of us is molded by whatever culture in which we grew up. As we
grow and mature, we naturally become used to the style of dress,
the types of food, hygiene, and the general cultural norms of
our environment. By the time we are adults, we have become
molded to the customs and lifestyles of the people of our own
country. However, anyone who has moved from their own country
to another country will notice many cultural differences.
These differences can be minor, but many can be dramatically significant.
For example, when coming to the United States from Saudi Arabia,
there were so many differences in the culture, customs, and mode
of dress, it was difficult for me to feel comfortable at first.
Vast differences in the culture and customs of the U.S. and Saudi
Arabia can make adjustment difficult for many people.
Unlike the United States where government and religion are separate, Saudi Arabia is very much controlled by the religious teachings of Islam. In fact, it can be said that Islam affects every aspect of the culture and customs of Saudi Arabia. Islam guides Saudi people on how to dress, what to eat, when and how to pray, and how to conduct business. The eating of pork is forbidden in Islam, and modesty in dress is the custom. Banks are not allowed to make money from people in the way of interest - this is strictly forbidden under Islamic law. Another major difference is how religion is practiced. Muslims are required to pray five times per day. Every Muslim must keep this obligation during dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. This can be a difficult obligation to fulfill when not in one's own country. However, in Saudi Arabia, offices and shops are obliged to close during these times of prayer. These are only some of the major differences in the culture and customs of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Another major difference in the culture of the United States and Saudi Arabia is the way most young people in America find it normal to move away from their families upon reaching the age of eighteen. Many young Americans like to branch out from their families and get their own apartments, or share apartments with boyfriends or girlfriends. In Saudi Arabia, unless sons and daughters go away to college, they usually remain at home with their parents. It is not the cultural norm to move out at the young age of eighteen to live on your own - especially for females to live with a boyfriend. Nor is it the custom for grandparents to be isolated from the family and placed in nursing homes or retirement homes. The elderly are the most respected people in Saudi Arabia and are treated with the utmost reverence. If parents or grandparents become unable to live alone safely, they are automatically expected to move in with a son or daughter of their choice. It would be unthinkable to shut older relatives away from the family, because they are the ones with the most wisdom and have given their lives to the service of the family.
Another difference is how young people in America are free to date one another, without supervision. Americans even date more than one person at a time, and this is culturally acceptable. In Saudi Arabia, dating is taken very seriously and is usually arranged by the parents or a close relative. It is not culturally acceptable in Saudi Arabia for a young man or woman to just call up someone they like and ask them out on a date. The system of dating is more formal, more supervised, and is taken more seriously than in America. If dating occurs, it is always with the ultimate goal of marriage.
There are also differences in the manner of dress in Saudi Arabia and the United States - particularly for females. Saudi dress is one of its strongest ties to the past and reflects the challenging environment, faith and values of its people. In Saudi Arabia, the religion and customs dictate conservative dress for both men and women. Foreigners coming to our country are given some freedom in their manner of dress, but they are expected to follow local customs, particularly in public places. This is similar to the old saying, "When you're in Rome do as the Romans do." Nonetheless, the custom in Saudi Arabia dress is always to conceal rather than reveal. Traditional Saudi men wear a thobe, which is perfectly suited to the hot Saudi climate. During hot weather, white thobes are worn by Saudi men and boys. During cooler weather, wool thobes in dark colors are not uncommon. At special times, men often wear a bishi or mishlah over the thobe. These are long white, brown or black cloaks trimmed in gold. When a Saudi woman appears in public, she normally wears a voluminous black cloak called an abayah, a scarf covering her hair and a full-face veil. There are varying opinions today regarding the wearing of the abayah and veil, and some Saudi women do not conform. Nonetheless, Saudi women dress modestly in public and in the presence of men who are not close relatives. Of course, womens fashions do not stop with the abayah. Beneath it Saudi women enjoy fashionable clothing and take great pride in their appearance. They enjoy bright colors and lavishly embroidered fine materials. Non-Muslim women living in Saudi Arabia often choose to wear the abayah as a sign of respect for the local customs. Although men and women traditionally maintain the Saudi dress, a large number of the younger generation, both male and female, have started following a more western style of dress.
Westerners may be surprised by the sight of Saudi executives,
high-ranking businessmen and university professors chewing publicly
on a tan-colored stick about the thickness of the little finger.
The public care of one's teeth is perfectly acceptable in Saudi
Arabia, and is done with the miswak, a natural toothbrush-cum-toothpaste.
It comes from the arak tree, which is more commonly known as the
"toothbrush tree." The arak grows in Saudi Arabia,
Sudan, and Eastern parts of India. Miswak cleans the mouth,
whitens the teeth and sweetens the breath. Many young Saudis
combine modern and traditional methods, by brushing with a regular
toothbrush in the morning and carrying a miswak with them to work
or college. However, miswak, like a regular toothbrush, is not
available in the large supermarkets or modern pharmacies.
To buy one, it is necessary to seek out the street vendors in
the markets or in the front of mosques.
Saudi Arabia does not have a problem with the use and sale of illegal drugs such as exists in the United States. Drug smugglers and those who received and distributed drugs from abroad are made subject to the death sentence for bringing corruption into the country. First time offenders face prison terms, flogging, and fines, or a combination of all three punishments. Those convicted for a second time face execution. This does not mean that drug use is nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, but it is usually among the younger Saudis who acquired their habits abroad. Of course, Saudi Arabia has problems with people using alcohol, stealing, and other illegal acts, but in comparison to America, the crime rate is very low. This is because the punishments are severe and the prospect of being incarcerated in a Saudi jail prevents many would-be criminals from carrying out their crimes.
Finally, American jails are like five-star motels compared to the jails in Saudi Arabia. Saudi jails, for the most part, are very unpleasant, and few jails have individual cells. In fact, it is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia for as many as 200 inmates having to share a single room. Inmates must sleep on bare floors, and if they are lucky, they may be get a pad to sleep on, but no mattress. A hole in the floor serves as the toilet in most prisons. Prisoners must supply their own blankets and if they want anything other than the staple jail diet, they must depend on their families to bring food to them. Inmates in Saudi Arabia do not receive the privileges of inmates in the United States. There are no televisions, no libraries, and no gymnasiums. Basically, prisoners have few rights because they have broken the laws by which the country is ruled. Therefore, prison is for punishment in Saudi Arabia, and that means deprivation of all of life's amenities. Often there little or no ventilation and many prisoners suffer from heat stroke and lack of medical treatment. Efforts are being made to improve Saudi prisons, but they are way behind the United States. The good thing about the penal system is that it is so bad, it is a great deterrent and many criminals, having experienced time in a Saudi jail, stay on the straight and narrow.
There is no doubt that getting accustomed to a different culture can be intimidating and difficult. Also, differences in cultures can have both positive and negative aspects. For me, experiencing life in Americans culture has been both entertaining and educational.
Abdullah Aldamer. 10-25-00