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“Saudi Arabia? That’s a country Daddy? Where is it? Is it going to be like it is here? Are there going to be playgrounds and ice cream?”
Those were just a few of the thoughts that began circulating through my seven- year old mind. I was born in upstate New York and raised in Maryland, yet of Lebanese origin. Out of nowhere, I learned that I would soon have to leave my friends and the only place I had ever known existed; it turned my world upside down. I was just like any other seven-year old girl; obsessed with Barbies, playing dress-up with my mother’s clothes and jauntily leading a carefree life. I was a very curious young child, always feeling the need to know something about everything. I was outgoing and sometimes a bit obnoxious, but then again who wasn’t at the age of seven? Soon after I learned of our move to Saudi Arabia, everything changed.
I arrived in Saudi Arabia and experienced extreme culture shock. I learned that in public, women have to be covered from head to toe by wearing what the Saudis call an “abaya”, which is a black cloak or gown that completely covers the female body. Women are not allowed to drive, work, or closely interact with men, and the weather is unbearably hot 11 months a year. The people spoke a language unfathomable to me and I was on the verge of a breakdown. In this strange, new country, I felt like a completely different person. I knew absolutely no one. I went from being a happy, outgoing little girl to a girl with no friends and no knowledge of anything around her, which of course was a completely alien experience for me. What could Saudi Arabia possibly offer me? Was I ever going to learn to tolerate the vastly contrasting culture and lifestyle? The moment I saw the endless cascading mounds of sand and barren earth, I was convinced that there was no way I was ever going to make friends with people who were at home in this desolate and backwards country, who nonetheless spoke a language completely foreign to me. I remember crying everyday, begging my parents to take me back home; a place where I was perfectly happy with everything and never complained. Soon enough however, I was placed in an American school in the middle of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Over the years, I met people who had also just moved from their countries and we all turned to each other to share our thoughts and experiences in our new “home.” Up until the ninth grade, I remained a shy and reserved individual, as there wasn’t much for a young girl to do in a strict and religious country like Saudi Arabia; or so I thought. It was not until my freshman year that I broke out of my tiny, introverted bubble and began taking an active role in my school surroundings. I began getting myself involved in competitive school team sports such as basketball and soccer; went on an international study trip with the school to Switzerland and traveled around the kingdom as a member of Saudi Arabia’s All-Kingdom Band playing the trombone with proud fluency. I even managed to acquire the country’s native language, Arabic, and began to learn more about my religion – Islam. I soon established friendships with individuals from various countries such as Canada, Egypt, Jordan, United States of America, South Africa, Brazil and Pakistan, just to name a few. The people helped me adjust to the country, despite its desert-like climate and strict rules. Over time, we shared aspects of our cultures and traditions, in addition to realizing that we all have our similarities and differences. We developed a profound tolerance and respect for the country we were currently living in. I soon realized that the relationships I had developed in this country were the friendships that I would value and cherish the most in the future. All of us being foreigners in Saudi Arabia led us to come closer together and to confide in one another. I was slowly becoming my younger self again; outgoing, active and most importantly, happy. Looking back at my experience in Saudi Arabia, I have become aware of what the country has offered me and I find myself taking back the feelings of resentment that I had towards my parents for moving to this country, as well as the harsh feelings I first developed towards the country itself.
After living in Saudi Arabia for approximately eleven years, I am happy to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the country, and have realized that during my years in Saudi Arabia, I have had a unique opportunity to live overseas and meet people from different backgrounds, religions, and cultures. As a guest in the country, I have learned that Saudi Arabia has offered me the opportunity to experience a culture that is different from my own in many ways, and this opportunity has allowed me to be open and to accept and tolerate different perspectives, traditions and beliefs. My exposure to these different nationalities in Saudi Arabia has built on my foundations of cultural awareness, rather than laying the cornerstone for it. I now see Saudi Arabia in a completely different light than when I had first moved to the country. I no longer see it as a country that is part of the world, but a country that has brought the world to me.
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