When Judy Walker was asked to be a guest speaker for her grandchildren’s homeschool group to talk about the culture of Saudi Arabia, she gladly accepted. The group was studying regions of the world and their current region was the Middle East. Judy was asked to share with the children what she knew of Saudi culture having lived in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. Little did she know that this first speaking engagement would soon lead to her teaching a full day of 9th-grade classes and sharing her story of Saudi Arabia.
Judy and her husband, Bill, moved to Saudi Arabia in 1979. Bill had been working for Aramco Services Company since 1977 prior to his transfer to Dhahran. Judy remembers the month-long process of doing inventory, holding garages sales, and packing before she and the children would join Bill in Dhahran, a memory in common among many expatriate families.
It was a busy time for Aramco, and Judy recalls Dhahran being packed to overflowing as planeloads of new hires arrived each week. Bill’s time with ASC granted them residence directly on camp which they both were grateful for as it saved them the commute from North Camp.
Fast forward 16 years. Bill's retirement was effective in January of 1996 however, reserved vacation saw both Judy and Bill back home in Houston in time for Christmas. As the story so often goes, Judy states, “We had rented out our Houston house the entire time we were in Saudi thinking we would only be there a few years.”
With fond memories and a number of keepsakes, Judy and Bill returned to stateside friends and family with stories to tell about their adventures overseas. Now, more than two decades later, Judy finds her stories still want and need to be told.
Judy’s daughter-in-law recently approached her about being a guest speaker for a homeschool group with 10 children ranging in age from 10-15, including her grandchildren ages 12 and 14. Judy says, “I was invited to share a talk about the culture of Saudi Arabia. I brought lots of stuff, as any Aramcon would. The class has been exploring the very broad topic of The Middle East in the series this group calls, 'GeoQuest'. It's much more than geography, though, as it touches on geography, early history, politics, and cultures of many parts of the world. The Middle East was their focus for four weeks and the group leaders knew I had lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, that our son was raised there, and that our daughter-in-law, one of the home-school coordinators, loved her visit in The Kingdom. It was a natural invitation to bring the culture to life with personal stories. The book that is used as a resource for this section of study is Prisoners of Geography, and the Crash Course World History video on Ancient Mesopotamia was watched and discussed before I shared my hour of personal stories.
I was limited by the space in my car, but I brought along with me Saudi flags, abayas, veils, hijabs, thobes, sandals, galabias, ghutras, baskets from Hofuf and Abha, a camel prod, carpets, a prayer rug with compass, a coffee pot and brass cups, Bedouin jewelry, embroidered Bedouin dress, gold, prayer beads, chests, riyals and halalas, frankincense, myrrh, Shaybah sand, lots of books, personal photos, and an Iranian tablecloth that served as our flooring. I also wore my favorite abaya, a welcome-to-Saudi gift from one of Bill's co-workers back in 1979. This created the opportunity to speak about hospitality, integral to the Saudi culture - not only was this a lovely gift, it was selected in advance of my arrival to fit my height.
During the presentation, I explained the purpose of the veil and hijab and the importance of this covering that allows a woman greater freedom in a country where modesty is so highly valued. I also explained that Muslims in other countries have different ways of dressing, but follow the teachings of the Koran as far as modesty is concerned. The kids wanted to know if the abaya was hot and I let them dress up to find out just what it was like.
I talked non-stop for more than an hour. I talked about the newness of the Kingdom, the importance of the discovery of oil and the impact this has had on employment and the development of the Kingdom. I spoke of the Saudis who worked with me and their kindness, and the importance of family and tribal allegiance. I described learning how to prepare kabsa in my co-worker Tahani El Sayed's kitchen, and then I spoke about the importance of using only the right hand when eating, shaking hands, or passing something to another person. I told them it was impolite to have the soles of their shoes pointed toward others. I also demonstrated the friendly 'kissy-cheeks' and explained that these signs of affection are limited to women with women, and men with men.
Since we were seated on the floor in a circle with legs crossed, I was asked several times how anyone could avoid having the bottom of their feet pointed to others. I said long thobes and long abayas helped. Customs aren't absolute rules, but attempting to be respectful is what's important. I let them pass around the prayer beads and count the beads before I explained the purpose. Also, they had been introduced to the five basic tenets of Islam before my talk, but I repeated the declaration of faith and showed that even the flag of Saudi Arabia displays that in Arabic. They asked to keep the books for a few weeks to do additional research. The topic of greatest interest that I didn't cover and they wanted to know more about was camel racing and soccer. I like leaving a few questions unanswered so they can discover for themselves.”
When asked about her experience, Judy said, “I loved it all and was sorry when the time was finished. I am so appreciative of the time I had in Saudi Arabia and the benefits of working for Saudi Aramco. The kids enjoyed the hands-on experience of touching the items I brought and after an initial reluctance to dress in the abayas and thobes, they quickly lost their shyness and had fun dressing up and posing for photos. I think the frosting on the cake was when my daughter-in-law spoke insistently at the end about how hospitable Saudis are. She was in-Kingdom only a short time, but this is what left a lasting impression on her.”
Shortly after giving her presentation, Judy was asked by her niece who is a teacher in public school to conduct presentations for her 9th grade Human Geography classes. So Judy packed up her car again for a full day of teaching kids about Saudi Arabia. She states, “all the classes I taught were at the 9th-grade level and I had about 130 students total. For these presentations, I not only covered the culture of Saudi Arabia but explained the history of the Kingdom, the form of government, the natural resources and the importance of the discovery of oil for the economic development of the Kingdom. We discussed population distribution and how the geography of the Kingdom influenced population centers. Education in the Kingdom was emphasized and they wanted to know about the role of women. I used Ali Al-Naimi's biography as an example of the role Aramco has played in the lives of Bedouins as they were encouraged to further their education. We discussed many improvements in the Kingdom, including standards of living, transportation, electrification, medicine, and education for Saudis, including women. I told them about King Abdullah's interest in creating King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) which includes opportunities for co-ed education at the university level. I threw in a lot of personal stories and ran out of time each period - there's so much to share!”
Judy, like many Aramcons, when given the opportunity wants to share her stories of Saudi Arabia, to enlighten others and bring insight into a culture that is unfamiliar to so many. Below is an outline of her presentation. Perhaps it will inspire you to begin a presentation of your own.
Dress: abaya, hijab, veil. (men wear thobe, ghutrah, igal, galabia)
Greeting: "Marhaba, Ahlan wa sahalan, Ismee Judy Walker"
Read: 'Shrouded Mystery' by Nimah Ismael Nawwab from her book of poetry (see below)
Gender roles in Saudi Arabia
- Dress - obvious distinctions
- Public displays of affection are different, there are warm interactions, but between the same gender.
- Example of Ali Al-Naimi's life
- Recent changes - education, employment, modernization
Personal experiences and lessons in cultural differences
- Impact of geography, desert survival, Bedouins care for strangers 3 days before even asking family name (friend or foe?)
- Serve water and dates
- Share personal work experiences, talk about observing Ramadan, and about importance of honesty and safety
- Work starts with visiting, inquire about family, don't rush to business first
- Eat and serve with right hand only
- Geography important - Muslim holy cities are Kingdom's responsibility to world
- King's role and humility: "King Salman, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques"
- Sharia Law
- All Saudis are Muslim by birth
- Monarchy - Abdulaziz al Saud, created Kingdom by might and marriage 1902-1932
- Succession decided by family, consultation with Kingdom leaders
- 40 sons, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (grandson)
- Regional Governors appointed from Royal family.
- Thursday majlis available to citizens
- Approximately 30 million people of which approximately one-third are expatriates.
- Geography's impact on population distribution: Desert, Coastal regions, Mountains
- Rapid growth, young population
- Ancient - Frankincense provided prosperity, education and knowledge flourished.
- Modern - Oil concession 1933. Most current exports - oil-based industries
- Other resources - Pearl diving, fishing, dates, discussion of future tourism
- 5-Year plans
- Wealth vs. poverty, regional differences, impact of world oil markets
- Hope for the future. Describe KAUST and educational opportunities for women
Show and tell about 'treasures' brought.
Questions to answer.
by Nimah Ismail Nawwab
Shrouded, cloaked in black,
Figures of mystery,
Tales abound of their lives,
True or false, that is the question.
What does one do
With masked figures
While looking deep into the hidden folds?
Trying to decipher the looks in the black fringed eyes,
The lives they lead,
Choices they make,
Are their lives as secluded as they appear?
Or are they full of personal successes,
Of strong family ties,
Of an unshakable faith.
For additional presentation material, please visit the Aramco ExPats Speaker's Bureau where you will find speaker's notes and slide presentations for audiences of all ages.