The Director of Scotland Study Centre has written the following article:
I spent five months teaching in a women’s college in Madinah, Saudi Arabia. However, as a non-Saudi, as a non-Muslim, and especially as a non-Saudi, non-Muslim female, in those five months I only managed to gain limited insight into the Saudi culture and practices. It was therefore in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of what I experienced in Madinah that I agreed to write a review for Addul al Lily’s ‘The Bro Code.’
Perhaps ‘The Bro Code’ is best understood as a series of statements about Saudi Arabian values and customs that, while not proven to be true, nevertheless provide a basis upon which to evaluate our own research and experiences of the country. Another main asset of the book is that it does not take a religious or any other partisan viewpoint. Although titled ‘The Bro Code,” the book remains gender-neutral in describing Saudi Arabian practices in all their often bewildering and contradictory forms.
‘The Bro Code’ is termed a ‘book,’ but it the type of book that appeals well to both avid and less avid readers. A main plus is that you can dip in and out of the different statements, making it very easy to digest.. The statements are grouped into categories that relate to body parts; however, the book does not have the sort of overall hierarchical structure that readers expect of a traditional academic publication. Nor does it have the normal references and support for statements expected of an academic research study. Al Lily has based his research in multiple interviews and in his own extensive personal experience and insights as a Saudi insider. He also intersperses the lists of statements with statistical analyses of the interviews that shed light on Saudi and non-Saudi views of each other and of each other’s cultures and values
While the list of statements in ‘The Bro Code’ is long, I will focus on the first three, as they helped make clearer the basis of my experiences in Madina. I will also focus on those statements that relate to my arrival at my hotel in Madinah and on what were the most extreme and memorable of my many experiences during my five month stay there.
Statement Nos 1-3
- Saudi society is divided into two domains, a domestic ‘inside the house’ domain and a public ‘outside the house’ domain.
- Women are responsible for and belong to the domestic domain.
- Men are in command of and are affiliated with the public domain.
As very much an outsider to Saudi Arabian culture, my entry to the inner women’s domain took place immediately on my arrival at El Meridien Hotel, the only hotel in Madinah allowed to accept non-Muslim guests. I arrived at about 3 a.m., and without even being offered a seat or a cup of tea, the male staff immediately fetched a black abbaya and hijab and told me to put them on, right there at the reception desk, on top of my own clothing. As I struggled into the abbaya and attempted to put the hijab on properly, I had a really uncomfortable sense of humiliation; I felt my own culture and values were being belittled, while complying with having to wear the abbaya and hijab symbolised my own acceptance of this belittlement. As stated in The Bro Code Statement No.1131, however “compliance is compulsory.”
Putting on the ababya and hijab, I also immediately regretted having bought a wardrobe of long, dark, baggy clothes for coming to Madinah. I later wore them under the abbaya, and they served me as work clothes in the college. However, my fashion sense was in stark and very dowdy contrast to the colourful, and sexy, clothes worn by some of the staff and by the majority of the students in the college. The stark contrast in women’s dress-styles and behaviour for the public and private domains was my first insight into the contradictory nature of Saudi culture and values. The teachers and girls arrived swathed in black, with only their very made-up eyes showing. Immediately inside the college walls, however, they were creatures transformed. De-abbayaed and de-hijabed, and de-niqabed, the students were no different to young women elsewhere, with their immediate interest in fashion, make-up, music, relationships, and fun. They, like other young women throughout the world, were also interested in more serous topics, and they were especially keen to find out and experience for themselves what life is really like in the ‘outer’ world. Their curiosity, as well as their inherent confidence in their own abilities, was particularly evident when they questioned me about what it was like to drive. “It’s easy, isn’t it, Miss?” they asked, and they all laughed when I answered, “Of course it’s easy. Men can do it, can’t they?”
Whiteness is said to have a positive value in Saudi Arabian culture. In contrast, Statement No.318, highlights the use of the expression, “May God make your face black” as a curse. No. 486 also states that black-skinned Saudis are “jokingly” referred to as “slaves.” This ability to refer to humans as slaves is indicative of a mentality more in tune with medieval times than with the 21st Century, and some of the functions I witnessed at the El Meridien hotel did indeed resemble medieval banquets.
The hotel was at times commandeered by Saudi Arabian Princes and other high-ranking officials for official functions and parties. One such party meant that all guests of the hotel had to wait until the party was over, “perhaps very, very late, or tomorrow morning” – before being allowed access to our hotel. I and the other college teachers, as non-Saudis, were privileged to have been allowed earlier access at 9.00 p.m. I was escorted to my room by guards carrying machine guns, past an enormous tank stationed in the hotel courtyard, past the main party taking place in the reception area.
There were only males present in the reception area, as in Saudi Arabian culture the sexes are also segregated for parties. As I was rushed through the party by the armed guards, what stood out most were the “slaves,” dark-skinned men wearing very bright, colourful clothes and turbans, holding golden trays with goblets, and serving the other, lighter-skinned men in their white cloaks and headdresses. I looked on, as if viewing scenes from a parallel, past world.
There were guards with rifles stationed at each corner of each floor of the hotel. I was escorted to the door of my room and was told that I would only be allowed to leave it after 9.00 a.m. the next morning. Looking closely at the armed guards, their faces were in stark, and pleasant, contrast to the intimidating nature of their military clothing and rifles. They smiled at me, politely and pleasantly. They looked like innocent young kids playing at being soldiers.
At 9.00 the next morning, I peeked out my room door, and, seeing no guards, I went down to breakfast. I was served by the usual, very cheerful and friendly Asian waiter. He had worked in Saudi Arabia for nine years, during which time he had viewed its culture with critical interest. We chatted about the events of the previous evening, and he commented: “They come. The men go one place, the women go another place. They sit, they eat, they talk. They look bored. They go home. In my country, there is music,and dancing, and fun. Here, no music, no dancing, no fun’”
There was fun in Medinah. I experienced it everyday with my fun-loving and inquisitive students, behind the walls and closed gates of the college. I also experienced it intermittently, when at times I was taken by some of the other teachers, mainly Palestinians and Syrians, on outings with their families. Fun was also stolen, most memorably as I and a Syrian friend and her daughters hitched up our abbayas and raced each other, hidden in the darkness, in the evenings behind the El Meridienl.
I recommend ‘The Bro Code’. It provides what seem to be unbiased glimpses, and a degree of understanding, of Saudi Arabian culture, a culture that, even when you live there, can otherwise be difficult to access and comprehend. Some day there will be ‘The Sis Code’, and that is sure to provide even more insight, and even more interesting reading.
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