A Bonny blithe blue: An Interview with Layla of Blue Abbaya
The blue of ‘Blue Abbaya’ is a shade apart, merging a spirit of deep inner freedom and an infectiously positive attitude. Jeddah Blog chats with Laylah of Blue Abbaya, investigating the meaning of her blue, and generally, a lot of this and that.
The blue abbaya is both a symbol and an attitude for Laylah’s blog. It’s a posture of being respectful to local traditions while setting oneself apart from the crowd through personal taste. It is one of those blogs where the author’s personality comes out very strongly. You will recognize her ‘voice’ at once, and are unlikely to confuse it with another. Your instinct will tell you to stay on the good side of this blithe but aggressively positive person. She is witty and sharp-tongued on a good day, and best to avoid on a bad day, we reckon. And her blog comes with a warning for the humorously challenged.
Reading her blog, one traverses two regions equally mysterious to many – Finland and Saudi Arabia, and her blog pierces the mystery of both lands to offer us a window into both cultures through the eyes of somebody who embodies them both to some extent.
After surviving the tragic-comical challenge of a wedding à la Saoudienne, it’s been a mildly bumpy ride, to say the least, but her Finnish hardiness has helped her keep her feet firmly on the ground. Some unavoidable, amusing and enlightening comparisons between the Finnish and the Saudi way of life, whether they emerged unconsciously as survival tactics, or as a conscious reflection about the cultural polarity she embodies, make for some delightful traipsing for the culture vulture. Scandinavian ice and deserts of Arabia are physical reliefs, but like all environment, they become landscapes of the mind at some point. In ‘Blue Abbaya’, blue is the colour of the Finnish sky, and the abbaya is a cultural norm of Saudi Arabia. In its name and its nature, the blog is defined by the richly opposed but co-existing worlds that the author is part of, and the best and worst of which peppers her real and virtual space.
What was the blogging scene like when you started?
I haven’t been blogging for too long, and only started reading Saudi blogs back in late 2009. I only read American Bedu’s, Tara Umm Omar and Susie’s blogs back then to search for information about marrying a Saudi and the permission progress so I can’t answer this question very well sorry. Many Saudi bloggers have turned to the micro blogging site Twitter and unfortunately don’t post that often anymore.
Were you blogging since before your marriage to a Saudi?
Yes I was blogging some time before our marriage in Finland took place. We got the Saudi marriage permission around a year later.
Was blogging a means to aid your transition into the Saudi culture? To what extent did it help you in a catharsis of some negative feeling and voicing some more positive ones ?
I think I had already transitioned into the Saudi culture fairly well by that time, and part of why I started blogging was to help others in the transition. I had been here for over two years back then. Writing definitely gets stuff out of your system and off your heart and helps with frustration levels!
Your writings suggest that you made a very joyful transition from Finnish to Saudi culture. Is there something in your upbringing which is responsible for this, like a taste for foreign cultures, or a special legacy of tolerance?
I assure you my transition did not always feel joyful. But on a more serious note, yes my upbringing surely had a strong influence on how I deal with foreign cultures. My family travelled extensively since I can remember and that has definitely made me a more open-minded and flexible person. We lived in the States when I was a kid and most my friends were of various races. My father is a globe-trotter and from him I learned a sense of curiosity toward everything different from my own culture. My mother on the other hand as a psychiatrist is more of a people person and she will always engage in long talks with foreigners wherever we are. She taught me how to cope with stressful situations by always cracking up a joke, no matter how serious or horrible the situation might be. Once for example on safari we got stuck in mud in middle of Serengeti at midnight. Upon realizing the car and radio had broken down and no help was on the way with hyenas closing in on our car, she said “Well, at least we have Amarula!”
Did blogging as a platform (its anonymity and its range of reach) allow you a certain liberty to engage with people about issues that would have been impossible in a non-virtual medium, especially since Saudi remains a relatively closed society?
To a certain extent yes, but most of the issues I write about I discuss with my friends here, Saudis too. Maybe they are more of the liberal types though.
Is the blogging world like a fraternity which exists only in the virtual medium? Would this kind of ease, comfort and openness be imaginable in real communication?
It is a fraternity in a way . Blogging enables exchange of thoughts and communication with people you would normally never meet in person. Also conversations with Saudi men are definitely easier this way.
I’ve met many of the expat bloggers here in Riyadh and made friends with them, we love to discuss(read rant) the same things we do on our blogs. I noticed we share the same kind of humor and instantly communication was very easy with these ladies.
Do you feel that the explosion of blogs in Saudi Arabia, and the readiness to communicate both negative and positive sides of the Saudi experience, from perspectives of locals as well as expats, has begun to create a general culture of exchange and debate, even if in this parallel, alternative, virtual universe? Or do you think that any kind of change is still a far way off?
I do like to think this is having an effect. People are much more open to discussion on the internet, and the more people talk and express their opinions and share experiences from Saudi, the more aware people become of the current issues.
Unlike some other expat bloggers, you have insisted on anonymity. Have you ever felt that your family/dear ones could be exposed to any kind of harm or negativity or perhaps too much fame if you divulged your identity?
Yes, this does concern me, especially after receiving hateful messages and some threats through the blog. Come to think of it, the only expat female bloggers I know who write about Saudi experience with their real names are Susie (Susies Big Adventure)and Carol (American Bedu). Both women are in very different life situations than many of us younger bloggers and have sort of established their position in the blogosphere and have more confidence in showing their identity.
How did your family take to your blogging? Were they always supportive or did they have reservations initially or later?
They’ve been supportive, but don’t give me much feedback other than from stuff I tell them. Actually I don’t think they read my blogs that much.
My husband reads everything and always encourages me and gives me feedback, both positive and negative. He often laughs out loud at what I’ve written. I know he doesn’t like some things I write about, like the muttawa for example. The utter frustration and sometimes rage I feel as an independent, strong Finnish woman when I see the religious police offending or harassing women is hard for him to fully grasp I guess, bearing in mind this is what he grew up with and has gotten used to. My tolerance for hateful, discriminatory, sexist behavior that I often see the religious police engaging in is zero. I can’t help it, I’ve always been like this. I can’t stay silent while watching someone getting abused, I will try to intervene and help. Also, it maddens me when muttawa spreads this horribly wrong impression of Islam to the world.
About the recent media attention that Saudi Arabia received about voting and the issue of women’s driving, what do you think? Do you feel these are issues that genuinely merit the most attention, or do you feel that the Western media operates on a certain bias towards the region, highlighting issues which in a Western reading, seem the most important? Do you also feel that Western solutions or quick-fixes to problems are applied insensitively to regions like Saudi Arabia?
I think the recent media coverage gives a pretty mixed impression of the country. One day women are granted right to vote, the next a woman is sentenced to lashes for driving, I mean literally. And what the western media does is highlights the negative, of course. For example emphasis is based on how women still lack this and that right, as if this news was nothing, when in fact it was monumental by Saudi terms. Media touches the surface only, there are so many underlying issues people don’t give a second thought to. Like how much the right to participate in Shoura and have the right to vote impacts Saudi women’s status in society. This builds women’s self-esteem and confidence and the more confidence they gain, the more power they have in society. The right to vote and Shoura membership was like giving women official channels to finally voice their opinions publicly. Women will start demanding for other things and standing up for themselves in their own life’s situations more and more.
I don’t think western solutions work well in Saudi-Arabia. This is a tribal and patriarchal society that doesn’t take outsiders’ views too seriously.
There is much talk of ‘change’ or a move ‘forward’ for Saudi Arabia, to the point that one no longer knows what it means. Do you think that there are genuinely some aspects here that need to be changed? If so, should they be ‘fixed’ through local custom/tradition/conventional wisdom or a Western permutation of it? What’s your stance on the matter, as someone having lived Arabia from the inside out?
There is always talk, but nowadays there are also many actions to back it up. Social media has had a huge impact on Saudis.
Yes what is moving forward? Where is Saudi headed? I think that is one of the problems that real change faces. The fear of the unknown. What will happen to us, if we allow women to drive? Will we end up in chaos? Will our wives leave us and cheat on us, now that they can move freely? Will all morals be forgotten and Saudi become like the west? Those are just some of the many different fears in people’s minds.
There are many things I would like to see change in Saudi, number one being “fixing” the injustice system ahem sorry justice system which in itself has many problems relating to women’s issues, number one being the need for a legal guardian.
The culture of overprotecting Saudi women has to change first before the change to the woman’s need for a legal mahrem in all her affairs can be changed. The root causes of many of the problems in Saudi-Arabia are so deeply ingrained in the people’s minds I suspect it will take generations for some things to change here.
I don’t think there is any quick fix, matters are so complex and intertwined here that simple solutions won’t work. Opening up the country for discussion could help start the long process.
Expats in Saudi Arabia live in isolationist habitats which don’t allow an interaction with locals. I sometimes get a very strong reek of almost barbaric snobbishness from expats who consistently put down the Saudis as if they were an inferior species altogether. They are also very firm in their beliefs, and their arrogance matches their ignorance about locals. At the same time, one feels that giving up certain basic rights of living and freedom is way too much to ask for. What is your feeling about the extreme compound culture in Saudi Arabia? Is an alternative possible? Do you feel that the disdain of most expats towards Saudis (and vice versa) is warranted?
You have opened Pandora’s box. I have so much to say about this issue I would bore you to death. First I have to agree with your impression but of course we cannot generalize either way.
I know saying this will generate many disagreeing responses, but many of them are in denial or ashamed to admit this phenomenon is real and fairly common. Some expats do see Saudis as an inferior culture. When describing Saudi lifestyle you will not hear “different” or “interesting” but rather “stupid” “animalistic” or “idiotic” from those expat workers.
I am just being honest here and I’m not ashamed to admit that many westerners coming here to work are racist toward Arabs and have a supremacist attitude. From my observations the problem is people don’t find out about the country, the culture and the religion beforehand, they rather keep to their fixed prejudices. When they arrive they see things happen without knowing the real reasons why, and thus their prejudices are fed.
Naturally there are plenty of exceptions. I have many expat friends that love this country or like to call it home, for now. They have Saudi friends; they explore the country and get to know the customs and culture. These expats value the cultural differences and take them as a special and rare gift not many in the world are lucky enough to experience. They are positive and tolerant about the local culture. I used to hang around very negative people when I first came here and noticed that attitude is contagious and decided it’s best to avoid these people altogether.
I must mention that this is not only a problem within western circles, but other Arabs, Africans and Asians will in general have mostly negative opinions about Saudis. I find this extremely unfortunate. Expats might have worked as nurses here for 20+ years but not know a single FACT about Islam or Saudi culture which I find very sad.
The problem is how the negative image of Saudis spreads. Some veteran expats spew hatred and lies about Saudis to the newcomers, who in turn trust their senior’s opinions and take advice as the only truth. That leads to the new people starting to avoid locals and seeing only the bad in them, and thus, the cycle of hate continues and cultural gaps persist.
Compound life is kind of like living in an open-prison. If you’re lucky it might be a life full of luxuries like swimming pools, restaurants, pubs and golf courses. But all this behind the barbwires, high walls and with machinegun men standing outside. Inside is actually an illusion of life in the west isn’t it?
Even if a westerner lives on such an isolated compound, they could still, if they really wanted, meet and make friends with locals. But the most common phrase I hear is how can we even meet Saudis? Well, if you spend 99% of your time inside the compound, you won’t J So it’s not so much the compound itself, its back to that attitude problem. Another issue is some these compounds ban Saudis from entering, so how is there going to be any cultural exchange inside?
I wish expats and Saudis alike would let go of their prejudices against one another and make more effort to mingle and create a more tolerant atmosphere. We need to think of one another as fellow humans, not just see the nationality and religion and decide who to trust, talk to or dislike according to that!
Laylah, would you say that you have finally settled in Saudi Arabia, and contoured most roadblocks that expats face while adjusting to the way of life here?
I would say yes, I have settled. We recently moved to an area (DQ) where I can walk around freely to parks, cafes, restaurants, the gym and supermarket which is not to be taken for granted in Saudi-Arabia! It has made my life so much easier. Sometimes I feel like I live in a parallel universe inside Riyadh!
Two years on: a sense of calm pervades.
What would your list of positives and negatives in Saudi Arabia look like?
-high standard of living (includes tax-free salaries, low cost of living, availability of cheap labor to help in the house, cheap gasoline and cars, large apartments, inexpensive food and furniture,)
-travel inside the country is affordable and interesting, travel to surrounding countries as well
-access to red sea and unspoiled dive sites
-surrounded by beautiful desert
-excellent shopping opportunities
-hearing adhan and access to Holy sites
-plenty of affordable restaurants to try out
-relaxed and more slow pace of life than in Finland
-meeting friendly Saudis and interesting conversations with them at work
-not being able to drive. This is the single most difficult thing for me. Not having a driver makes life restrictive, and I have to rely on my husband to take me everywhere. Calling taxi services is unreliable, expensive, the drivers are inexperienced, some have horrible driving skills, don’t have seatbelts and might even be rude. All in all, just a hassle. Not being able to move around freely has a psychological effect too.
-family is far away
– expat friends are often here for only a few years then leave
-the feeling of being isolated from the world
-lack of parks and movie theatres
-extreme gender segregation which causes multiple problems for individuals, families and the society as a whole.
What were the highs and lows of your blogging life in Saudi Arabia?
Hmm, hard to say what the lows were, maybe the beginning when some jealous nurses at the hospital complained about my blog trying to get it banned, without succeeding though J They also left some nasty remarks on the blog but that stopped after a while.
Highs would be being chosen for interview by Arab News, asked to write columns and articles for various sites, my images published in Arab News, other magazines and a book and just overall all the positive feedback from readers. Oh and meeting a big fan of my blog randomly in the desert!Some invaluable lessons in cultural wisdom that you learnt.
I would say just in general cultural wisdom can be learned by experience and having an open mind.
Which would be some of your favourite blogs in Saudi?
I like American Bedu’s blog because she has time to post everyday and has such a multitude of interesting things there, Saudi Woman’s blog because of her unique insight and clever writing skills, although I wish she would post more often. Also Crossroads Arabia is worth mentioning, this site has the most interesting news articles and expert commentary, and of course, Susie of Arabia’s blog.
Was your banner design by Aafke? Is there a particular reason why you chose her and her passion for horses for your banner art? What’s your enchantment with the colour blue?
Yes Aafke made the banner, it’s actually a picture of a painting which she sent to me. I am a fan of her artblog and especially how beautifully she portrays horses so I decided to ask her to make my banner and was thrilled to see the painting was exactly what I had pictured in my mind.
Blue is my favorite color! It reminds me of the ocean which I love, the blue skies of Finnish summer, and blue has so many different shades to it…I cannot explain it better than that.
– Naima Rashid