As difficult as it can be to understand whether a relationship is a friendly one, or a romantic one, and where it is headed or not within one’s own culture--and allowing for the cross-culture divide of gender--it can be more difficult and challenging to do so cross-culturally and internationally. Before one gets to the marriage permission process, there are many other relationship stages at play. Some relationships never reach that stage, nor should they necessarily. Diana (pseudonym) has graciously agreed to share her story of a romance that was very enriching personally, if not leading beyond the initial stages of a romance. Below is her story in her own words. As you read you might reflect on the beauty and challenges of romance, and be reminded of your own experiences.
My Saudi was 40 years old when we met in the summer of 2008, in a trendy European beach town. I was there for a weekend, and had gone to visit some friends. Although I usually spend my holidays there, that year I had already taken them, so just spent the weekend. As usual, I was staying at my mother’s house, and my friends were all staying in a posh hotel 10 km away from the town centre.
The three of us (2 women, 1 man) went in one car, the classier one, not mine of course, to have dinner at the port. After dinner we went to a fashionable night club, where we all spent the night dancing, drinking, and talking with each other. I was not drinking much, as I was on diet, and don’t like drinking a lot of alcohol, anyway.
I met My Saudi by chance, during that night out. I remember I was having a good day--by this I mean a day when your hair is perfect without effort, your skin shines, and with a little make up you look great. I was dressed in black, my favourite colour for night, in long trousers and a sequined t-shirt, high heels, and a handbag.
I usually do not pay attention to people who come to talk to me at nightclubs. I’m fed up with making conversation with uninteresting people who feel free to come to talk to you just because it’s supposed that if you’re a pretty girl in a disco, you’re looking forward to meet all the men in the place.
But he was different. It was funny because I did not realize he was standing beside me until my friends said aloud, “What does he want?” So I turned and looked at who they were pointing to, and he came to me and smiled. I was ready to give him back my best smile and say, “Forget it, sorry”. But then I saw his eyes--those big black, sparkling and curious eyes--and his overall well-groomed, pure look. I thought he deserved my attention for a while. And he did, because his warm, strong and firm voice, together with an educated manner, intelligent conversation, and a great sense of humour matched what his eyes promised.
So we started to talk and after a few minutes I forgot about my friends and the rest of the people. The first thing we talked about was the usual when you meet someone for the first time, what’s your name, where are you from, how old, holidaying? Later, we were telling jokes, and realized we laughed about the same things; and we started to talk about other issues such as our jobs, and family. We recognized we had a lot in common despite our obviously different backgrounds.
To be honest, I have to say that I’ve been in this place a lot of times, and I’ve always feared talking with Saudi men. It’s a place where Saudis love to spend holidays. You can recognize a Saudi about 80% of the time because of skin colour. Skin colour does not matter to me. My fear was 50% the behaviour I’ve seen there, and that I’ve not seen anywhere else; and 50% what I knew about closed Saudi society.
In that and similar places, older Saudi men gather in corners of the nightclub surrounded by those really beautiful Northern/Eastern European girls. They grab the girls in front of everybody (something only money can buy); and they could be their fathers! What were the girls thinking? Well, I know some of them make it to a wealthy life, and others just live all year from what they have made that summer, as it’s known Saudis give good “tips”.
Younger Saudis close deals with professionals as they do not have the guts and experience of old ones. I’m not saying that does not happen in my country, sure it happens! But Saudis seem to like everybody to see it. There is no hiding at all. In fact, they seem to enjoy showing off, and watching people watch. I feel it is a pity, because it’s easy to buy something with money, but what about winning the prize for who you are, for what makes you unique? Money does not impress me.
But I took the “risk” for his eyes.
So, before we realized it, the night club was closing! My friends, who were not far, for the same reasons I’ve explained, and stood by my side, had drunk a lot. So we had a problem to go back home. I did not know how to drive an automatic car, as mine is not. My Saudi realized something was wrong, and he offered to drive us. My male friend was amazed! My Saudi drove us all to the hotel. Once there, we asked for 2 taxis, one to take him to his hotel, and one to take me home.
While in the car he talked to my friends. They all liked him, and they told me later that he seemed a good man. So, when they got inside the hotel, and I was outside alone with him waiting for the taxis, we exchanged phone numbers, and we promised to keep in touch. Even though we just saw each other for a very short time that evening, since I was leaving the next day (career oblige!), afterwards, I texted him every 4-5 days, and he called me approximately every 7-10 days.
Every time we talked, we remembered what happened when we met, our mutual curiosity, our interest at first sight, our perfect first impressions. When talking about other things, we were impressed by how easy our conversation was. It seemed as if we had known each other from a long time ago, we felt so comfortable. Yes, I know that sounds more like teenagers than people almost, or in, their 40’s, but that’s the way it was.
I was very excited about the possibility of meeting him again. We did talk a lot about finding time to see each other, as he was supposed to travel to Europe. But things did not turn out as desired, as the worldwide crisis started and his business faltered, so he had to remain in Saudi, and had little time to sleep let alone to travel. During these days, as he knew I missed him, he tried to call very often.
Yet, I did not know if it was the reality of him, or the idea that I had created of him that was the most appealing. I think now that it was a bit of both. I was seeing him as a very mature person, so smart and funny, with a very caring approach to me and my personal issues, a person who loves to enjoy life and wants to share it, strong, sweet. I could even see him smiling through the phone when we talked. I mean, you can notice in the voice when the person is smiling at you or not, and he always was, as was I.
Still, at that time, I did not really have a clear idea of what my feelings were, if any. I needed to see him in order to make them clear. I was very confused, because I did not know what to think of myself--feeling like that for a person I’d not seen for more than 2 hours, who lived “only” 5,000 km away, in a country with a very different culture. A cultural difference that was sometimes noticeable even in our conversations, because of our different approach to everyday life.
He found it amazing that I was independent and working. He kind of liked it, but at the same time did not, as his mother and sisters were not allowed to do so by social custom. Still, his family is open-minded about some issues. He told me the problems his sisters had, as they were divorced, and that divorce was not seen as normal as in Europe. He wished that could be different. He suffered a lot because of the stigma against them as he loved them. He also suffered a lot because he and they were the children of a second wife, so he said he would never have a second wife, as he had seen what his mother had gone through. He did not understand why I was living alone, not under my parents’ roof, as he was still living with his family. He said he was building a house inside his parents’ compound, so they would all live close to each other.
I just explained my life to him, the reasons, and that this is very usual here. In fact, what’s strange for us is just the opposite; so we finally laughed at how different everything was. However, those were differences that we respectfully understood. We tried to think them through together, and at the end any of them the cultural reasoning was so understandable once you know the whole story.
I tried not to have great expectations. After all, all the men I had found up until then still needed to “be in the oven for a while longer”, as they were not mature enough. But he seemed, and sounded, different. He really seemed to know what he wanted, he had a clear idea he wanted to work until age fifty and then enjoy life, as he’d been working without a break. Also, when I explained to him my career problems, he always had very wise advice only experienced and travelled people can give you.
I could not share this telephone relationship My Saudi and I were having with many people. If you say that you’re having a romantic but platonic long distance relationship with someone, and you say he’s an American, a Swede or from another Occidental country, everybody finds it a great story. But, exactly the same relationship with a Middle Easterner can be viewed very differently. We all fear what we don’t know--a different religion, different culture, different dressing codes; and the Middle East has always been seen as very poor on tolerance, freedom, and woman’s issues.
If you say he is from KSA, it is even less understood. KSA is seen as a place with no freedom, where a woman is worth nothing without a husband. And for us, Western women, it’s been so hard to achieve all what we’ve achieved that thinking of falling in love with a Saudi means going back to a distant past. Here everyone tends to think also that all Saudis are rich, so they all live in luxury, and that the rich who travel are hypocrites for what we see of their behaviour when they holiday. We see it as a closed, tribal, classist society, very advanced in some things money can buy, but still anchored in the past related to some issues such as women’s freedom.
I have to say that My Saudi has opened my views about KSA. I’ve also done a lot of research, and despite all the differences and difficulties, I’m more aware of the truth behind those fears, recognizing the genuine concerns and distinguishing them from the fears based on urban legends.
So, given these prevailing attitudes, my confidante was a woman married to a non-Saudi Arab. Yet, she and her husband made an alarming observation: no Saudi man is unmarried at that age! My Saudi was probably just flirting with me, as he must be married with a bunch of kids. They were sure that a man of his age, in his country, and still single would be almost impossible to find.
When I shared this with him he agreed with that statement, but he said that he was. He said that being single cost him a lot of fights with his mother, who was still trying to marry him to close family members.
I also explained this relationship to another friend who did not take it well. She just found the whole idea disgusting, and said “Do what you want, but if you have something with him, you’ll lose all you are and have achieved.” She said, “And it goes further, would you move to a place women go fully covered? Where you cannot drive and work? Where you have no independence and are not able to take part in life as an active member of society? I answered that I knew all that, as I’ve seen and read a lot about it; and, that I was not going that far yet. I was just thinking about meeting him, and then time would tell. It is not that I did not think about the future, it is just that love, if it is real, is so difficult to find that I would go wherever it is, USA, KSA or Japan, no matter how difficult/easy things might be.
That was why I didn’t want to tell any more people I knew about it. I was afraid that they could indirectly determine my perception of what I may have felt.
I thought I would meet My Saudi again soon, and if I had to listen to that negativity all of the time beforehand, it would wear on me. Believe me; if one friend were aware of the relationship, that friend would persist! And, imagine if you would multiply that persistence by 5 friends, 10, x …!
However, I did not know what to think, because I did not understand any need he might have to lie. Sometimes I feared that my friends were right, because it was difficult to explain his behaviour. On the one hand, I thought it couldn’t be true that he was married with children, as sometimes he called at 2 in the morning, and talked while walking around his house. I thought I would have heard voices, or he would have awakened someone. On the other hand, I had also read that family is so important in Saudi that if his mother had wanted to marry him off, no escape would have been possible.
Yet I thought to myself: “No one can live life for me, and my good choices or mistakes are 100% mine. I won’t explain my relationship because I know that about 90% of people are going to have the same negative opinion, and if everybody keeps saying the same thing each and every time, eventually that leaves a trace. Even if you don’t want it to, your perspective may get distorted. Since the day I met him, I decided I wanted to be free to live THIS experience and to see how it turned out, without any external conditioning. It does not matter if it lasts one more week, a month, or more, or if it ends tomorrow. Whatever will be, will be.” So I persisted!
Our conversations were amusing and relaxed at times, while at others we discussed our respective countries’ issues, politics, labour issues, rights. He said that in his family women were not obliged to cover, but some of them did and others didn’t. And they all drive outside KSA!
He also explained other things to me about his family. His sister suffered from breast cancer but they found out just in time, so now she’s ok. His brother bought a house here, in the beach place we met a long time ago. I still remember when he spoke to me about his niece, how he really loved her. He told me that once he was so busy that one day she was with him, and he had no time to give her his full attention, as he was reviewing paperwork for his business. He asked her again and again the same questions without realizing he had done so, and that although she was little, she was a smart girl, and had already answered well. So, at the end, when his sister got back she asked her daughter, “Did you have a nice time with your uncle?” She answered, “Yeah mum, but I think he is a little bit dumb.” LOL! LOL! I still laugh when I remember this story.
Always, we had time in our conversations to remember our meeting, and to wonder if we would recognize each other when we met again. We never spent less than 1 hour on the phone, so we had time to talk about a lot of things, while also planning to see each other soon.
I do not know when the time between calls started to be longer--15 days, 20 days…a month. Still, having a phone friendship with him was great. I really enjoyed our conversations, and he did too, which is why he kept calling, or so he said.
The first time a month passed between calls, he apologized for the delay in calling. He said he’d been very busy travelling through all the Gulf countries for work purposes, as his business was suffering a lot in the worldwide crisis. His company was fighting very hard in order to finish projects on time, and trying to get all the pending accounts paid. He had to move very fast to be the first to close deals, as everybody in business was hungry right then. He said that the last weeks he’d not been able to sleep more then 4 hours per night.
I listened to his words, and told him that I could understand. Sometimes I had weeks when I worked so much than when I arrived home I didn’t do anything at all, because I was very tired. BUT that was not a strong enough reason to not make a call--at least a single one, giving an explanation as to why he was not going to be calling for weeks. He could have made such a call before starting his travels!! C’MON!
He replied that he had thought about it, but after the first three weeks without calling he thought I’d be mad. As he was under a lot of pressure, he thought it was not the moment for this kind of stressful call. Then as time passed, he realized that although things in his work were slowing down, but his initial delay and procrastination made him postpone calling because he was ashamed. He didn’t know how to face the conversation. He knew it would be a tough job to recover my friendship, because, as he has a lot of sisters, he knew how women are. I relented.
After that apology, there were other lengthy silences. Yet, I was still expectant. I still valued our calls.
The thing is that I’m always in a rush, so I almost never have time to pay attention to things. Nevertheless after a February call from My Saudi, I realized, thanks to his example, that I was missing out on a lot of the beautiful things that nature offers us. I didn’t take even a minute to enjoy any of them--such as the moon, landscapes, gardens, trees, roses, the sky. He made me feel I needed to reclaim my life from my everyday concerns, and give a turn to it, feeling closer to what life really is about, and not what we are told requires our attention.
For example, one day I had a phone call from My Saudi saying he was going to be in the desert for a few days, in a jaima; and that it was going to be nice because the moon was going to be full. When I drove back home I looked up at the sky, and really saw it: a nice, bright full moon, no clouds. I was like, “Wait, you did not even realize before that the moon was there? You need a call to realize moon is there?”
I recognized that I didn’t usually look at the sky, either at night or during the day. I was missing the gifts nature offers us daily. Thanks to that realization, one day I heard birds singing by my window. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m sure it was not their first day of singing, but it was my first to hear them.
When you mature you realize you can’t make somebody like or love you. Things are what they are. You are how you are. If someone likes you as you are that is great; if not, no problem. One of these days, someone will. I really believe that things have to come easily, naturally. If forced, it’s because it is not meant to be.
These beliefs are what led me to believe over time that this relationship has been a big illusion that can’t go any further. I have not heard anything from him since August, exactly a year after we met, so I've decided I can't expect anything of him anymore, nor rely on him in any way. He is very nice but I can’t be constantly waiting, and praying or begging for a call.
Even my disappointment now is not as it was in the beginning. All illusion on my part has been put on hold; and now I’m very cold. Without knowing why, I’ve the feeling he won’t call back any more. I am “dis-illusioned”, but not disheartened.
In fact I’m very grateful to have met him. He has fulfilled my heart this year. I’ve not felt alone; I’ve been very happy while lasted. He has encouraged me to take control of some parts of my life that I was missing out on. I already knew about them, but now I want to create a remedy soon. He’s been a sparkle. So I have only nice words for him. I hope he is fine and doing great, as he deserves it!!!
As for me, after my story with him, which inspired me to read wonderful blogs written by people in the KSA, and to learn more about Arab, Muslim, and Saudi culture, I feel I understand Saudis better, and feel closer to them than before. No fear now.
When first becoming aware of Diana’s story, I assumed there would be heart ache. However, Diana has handled this relationship very maturely, and has come to take from it the best it had to offer, while being realistic about expectations from it. Interestingly, she has provided for herself the closure that women seem to want or need, in the face of the non-closure that men seem to offer in ending a relationship.
What are your impressions of Diana’s story? What experiences does it bring to mind for you? Does the closure/non-closure female/male divide I have put forth apply in your experience? Have you had the experience of becoming acquainted with someone who changed your perspective on a culture, or defied stereotypes? Any other comments or thoughts?
*Just before this story was to be posted Diana's Saudi called and...hmmm Part II?