The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I say potato... 

The King's pronouncement on kissing his hand has stimulated some correspondence about cultural differences between West and East, particularly with body language. We get used to the body language of our own culture and can be very confused by that of others.

Many Westerners who come to work in Saudi Arabia do so with companies like British Aerospace. As such they tend to be insulated from the world of the real Saudi. However others do brave Saudi companies, and it's always amusing to see their reactions when they first arrive. As in the West, they get introduced to all their new Saudi colleagues. We're a friendly bunch of guys and, naturally, the handshakes are "prolongued", as the newcomer is asked about where he comes from, what religion is he, how many sons does he have, what's their name, "So we will call you Abu Michael", and so on, and so on. His face gets more and more strained as his hand is held in the welcoming grip. He's hardly listening to the other guy, he just wonders when he'll get his hand back. Finally it is released, only to be grasped by the next person. The ordeal goes on and on. Eventually it ends. Then some Saudi colleague comes in, he's just back from vacation. He's delighted to see us all so he grabs us all and kisses us on both cheeks. By this time our Western newcomer is watching aghast, he thinks he's going to get kissed as well. However we are not a cruel people and we spare him this cultural experience.

I was once in Olaya Street in the middle of the Riyadh business district. As you can see, it's a six-lane highway, more of a drag-strip really. You get boy racers trying to set the record for getting from one traffic light to the next, with taxis weaving across the lanes looking for business and beeping at any likely fares. So you have to take care when crossing. I saw a middle aged Western guy waiting at the side, looking for a gap in the traffic. A young Saudi lad spotted him, thought he was obviously a bit slow and doddery, came up to him, took him by the hand, and led him across both carriageways. It was an absolute hoot to watch. The young Saudi was just being kind and hospitable, he wandered off as normal. The Westerner just stood at the far side in shock.

It's always a problem going abroad, knowing how to behave. When I've been to Indonesia, I do know that "Yes" may sometimes mean "No", but what are you supposed to do when they put their hands together and bow to you? Do the same back? Just sort of nod and smile? Perhaps someone can help me out there. It can be very confusing.

To help reduce the confusion, I've drawn on my vast experience and put together some guidelines for the Saudi traveller to Britain.

The Saudi's Guide to Polite Behavior in Britain

1. On the tube (subway), try to make eye contact with your fellow-passengers. When you do, smile, or in the case of females, wink.

2. The British will frequently apologize to you, even if they are not at fault. They appreciate a familiar and jocular reply. Try "Clumsy idiot!" or "I should think so!". Practice your language skills by making up your own funny answers.

3. In a lift or similar enclosed space, it is good luck for someone to break wind. If you do so yourself, look round at everyone and smile, so they will know who has brought them such good fortune.

4. As at home, you are expected to haggle, especially in upmarket shops like Harrod's and Harvey Nichols. If they initially refuse, it may be because they do not wish to take advantage of you. Keep lowering your price until you find common ground.

5. Queues are a British and Western custom where people stand in line for things like tickets, buses, taxis, Madame Tussaud's. They do not apply to those of us from the Middle East. Westerners are a hospitable people and will expect you to go straight to the front.

6. As at home, you may hawk and spit noisily onto the pavement. If you do this in front of their young men, especially those with shaven heads and tattoos, this will provide endless opportunities for comparing our respective cultures and customs.

7. When you meet a British male, he will extend his hand. You may hold on to it, but do not kiss him on both cheeks; one will suffice, alternatively the lips. On the other hand, when he introduces his wife and / or daughter, this is merely a formality. As at home, you should completely ignore them.

...and now in addition, with grateful thanks to Lehihamra, is advice for those making the journey in the other direction.

An Englishman's Guide to Living in Saudi

1. When greeting new Saudi business acquaintences, always enquire about the health of their mothers - you should also make sure you know all your friends' mothers' names.

2. When in the office, show how relaxed and comfortable you are by putting your feet up on the desk during meetings. Everyone will know that by showing them the soles of your feet you feel completely at home with them.

3. When eating Kuzi (Saudi "delicacy" - complete lamb stuffed with rice, chickens, hard-boiled eggs etc.), make sure you delve right in with both hands as soon as the food arrives. As you are the guest from abroad, it is expected for you to eat before anyone else, and using both hands is a sign of how much you are enjoying your food.

4. Men with long beards love heavy metal music, so if you see a group of them driving around in a big GMC truck, drive up alongside and let them enjoy that Motorhead CD you have in the player. They are especially fond of "Ace of Spades" at full volume.

5. Entertain your fellow office workers by whistling a merry tune throughout the day. The sound will bring all kinds of good things to you.

6. Share your English love for pets by taking your affectionate Rotweiller for a walk in the local mall. Oh how everyone will love being slobbered on and licked by such a loving dog.

7. If asked about your religion, engage the person in an earnest discussion about the great spiritual benefit that can be achieved by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and saviour.

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