Interview: All You Wanted To Know About Susie of Arabia
Jeddah Blog talks to Susie of Arabia about blogging, transitions, and the highs and lows of life in Saudi Arabia.
Prominent among the voices in the Saudi blogosphere are those of non-Saudi women married to Saudi men. As narratives of cultural experiences, this data is significant because the authors bring a natural ease of expression, documentary zest, outspokenness and an analytical bent of mind to bear upon their superset of experiences in Saudi Arabia. Being married to Saudis, they have a direct canal to the culture that they are tackling through the deep end – direct immersion. Where their clarity of observation, their willing embrace of a foreign culture, and the amusing contrasts between an Eastern and a Western culture meet, a thing of great value and beauty is created. ‘Susie’s big adventure’ was among the earliest blogs written by an expat. Along with Carol Fleming of the well-known American Bedu, Susan has revealed her true identity, and shared very real and personal details on the blog. From the fairy-tale romance that led to her marriage to a Saudi, to her reasons for the move to the Kingdom and perhaps, most courageously and significantly, an intimate account of the emotional journey that the move was, what it meant in terms of cultural learning, loss of personal freedom, the real frustrations and difficulties of adjusting to a second culture diametrically opposed to her native culture, and finally, the apprehensions as the mother of a teenager straddling two completely different cultures. Whether we are learning or suffering, the choice to share personal details, putting them out at large into the world, makes us both courageous and vulnerable. To Susie’s blog, it lends a very human touch. At best, it feels like flipping through the pages of someone’s personal diary, and at worst, like listening to a very angry friend letting out steam. I am sure that like me, a lot of you feel that you know her and her family, having been her readers and confidantes. But we sat her down nonetheless, for a long one, about blogging, the highs and lows of life in Saudi Arabia, and the intersection of these.
Growing up Captain Kabob: Marinated in Florida, USA for 14 years and grilled to perfection in Saudi Arabia. A mother always wants them ‘well done’.
When you started blogging, what was the general blogging scenario like in Saudi Arabia? When I started blogging several years ago, there were not as many blogs coming out of Saudi Arabia, and definitely not as many photo blogs or blogs written by Saudi women as there are now. The Saudi blogging scene has literally exploded in the last few years. Do you feel that blogging, as a platform, allows you to say things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, in a country like Saudi Arabia? I think that blogging allows me to be more vocal and more widely heard about issues in Saudi Arabia. That said, bloggers do not have free rein to be disrespectful or critical of the government. Did you ever feel that you have acquired the habit of self-censorship, living in Saudi Arabia? I believe every blogger in Saudi Arabia must practice degrees of self-censorship. I find this to be a very difficult thing for me to do because there are so many things that are confusing and that I do not understand about the culture, so I may not realize I am treading in dangerous waters. My mindset is totally different culturally from the Saudi mindset. Reading your blog, the posts go from sunny and naively optimistic to somewhat cautiously resigned. Am I right in reading this? The first year I spent in Saudi Arabia I almost felt like an excited wide-eyed child seeing and learning new things. Everything was amazing, exotic and really interesting. After that first year, however, the reality of the restricted ways in which I had to live my life as a woman in Saudi Arabia really began to annoy me. As an independent American woman, I had always done everything for myself, and in KSA I am totally dependent on my husband for everything. It’s very hard to accept living this way. Was it cathartic to blog about the cultural transition that you went through? I had reached a point where I felt that my blogging was very one-sided, presenting life in Saudi Arabia in glowing terms and avoiding the topics that bothered me. I felt I couldn’t continue in this vein and retain my integrity. People need to realize there are both good and bad things about living anywhere in the world. I feel more comfortable that my blog now presents a more balanced view of life in KSA, although I get some hate mail that accuses me of Saudi-bashing and being too negative, and other hate mail that accuses me of pandering to Saudis and being blind to the realities of Saudi Arabia.
‘Humour is also a way to say things.’ Tongue-in-cheek posts about potentially scandalous issues. Regular readers of Susie’s big adventure would remember some of these images.
Have you ever landed in trouble while blogging ? Tell us about the time your blog was temporarily taken off the horizon, so to say? At one point, in 2009, my blog was blocked in Saudi Arabia for about 10 days. I have to admit it made me nervous. The ironic thing is that I believe it was blocked because of a post I wrote about censorship within the Kingdom. People can submit websites they feel should be blocked to the government agency that oversees this. I think that oftentimes the site is just blocked without anyone actually looking into it. If enough people contact the agency to unblock the site, then someone will actually take a look and determine whether or not the site should be blocked. In the Saudi blogosphere, there is a contrast between the blogs by expatriates at some level of transitioning in Saudi culture, and locals. The former tend to be tinged by some measure of ‘orientalism’ (using the term in the broadest possible manner, not succumbing to any clichés whatsoever) while the latter tend to be quite harsh in their criticism. What are your comments about that? I think that many Westerners see Saudi Arabia as somewhat of a romantic yet barbaric fantasy world because it remains such a mysterious and closed society to this day. The internet has certainly helped to dispel the air of mystery surrounding KSA. I realize my point of view is tinged by orientalism and may be very different from those of real Saudis. I would never be so presumptuous to think that I could speak for Saudi women. I can only speak as an outsider living in their country, and I don’t have the cultural knowledge or experience of native born Saudis. But does that mean that my perceptions shouldn’t count or have any validity?
What would be your list of most positive and most negative facts about life in Saudi Arabia? Positives: relatively low crime rate and sense of personal safety; great shopping; no taxes and in general, cheaper cost of living, so a sense of a better lifestyle; having maids and drivers is affordable for many; slower pace of life; things like hearing the calls to prayer, mosques everywhere, wearing hijab, learning Arabic and studying Koran, etc which make living as a Muslim easier; medical care and medicines are readily available and cheaper than in the West, although the quality of care can vary greatly. Negatives: lack of women’s rights and freedoms, including guardianship, driving, travel, too many things to list; gender segregation to the extreme, rendering normal socializing and making friends very difficult; male- dominated society; single women are often harassed by men who can get away with it; no traffic enforcement makes for the worst traffic and accidents in the world; brutally hot climate restricts time outdoors and makes being outside unbearable for women who must be covered in black; not enough activities for families, women or young people, which can make life very boring here; government bureaucracy and political corruption; racism and discrimination against certain nationalities; poor school system and no programs for special needs kids; exercise and sports for women and children are discouraged; businesses closing for prayer times is a pain; very limited resources and public facilities like parks for sports, picnicking, etc.; terrible air pollution; feelings of loneliness and isolation, almost as if living in a prison, especially for women; very little in the way of nature or scenery to enjoy; lots of dust and dirt and a filthy environment – litter is everywhere. Recently, Saudi Arabia has been a lot in the headlines because of women’s driving and such. What do you feel about the traditional term ‘women’s rights’ in the context of Saudi Arabia? What is it that Saudi women desire most in terms of rights? What are your comments on the lag between their perception of their rights and the West’s perception of it? Do you feel that the driving issue has been completely blown out of proportion? How important is it exactly? I remember one of your blog posts about it. Could you elaborate what it feels like not having the liberty, and how it undermines your confidence? How would Saudi women react if they were granted the right to vote today? Are they ready for it? I was brought up believing in equality and I don’t see any equality in Saudi Arabia. While some older Saudi women might be perfectly content with the status quo, more and more younger, well-educated and well-traveled Saudi women are beginning to want more out of life. Saudi women are denied even the most basic rights. And most of it hinges on the antiquated and unfair guardianship system in place. Imagine a grown woman not being able to do anything in life unless she first obtains the permission of her husband. Although many Saudi men “allow” their women dependents (wives and daughters) to pretty much do whatever they wish, other Saudi women are not so fortunate. I cannot leave the country without my husband’s permission – this is rubbish! I was a working woman who drove, traveled, and handled all my own affairs until I moved to KSA, and now I must depend on my husband for all of my needs. Why? Am I not capable? Like I said before, I cannot speak for Saudi women. I feel that this is a battle they must fight themselves, if simple rights and freedoms are what they want. I can, however, speak as someone who has lived elsewhere and who knows what I am being denied in Saudi Arabia just because I am a woman. To me, the guardianship system is the biggest obstacle to Saudi women’s rights and freedoms that exists. Get rid of the guardianship system and 90% of the oppression that Saudi women face will disappear. The rest of the problems, as I see it, lie in cultural and tribal customs. The driving issue has not been blown out of proportion at all. It’s huge, as well it should be. It is an unfair and discriminatory practice that has literally crippled half the population of Saudi Arabia, causes unnecessary expense for families, and places women in situations that are contrary to Islam. Women driving is not against Islam. The fact that Saudi Arabia is the only country anywhere that prohibits women from driving makes KSA appear backward and oppressive to the rest of the world. It’s really a very simple issue, but the Saudis have talked it to death with all these scenarios of “What if?” They act as if women are not capable of doing things or making decisions on their own. It’s insulting, humiliating, and condescending. Granting women the right to drive is a very important issue, although it is a very small hurdle toward achieving their full rights in the big scheme of things. Not being allowed to drive in KSA makes me feel like a little girl who is being punished – and I don’t know what I did wrong. Since I am not fortunate enough to have a driver and my husband won’t allow me to take taxis by myself, I am often left languishing at home alone, bored, and waiting for him to drive me somewhere. There are weeks when I never set foot outside our flat. Spontaneity is out of the question anymore. I cannot just pick up and go to the store if I need something. I cannot go visit a friend without making arrangements ahead of time, and even then I am dependent on my husband to get me there and pick me up. I cannot go out just to take photos, which I love to do, unless my husband has the time and the inclination to take me. Being in Saudi Arabia, I am totally dependent on him – and he certainly doesn’t need that added stress and responsibility, especially since his heart surgery last year and the fact that I am perfectly capable of driving myself. Of course Saudi women are ready to vote! They were ready yesterday. Voting, too, is a very small step for women, and even though women are supposed to be able to vote in 2015, I remain skeptical that it will actually happen. I know the way things work in KSA and I wouldn’t be surprised if 2015 rolls around and the elections are canceled, or the government will claim that measures have not been put into place to accommodate women voters. I would love to be proven wrong on this, but only time will tell.
Watercolours by Susan
Do you feel that much too often, a Western model of reform and change is superimposed on Saudi Arabia? I do think the West tries to impose its standards and desires on the rest of the world too often. Saudi Arabia seems to be able to pick and choose the ones it wants to adopt and leave the rest. What should ‘change’ look like in Saudi Arabia, if at all? Women need to achieve adult status in Saudi Arabia. Under the guardianship system, Saudi women are legally considered children their entire lives. This is where the change must start. After that, the sky is the limit. Which blogs do you follow regularly? Which ones are your favourite? There are so many blogs that I love. The ones that I am most interested in are written by women, like Saudiwoman’s Weblog; American Bedu; Blue Abaya; Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis; Sabria’s Out of the Box; and so many more wonderful ones, too numerous to name. Do you have a real-life relationship with your fellow bloggers? I have friendly relationships with several other bloggers. We email each other privately, are friends on Facebook, and speak on the phone. Is the blogging community in Saudi Arabia somewhat like a community/fraternity? Would this have been possible in real life, without blogging as a bridge? Yes, I believe there is a fraternity within the blogging community in Saudi Arabia, and worldwide, for that matter. In a place like Saudi Arabia though, I doubt that the friendships I have made through blogging would have been possible without it. People are very isolated in KSA and it’s not that easy to meet others. Blogging has opened those doors. Have you personally met some of the bloggers here? Have you wished to meet them in real life or have you preferred to keep the relationship ‘virtual’? By chance, I met a fellow blogger in Jeddah who happened to recognize me when I walked into the shop where he worked. I have met several other bloggers in the US who attended a party in my honor and another blogger by an arranged meeting. I have totally enjoyed meeting fellow bloggers and would love to meet more. Do you sometimes feel that one could learn more about Saudi Arabia through the blogosphere than through mainstream media? There is so much potential to learn about Saudi Arabia through reading blogs. One should keep in mind though that many blogs are about personal experiences, observations, and opinions, which can vary greatly from one person to another. Does Saudi Arabia feel like a second home now, after all these years? I am that person who lived in south Florida for 15 years and never really felt it was my home. I feel like Saudi Arabia is the place that I am living now but I still cannot see myself living here long term. I long to call the Pacific Northwest my home. All images by Susan Khalil.
– Naima Rashid