Saudi in the city
The Saudi government is sending students west on scholarships that give them the freedom to both learn the language and understand cultures different than their own. In the warmth of Kayan Mediterranean Cuisine, Nazanine Hozar dives into the world of the hip, trendy, and unusually open-minded young people who have chosen Vancouver over New York, Melbourne and London as their destination.
In the corner of Kayan Mediterranean Cuisine, Mohammad plays oud, a Middle-Eastern guitar-like instrument.
He sings, his tender but masculine bravado filling the room. My friends and I can’t understand a word of the Arabic lyrics, but the beautiful melancholy of his singing touches us.
Among the 30 or so people in the restaurant, half of them do understand Mohammad. Young Saudi men sing along and wave their hands from side to side. They sway their heads, in part as a sincere sign of a investment in the moment, but also as a gesture affectation in the culture they come from.
The owner of Kayan is Oula Hamadeh, a Lebanese-Canadian who is strong, kind, warm, and lethal with her words. She has invited me here, both to dine and meet some of the Saudis that frequent her restaurant.
Over the past year-and-a-half, I, and the rest of Vancouver have become witnesses to a new phenomenon: young people from Saudi Arabia studying in Vancouver. They often hang out downtown, moving in groups of four or five friends, young men dressed in trendy street clothing. There are also are the couples, one pushing a baby stroller, the women’s head and face sometimes covered with a veil, walking beside her partner, gently speaking into his ear.
”What is happening with them coming here is so good, so important,” Oula said.
“You mean that having these young people come to the west, to Vancouver...”
“Is incredible,” she interrupts. “That finally they are learning what life here is like, so that they’re no strangers to it. Who cares what anyone else thinks? This is so important.”
Oula's defensive comment is in response to an earlier conversation I had with one of her regular customers whom she introduced to me. Sultan, a 29-year-old doctor from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had criticized the influx of young Saudis men and women coming, fully funded, to Western countries (mainly Canada, Australia, The United Kingdom and the U.S.) to learn English.
“This has nothing to do with English,“ he told me. “There’s something else going on here. All these expenses could be used to help build the country, but it’s just being wasted here. And I assure you none of these kids will learn all that much English. When their scholarships are up, they’ll go back, still jobless, still unable to keep up with the rest of the world. There’s something else going on here, it’s not about English. All of this only started after 9/11.”
My conversation with Sultan had occurred on a Monday afternoon during one of Kayan’s quiet hours, the calm before the daily storm when dozens of young Arabs and Persians infiltrate the cozy restaurant to chat and dine and dance to Middle-Eastern pop music without the curious eyes of Canadians upon them. Oula – ever the great hostess – guided me to the few tables where the Saudi boys gathered and discussed, in low trebled voices, their experiences in the city.
One of them, a young man whose exuberance and 100-watt smile made him stand out from the crowd, jumped up to introduce himself.
“Abdullah,” he says, waiting for me to give him my name as well. His smile is infectious.
Abdullah comes from the city of Dammam. He takes me to a table where his friends are gathered, and quickly introduces them to me. His accent is heavy and he speaks so fast that I miss all their names and have to ask for them slowly once more. From Jeddah, Naif, is the oldest at 28, the father of a five-month-old girl and owner of the shyest eyes I’ve yet seen. Mero, also from Jeddah, is 26 and the father of a two-year-old-boy whom he and his wife left in the care of their parents in Saudi Arabia nine months ago; a decision that has hampered both of their experiences in the new city.
“Especially my wife,” Mero says. “She is very very unhappy. She loves Vancouver, but is very unhappy.”
I ask him why they made such a drastic decision, to leave their child behind.
“Because we don’t know the child care system here. Don’t know if there is anyone good to take care of him.”
“My daughter is at a good daycare,” says Naif. This makes Mero smile.
“Yes, now we know. Now, we go back to Saudi Arabia and bring him back this time.”
Sitting in the corner, by the window (and serving as my translator), Abdullah shakes his head in disbelief. “I don’t have children, I’m too young for that, but when I heard this, I was so sad. It must be so difficult to be away from your baby like this.”
This leads me to my main question. Why have they come?
“For English,” says Naif. “Me and my wife, the government pays for us to come here and learn.”
Why they love Vancouver
But why Vancouver of all places? Why not New York, Sydney or Melbourne?
“Because it’s beautiful, and the people are so, so nice,” says the fourth member of the ensemble. His name is Joseph. With his ebony skin and curly black hair, he sits furthest from me, ear-phones plugged in, nodding his head along to the beat of whatever music he's listening to. Of all the young men at the table, he looks the most Westernized, showing less customary politeness than Middle-Eastern men typically display in front of women. Up to that moment, he wasn't interested in the conversation, as though talk of his homeland wasn't cool.
“And the people, too,” Abdullah jumps in. “The people are so nice, so kind.”
“Yes, yes,” says Joseph, “The people are amazing. No racism, no prejudice. People don’t treat you differently here.”
Abdullah’s earnest reply made me curious.
“So you must have been to many other cities before Vancouver then,” I said. “New York, London -- are people there not as friendly to you there?”
“No, no,“ Abdullah shakes his head, “Never been to any place else. Vancouver is the only city I’ve come to since leaving Saudi Arabia.”
His comment stuns me. I had thought that his enthusiasm for Vancouver had context, and a point of comparison to other cities. I ask around the table. One after the other, they tell me that they’ve never been anywhere else. Vancouver is the only city they’ve known beyond the borders of their native country.
“How did you know to choose Vancouver, then?” I ask.
“I looked at pictures online and saw how beautiful it was. But people told me about it before. Other people who had come here to study, they go back and tell people.” The others nod in agreement.
“But how do you know that Vancouver is better than other places, has less racism, less prejudice, if you’ve never been anywhere else?” I ask. Mero, Naif, and Abdullah look on with blank stares that tell me it’s hard for them to grasp what I’m asking.
“People just talk. Friends tell us about Vancouver and we come here,” says Abdullah.
“Did you know anything else about Canada before you came here?”
“No,” he says, “We just come here and learn about it here. Some people don’t even know anything about this place until they arrive, and then they see how nice people are and they like it, so they tell their friends when they go back to Saudi. It’s like that.”
“Can you go to any other cities?” I ask. “Besides Vancouver? Or does the government choose the countries for you?”
“We have a choice between America, Canada, UK, and Australia.” Abdullah says.
“And you chose Canada why?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” he says.
The confusion of the moment brings me back to my conversation with Sultan. Meeting him, I was taken with his impeccable appearance and mannerisms. He spoke English perfectly, without slang or affectation. I couldn’t keep my eyes off his pearly white Vogue eyeglasses, his iPhone and iPad. Everything about him screamed money and privilege.
“These young guys who come here. They know nothing about the world,” he said. “The government gives them all this money, this scholarship to come learn English, but really they don’t do that. They come here to have fun, see what the west is like. It has nothing to do with English or education. Then they’ll go back, and still won’t have jobs, and suddenly they’ll realize how different Saudi Arabia is and they’ll want the life here again, the way things are in Vancouver, but they won’t be able to have it. It’ll be a disaster.
“My friends and I, other educated people, we’re all so upset by this. What has to happen is that they should first learn English, in their undergraduate work. Then for post grad they can come here. Otherwise, this is a total waste of national resources.”
As he speaks of money, I can’t help but think how expensive his outfit looks, and wonder how much money he’s talking about here.
“You come from a prestigious family?” I ask Sultan, more so because of the quality of his mannerism and the way he carries himself.
“No, no, “ he says, “My family doesn’t have money. There are many poor people in Saudi Arabia. The government has money, has oil. Not the people. But these young kids here, they don’t realize what’s happening. The government doesn’t have their best interest in mind.”
I wonder about Sultan’s own situation here. He says he's working at a hospital.
“As regular staff?” I ask him.
“In a way. Technically, the Saudi government pays my salary.”
Another day at Kayan: I sit back again in my own bubble and listen to Mohammad play his oud, until I see the beautiful Oula charging at me once more.
“I have more Saudi boys for you,” she says. “They’re even younger. Come, come.”
She grabs my arm, pulling me along to the other end of the restaurant.
“But what about girls?” I ask her. “I wish there were some Saudi girls to talk to.”
“Good luck finding them, and getting them to do an interview,” she says.
I find myself at a table with another Sultan. At 22, he’s younger and more wide-eyed than the older Sultan, with a permanent smile on his face that he can’t seem to shed. His friend Bendar, also 22, looks even more innocent, yet still stylish with long hair that falls to the nape of his neck.
Young Sultan and Bendar remind me of my translator Abdullah; bubbly with a constant excitement about a city that allows them the joys of experimentation.
“I love Vancouver,” Bendar says. “People are so kind here. They don’t bother you. They treat you with respect, they don’t judge our culture or religion.”
“But wasn’t it hard for you at first?” I ask him. “You come here and things are so different. Women aren’t covered up. They show their skin, their hair.”
“They respect our culture and we respect theirs,” says the toothy young Sultan. “There is no judgment.”
I ask them if they interact much with Canadians here. They reply no. Their main activities consist of going to ESL schools from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. then heading over to Kayan to eat, chat, and study.
“We actually don’t know that many Canadians,” admits Bendar. “Most of our friends are Saudis, or maybe now Brazilian or Korean people, and maybe some Mexican.”
“I think the way that Canada, or Vancouver is now, “ says Sultan, “is that everybody is from some other place. That’s what makes it so good and interesting, and why so many Saudis come here. You come to Vancouver and get to know the whole world.”
He adds that while he doesn’t socialize very much with Canadians, Abdullah does. He mentions this just as my old friendly translator walks by our table. “Yes, of course I’ve met Abdullah,” I say, and the three of us watch him wave to us as he heads back to his table.
For the rest of our conversation, Bendar and Sultan tell me their plans for the future. Both from Jeddah, they plan on moving to Toronto to pursue undergraduate degrees, all at the expense of the Saudi government.
Finally, I muster up the nerve to ask them how much their scholarships are in fact worth. And while I’m shocked by the number they give, it’s not as much as I had initially thought.
“$2,700 a month,” says Bendar, “And it is for everything. Food, school, apartment.”
“No, I buy my clothes back home," he says shyly. "They have better clothes there.”
A Saudi girl's perspective
A few days pass. My friend Jacob, an ESL teacher, gets in touch with me. He tells me about a Saudi student of his that I must meet, and that she -- yes, she -- has agreed to see me. Having tried for weeks to interview Saudi women, I find myself practically jumping up and down.
As per my friend’s instructions, I add her as a friend on Facebook. “She’s half-Pakistani and half-Lebanese,” he explains, “But born and raised in Saudi Arabia -- and she’s very interesting.”
Once our Facebook friendship is solidified, I realize I’ve found someone for whom the word “interesting” is an understatement, judging by some of her status updates:
“I like my coffee strong and black…just like my man.”
“I'm not racist ... I hate everyone equally :)”
I realize I’ve found the first female Saudi stand-up comedian, though Oula would disagree, insisting there likely are many like her -- we just don't know about them.
Her name is Rawan, and according to her Facebook page, she likes Korean friends, but hates Korean food. I learn that she doesn’t cover her hair, walks around with pink sneakers, a bright green Adidas messenger bag, and has a gay best friend.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon I wait for Rawan outside her ESL school on Granville Street. In one corner a street rapper beat-boxes into his microphone. Knowing what Rawan looks like from her Facebook pictures, I search for a sweet face with piercing blue eyes. It is while standing there, staring into the crowds that I feel a tap on my shoulders. Expecting it to be her, I turn around to say my first hello.
Instead I’m presented with a cheerful smile I had already become acquainted with days earlier. Bendar, the youngest of all the Saudis I’ve met, gleefully says hello. Excited to see him, I ask if we’re outside his ESL school too. “No,” he shakes his head. “I go somewhere else. Just waiting for my friend.”
“Sultan?” I wonder.
“Yes, Sultan,” he replies, all smiles.
“You’re going shopping?”
“No, going to study, at Kayan. You want to come?”
I catch of glimpse of Rawan approaching me. I prepare to say hello again, when just at the point of her arrival, Bendar’s friend, Sultan comes sauntering.
I introduce Rawan to the boys, but they seem hesitatant, and don’t greet her with much enthusiasm. Within seconds, it’s decided that Rawan and I will be going to Kayan with them.
We head off to catch the Canada Line to go to the restaurant. But Sultan and Bendar quickly gain some distance on us, leaving us to ourselves while they chat with each other. I turn to Rawan for an explanation about their distance and hesitation, but she doesn’t offer any. Instead we begin to talk about her unique ethnic background. Both her parents were born in Saudi Arabia, but their families are from different countries. And then of course there’s the inevitable question about her lack of a veil, or hijab.
“I’m from Jeddah,” she says. “People there are from all parts of the world, they’re not all Bedouins (native Saudis), like these boys,” she points to Sultan and Bendar, who are now so far ahead I’m beginning to lose them in the crowd. “It’s more common to have people not wear veils. There are a lot of Americans and Europeans who work there.”
During our walk, Rawan talks about her life here, how she both likes and dislikes living downtown.
“It’s nice that it’s close to everything, but I’m also having the problem of all my friends wanting to crash at my place after they party.” Rawan’s English is nearly perfect, certainly much clearer than that of the boys.
“I’ve been to a lot of other places before Vancouver, though, and studied English in Jeddah, so maybe that’s why. And I majored in French literature.” She admits she she often skips many English classes, which are too easy for her -- she sleeps in for the early classes and rarely does homework.
“Jacob always yells at me,” she laughs.
“Sultan and Bendar are going to Kayan to study,” I point out. “Oh, they’re not going to do anything,” she jokes. “They’ll just sit there and listen to music all night!”
We finally make it to the SkyTrain station. For a second, I think we’ve lost the boys, until I see that they’re quietly waiting for us at the bottom of the escalators, not quite making eye contact with us. We wait in a group for a bit. The atmosphere is awkward. The boys look nervous and uncomfortable.
Rawan stands further, looking in a different direction, avoiding eye contact with them too. Then she remembers she doesn’t have a ticket. She asks me if there’s time to run upstairs and buy one. I look to the boys.
“When does the train get here?”
“Seven minutes more, says Sultan.”
I turn to Rawan. “Seven more minutes, you’ve got time.”
Part of my brain is wondering why this interaction isn’t taking place between Rawan and the boys, and why I’ve suddenly become an intermediary between them. Rawan rushes upstairs, her green Adidas bag swaying behind her.
As soon as she disappears from sight, Sultan and Bendar resume talking to me normally again.
“What do you guys do, for fun?”
“Go to Kayan, go for walks, go to school, sometimes go to movies,” says Bendar. “Our life is very normal.”
“You don’t go out, party?”
“Not really. We dance at Kayan sometimes because they play Arabic music.”
“Oh, but he likes to party!” Sultan suddenly says, and suddenly Abdullah, the smiley translator from a few days before pops up from the other side of the station. The three boys say hello, but Abdullah is most excited to see me and what looks like to him is the continuation of our talk.
“You going to Kayan?” he asks.
“No, just coming back from there,” he says.
Rawan returns with her ticket. I motion to her to let Abdullah know I’ll be interviewing her today. “Really happy I found a girl,” I say. He looks shyly away, yet isn’t as uncomfortable as the other two boys. “What are you doing now then?” I ask Abdullah. He pushes up the collar of his unzipped cardigan.
“Going to The Roxy. There’s a concert there, but not staying there for too long, going to Joe’s Apartment after. There’s another show there.” He proceeds to tell me that he goes clubbing most nights. “Maybe I’ll come to Kayan again after.”
Sultan and Bendar giggle a little, amused by Abdullah’s energy.
“He doesn’t like to be bored,” says Sultan.
“Yeah, I like to have fun,” says Abdullah.
Our train arrives and we wish Abdullah well as he sets off for a mid-week night of clubbing and exploration.
“Are there any clubs in Saudi Arabia?” I ask the others naively. Justifiably, they all laugh at me -- the country is home to many prestigious nightclubs.
Finally at Kayan, Rawan and I sit down at the unoccupied end of the restaurant, far from the other customers there. This area usually isn’t open in the afternoons but Oula agrees as soon as I tell her it seems Rawan isn’t very comfortable being around the Saudi boys.
But as we sit down Rawan tells me that it’s all right. It’s not her who’s uncomfortable, but rather that most of the guys have never been close to other Saudi women apart from their mothers or sisters. They seem to be careful to respect her. “They weren’t talking to me because they think I’m lesser than them. They didn’t want to upset me, or offend me. They kind of think that if they say hello or make eye contact, I’ll be bothered and angry.”
“They were trying to be gentlemen?” I ask.
“Yes, basically. It’s a very different culture," she explains. "They can talk to Canadian girls no problem, because they don’t think you will be upset by it, but they fear we will.”
I find it interesting that what Rawan is basically saying to me is that it’s the men who are in the weaker position. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Men are in much weaker positions in Saudi society, but not Saudi law.”
What does she mean by this?
“Well, the women who work in Saudi Arabia often make more money than the men. So you have women supporting their husbands, supporting their children, their brothers.”
“How?” I ask.
“Because they’re more educated. Because women work so many more hours. So they end up with bigger incomes. Of the ones who go to work, I mean."
She explains that everything in Saudi is changing. The culture, the way people live, and the dynamics between men and women.
"But still women aren’t allowed to drive there, even though there’s nothing in the law that says they can’t," she adds. "That’s why it’s good that young people come here, to see what people here live like, and maybe they’ll take that back home.”
This makes me think of Sultan, the doctor, and his comment about the Saudi government sending their youth here for reasons other than English. “He’s right,” agrees Rawan. “It really isn’t about the English, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of money on education."
"When the current King gained power his first goal was that Saudi people should become educated about how the rest of the world lives, that’s his main goal. Vancouver’s the perfect kind of place for it. So many different types of people here, and nobody judges anybody else. Young Saudis are here to explore. Some like me — I’d rather stay home and hang out with my friends, but someone like Abdullah, he’s doing his exploring at The Roxy!"
"That’s his education!” I say, and Rawan laughingly nods her head.
“We’ve all got to learn something from somewhere. When I first came to Canada it was the best time for me ever. I came alone, without a male guardian (Rawan has since had her brother brought over to act as her required guardian to receive a $4,100 monthly scholarship from the government), so I had to live in a hostel with little money. All the friends I have now, I met there. They’re all these bisexual party people. They’re so interesting, and have had so much experience."
"My best friend now, he’s gay. He does too many drugs and parties too much, but when my brother and I came here, he helped us so much and was so good to us that now my brother’s gotten close to him and goes to the gay bars with all his friends.”
“Your brother goes to gay bars?” I ask, surprised.
“Oh, yeah. We don’t judge people here. We think they should live however they want to live. That’s because they respect us.”
Near the end of our talk, Rawan invites me over to hang out with her brother and band of friends. It’s an offer I can’t refuse. We make plans to meet again, and get up to head to the other end of the restaurant for a much-needed dinner.
As we sit down to eat I see Bendar and Sultan in the corner. We’ve been there for hours and neither boy has cracked a book open yet. “So much for their studying,” I say.
“Yeah, but they’re learning how to talk to Canadian girls,” Rawan jokes. “That’s pretty big for them. And Abdullah is studying too. He’s probably doing it at Joe’s Apartment right about now.”
This leads me to ask Rawan about her own education and future plans in Saudi Arabia. "I'm never going back there," she says, forcefully.
"You're staying in Vancouver?"
"Anywhere in Canada. Maybe here. Maybe Toronto or Montreal, since I'd like to use my French."
I recall something Rawan had told me earlier, about her identical twin sister who still lives in Saudi Arabia. She has just received her law degree from a well-known Saudi university, yet can't practice law because of her gender.
"The law firm hired her to do their extra work for them, because women always work harder. But she can never practice law. She gets them (the men) coffee, does their research, maybe types things out."
Yet ultimately, Rawan sees all her sister's hard work and education as a complete waste.
“So you don’t think there’s much there for you?” I ask.
“This place is better for someone like me.” Rawan refrains from saying much else. Her outwardly bubbly disposition belies the air of sadness in her comment.
“You miss your sister? Maybe she can join you here one day.”
“Maybe,” she says. “My English is better than hers. She’d have a lot of catching up to do.”
Our food arrives, and Rawan and I turn our attention to Oula’s fine cuisine. As we eat, Middle Eastern students sing along to the accompaniment of an oud that has been playing in the background since our arrival. Rawan says she’ll come back to Kayan again, maybe bring some friends.
“My Canadian friends would like a place like this,” she says, looking at pieces of the culture she left back home.