When Courtesy and Culture Collide

I gave you all something more than a little silly yesterday, and a long time reader of mine from before I even blogged sent me a message on Facebook saying I should post this piece today, as it was one of her favourites. It’s fitting too, given that it is Ramadan, a month about kindness and understanding. So, here it is (it’s a few years old now).

My chivalrous streak and my reality suffered a head-on collision this morning with reality rendering all things I have been taught pointless. My situation, a Western man in Saudi Arabia, has pros and cons, most of which revolve around my perceived status in this society I now call my playground. I will never call it home, of course. Kirsty and I could live here 30 years, and some expatriates do, but this country’s laws still regard them as foreigners, as visitors, as tourists on an extremely long extended tourist visa. While it is true that “Home is where the heart is”, my heart, regardless of how many friends and family I have here, will never be in this country. Like all expatriates here, I am here for money, more or less, and the travel opportunities that being on this side of the world present me. Perhaps that reason, the monetary one, is the reason many locals refuse to accept us. Perhaps, but I’m not entirely sure. 

I came out here as single man, and while that is hard, it pales in comparison to those brave women who come out here single. Regardless of gender, the attention given by the younger generation Saudis can be quite overwhelming. Subtlety is not in their dictionary, and many times I have had to avoid going for lunch at certain times just to stop the unwanted attention of some people. More times than not, the color of my passport is the attractive quality, and not my actual physical appearance. 

I left behind a life of flirting, of laughing, of helping women carry stuff from and to their cars when it was obvious they were struggling. Believe it or not, not all interactions between men and women lead to sex; although at times out here you get the feeling this is how many people think. I was raised to use “please” and “thank you”, to hold doors for people, to lend a hand when I could. I was raised to grab a child if he or she wandered too close to a busy road and their parents didn’t notice. I was raised to help the lost kid at the mall find security and then his parents. I think I was raised the right way. A way that was of little use to me today I’m afraid. 

I have a villa on one of the company’s compounds and get transportation to and from work on a small passenger bus. They aren’t comfortable, but they are free and stop me from having to drive on these dangerous roads. My villa is on the family side of the compound, the other section being reserved for women on single-status contracts only. Each morning a bus will stop by and pick them up and another one will stop by my part of the compound and pick up “us family types.” Very few men are on the bus in the morning, since men are the only ones allowed to drive here.  

My company is one of several in the Kingdom who, after numerous terrorist attacks many years ago, decided to stop having compounds divided by culture. At first, Westerners had separate compounds, free from prying eyes, and most of these would contain a pub that sold the homemade hooch that expatriates and locals enjoy so much. After the attacks, several companies decided it might be a good idea to put expatriates and Muslims together to prevent further attacks. Naturally, this can cause problems – culturally, politically, religiously, and even worse still, through blind ignorance. 

I was on the bus this morning and on this morning we left the confines of our compound and instead of heading straight to work we turned down the backstreets to pick up a local woman who works at the hospital. She does not like me. She hasn’t said so in any words, but on more than one occasion she has walked by me when I’m seated in one of the single seats (instead of the two-person benches the women can share) and has made “tut-tut” noises at me. She’ll proceed to say something to herself in Arabic, just loud enough for me to hear, and unless her regular speaking tone is laced with bitterness, she’s not saying anything complimentary. 

The women here dress in varying extremes. Yes, they all have to wear an abaya to preserve their modesty, but many will wear them slightly open or others will choose to wear them a little form fitting so not much is left to the imagination. Some women will have their hair uncovered, others will wrap a scarf around their heads, and others still will wear a hijab (the tight fitting head scarf), and still others will wear the niqab (a black material covering all but the eyes). The woman on the bus, went a few steps beyond the niqab covered look – she also wears full-length gloves and then drapes a black veil over her face so no skin is present. 

We just pull in to work and the bus stops. We all stand to exit, but before the driver opens the door, he pulls ahead slightly and jars us all awake. I’m always the last one off the bus. I always allow the women to walk off first. I don’t know if this is my way of telling them I don’t feel superior to them, or just because I always sit at the very back of the bus and I’m not in rush to get inside. Anyway, the local woman stumbles from the bus’s movement and starts falling backwards, directly at me. I have but a brief moment to decide what to do. 

Instinctively, my arms go out to reach for her, like I would back home, and have done when someone has fallen in my vicinity. And then a million thoughts race through my head. I can’t fathom them all; my synapses working overdrive with snippets of events experienced in Saudi appearing in brief snapshots. My head threatens to explode under the weight of my expectations, my insistence that I absorb every one of them before stopping this fall. I muster up my strength, my courage of conviction, and plant my feet firmly under me ready for any verbal backlash headed my way. The last of the images absorbed, her fall seemingly stuck in a Matrix-like freeze-frame, I step off the deep end. 

She is helped to her feet by two of the women on the bus. She appears barely shaken, the other women sharing a laugh with her before leaving the bus. I trudge off slowly, knowing I could have prevented her fall, should have prevented her fall, but a fear, rational or not, interjected a less courteous accord in my behavior. The value of my life lessons diminished, tarnished by a society that could imprison and flog me for physically touching a woman who is not my kin. Done to help her, yes, but it could still be construed wrong. One little slip of the hand from under her arms and across the chest would be more than enough to infuriate and humiliate. In the end, it was easier to let her fall. 

Chivalry took a backseat to culture today, and I’m struggling with it. Letting her fall wasn’t an act I would normally choose; but I did choose the best option?


20 thoughts on “When Courtesy and Culture Collide

  1. Better to be safe than sorry, especially in places where there are such strict rules. You chose the best option for both her and you in this scenario.

  2. Really interesting share…culture norms must prevail so what choice could you have really…though what a culture shock to one’s system…what is chivalrous in one country is considered a violation in another.

    • While it could be deemed a violation, ultimately it would come down to the person I helped. Or is someone saw and didn’t approve. But yeah, it was the fact I had to choose that bugged me the most.

    • It would have been her decision, but I felt it best not to risk it. Well, someone else could have been offended for her too I suppose. It’s just something I never thought I would have to think about when I took the job and moved over from Canada. Definitely made me think though.

    • Dubai isn’t so bad. Most of the people I encounter here are Westerners so I’m sure a friendly catch of someone falling would be seen as just that.

  3. That is a really, really tough call. I suppose she wasn’t in too much danger, any resulting injuries would have been minor and you could have ended up being flogged! I think I would have done the same in your position. Mind you, I find people falling over very funny indeed so I might have done the same thing regardless. I know, I know – I’m a terrible person.

    • People falling over is funny; unless they get really hurt and lose and an eye. Then it becomes less funny and more sport.

  4. I hope living there won’t eventually interfere with your human instinct. People are entitled to their customs and modesty but wow, I didn’t realise it was as strict as that. Good post.

    • I’ve always said, and many of my friends are the same, that when I feel I’m losing those basic traits I was raised with, that it is time to go home.
      Dubai isn’t nearly as bad. Lots of opportunities to be the real me.
      And as mentioned earlier – she might not have complained, but she could have. I didn’t think it was worth the risk sadly.

  5. I think the fact that you already had a vibe she didn’t like you, makes your decision the right one, the lesser of two poor options. But for that…

    And I completely get that you didn’t want to be forced into these choices – which I think life throws at us to make sure we’re not getting too comfortable.

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