I am an American woman. In the fall of 2007, we uprooted our lives, our teenaged son, and left life as I always knew it for the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. I write this blog for the benefit of my friends and family that I left behind back home in America. These are my feelings, impressions, and experiences - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The gorgeous bride and her beautiful mom. I love this photo!
This is a very special and a very long post. There are more pictures in this post than I have ever published before on one post. I've shown photos from Saudi weddings before, but never like this. I hope you will enjoy coming along with me step by step, inside a Saudi wedding that I attended on Valentine's Day (I know, right? How romantic!) here in Jeddah.
Above is a photo of the decorated car the bride and groom would leave the reception in. Some wedding cars I have seen in the past have been so completely covered in decoratations that I don't know how the driver could see out the windshield!
Saudi weddings are notorious for starting very late at night and running until daybreak! This wedding was held at a grand new hotel I had been dying to see - and I finally got my chance last month. I was actually one of the first guests to arrive at about 10:30pm. But it gave me a chance to take photos of the splendid ballroom which oozed elegance and was embellished with gold accents and enormous floral arrangements.
The atmosphere of the luxurious ballroom was swathed with dreamy violet lighting and embellished with moving sunray shapes projected up onto the walls. There were so many sparkling crystal chandeliers up above on the ceiling that I lost count of how many there were! I just loved the purple lighting and the shadows.
The wedding hall was truly magical and almost surreal in its grandeur - it was definitely what fairy tales are made of. Simply a perfect way to start off a marriage.
Each table was adorned with sweets and treats, dates and chocolates and other bite sized goodies. We were offered our choice of fancy juice drinks with sugared rims. FYI - Alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Consequentlym the large choice of different juice drinks is like no other place I have ever been.
The sensational multi-layered wedding cake was decorated with beautiful fresh flowers in pinks, blues and purples. It was on display in a corner of the stunning ballroom next to the stage.
Saudi Arabia also has an amazing selection of regional sweet dates - I never knew there were so many varieties until I moved here! We certainly don't get such a wide selection of dates like this in the USA...
As more and more female guests arrived at the wedding over the next hour or so, soon the wedding hall was packed with hundreds of gorgeous women dressed to the nines, with their hair and makeup professionally done, in dazzling high heels and sparkly dangling earrings.
This is the table of wedding guests that I sat with - friends of the mother of the bride, mostly expat women like myself who are married to Saudi men. Typically traditional Saudi weddings are gender segregated. Quite often the men's wedding event is held on a different night at a different venue. Of course I've never been to a men's wedding in Saudi Arabia, but there are plenty of videos available online that show what goes on at one - lots of singing and sword dancing!
The singer for the evening - she had a lovely voice and sang in Arabic
Some Saudi women's weddings have music and dancing, and some don't, depending on what the bride's preference is. Most weddings I have been to here in Saudi Arabia have a dance floor which is more like a long catwalk, where graceful women in flowing gowns, dripping in glittering jewels, glide and wiggle to the music up and down the runway. Saudi women seem to have this very sensual way of moving - a talent I don't have... sigh. Weddings are a common venue in this culture to scout out a potential future bride for a relative - like one's brother, son, or nephew - who might be ready for marriage.
This is the happy mother of the bride, Diana, with two of her beautiful granddaughters, who looked liked little princesses. Diana is an American who lived in Saudi Arabia for 35 years and whose husband was Saudi. So her daughter Areej, the bride, is half-Saudi and half-American.
Shortly after midnight, the drama began when the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined up toward the balcony above - and the groom appeared! He waved and smiled at the adoring females below for a short spell while music played. And then, the beautiful bride made her appearance! Together the couple waved and threw handfuls of pink rose petals down from the balcony for several minutes. The crowd of women loved it! It was exciting!
Next, while carefully selected romantic Western music played, slowly the bride and groom descended down the staircase, making their grand entrance. Prior to the groom's appearance on the balcony, many of the female guests had draped themselves with their scarves and abayas to cover up their hair and evening attire.
Once the newlyweds made their way into the wedding hall well after midnight, they received well wishers from their perch on the beautifully decorated stage. Fabulous floral arrangements are an important part of the stage decor where the couple sits, along with a large couch where guests can linger and visit with them for a bit.
The happy couple shared their first dance together as man and wife while giant sparklers blazed and lit up the hall. It was spectacular and romantic. At this point the groom was the only man in a room with all those female guests, who all watched on, taking delight in the euphoria and jubilation enveloping the hall.
I don't know exactly how many guests were in attendance in the enormous ballroom, but I'm guessing there were several hundred.
Here's a closer shot of the stage where the bride and groom sat to receive guests. And below is a photo of them cutting into their magnificent wedding cake together.
They made a very handsome couple - she in her beautiful white gown and long flowing veil, and he in his traditional formal Saudi wedding clothing, including a striking gray "bisht" with gold trim and his white head covering called ghotra. Some men choose to wear the red and white checkered shemagh typical of Saudi menswear - it's up to the man whatever his preference is - but I think the plain white scarf is a little more formal and dignified looking for a lavish occasion like a wedding.
After the female relatives congratulated the newlyweds on the stage, the male relatives of the families then made an appearance, filing into the hall as the female guests clapped and cheered.
They all looked so splendid and classic in their formal wear. Then the family members posed for traditional wedding photos all together.
The bride also posed with her sister, who was part of the wedding party and the mother of the two beautiful little princesses I pictured before.
Once the photos were all taken and the men departed the wedding hall, it was time to eat - and what a feast it was! It was already about 2 am by this time...
The banquet hall was just across from the wedding hall. The larger dining tables seated up to ten and had purple napkins. Mouth watering food stations were everywhere. The colorful delectable presentations of food were pure art.
As much as I would have liked to have tried a taste of everything, it would have been impossible. Everything that I did taste though was absolutely delicious. There were salads and dips, breads and pastries, all kinds of seafood, chicken and lamb dishes, a sushi bar, casseroles, an assortment of rice dishes, finger foods, fruits and vegetables and on and on. It was amazing! Words simply cannot do it justice!
The buffet was overwhelming and spectacular. I did sample some sushi - the curved hammered metal table it was displayed on was out of this world!
Table after table of more and more food. It was so difficult deciding what to put on my plate, as it was already after 2 am, and I didn't really want to eat that much so late. Decisions, decisions!
There were hot dishes, cold dishes, room temperature dishes - you name it! What a selection! It was magnificent.
Many traditional Saudi dishes were also served, and there was even a taco station. Every dish was impeccably and artfully presented.
Carved melon sculptures were featured at several of the food displays. They were truly works of art. Here is an amazing momma eagle feeding her baby carved out of what appears to be canteloupe.
And here is a carved watermelon made into a big vase with kabob sticks of various fruit arranged like a beautiful floral display. Isn't it exquisite?
All kinds of meat kabobs, which were delicious - I love kabob! It's a specialty of this part of the world, and boy, do they know how to do it right!
Here's another amazing carved fruit sculpture centerpiece of a rooster accompanying sliced fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
The tombs at Madein Saleh were carved by hand with crude tools into the gigantic sandstone rocks outside of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. Some tombs were never completed, but those that were all have one design element in common - above the entry door into the tomb, were stairsteps which were to lead the occupant of the tomb to heaven.
Historically this whole area was in a strategic trade route location linking southern Arabia with important locations to the north, like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. This region comprised the Nabataean Kingdom, running from south Arabia along the Red Sea all the way up through Jordan to Damascus, Syria. The Nabataeans were nomadic Bedouins who became wealthy from levying taxes on the trade caravans that routed through their territory.
When compared with its sister site of Petra in Jordan, which was the Nabataean civilzation's capital city, Madein Saleh is unique in that it is considered more of a wealth of information and an archaeologist's dream, as it is virtually untouched and preserved. Inscriptions were actually carved into the stone at the tombs of Madein Saleh, providing much more information than is available at Petra. The inscriptions at Petra were apparently made out of wood, which long ago rotted and along with it valuable historical information.
Madein Saleh is home to more than 130 such tombs, many of the large rocky mountains housing several tombs on one rock. Once the Nabataeans were taken over by the Roman Empire, cheaper and faster alternate transport using the Red Sea became the preferred method for trade shipments, as opposed to struggling with the harsh elements of the desert caravan conditions. As desert trade dropped off, the once prosperous Nabataean civilzation suffered and dwindled.
Madein Saleh has been closed to the public in preparation for the development of the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see how tourism develops here when the site is expected to reopen in 2020. I'm curious to see how the religious and cultural aspects of life in Saudi Arabia will be affected or bent in order to accommodate interested travelers from the outside world.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the phenomenal Winter at Tantora Festival going on now through Feb. 23rd, with special weekend concerts and tours of the area, including access to Madein Saleh just for attendees of the event. Tickets may still be available, and visas are apparently easy to obtain for those wishing to come from outside Saudi Arabia for this very special and unforgettable event. Information and tickets are available at this site: Winter at Tantora
Winter at Tantora is an incredible event like none other ever before here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Amidst the stark picturesque beauty of the city of Al Ula, an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Winter at Tantora Festival started on December 20th and will run through February 9th. Each weekend concert over the eight weeks features a different theme high quality entertainment spectacular followed by a magnificent feast matching the theme of the evening.
The venue for the concerts is a brand new stunning concert hall named Maraya (Arabic for "mirror"), built among the unusual and ravishing natural landscape of Al Ula. Set amidst the gigantic sandstone rocky mountain formations and drifts of soft sand dunes, the beauty of Maraya lies in its simplicity. The visible exterior surface of the structure is encased in large mirrored panels, which create a wondrous illusion reflecting its breathtaking setting.
The concert hall seats only 500 and the seats are comfortable and cushy white leather chairs. There are no bad seats in this theater, as the aisles between rows are extra wide, and the acoustics, audio and lighting technology are state of the art. To the right, left and in front of the stage, dramatic digital imagery is projected onto the walls and floor, creating a magical experience for the audience. Behind the stage is an enormous window revealing the backdrop of huge sandstone rocks behind the building. The rocks are lit with colored lighting during the show. The overall experience is one of undeniable wonderment.
I was fortunate to attend the truly magnificent performance of Lang Lang, a supremely talented and gifted world class concert pianist. Seeing and hearing Lang Lang perform the amazing pieces he played was an incredibly moving esperience. It was as though the music was actually coming through him to the piano. He is an animated performer, with tremendous depth and precision. His concert was flawless perfection.
An additional ongoing fine art exhibition at Maraya during the Winter at Tantora Festival is a visual delight featuring the artwork of Van Gogh. It is a show in itself with his masterpieces projected onto the walls in the large gallery, engulfing the entire hall. It's almost as if the paintings come to life with imagery and movement.
Van Gogh Exhibition at Maraya, Winter at Tantora - Model: @ParisVerra
Among the other amazing talents still left to participate in the festival are: Um Kulthum (Jan. 25th); Andrea Bocelli (Feb. 1st); and Yanni (Feb. 8th). If you are interested in attending any of these events or to learn more about Winter at Tantora, CLICK HERE. For the Yanni event, you can get a 20% discount by using this code: BlueAbaya7 Hurry!!! Availability is limited.
Packages are available for just the one day of the concert or for the whole weekend, including cool tent accommodations (with all the comforts of home!), a variety of inspiring tours, transportation, helicopter rides and hot air ballooning over the amazing landscape of Al Ula, and much much more.
Thanks to my awesome pal Laura / @BlueAbaya, we had an incredible time we will never forget. She knows more about places to visit in Saudi Arabia than anybody I know. You should check her out on Instagram and Twitter - @BlueAbaya, or on her blog Blue Abaya. I'll be writing more about our adventures from this past weekend so stay tuned!
Aswat: Voices of Arabia is a podcast featuring a variety of interviews of women living in Saudi Arabia. It was conceived by Robyn, a South African whose home has been Jeddah for the past fifteen years. Despite having spent so many years in the Magic Kingdom, her knowledge about life outside her compound's walls was limited - so she decided it was time to make the effort to learn more about the people of her adopted land and to share her findings with the rest of the world. The result was Aswat: Voices of Arabia.
Robyn contacted me about doing an interview and I accepted, so we agreed to have her come over to our home one afternoon. She made it a very comfortable experience for me - we literally sat on the couch and just chatted, like old friends. Robyn's voice and accent are so well suited for podcasts. I love the way she edited the 30 minute episode. She took out most of the "Uh's," "Um's," and "You know's" that I so often use when I speak - and she made it all flow so nicely. I hope you will give it a listen! You can listen to my interview on her website "Aswat: Voices of America" or on iTunes.
Listen to them - you will never think of Saudi women in the same way again!
One other thing...
Just the other evening I spoke to a group at the Jeddah Cultural Exchange Center, whose goal is to bridge Saudi culture with other cultures from around the world. The event was held on the rooftop of their building and the December weather was perfect. We had a great turnout! The title of my presentation was "My Saudi Journey - Susie's Story." I spoke about my upbringing in my small hometown on the Arizona-Mexico border, meeting my husband, and how moving to Saudi Arabia has changed my life in so many remarkable ways. This is the flyer advertising the event -
I'd like to thank all of those who attended my presentation and to Chris of the JCEC for the planning and executing of the event. I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!
Женские истории. Любить по-американски: Часть третья (Русские субтитры) - YouTube
This is the 3rd and final part of the interview I did with Volodymyr for his YouTube Channel. It is all in English. This 15 minute segment discusses my son's three years in Saudi Arabia when he was a teenager and what my life here in Jeddah is like now. I hope you have enjoyed this peek into my life!
To Volodymyr - I'd like to thank you for your professionalism and for pursuing this interview with me. It was fun and some of your questions made me have to stop and think about things I hadn't necessarily thought of. I wish you all the best with your YouTube Channel, "Saudi Diaries."
In case you missed Parts 1 and 2 of this interview, here are the links:
Женские истории. Любить по-американски: Часть вторая. (Русские субтитры) - YouTube
Part 2 (of 3) of my interview with Volodymr for his Russian YouTube channel covers more ground about my life in Saudi Arabia - touching on Saudi culture, religion, and family. This segment is about 17.5 minutes long.
If you are having difficulty listening to it on this page, CLICK HERE to go directly to the You Tube page.
I was recently interviewed by Volodymyr, who runs the only Saudi-focused YouTube site aimed at a Russian audience. This is Part 1 of 3 of my interview. It's about 20 minutes long. The first few minutes are an introduction by Volodymyr in Russian. After that, the rest is in English. This part covers my early life and how I met my husband over 40 years ago. The 2nd and 3rd parts will be posted soon. I hope you enjoy it!
Женские истории. Любить по-американски. Часть первая. - YouTube
CLICK HERE for the link to Part 1 on Volodymyr's Russian YouTube Channel, where the other links will be posted soon.
The city of Abha is the capital of the Asir Region located in the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia and is rich in cultural heritage. It is more than a mile high in elevation up in the mountains, close to the Red Sea to the west and the country of Yemen to the south. Baboons are native to the region, dwelling in the national parks in the area.
Many Saudis from around the country flock to Abha in the summer due to its cooler moderate climate high. Abha also gets more rainfall than most of the kingdom and boasts rich agricultural plateaus. The highest peak of Saudi Arabia is located in Abha. It's called the Jabal Al-Sooda, or Black Mountain, and its height measures an astounding 3.3 kilometers, which is over 2 miles high!
The old traditional architecture of Abha consists of buildings made of rocks and mud. Many are more than 300 years old. The architectural style of Abha was greatly influenced by Yemeni construction.
Art is important and popular in most regions of Saudi Arabia, and Abha is abundant with art. It could be said that the area is more colorful in its dress, architecture, and art than other more conservative areas of the kingdom.
The Al Miftaha Art Village at the King Fahad Cultural Center attracts many visitors and offers exhibits of all kids of artwork, ranging from paintings and sculptures to archaelogical treasures, handmade crafts and woven items by local artisans, as well as a variety of sourvenirs.
Arabic calligraphy features prominently in a lot of Saudi art. If you look closely at the painting above, you can see how the Arabic script is incorporated into the formation of the male figures on the right.
The painting above is reminiscent of the clothing, hats, and style of Mexican or South American figures.
I love the eyes of the above painting.
The remaining photos focus on the traditional wall painting art by female artists called Al Qatt, an artform that has been passed down through generations in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. Al Qatt utilizes mainly primary colors and geometric shapes and symbols.
Thanks so much to my friend Vicki Callagan for the use of her wonderful photos for this post.
Several years ago in 2009, I brought you the true cautionary tale of a British woman who was widowed in Saudi Arabia. In the four part series, I detailed the struggles of the woman and her children when her Saudi husband passed away and how her husband's family trapped the woman and her children in Saudi Arabia for ten long years.
By late 2010, the family managed to finally escape from the country and I wrote a minor update at that time which focused on the country's male guardianship system. The seven years since then haven’t been easy for the family, but they have been rebuilding their lives day by day. I am pleased to now bring you the latest update on this family and their will to survive. So here, once again, is "Asima," in her own words ...
How are you and the kids doing? Have they been able to adapt to their new lives?
I’ve been free from Saudi now for 7 years, It certainly has been eye opening, I guess when you’re in the situation I was in, where you think you will never see freedom again, you cling onto there being ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. However that’s far from the truth and it’s the beginning of another chapter. It has been hard adjusting. If we had stayed in Saudi, my son would have had a future but my daughter wouldn’t have. Now the roles are reversed - my daughter has a future, as she was 13 when we escaped from Saudi Arabia, so going to school outside the kingdom has given her an entrance to society, but my son has struggled.
Was the adjustment to freedom overwhelming?
Extremely!!! The adjustment was hard. After 21 years in Saudi (all my adult life), it took me at least 2 years to learn how to be independent again. The children went through numerous rounds of therapy, which my daughter still needs. I have only just begun my own therapy, as I wanted my children sorted first. It showed me that there are very little resources in the West, for the trauma women in my situation go through. I hope in the future, once my book is published, to start a charity to help women. It’s very hard to return to a society that you grew up in as a child but coming from a society that is the total opposite. Even though you look part of that society, you feel you no longer belong. It’s like being caught in 2 worlds. I hope one day to make contacts to start a charity for women with people who understand both cultures and can help women and their kids fit back into society.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
When I reached the west I was penniless, with 3 suitcases and my children. We were blessed to find a family lawyer whose services were pro bono, who advised us to change our identities and cut ties to our past lives. This was unbelievably hard to have to deny 21 years of your life, 21 years that shaped you as a person, 21 years of memories and friends. I guess it was hardest on my son to lose his family name- it was like losing his father all over again. Next was trying to become financially viable and find a home. I was still unable to sell my home back in Saudi, because of my husband’s family. However I was blessed with a very close Saudi friend who I gave power of attorney and after a year won the rights to sell my home. The family took their financial share, denying my children their inheritance - funny because their claim to the courts was that they didn’t want us to sell the house as they wanted to protect the kid’s inheritance.
Are you working and doing better financially?
I am working, part time, all the experience I gained in Saudi was worth nothing in the west as the west puts more weight into certification, rather than physical experience. I had to begin back at the bottom and take an apprenticeship course with 18 year old students – but it got my foot in the door of employment. It has been hard the past 7 years trying to be a single mom on part time salary and trying to begin life again. I certainly would advise any one in my circumstances back in Saudi to make sure they get certification for any work experience they have in Saudi.
What was the biggest surprise/change to you about the outside world?
Most surprising to me has been how society is more about working to survive, and how closed minded many people are about other cultures. I am blessed that both my children were brought up in a society where your religion and race mean nothing. People couldn’t accept that even though I was British that I didn’t know how things worked. They saw the same girl that left 21 years ago, but whilst I was physically the same, mentally I was a totally different person - and that’s been a hard barrier to overcome.
How is your social life?
My social life has been in fits and starts. I was blessed to reconnect with old friends, but truthfully the past 7 years have been about rebuilding our lives, trying to repair the damage to my children and myself from the trauma of what happened with my husband’s family. I have found it hard to trust people as a few close friends back in Saudi informed my husband’s family of our planned escape, putting mine and my children’s lives in danger. I do prefer the social life I had in Saudi; it was more active and opened my eyes to the difference between cultures and religions. Socially it was more authentic in Saudi.
Any exciting news you'd like to share?
My daughter was accepted into University and is studying creative writing, taking after her mom. She aims to become a university lecturer once she graduates. She has already been published in a book of short stories and poetry. It’s nice to see her grow.
I will become 50 in a few months and after 7 hard years struggling; I’m finally starting to achieve a sense of peace, through my therapy.
I have been working hard on publishing my book. I nearly was accepted by a publishing company to publish my book but the deal fell through, because of the actions of my then agent. I have chosen now to go independently, though it’s getting my story out there to the masses. I feel it’s a story that needs to be told, to help other women when making this giant leap into a world unknown. We are blessed now that the internet has opened doors for women to access information about Saudi Arabia, compared to when I went there back in 1990.
But it’s still extremely hard to be a person of two cultures. We seriously need to help others escaping to settle back, but it’s findingtherapy and networking with others that have been through theexperience and trauma and help from people who understandboth cultures, we need to set up workshopsto help women and their children to integrate into society, to learn how to function in a totally different society. Most importantly to heal again and become a functioning well rounded family.
Is there anything you miss about Saudi Arabia?
I miss so much from Saudi. It is my adopted home and it has been good to me and my children. Unfortunately there were numerous people (not the country) that caused my situation. Like every country in the world there is good and bad. Unfortunately however, in Saudi when the bad happens, women are left to fend alone and in many cases don’t succeed in reaching freedom with their children.
I miss the simple life.
I miss the authenticity of the people there, how expats joined together as extended families. How people always extended their hands to help others.
I miss Al Baik – lol.
I do still consider Saudi my home.
What do you think of all the changes going on here in KSA?
I’m sad I’m not part of the changes happening but feel an extreme sense of pride. When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia back in 1990, we were told that was the year women would drive. 21 years later still women weren’t granted that, but I’m proud the Prince has allowed women the freedoms that are their right. It’s amazing to see the changes taking place for women, especially as they have been denied those rights for so long. Women are half the population and a society cannot function when only half its population is active.
I do fear however that Saudi will lose its identity. I learnt moving back to the West that we have no culture, no identity - we all blend in as one. Saudi is blessed that it still has its culture, its history, and it should hold onto those. It’s a new beginning for Saudi and I hope they handle the changes gradually.
I am hoping my Book – ‘Shifting Sands’ will open the door between East and West, to give women the tools to be prepared if the worse befalls them. Being married to a Saudi has many pitfalls but also many blessings. I feel communication between the two cultures would prevent a lot of situations arising. But more importantly, I feel women need support and information, so they will never suffer as my children and I did. It’s a scar that will never full erase, so I hope from our trauma and experience it will help some other mother and her children to find freedom.
Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.