Good morning. It's Friday, and therefore basically Sunday. The Big Day Of The Week. So everything in Riyadh is closed until 4pm (luckily Mia and I managed to get a nice big breakfast to see us through). It's pretty toasty out - 11.15am and 39 degrees already. I've made a little list of the things I wanted to include in here, so I'll do my best to work through them in vaguely chronological order so I don't go round in circles and repeat myself and talk about things that happened in the future (what tense was THAT?!?).
On Wednesday morning Osama collected me from the hotel and drove me to the company HQ, where I met someone who I thought was Waleed A, but after I'd chatted to him for a couple of minutes, another man came in and introduced himself as Waleed A. So I have no idea who the first chap was. Waleed is in charge of the native speakers, I believe, so in theory he's my main contact. He was friendly and knowledgeable and approachable etc etc so I came out of that feeling pretty positive. We also had an interesting but brief conversation about the Arab Spring - thankfully he spoke of Gaddafi in only the most condemnatory terms, so I didn't need to do any pretending to have a more moderate view of him, but I wasn't sure how to react to his views on the situation in Egypt. He seemed to agree that the revolution was a good thing, but is scathing about the current state of play, saying that "the Egyptian people think that demonstrating and striking every day is real democracy - it's not. They should just do their work."
Mia, the new teacher, was due to land at about 3pm on Wednesday, and I'd asked Osama to call me when they got back to the hotel. Unfortunately for them there were huge delays at the airport and they didn't get here until nearly 7pm, so I got lots of reading done while I waited, but Mia is super-lovely and so easy to get along with. The first thing we did was go out in search of somewhere we could eat (easier said than done - more on that later) as neither of us had eaten all day. Luckily we found an Indian restaurant just up the road that had a family section upstairs, so we ordered a couple of starters to share, as a snack, as Osama had said he was taking us out for Turkish later on. But we really needed to keep the wolf from the door. Back to the hotel where we got set up with the internet (turns out Mia knows my friend and former colleague and flatmate from Libya, Cally - small world!) while we waited for Osama. He rang to say he was running late because of bad traffic, and then again to say he wasn't going to make it because the traffic was just too bad. It was after 9 by this point and we weren't sure what counted as "too late" for 2 females with no male guardian to be out in public, but were still hungry as we'd only had a bit of a snack in anticipation of a proper meal, so asked one of the reception staff in the hotel. He assured us we'd be fine out at that time and told us about a couple of places in the area that had family sections - McDonalds, KFC and a Jordanian restaurant. We went off in search of the Jordanian but failed to find it, so reluctantly settled for McDonalds, which turned out not to have a family section after all so we couldn't go in, and really didn't want KFC. Fortunately, a little pastry shop right opposite the hotel had a surprise family section, so we got some dinner of sorts. We went there for breakfast the following morning, as they were actually pretty good. And friendly. And have good AC. I was entertained that after having had only one meal in the space of 48 hours, I then had 2 meals inside 3 hours.
During all this walking around we were doing, we were of course wearing our abayas and hijabs. The hijab is technically optional, and we have seen a handful of women not covering their hair, but the vast majority wear the niqab (did some term-checking - niqab leaves the eyes showing although they can be covered by a separate veil (such as I have on mine. Ooo double parentheses), burqa covers the entire face leaving just a mesh to see through, think of the scary pictures from Afghanistan. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/2.stm if you want more info). Mia and I have decided we feel more comfortable covering our hair as it attracts less attention, and will cover our faces if we feel it necessary. I will almost certainly have to wear a niqab in the north. So. We were walking along the pavement in our abayas and hijabs, when a car drove up behind us hooting and shouting. I turned round to see what was going on, and the man in the passenger seat was looking at me and gesticulating wildly at his forehead. Luckily Mia worked out in a second what was going on - they were the religious police, and they had somehow spotted, in the dark from behind us, that my hijab had slipped back a little and a tiny bit of my hair was on display. Tut. We later discovered that the religious police have no real power unless accompanied by a policeman, and are there just to advise, and that it's generally the kind of job that young men with no qualifications and few other employment opportunities are likely to go for. So they're not taken all that seriously and a lot of people ignore them with impunity, or even stand up to them and fight back. Still, they're not my friends. If someone can't look at 2cm of my hair without thinking inappropriate thoughts, that's their problem not mine. The men aren't covering their hair in case I have inappropriate thoughts (quite a lot of men actually do wear the red and white checked scarf, I forget what it's called, but I sincerely doubt that my potentially lewd thoughts have anything to do with why. And they are a long way from being a majority).
One of the other guests at the hotel is a Lebanese man who is probably in his 40s or 50s, and I don't like him. He throws his weight around and is openly and loudly vile to the staff. However, he's taken a shine to Mia and me, I can only suppose because we're his equals in terms of being guests rather than staff, and keeps bringing us food and helping us out when the internet fails or we don't have the right kind of plug adaptor or something. Yesterday morning we'd just come back in from having breakfast over the road (the hotel doesn't do food) and he brought us over a huge plate of the food he'd had ordered in - Lebanese flat bread with various delicious toppings. Mia has been brought food on 2 further occasions when I've been in my room. There was, however, an awkward moment yesterday afternoon when we were sitting in the lobby with Leah (another colleague from Libya) drinking coffee, and he walked past. He stopped to chat, and asked if we were going to offer him anything. I thought at first he was just teasing us, because it was so clear we didn't have anything to offer him - the remains of one take away cup each and nothing else - but he kept bringing it up, and started asking if Americans were ungenerous, and we didn't really know what to do. So later on we bought a big box of biscuits and we're going to hope he's around at some point today when we're sitting out in the lobby with them.
Yesterday afternoon we went to meet Leah, who was one of my flatmates in Tripoli and has been here for a year. She took us to an outdoor (but thankfully at least partially under-cover, as the sun was so hot) souq which is good for abayas (the big black dress bit we have to wear at all times when in public) as I was thinking of possibly getting one in a lighter fabric - I bought mine on Shepherds Bush Market in London and it was made with the British climate in mind. I tried on a few - some of them were very nice and some were uncomfortable - but decided not to get one just yet as I'm not sure how much decoration will be acceptable when I move north. I've heard it's incredibly conservative there so was erring towards only the very plainest designs, but then realised that if it's not actually quite so conservative after all, it might be nice to have one with a bit of decoration on it. Within the obvious confines of "big black dress that covers your entire body and is loose-fitting", there's actually a surprising amount of scope for variety and individuality. So I'll hold off for now. We were then hungry and went into a falafel restaurant which didn't have a family section (nowhere roundabouts did so it was an act of pure desperation). The 3 male staff conferred and were a little unsure, but eventually agreed to let us sit in there, as there were no other guests at the time. We had an excellent meal of falafel, fuul, hummus, bread and salad, and then took a taxi back to our hotel as we knew there was good Arabic coffee in the place opposite which would serve us in a more friendly way.
Shortly after Leah left us, a contact of Mia's got in touch - a British guy who's been working for AlKhaleej for the past year - saying he was on his way up to the hotel to meet us. He brought a friend with him, a Syrian guy who's lived here for years, and we had a great chat then went to the Indian up the road as we were all hungry and we knew they'd serve us. However Hamza, the Syrian man, felt that as we were a mixed-gender group of young people it would be better if we drove the 300 metres to the restaurant rather than walking. We weren't exactly sure why but he's lived here longer than any of the rest of us so we trusted him, and we suspected the religious police might have something to do with it. We had a great meal (although I was hit by a huge wave of tiredness half way through and virtually dropped out of the conversation), and then Hamza insisted on paying for all of us as we were guests, which was so kind of him.
So you may have noticed I've talked quite a lot of restaurants we can and can't go into, and family sections, and singles sections. If I was a lone man, of any age, marital status, nationality or ethnicity, I could go into any eating establishment I fancied. Alas, I am not a man and my dining choices are therefore limited. Even when accompanied by a man (who does not have to be either my husband or a non-marryable relative, thankfully, but that's basically only because I'm neither Saudi nor a Muslim, in which case I would have a harder time gallivanting so recklessly and wantonly in the company of men I only met this week) I am only allowed to eat in the family section of a restaurant or café, and unfortunately the vast majority of places don't have a family section. Even the McDonalds up the road doesn't have one, which seems a little surprising. The good things about the family sections, though, are that you get a little private booth (I suppose so that the men of the neighbouring family group can't ogle your women, and vice versa), they apparently tend to be cleaner and more pleasant, and so far at least they've been quieter. We think this separation stems not from having to protect women so much as men feeling uncomfortable about eating in the presence of women - when Mia was given a plate of food in the lobby yesterday, she was encouraged to sit at a separate table from the men to eat it. While she and Leah and I were in the falafel restaurant yesterday, no other customers ate there - some came in and then left again when they saw us. Something one of the men said yesterday evening strongly implied that this wasn't out of consideration for us and our privacy but because of their own discomfort. However, I may have misunderstood the situation.
One of the strange things about Riyadh is that we rarely meet anyone who's actually Saudi. Anyone doing any kind of work that we come into contact with - shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters - is more likely than not an immigrant, mostly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Phillipines, Somalia and so on. One of our taxi drivers yesterday was from Afghanistan. Most of the hotel staff seem to be either Somali or Bangladeshi. Even Osama isn't from here - he's Jordanian and moved here because of the money. His family are still in Jordan. In a way this is great because we're all foreigners together and all just as puzzled by Saudi society and its idiosyncracies (although of course if they've been here for several years then they're pretty used to it), but it's a shame in a way because most of them speak only very limited Arabic, so I'm not getting much practice! Someone reliable, I forget who, told me that a third of the population (I forget now if that was the population of Riyadh or of the whole country) are foreigners.
I've now ticked off everything on my "to include" list, but there are bound to be plenty of things I've forgotten. If there's anything specific you're dying to know then do please ask me and I'll do my best!