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.
“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.