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.

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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.

“Yes, you?”

“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.”

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