(***This post was written December 16th***) So we unexpectedly got my ID! A couple of stars must have aligned, as we hit many stumbling blocks the day before, but it came through. If you know my husband, this won’t surprise you – but the day after I was approved, he was making plans. He got a ride into Rahima, the local town, and rented a car. Then we all loaded up to go to Kohbar for our first off-compound outing. 45 minutes later we were at… IKEA!!! Due to the last minute nature of our trip, I wasn’t entirely prepared. I had read that Western women didn’t have to wear traditional Muslim garb, just to dress modestly. So I followed that advice and guess what? Those authors have obviously never been to Saudi Arabia.
I was the only woman not in an abaya. Really. The ONLY ONE.
And just for a bit more embarrassment, we stopped for lunch before we started our shopping. As our entourage entered the restaurant (3 kids, stroller, Western woman blonde hair and all…) we were very suddenly and with much gusto escorted back OUT of the restaurant. We had inadvertently gone in the “singles” side, which is where all the single males dine. We regrouped and ate on the “family” side where we fit it only slightly better.
A brief synopsis of Saudi garb: Saudi Women do not wear burqas, they wear abayas, which are long, black ankle-length lightweight cloaks that cover their clothing. They also wear the hijab, which is the scarf that covers their hair, neck, and very often face. This is the most common outfit you’ll see at the mall:
So after lunch we walked over to IKEA and did some shopping. And although I didn’t have on an abaya, most people were very friendly. We even caught some Saudi women taking pictures of Ellis in his stroller. I guess those blue eyes are somewhat of a novelty in these parts. And not to worry, he was a total ham for them and seemed to enjoy the extra attention.
So we then ventured over to the Mall of Dhahran which is more than I would have expected when I thought “Mall” & “Saudi Arabia”. There’s about every store you can think of… Pottery Barn, Limited, Michael Kors, Coach, plus all the European stores I’m not familiar with (yet). It is huge. Unfortunately, we didn’t go into any of the stores! When we arrived, it was prayer time so everything was shut down. This happens six times a day (approximate times for today were: 5:04am, 6:26am, 11:41am, 2:36pm, 4:55pm, and 6:18pm) and brings the world to a halt. There is a very loud Call To Prayer that you can hear no matter where you are in the country – inside or out. So an Immam (spiritual leader) will start singing to tell everyone to head to the mosque. It sounds like this: http://www.freesound.org/people/ejaz215/sounds/33937/
All the stores empty out and close their gates. So we stopped at a Starbucks to wait it out where we were promptly asked to leave — again. We had walked into the regular Starbucks, which is, of course, the all male Starbucks. We had to search out the family Starbucks, which has opaque glass (so men won’t see the women eating or drinking if they take their covering off). We managed to order a round of hot chocolates just before they closed for prayer and waited for everything to re-open. Nice that they allow you to sit inside the Starbucks while they are closed for prayer. Lights out, registers off, see you in 25!!
When the lights came back on, we went abaya shopping. There are many stores that carry only abayas and we found a very sweet lady to help us find the perfect one. I went with all black with a bit of embellishment, but you can go over the top if you want to. Amazing what you can spend on these things. Saudi’s wear all black, but other women can get pretty fancy. It is a little hard to wrap my head around the dichotomy of the mall. On one hand, all the women are fully covered and extremely modest and on the other is all the Western fashion and materialism. As one reviewer of the mall put it, “The primary aspect of interest to me, as a newly-arrived US expat, was in seeing the bizarre contrast between the Western fashions on display in the store windows–mostly oriented toward women–and the parade of abaya-clad shoppers. (There seems to be some fundamental dissonance in Saudi culture that will need to be worked out over time–a simultaneous fascination with and rejection of Western styles and values.)” It is, indeed, very strange.
Here’s a short video on the experience of purchasing an abaya. You can also see what the dress shop woman is wearing, which is very typical: http://www.hziegler.com/articles/video-buying-an-abaya.html
We stopped in SACOWorld, which is a little like a Wal-Mart and grabbed a couple of things and then the kids were done. The mall is so big, it just wore their little feet out. So we made the drive back to Ras Tanura. Overall, a very successful first day out!