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.
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.