Growing up, I absorbed “exotic” new environments without really taking note. I recall feeling excited and enthralled by new places, but even such feelings can be taken in stride. Here we go being excited and enthralled again. So having hit adulthood with a fairly solid expat vitae, I was astonished to finally – at the age of 31 – find myself in a state of utterly arresting culture shock. This was Saudi Arabia.
Fair enough: I’d never lived in the middle of a vast desert in a Muslim police state. Yet it’s still remarkable that Saudi was able to overcome my near-colonial expat bluster. I was numb. The sun was too big. The air was a wool blanket. Any biotic life seemed duped into being there. But there I was, under contract to work for a year in a city that seemed… improbable. Riyadh is a concrete grid humming with SUVs and dotted with water-leaching landscape projects installed to palliate the city’s precious, unweathered expats. I felt as much in place there as the frangipani warily potted in our poolside Astroturf.
After being hit by culture shock, my first instinct was to write. Okay, my deeper instinct was probably to have a gin and tonic sundowner on the porch and complain about “the natives” -- anything to shore myself up. But I needed to try to make sense of things, so I wrote. Writing in the Kingdom, about the Kingdom, though, is a dubious activity. Firstly, to the extent that you want to take part in a global conversation on the subject, you can’t, really. That conversation is reaching you through the clogged filter of nationalist and Islamist Internet censorship -- sometimes baffling (I could read neither my ProAstro Love Horoscope nor Matt Taibbi’s coverage of Occupy), perhaps due to the perversely democratic practice of blocking sites based on an estimated 1,200 citizen requests per day. For information, book and media stores were basically nonstarters. I scrounged occasional outdated editions of Le Monde, but otherwise saw only Wordsworth Classics (dominated by Jane Austen), Dan Brown, the Twilight series, travel guides, and – someone please deconstruct this – endless copies of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
Secondly, Internet activity is under broad surveillance. It’s unlikely that many of my e-mails were read, though I’d like to think at least a few agents of the Saudi state registered my comments on King Abdullah’s curiously geometric facial hair. But the threat of surveillance is, of course, a deterrent, as Foucault argued of panoptic prison architecture. Any blog has to be registered with the Ministry of Culture and Information. Writing that offends Saudi Wahhabist beliefs is punishable by death via the apostasy laws – a fate journalist Hamza Kashgari may face after his recent Tweets about the Prophet.
So we tend not to hear a lot out of Saudi until the writing subject is herself out. Then blossoms a small industry of “my cr-azy experience in Saudi” memoirs by my fellow culture shock refugees, ranging from the incisive (Carmen bin Laden, Qanta Ahmed) to more pat works that rely on the sensational alterity of Saudi to tell the story. They took my passport and gave it to my male guardian: that’s when I knew the Kingdom really had me by the ovaries. When I wrote the article “In a Religious Police State, Saudi Women Stage a Sensational Rebellion” for the upcoming issue of Kosovo 2.0, my main concern was exploring women’s daily experience in Saudi rather than simply delivering another account of their celebrated victimhood. So many of the world’s eyes are on Saudi women, but news reports and popular nonfiction tend to focus on a narrow repertoire of tales of dubious advances or violent setback in women’s rights. As a Saudi princess recently pointed out, even earnest Western concern for Saudi women is oddly (perhaps) monomaniacal about the driving issue.
There is a lot to say about Saudi and surprisingly little being said. A crucial point about the repertoire mentioned above is that it ignores anything that happens outside of the public sphere. And in this oversight, the Western media routinely silences Saudi women, whose agency is famously limited in public, but who speak loudly in the private and semi-private spheres. What’s more, the ways women do exercise agency publicly are often too subtle to make good, dramatic copy. Paying attention to these subtleties, I was fascinated to witness how veiling works against itself, creating an intense (and at times intensely sensual) visual culture.
If the world is waiting for Saudi women to rebel, it might want to start shifting its focus away from the dramatic public spectacles the news media trades in. Because the rebellion is happening, and we’re missing it.
For more on Laura's experiences in Saudi Arabia, read her full story in Kosovo 2.0 magazine's Religion edition, launching on the 21st of May!
The article was originally written in English.
Illustration: Marie Fette
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