Feeling a Sense of Belonging as an Expat living in Saudi Arabia

 

I arrived in Riyadh on May 21, 2015 and yet this feeling of belonging has only begun to manifest over the last few months. Anyone who knows me understands I am slow to transition. I’m not certain what event or combination of events led me to feeling like I belong in this community on Salwa compound. I didn’t even realize it was missing until I felt it.

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They say that home is where your heart is. Yet my heart has ties and bonds in so many places, with so many people. Since falling in love with Mister I’ve claimed that I could live anywhere in the world and be happy, if I was with him. That still holds true, but even an amazing relationship doesn’t replace all the other connections that create balance and a meaningful existence.

 

When Mister asked me how I felt about moving from Canada I had mixed feelings. I was anxious about leaving my children and grandson, my Mom and the rest of my family. I was uncertain about living in a foreign country, especially in the middle east, of which I knew little about other than from media and novels like Not Without My Daughter and Ten Thousand Splendid Suns. I had misgivings about wearing an abaya and not being able to drive. But the opportunities for growth and adventure, not to mention financial security for our up-coming retirement, were more compelling than my fears and I said yes. We agreed to give it a go and when asked what our long-term plan is, we simply say, “as long as we’re happy.”

 

So, I came, with few expectations and an open mind, never once imagining I would end up having so many fulfilling experiences nor meeting so many amazing people from so many different cultures. Here on the compound of Salwa I have met people from the UK, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Poland. I’ve interacted with service providers from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. I’ve met the odd Saudi Arabian too, but due to restrictions around the public conduct of women, that hasn’t been as easy.

 

 

Since everyone on Salwa are expats living in a foreign country, we can relate to one another and offer support. Most of the people I have had the opportunity to meet are positive, and I consider myself fortunate to have acquaintances from a broad spectrum. Some have likened the experience of living on Salwa to living in a fish bowl. Granted, it is a small community and when you work and play with the same people, it can get a bit too familiar at times. For me, the positives far out-weigh the negatives and I’ve come to view my life on Salwa as my sanctuary.

 

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Entertaining friends in our garden

Salwa feels like a sanctuary for many reasons. In the almost two years since I’ve lived here I still feel uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of our compound. When I need a service or product in the city, which is typically once a week, the first challenge to overcome is how to get there. As I’ve mentioned, women aren’t allowed to drive here, so if my Mister is at work, I must arrange a driver. Drivers are in a competitive business, and many times I have had my driver call to cancel or rearrange at the last minute. For a hard-core planner, such as myself, this alone can be challenging.

 

Driver arrangements secured, the next challenge is navigating the traffic of Riyadh to arrive at my destination safely. I have vented about this before in earlier posts, so suffice to say that the combination of being in a big city with drivers who are distracted and self-focused creates mayhem in one form or another on a regular basis. I often find my heart in my throat, or in my stomach. As my friend Rhonda so wisely advised, it’s best not to look. Going on adventures into the city with friends is a highly advisable distraction.

 

Clad in an abaya, I feel like an imposter. I have also berated this aspect of living in a Muslim country, but it bears repeating. The abaya is a tripping hazard. When a scarf is adorned as well, you lose part of your peripheral vision, and when you already suffer from coordination issues, it can cause one to bump into things. When it is hot, which is most of the time, or when I am having a hot flash, which is a great deal of the time, the abaya feels like the weight of the world draped over my shoulders.

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The physical constraints of the abaya, however, pale in comparison to the emotional discomfort. To say I feel like an imposter may sound like I’m being a drama queen, but the truth of the matter is, I’m not Muslim, and to adorn myself in a garment that is part of that religion and culture feels hypocritical. Furthermore, I am a liberal and feminist thinker, believing in the equality of all human beings. I don’t have the knowledge to make an informed comment, but when I see an entire family out and about and all the men and children are dressed in designer fashions whilst the women are kept covered in drab abayas, it feels oppressive.

 

Driver and abaya aside, there are still a multitude of challenges once arriving at the destination. There are prayer times, language barriers, and products that are unfamiliar with ingredients listed in foreign languages. With food allergies, this can be a big problem. I have had occasion when shopping for groceries and prayer starts and the produce weighing stations close and the cashiers close and I have all my items, including perishables, but have to wait the half an hour until prayer is over. I have had occasions when I’ve arrived at a store to find the blinds pulled, the shop closed from noon to four. It is a first world problem, I admit, but frustrating none the less.

 

Enough of the bickering and complaining, though, and back to the developing sense of belonging…

 

I failed to mention Canada when listing all the countries whose natives populate our fair compound. It has amazed me how leaving your country of origin can inspire such patriotic feelings of love and appreciation. Canada truly is a country to be proud of and my fellow Canadians have provided huge support.

 

Me and Mister joined the Canadian Community of Riyadh, which offers members opportunities for socializing in a myriad of interesting ways. We had a wonderful time dressing up in Gangster attire for the casino night, then getting all decked out in ball gowns and tuxedos for the Red and White ball hosted at the British Embassy. The Canadian Embassy has been under construction since our arrival. Volunteers work countless hours and monies raised by such functions go towards supporting worthwhile causes, such as families of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom and humanitarian causes.

 

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Red & White Ball with Matt & Elizabeth Kingsman

A less formal but equally engaging organization has been the ladies known affectionately as the Canadian Chicks. Someone with far more technical skills than I created a handy What’s App for us to communicate get togethers, ideas, frustrations and celebrations. It has been a great way to stay informed and connected and I appreciate being a part of such a vibrant and positive group of women.

 

My fellow Canadians are not the only people who I’ve come to grow fond of here of Salwa. Many women are here supporting husbands who work for BAE systems and are unable or choose not to work, but are incredibly enterprising and creative. I have dabbled in a variety of clubs that offer a diverse array of opportunities, including Crafty Ladies and Book Club. There is a huge array of fitness classes on offer by people with talent and training and I have enjoyed practicing yoga and belly dancing.  And there are many casual get togethers too; ladies meeting up for a walk around the compound, for lunch at the Kingpin restaurant, for coffee at Costa, or to lounge by one of the many community pools.

 

On top of these incredible opportunities in our community are the deep and meaningful friendships that have blossomed. I have bonded with several women here whom I trust completely and would do anything for. I share openly with them my fears and my dreams, and I hope they feel the same ability to share their hearts with me. They’ve had my back and supported me through the tough times, the times when the differences felt overwhelming and the fishbowl too constrictive. The times when events in my personal life felt too challenging to bear alone and I needed a friend to lean on.

 

I blogged about the experience I had in Bahrain, of feeling a growing sense of belonging to a human collective. At the that time, I had thought that feeling couldn’t possibly manifest here in Riyadh. Then, a few weeks ago, a small miracle of hope was given to me in the most unlikely and unanticipated circumstance. I was in line at the grocery counter in Carrefour, when a little girl, likely around one year old, in the aisle beside me caught my attention. Her joy and innocence were infectious, and soon myself as well as the two Saudi women scanning and packing my groceries were enraptured, cooing and smiling away. It was a brief and beautiful moment, where our differences dissolved. There were no religions or cultures or languages, only the sisterhood of women, of mothers. We all felt it, and we smiled genuinely at one another in recognition of what unites us; our emotions and our love of our families.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling a sense of belonging as an Expat living in the community of Saudi Arabia.

 

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