I never intended to become an English teacher. But I always intended to go to Saudi Arabia.
Twelve years ago I took a train to interview for a place to study Arabic at the University of Leeds. I had never visited the Middle East, nor even heard Arabic spoken.
To help me prepare, my mother gave me a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East. As I aimlessly flipped through the pages, one country caught my eye. Saudi Arabia.
Looking back on those pages now, the chapter was under-researched and full of stereotypes: Big, boring cities; strict laws; desert that stretched for days; no tourist visas. A country you would visit for work, then leave as quickly as possible.
As rain hammered on the window, I thought to myself that this country, Saudi Arabia, would be an interesting place to visit. Difficult, but interesting.
Six years later, in the autumn of 2011, my wife, Leah, and I arrived in Saudi Arabia armed with TEFL certificates, valid work visas, and Leah’s camera. Little did we know that we were at the start of an incredible adventure, one that would mark our 20s, shape our perceptions of the world, and make us the people we are today.
Almost immediately we realized that there is so much more to Saudi Arabia than tax-free salaries and strict societal expectations. Rather, Saudi Arabia is a country that consistently defies the sensationalist stereotypes that are so eagerly thrust onto it by those in Western society.
A few weeks ago, when Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign tour, the Washington Post wrote: “In a country where cinemas are banned and even Starbucks are segregated by gender, a powerful young prince is pushing a plan to create jobs for women and a more integrated and satisfying social life for a youthful population long straitjacketed by oppressive cultural norms.”
Two things are immediately striking about this statement.
First, the author ridiculously asserts that public spaces in Saudi Arabia are so segregated that even Starbucks is forced to comply, as if they are typically a sovereign entity immune to local laws and customs.
Second, the Washington Post was, broadly speaking, correct. But to speak of a uniform, unchanging, staid society is to be ignorant of current trends. In the past three years, the pace of change in Saudi Arabia, whether by design or by accident, has greatly increased.
Consistent gains are happening nationwide, reforms becoming harder and harder for naysayers to oppose. As such, not only were we living in a time of great change in Saudi Arabia, but the changes that we now consider almost routine would have been seen as era-defining only five years ago.
That said, we are not blind to ongoing restrictions. Nor do we disregard them in our quest to construct our own view of the country. We acknowledge that, as outsiders, we have frequently held a highly privileged position with our Saudi acquaintances. From our first experiences in Saudi Arabia, it was apparent that it did have flaws, as all nations do.
Yet, we also knew immediately that Saudi Arabia had great soul, cultural depth, wonderful people, and an amazing beauty, all of which are frequently bypassed in the rush toward oversimplification.
During our six years here, Leah and I have actively sought out the alternative Saudi Arabia, the one not commonly portrayed in the media. We sought the unexpected Saudi Arabia.
We journeyed to mountain ranges in the north and south, through seemingly limitless desert in the Rub al-Khali’, along the western coast’s sleepy fishing towns and pristine beaches, past the oil installations dotting the horizon in the east, and onward to the expanding urban cityscapes of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.
We found quiet solace in Ha’il, tasted the delicious pastries of Qassim, breathed rose-scented air in Ta’if, sampled the vibrant foodie scene of al-Khobar, hiked deserted wadis in Tabuk, marveled at the rose-red remains in Mada’in Saleh, climbed to the rooftops of centuries old tower-houses in historic Jeddah, witnessed the elegant beauty of the fortified villages in al-Baha, and gazed out onto Abha from Jebel al-Soudha.
Be it mandi, kabsa, jereesh, taziz, motabbaq, masoob, arikah, asidah, or haneedh, we tasted it all — with ample second helpings.
We found trendy hipsters, female YouTube stars, culinary masterminds, witty stand-up comedians, mobile network technicians with MIT degrees, pioneering heart surgeons, ardent coffee connoisseurs, fearless art aficionados, adventurous Instagrammers, persistently lost ride-share drivers, cashiers, digital entrepreneurs, waiters, crane operators, bankers, photographers, architects, designers, and artists. Professionals and nonprofessionals alike. Male and female. All Saudi. An ever-growing population of young people seeking to make their mark, have their voice heard, and be seen in a country that is profoundly different from the one their parents and grandparents knew.
On each of our journeys we have broken bread with young and old, rich and poor, high-caliber graduates and self-taught wunderkinds, business-owners and employees, well-traveled and not, technology addicts and technophobes, unemployed and self-employed, Saudi-educated and educated abroad, the God-fearing and the godless. Women and men of all stripes and hues from across this land have lectured, told stories, shared jokes, entertained, informed, surprised, and educated us before, finally, capturing our hearts.
Writing with the benefit of hindsight, I would begin the Lonely Planet entry on Saudi Arabia thus:
“A visit to Saudi Arabia will defy any terms you associate with it. It is a place whose embrace of nuance and complexity is unexpected, a country whose horizons are continually expanded by the industry, talent, and the fortitude of its people, a nation where dynamism and creativity are inherent.
Before visiting, you will assume you know what Saudi Arabia is. Don’t. It will surprise you and draw you in. Allow yourself to succumb to its charm and revel in its subtleties. As traveler or resident, eschew common oversimplifications and arrive with your eyes open. Question. Listen. Discuss. Absorb.”
Although I arrived in Saudi Arabia knowing very little, I left wanting to know ever more.
Ma’a aSalamah, yah al-Saudia.
Photos by Leah Schmidt
Leah first starting travelling and taking photos when she moved from the U.S. to the U.K. for university. She then spent 12 years studying, traveling and working throughout Europe and the Middle East. Having recently moved back to the U.S., she has swapped Saudi deserts for the forests of the San Juan Islands. You can see more photos on Instagram.