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.
“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.