Behind the walls
“They were our neighbors,” my father in law said. “One of them, a Greek, was owning the grocery shop at the end of the street. They spoke Arabic very well. They were part of the community back then. Their kids playing with the rest of the kids, and families exchanging social visits.”
This is part of a story about the old Jeddah. About expatriates living side by side to the country’s natives. Living in harmony and mutual respect. If that was the case few decades ago, what really happened to change that remarkable blend?
Expatriates, these days, are living in communities of their own. Either in neighborhoods completely occupied by the same nationality, or behind the high walls of residential compounds. The only exchange they have with the locals usually takes place at the place of work. The carpenter will see you at his workshop, the engineer will chit-chat with you at the construction site. When was the last time you’ve seen a Saudi family having dinner with an American one in a restaurant? And when was the last time you invited your Lebanese co-worker to home?
This observation does not only apply to expatriates coming from different cultural backgrounds, like Europeans and Indians for example, but it is the same even for those whom we share historical and cultural ties with.
That comes in contradiction with the fact that the Saudi society resides on so many social activities. Generous dining tables, gatherings over tea and coffee are daily traditions in most of Saudi households.
So what are the reasons that are making it hard for Saudis and their global guests to communicate on a social level? The top two reasons, in my opinion, are stereotypes and fears.
Let’s admit that there are a lot of stereotypes about us, Saudis; and we have a lot of stereotypes about others as well. A French friend once got really shocked when I offered him a lift to the airport. “In your car? I thought it was not allowed for a non-Muslim to ride your cars, or visit your homes.” he said! Stereotypical assumptions are the enemies of any healthy relationship; they create communication obstacles, engulf innocent gestures with unease, plunge them in doubts. The end result, let’s avoid having a relationship altogether!
The second reason is fear; fear of misconception, of misunderstanding, of unintentional mistakes. An expatriate living in the country with her husband once said in a talk show “I feel uneasy whenever I am out of the compound, it is not like the people are not friendly and trying to help the lady who is unable to speak the language, but I am always on alert, I do not want to say or do anything that is considered inappropriate. It seems that there are a lot of rules here, unwritten rules of frowned upon actions.”
It is a shame really, to have someone living for years in a country and the only thing he or she could describe in details is the shape of the compound’s walls! The country has a lot to offer. Its image could dramatically enhanced if the thousands of its gusts were able to draw a little closer to its culture, to its people.
We are all responsible for this, individuals and organizations. Touristic and social events could bridge the gaps. Reviving those old friendly, family oriented customs could polish the image of the country, rebrand it as an open minded, friendly, respectable to its past, yet yearning for a better future.