their cousins if they're lucky. And the rest of the time it's just them on their own, sitting in their rooms playing on their IPad. 

Just another thing to add to the list of things that make me sad about this place...

Monday, 11 February 2013

Watching and watched

It's been brought to my attention that we're most probably being watched and that the powers that be know where we go and what we're doing nearly all the time. Also that people we know here may in fact be 'informers.' Way to make you distrust everybody...
This is a scary thought if you're doing something wrong, or are going somewhere you shouldn't be, but where we're concerned I think it must be a pretty dull job for the watcher. Ooh look, they've gone food shopping again. And now they've gone to the book store. And now the gym. And now back to work. Yawn. It could possibly make for the worlds worst documentary film. But nonetheless it's still a bit creepy.

Something that's really bothering me at the moment is that the internet connection provided for us by the company is terrible and most the time even simple things like facebook photos fail to load. We've complained about this numerous times, and even bought our own internet package, but that turned out to be a complete waste of time because it didn't work either. As a person who works in foreign countries, I feel wholly reliant on the internet. Amongst other things it's my source of entertainment, of communication with people at home and not to mention my only means of seeking other employment. 
The other day I was at a pirate DVD stall, thinking "wow this really is old school," and "are you really telling me I have to pay 25 riyals for a film?" Which in case you don't know, is only about £3.50, but it just seems so weird now to be asked to pay anything for it, when we've become so used to downloading.
I just can't imagine being here without the internet, I think I'd feel so cut off and isolated. I've met someone recently who was in Saudi Arabia before internet was around. Now that really is unthinkable. To be immersed in this world without a means of escapism, or an easy way to talk to family, must've been awful. Also I think the attitudes here would've been very different too- before people had any way of finding out what the outside world was like. Freaky.

So that's it really. Could you live without the internet?

And finally, a poem I made up:

Abaya, abaya, you make-a me fly-a,
windy and sweaty, the sun is so bright.
You're dusty and dirty,
not pretty or flirty
Except the gold trimming-alright!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Way They Live

This week I've had a serious eye-opener regarding the standards of living for expats in this country and how that compares to our housing. Don't get me wrong, our flat is nice enough in many ways, apart from the continual things that go wrong. Most recently we've been having the water from the kitchen sink coming out of the drain on the floor, soaking our feet as we finish washing up. How pleasant. I won't bore you with any of the other issues we've faced, but let's just say there's always something and it always takes a lot of hassling people to get it sorted out.
On Wednesday we were invited to a compound to go to the restaurant for dinner. The woman who invited us has a villa there which was absolutely lovely and made me wanna puke with envy. There was a huge open plan living space that included two sitting rooms, a dining area and loads of lovely furniture. Of course her husband has a very important job here and makes lots of money, so I'm not deluded enough to think I'd ever end up anywhere as good but something even remotely close would be nice.
The standard of the housing provided by our company is also shown up by what the Saudis have themselves. Their homes are often nothing short of palatial, with tall walls around to keep them hidden and safe from the outside world. The family we tutor have just moved into a new house like this. It has three massive floors, and the fourteen year old's room includes a dressing room and en-suite bathroom. I'm only mentioning this not because I expect a palace (although it would be great to feel like a Disney princess!) but because it highlights what Saudis expect for themselves, compared to what they are providing for their foreign workers. And let's not even get started on what they give the Egyptian teachers and the Pakistani/Indian drivers to live in...
The thing that struck me most about the compound was not the house itself, but the freedom that comes with living there. Women especially need somewhere in Saudi Arabia where they can be themselves, walk freely and get some fresh air without needing a male chaperone or a cloak to hide behind, and without being hassled by men driving by. The compound included a football pitch, a basketball court and a swimming pool, as well as little gardens for all the houses. The restaurant was lovely and everyone was just dressed in normal clothes rather than abayas. In comparison, at our place we have what can only be described as a prison courtyard to play in, where the sun is present for no more than two hours a day. It's tiny and it's claustrophobic and it simply isn't good enough.

Question: The lush compound or our prison?

I noticed at the compound that there was a major absence of people our age. There were middle aged couples and teenagers. This reassured me that I'm not the only 20-something being treated like a mug here, and that it probably takes time to figure out what's on offer and to work your way in. 
I particularly enjoyed seeing the young people, who were having a disco as we ate dinner. It made me think about my old work in England as a youth worker/key worker and then I had an epiphany- I could be Saudi Arabia's first compound Youth Worker! I'm sure those kids could benefit from some informal education projects and sexual health awareness. And it'd be perfect for me because it wouldn't be too ghetto: I don't think drugs or knife crime have quite hit the compound youths yet.  

So now my mission is clear: if we're staying in this country we need to find somewhere decent to live. Bring it on!