How to Fit in Saudi Arabia


Being a spy would have suited me as a life calling, as I fit in almost perfectly everywhere I visit. I adapt to different cultures with ease. Only my lack of language skills holds me back.

Being adopted by the Saudis is a very simple feat to accomplish. Given to the fact that they are extremely and genuinely friendly. Always ready to share their food with strangers, give a ride in their car to any in need, and just be helpful in any possible way. A simple showing of understanding the culture, genuine interest in their beliefs, and most importantly, joining them in cafes smoking, eating, and talking, is all that is required.

When I first arrived here the first question was always what religion did I follow, and I had to provide to worst possible answer, as I abhor lying, except when it suits or helps me. Agnostic is not an answer Muslims like to hear. It is a worse answer than Christian, Mormon, or any other religion, except perhaps Jewish. So I would get the usual information and books about the religion and long talks about the Prophet Muhammad and the good that Muslims do. I took no offense to this conversion effort and listened with open ears, as I have done with everyone that tries to convert me. When they finish I thank them for the information, tell them my beliefs and why I don’t follow organized religion, and then state that I would not like to discuss it anymore. So far everyone has honored my request.

The discussions following religion always follow the same line. What do you know about our country and customs and what do you think of them? I would tell what little I know about the customs, and then listen to their explanations and try to see it from their point of view instead of a Western or foreigners point of view. They are protecting their women, not repressing them. They used to be Bedouins and would leave all their trash in the desert and so continue to do it. They hire foreign workers because they can. They drive the Arab way, and not the Westerners way. All these things seem perfectly normal to me.

I told my friend and co-worker, Saud, that I like their clothes. He wasted no time in taking me to a shop and purchasing everything. I do not wear it out when I am by myself but I like to dress as an Arab when I go out with my Saudi friends. And boy how I do fit in. Even the people I live and work with mistake me for an Arab when I wear the Thob.  We go to a cafe at night, smoke the wonderful narghile, eat food and ice cream, drink sugary tea and coffee, and talk. I must take a moment here to say something regarding Arabic coffee. It is the greatest insult to the coffee bean that has ever been devised by man. Burnt orange in color, it smells strongly of spices and tastes absolutely awful. There is no hint of coffee taste in it. Granted that the West has also decided to cover the taste of the coffee bean with caramel, chocolate, vanilla, and other such flavors, but they have not done the injustice to it that the Arabs have done.

The secret of fitting in is not truly a secret at all. It is merely being able to drop your preconceptions and accept the local beliefs and customs. Arabs drive where ever they feel like on a road. On the shoulder, across two lanes, sometimes not even being bothered to look at the road because they are fully involved with their phone. They consistently go through red lights and make left turns across traffic from right lanes. A visitor should expect this and drive following a similar style. Honking a horn and yelling at them whenever they straddle a line, as an American did here a few months ago, is not recommended. His car was shot three times for his troubles. He did not fit in.


A Saudi Haircut and Shave

All barbers in Saudi are men, as are almost all workers. These workers are not Arabs, but foreigners.  Mostly Indian and Filipinos but some other nationalities to fill the equal employment code no doubt.

These men do not hold certificates from beauty academies or a license of any kind.  They appear to learn by doing, which can be a bit unnerving when he first puts a straight razor to your throat, but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me start from the outside.

A Saudi barbershop looks like any other Saudi building.  A tan strip of run down little shops next to a petrol station with a heavy sliding gate that indicates if the shop is open or not,  which is needed since they do not keep hours but open when they feel like it.  Trash is piled up near the door unless the wind has blown it away.  The door might fall off the hinges when you try to open it but most of the time it decides to stay on and just give an ear splitting screech as you enter.  The barbershop itself is a small, high dingy room with two chairs for those being served and a few filthy sofas for waiting guests.  There might be a strong odor in the room or not, mostly depending on the temperature outside.  A small, old television located in the corner fills the room with Bollywood programs.

As you sit for your turn you cannot help but notice that there are no disinfecting sprays or liquids.  The towels used to shield you from your own hair are stained and were perhaps washed, once.  A haircut is like a haircut anywhere. Straightforward with scissors, water, and a brush.  All of which bring previous victims hair along to mingle with yours.  When the gentleman is finished you realize that it was all so easy and fluid, that you might as well get a shave.  You will need one since a beard is mandatory in the Kingdom.  He leans you back, wraps you in the condemned towel, and then proceeds to disinfect the razor.  This is accomplished by lighting it on fire with what appears to be perfume.  It is the only sterilization performed, and yet it is done with such show that you cannot help appreciate it.   After this he puts a new razor blade into the razor and proceeds to go to work.  Some people fall asleep, some watch in the mirror, while I personally choose to drift through my own thoughts.

After you have paid the barber a modest sum and walk out the door a few things cross your mind.  Is that the best haircut and shave I’ve ever had?  What exactly does a certificate prove?  Has anybody ever gotten sick, ill, or even had a rash from a barber here since they are so dirty and don’t clean the instruments?  These are questions you will have to answer for yourself.  They are yes, obviously nothing, and not to my knowledge.