Photos: author

Michele La Morte-Shbat decides to leave a comfortable life in Washington D.C to move to Saudi Arabia.

“I never wanted you here,” he said. “When they asked me I told them that you were all wrong for the job.”

My heart skipped a beat. I stared dumbstruck at the bits of frayed, brown mesh office carpet, the afternoon sunlight filtering in through the windows of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

It was November, 2000. Just days ago, my husband Bishara and I had left a nearly idyllic life in Washington, DC, where we had shared a five-bedroom home complete with the requisite American white picket fence, to come to Saudi Arabia.

Our flight from Washington Dulles airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia lasted nearly 20 grueling hours, taking with it our two beloved apricot poodles, our 43 pieces of luggage: our entire life. Five words threatened to make our journey half way across the world meaningless. I peered at Abdullah, the man whom I had looked forward to meeting as my new boss, in his crisp, white thobe and ghuttra, searching his cherubic face, trying to comprehend his words without letting my emotions get the best of me. Was I prepared to let my hard work be squelched by this soft-spoken bureaucrat?

Relocating to Saudi Arabia was not a choice that my husband and I had entered into lightly. After spending seventeen years in the urban grind of the nation’s capital, I began to notice a kind of restlessness in my life.

I had a happy and fulfilling personal life with my husband and friends, and I enjoyed my job and co-workers, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I had reached a plateau; I felt as if I were standing at the edge of an imaginary shore like a sailor’s wife, willing a familiar ship to appear on the horizon.

I wrangled with guilt in feeling compelled to step out of this perfectly fine existence. While dating Bishara, a Christian Lebanese national born in Jordan, I became acquainted with, what seemed to me, the enigmatic and esoteric region of the Middle East.

Sword dance in a festival in Riyadh

I remained curious about that part of the world after we married, always intrigued when Bishara talked about his childhood and experiences growing up overseas. My yearning – like a low-grade fever – for a cultural adventure caught up with me in late 1999 when I felt particularly drawn toward inscrutable Saudi Arabia.

There was no denying the effect that even the mere mention of the Kingdom had on me; my mind turned over images of white washed palaces, cobble-stoned streets jammed with merchants’ carts, and regal women enveloped in black gliding silently through airy plazas. The pictures flickered by like scenes from a film not yet completed. As I shared my feelings with Bishara, his normally merry eyes clouded and his forehead tensed. “Saudi Arabia, why Saudi Arabia?” he asked.

I could not articulate exactly why, I just knew this was the place I needed to explore at this juncture. The more I turned over the possibility of starting a new life in this mysterious country, the more enthusiastic I felt. New found energy replaced my restlessness and eventually swayed my initially reluctant husband.

I thought, perhaps naively, that finding employment might be the toughest hill to climb in making this life transition. For nine months, my husband and I worked feverishly to secure jobs in Saudi Arabia. After an initial trip to the Kingdom with the US-Saudi Business Council in February 2000, Bishara was fortunate to meet a Saudi sheikh who kindly promised to secure a job for me first and then Bishara as Saudi work restrictions limited my job prospects to academe, hospitals, and women’s banks.

True to his word, a week after Bishara’s phone conversation with the sheikh we received a call from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a highly regarded medical institution in the Middle East with a well-trained staff, requesting my CV. Two weeks later we were notified of my new position as head of a recently established department in the finance office.

My initial excitement was short lived, replaced with administrative headaches: innumerable phone calls to management at KFSH about the details of my employment contract and salary, figuring out the logistics of bringing our two miniature apricot poodles with us, repeated trips to the doctor for the required medical tests, and supplying the hospital with criminal history reports, visa forms, and family records.

I began to think our new life in Saudi Arabia would never materialize. Whether by the sheer force of my determination or from a series of lucky breaks, I nevertheless found myself thousands of miles from the only home I had ever known, meeting my new employer.

“Abdullah,” I began, finally finding my voice. “I came here to be a team player, to work hard and assist your department to be the best it can be.” A flicker of remorse passed across Abdullah’s face. “Well,” he retorted, “I really don’t think you have the appropriate background to be part of our group.”

With my resolve building, I persevered. “Abdullah, I am interested in learning and I’m a quick study; I’m sure that any weaknesses I have can be overcome.”

Abdullah fixed me with a stern, quizzical look and then abruptly turned his back, striding down the corridor. I remained rooted to the spot, unsure as to what had just transpired. Several minutes passed and neither Abdullah nor another superior appeared to politely “escort” me out of the building; I began to realize my job remained intact and let out a thin sigh of relief.

KFSH building where author worked

There was never a time when I wasn’t conscious of being a professional, working woman in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East and its customs have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last eight years. I admit to my own curiosity and apprehension before traveling to the Kingdom, turning over in my mind myths and rumors I had heard about the strict rules and regulations imposed on women.

Though they most certainly meant well, friends and family had no shortage of opinions and (I would soon learn) erroneous or sensationalized facts about the “tragic” plight of women in the Kingdom. I was determined, however, to start my new life with a completely open mind and to learn as much about myself as well as the culture through this new experience.

I took small, calming breaths as I strode along the office corridor on my first day of work. To my surprise and relief, two young Saudi women readily greeted me, offering me cardamom coffee, a popular drink with a pungent, spicy, sweet taste, which served as a welcome pause from my early frenetic days in the Kingdom.

My Saudi male colleagues were cordial, but less familiar, tendering me gentle handshakes and steely reserves. This reception left me a bit perplexed as I was accustomed to casual greetings followed by the requisite “small talk” typical of American working environments.

In the weeks that followed, I became pleasantly surprised to notice that this seemingly restrained working relationship with my Saudi male co-workers gave way to an almost familial association; I was referred to as “sister,” which afforded me a certain level of respect. In time, even my boss, Abdullah, became a good friend and almost a brother to Bishara and me, helping us through some harrowing personal trials and perilous situations.

In my first few weeks at the hospital I found myself learning more than just my new job; the aspects of work I had taken for granted in the U.S. suddenly became completely novel. Professional etiquette, for instance, took on a whole different meaning in this new workplace, and I had to relearn a diverse set of protocol just to fit in.

At times, I found myself treading lightly around cultural and traditional roles for women and men and the appropriate interactions between the two. If I were one of a couple of women at a meeting with a predominance of men in attendance there was no particular code of behavior; I felt comfortable sitting where I liked and freely expressing myself. Women, particularly Western expatriates, were also allowed more informality when interacting about work-related issues on a one-on-one basis with a Saudi male workmate.

It was important, however, that the discussion center on work and not track into the personal realm. On other occasions, such as the time when we welcomed a new Director of the Finance Group or when a collection of men and women in a conference room celebrated the retirement of a fellow colleague, tradition dictated that women and men remain segregated.

It was during these instances that I found myself making a conscious effort to respect the customs of my host country. There were moments when I instinctively felt like walking over to a Saudi male co-worker clustered with other male cohorts on the far side of the room to discuss a particular professional matter, and I had to pull myself back. During these occasions, I felt particularly nostalgic for the easy circulation between my male and female workmates in the U.S.

My role as supervisor to Arab men, including Saudi and Lebanese nationals, also required some mental adjustments on my part, leaving me more than a little curious and anxious.

Similar to my workplace persona I assumed in the States, I felt it important to convey through my statements and actions that I was a team player and a professional. If there were issues with my Arab male subordinates having a female American boss, these sentiments were left unexpressed verbally or otherwise.

My male Saudi teammate, Saad, was smart and exceedingly polite and respectful. Our working association evolved into the more traditional supervisor/subordinate relationship, making it less familial than the working relationship I shared with my Saudi male peers outside of my group. I also contended with the matter of my Lebanese subordinate, who had worked for a couple of prominent American companies in the U.S., and regularly solicited Abdullah for my job. Fortunately, I’d encountered a similar situation several years earlier with an ambitious subordinate when I was a finance manager with the U.S. government.

Festival in Riyadh

The responsibilities and complexities of management seem to transcend cultural or gender divides. In both instances, I found myself focusing on promoting a balance between the team effort concept, and maintaining clear lines of authority.

In addition to the inherent “ups and downs” in any workplace there were some obvious differences between America and Riyadh, such as their Saturday to Wednesday workweek, the laws that restricted women driving to work (or elsewhere for that matter), and the scent of bakhour (incense) wafting along the halls.

Other, less transparent, customs left me slightly bewildered. I quickly learned, for instance, of the male Saudi habit to let doors close behind them, regardless of who trailed, as they stepped briskly through the halls of the hospital complex. In time I realized that even women did not hold doors open for each other.

My husband explained that Saudis presumably wished to avoid any gestures possibly construed as flirtatious or inappropriate. Ironically, though I regularly asked men in the States to step through a doorway before me in an effort to reinforce the notion of gender equality, I found myself missing this common western courtesy when moving through the corridors of KFSH.

Another practice I learned to quickly incorporate was using the phrase, “inshallah,” or “if God wills,” into my daily speech in both social and professional settings. Expatriates learn of this neologism within days of arriving in the Kingdom. “Inshallah” follows many expressed thoughts, wishes, queries, and responses. The phrase is so common it becomes entrenched in the vernacular of the ordinary expatriate.

“Can we meet today at 1:00?” “Inshallah,” comes the response. Or, “Do you think we can have that report finished by the end of the day?” Without hesitation, the reply is “inshallah.” One day when my husband and I were rushing back to work after a medical appointment, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded elevator.

The elevator stopped on the second floor and a gentleman outside asked if the elevator was going up; several of us responded automatically, “inshallah.” It wasn’t long before I found myself saying “inshallah” in meetings or in the course of workplace conversation.

Despite my sometimes steep learning curve in becoming acclimated to my new place of employment, the days slipped by rather quickly until I could hardly remember my daily routine working in the States. Though my schedule had a similar rhythm of deadlines and meetings, the work hours were enjoyably punctuated with gratifying moments of downtime– not the same kind of grab-a-cup-of-coffee-and-stand-around-watching-our-watches-chatting kind of moments I knew too well from my own and friends’ professional experiences.

Arab corporate culture allows you, encourages you in fact, to take time out of your day to devote to connecting with one another on a more convivial level. Usually this happens, I discovered to my ample enjoyment, over soothing mint tea or cardamom coffee served with dates or Arabic sweet pastries.

Coming from a corporate environment less concerned with this aspect of professional development, I failed to realize how vital it is to truly slow down in the course of the day until I worked on my first large project for the hospital a couple of months into my contract.

Expat picnic outside Riyadh

In January, 2001, the team I supervised became responsible for a new automated budgeting process. Despite the frantic pace and frustrations intrinsic in implementing any new process, it was rare for a day to pass without being offered Arabic coffee.

One afternoon, my head buried in a stack of reports and my thoughts distracted by a presentation looming the following day, a female Saudi co-worker popped her head through my office doorway.

“Michele,” she called. “Please come by my desk, I made some mint tea this morning that I would like to share with you.”

My first impulse was to decline: there were final preparations for my big financial presentation the following morning; how would I be able to finish everything with this impingement on my critical work time? However, I understood the importance of human interaction in the Arab workplace, and I knew that refusing this sort of invitation was considered rude.

I summoned a smile and reluctantly followed my colleague to her partitioned office. As I stepped inside, I encountered another woman already seated in the corner, dressed in typical hospital attire for Saudi women: a long skirt that fell below the ankles, her blouse positioned high on the neck, a black scarf adorning her head, and a long white lab coat completing the ensemble.

I barely had a moment to find my own cup when the women broke into animated banter. Conversation about our current financial project was interspersed with more casual talk about their children’s schooling or what the housekeeper might prepare for dinner that evening.

The chitchat and aromatic mint tea lulled me, as it would do in the future, into an appreciation of this particular instant in time; I realized that there were life issues just as, if not more, important as the tasks at hand in the daily work grind.

The hospital compound itself actually helped to bridge this work-life divide in some interesting and unexpected ways. Its vast property catered to single, expatriate females, primarily nurses, by providing a large array of amenities. From grocery stores and flower shops to a bowling alley, post office, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the grounds included everything that an average, western girl needed to feel at home, minimizing her exposure to the Kingdom’s unfamiliar customs.

Most days, these many facilities, combined with the overall make-up of the staff, made it easy to mistake the hospital premises for a small town or planned community. Browsing the magazine racks in the grocery store always brought me back to reality. Black magic marker blotted out the bare arms, legs and cleavage of the models on the magazine covers.

My spine bridled when I first opened one of the women’s magazines to find each of the pictures of the young models with similar blackened arms and cleavage; each magazine I flipped through was the same. Later, I discovered that one of the informal duties of the mottawah, or religious police, involved shielding the community from even the slightest hints of sexuality.

This sort of seemingly nonsensical mottawah activity provided fodder for uneasy chuckles and long discussions about our mutual unconventional experiences within the Kingdom at weekend expatriate gatherings or evening fetes. Many of my single female expatriate friends who remained in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time eventually came to the conclusion that the financial rewards and unique professional and personal experiences gleaned from life in the Kingdom outweighed concerns over eccentric and baffling pursuits by the mottawah.

While the mottawah were not permitted on the hospital premises, I remained mindful of my dress, especially for work. In the States, I might have decided on my outfit for the day in the precious minutes between drying my hair and heading downstairs for a bite of breakfast. Although my clothing options were more limited in the Kingdom, my early days at KFSH found me devoting significant time to picking out clothes that were both respectful of the stringent cultural customs and professional.

During my induction at KFSH I half expected to be greeted with a neatly divided fleet of robes and pant suits. Instead, Western women like me were permitted to forgo the black abaye on the hospital grounds; we were strongly counseled, though, to have our arms and knees covered, and low-cut blouses were strictly prohibited.

When off hospital grounds, Western women typically wear the abaye; in some shopping malls they are required to wear a headscarf or otherwise risk an encounter with the “mottawah.” In extreme circumstances a woman or her husband, who in the “mottawah’s eyes allowed her to dress indecently, might face jailing.

Like most other female expatriates I normally wore a mid-calf (or longer) skirt or pants, and a long white lab coat to work. My colleagues’ fashion, however, reflected both the cultural and stylistic diversity in the workplace. The Saudi woman working at the passport desk was completely covered in black, her eyes, two charcoal pools, stared back at me. Her Sudanese workmate at a station in close proximity wore a colorful yellow and blue sarong and head covering that exposed her entire unmade face, leaving wisps of hair peeking under her scarf.

At the hospital, Lebanese women stood out in stark contrast to all others not only in attire but also in their confident demeanor; these women sported tight pants, immaculately coiffured hair and painstakingly applied makeup, demonstrating their knowledge of the latest fashion trends. Lebanese women followed the same kind of cultural mores as other Arab women such as covering their arms and legs while on the hospital grounds and wearing the abaye and headscarf in public (with their faces exposed) when off the hospital premises.

Yet, it appeared as if there was an unspoken understanding in the Arab world that granted Lebanese women more fashion freedom. Conceivably this nonconformity was due to the regular influx of Western European tourists into Lebanon during its golden age in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the civil war, when it was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

In any event it became increasingly apparent to me that women from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain were clearly more reserved and demure in dress and behavior in public settings than those women from non-Gulf countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. I soon found that despite the divergence in clothing styles and presentation, women were not typically the objects of unwanted glances or stares that sometimes find their way into Western workplaces dominated with male colleagues.

The author and her family

In fact, great lengths were taken to shield women from this unwanted attention; Arab women’s offices were never positioned along a main corridor, and some women even hung curtain material over the entrances of their partitioned offices.

As I became more acclimated to my new professional surroundings and adjusted my demeanor and appearance to fit in, one particularly surprising aspect to the Saudi workplace continued to fascinate me: the relationship between women and their hair.

It might sound trivial to Western women who fail to think of their hair beyond fretting over its neatness, messiness, or frizzyness, but Saudi women experience their hair in a completely different manner. In the Kingdom, strict mores exist about the public display of women’s hair, and Saudi women exercise careful attention to keep their hair covered with few exceptions.

I distinctly recall dashing to the restroom early one morning before a meeting and running into my workmate, Amal, splashing her face with a bit of water, her shiny raven colored locks free from the confines of the obligatory headscarf. Restrooms were one of the few locations at work where a Saudi woman felt safe and sheltered enough to bare her hair.

Wednesday morning breakfasts of Lebanese mazzah that featured mounds of hummus and babaganoush, freshly baked pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, and spirited chatter behind closed conference room doors were another. Although I usually felt awkward when I noticed a Saudi woman uncover her hair, as if I were intruding on a particularly private and intimate moment, I inevitably found it hard to look away.

Despite the ubiquitous headscarf, Arab women take great pains to style their hair based on the current rage, commonly sporting fashionable cuts and trendy highlights. Some of these women were particularly exquisite looking with their luxurious hairstyles framing ebony pools of their eyes.

On another occasion Aisha, also an officemate, came into my office and glanced around furtively, making sure we were unobserved, before tentatively removing her headscarf. Her dark brown wavy hair spilled around her face, and she asked if I liked her new haircut. “Oh, yes, it looks great,” I affirmed. “You know, Michele, you should really try putting highlights into your hair like Alia,” Aisha quipped. “Highlights would really bring out your face.” My heart swelled with humility; this from a woman who, in public, outside of hospital grounds, was not only required to cover her hair, but her face, as well.

Working “shoulder to shoulder” with my female Saudi counterparts I came to learn that they had an acute appreciation for their career opportunities, were extremely hardworking, and remained intensely disciplined, particularly those without young children.

I often felt like a surrogate mother or big sister to some of the younger, female Saudi women, one of whom would even stop by my office regularly to discuss some of her more private marital challenges, which invariably most women face. “My husband isn’t spending enough time with me,” she fretted on one occasion. “Sometimes he goes out with other men, and doesn’t tell me where he’s going or what he’s doing,” adding “I feel that maybe he doesn’t love me anymore and is not interested in me.”

I admit that at times I felt off-balance during these encounters, happy yet daunted by this level of trust from a workmate; I couldn’t recall ever having these kinds of intimate discussions in the American workplace. “Marriage is complex and challenging,” I began tentatively, trying to give my best Dr. Phil advice. “It has its ‘ups and downs,’ and there are some points during a marriage when the man and woman feel somewhat distant from each other. You just have to nourish the marriage like you have to water a flower to make sure it grows and stays healthy.”

She remained expressionless, yet I glimpsed a flicker of understanding before she bolted away to answer her incessantly ringing phone in her office down the hall. I always felt honored to be a trusted colleague and friend during these moments. The professionalism of my American employers suited my career aims, but after becoming familiar with this more familial work culture, I realized how many U.S. offices, by their very nature, discourage these types of personal interactions.

The heart-wrenching tragedy of September 11, 2001 certainly challenged some of my budding relationships with my Saudi co-workers. The events of that day left Bishara and me emotionally spent and quite discouraged as initial reports implicated Saudi involvement in the attacks.

As I tentatively entered the office the following day, Abdullah cautiously approached and asked, “Are you alright, Michele?” adding “I am so sorry about what happened.” He continued, “I hope that nobody you knew was hurt or affected.” I told Abdullah I appreciated his concern and felt a bit of relief that there weren’t any hostilities toward me.

KFSH, like many places in the Kingdom, certainly had its factions that disagreed with American policies, and I became apprehensive when it was confirmed that Saudis participated in perpetuating the attacks.

However, I was astounded one late afternoon several weeks after 9/11 when Samer, a Saudi finance manager and collaborator on one of my reports, bristled when I expressed concern for Americans living in Saudi Arabia. He exclaimed, “Michele, if anybody tries to get near you, anybody at all, I will put myself between them and you.” He paused for a moment, and continued “And I know your workmates would do the same.” Samer’s gesture rendered me mute for a split second; I barely managed a curt, “Thank you, Samer.” Despite my enduring trepidation, in this moment I had a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

Many of my friends back in the States still wondered at my dubious choice, fearing that I had traded one competitive work culture for another one with additional, improbable challenges. They emailed regularly with endless queries: How was I coping? Did I miss family and friends? How did I manage working under such (they envisioned) strict and sterile conditions?

I greatly appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I was thriving with each new discovery. In the midst of what was becoming a fulfilling and productive life transition, more change ensued: My heart sank in late spring 2003 when we discovered that Bishara had a life-threatening medical condition.

We considered having Bishara treated in the U.S., but after much deliberation we realized that Bishara would receive “top notch” medical care from KFSH doctors who had studied at some of the finest medical institutions in the world. I was not only gravely concerned about my husband, but acutely aware of how this might impact my work arrangements. I found myself in Abdullah’s office again, hoping to trade on his good graces.

“Abdullah,” I began, as I closed the office door behind me, a lump forming in my throat “Bishara is going to be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and I’m going to need to work out a leave schedule with you so I can split my time between work and spending time with Bishara.”

Before I could continue Abdullah jumped in, “Michele, while Bishara is in the hospital, I am not your boss, Bishara is your boss. Anytime Bishara wants you to take off from work, take leave time; and I am not going to charge you for any time off as long as Bishara is in the hospital!”

He must have seen the uncertainty in my face because he added, “It’s okay, go off and see Bishara. He needs you!” My eyes welled and my limbs trembled as I stepped over to shake hands with my gracious benefactor, the same man who had made such a stony impression on me when I first arrived.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how far my working relationship with Abdullah had come in the short years I had been at KFSH due, at least in part, to my own personal and professional growth rooted in this unparalleled cultural experience. My initial meeting with Abdullah in November 2000 had left me numb and certain that my best efforts to contribute to the financial success of the hospital would be thwarted at every turn.

At the time, I thought maybe what I had heard in the states about women lacking respect or receiving unfair treatment by men in the Middle East was true. In that instant, I had questioned my decision to leave my comfortable life in Washington, DC for this unfathomable and strange life in the Kingdom.

Yet Abdullah’s unwavering support of me and my husband during this time of crisis, (and on other projects and ventures throughout my time at KFSH), simply affirmed that I was where I belonged: among a very unique community of individuals who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them.

One early evening, around the anniversary of my first year at KFSH, bone weary after several twelve-plus hour days at the office, I turned my bleary eyes to Abdullah as he swung through my office door.

“You know, Michele,” he exclaimed, “you are the one person in our group who I know when I give her a task, will get the job done right!” My knees nearly buckled with the unexpected compliment. Taking a breath, I merely smiled saying “Abdullah, I think it’s time for a cup of tea.”

Community Connection

Matador Abroad is still accepting submissions for our “learning experiences” series! Please send your submission to heather@matadornetwork.com with “learning experience” in the subject line.

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