Have you ever felt that in spite of living in a place for a while, you really know very little about the place, its people, and culture?
I’ve lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for 15 years. It’s my second home. I live on an expatriate compound that is familiar and comfortable. Everything is within walking distance – a mini market, gym, hairdresser, restaurant, beauty salon, shopping bus, and my favourite, a 25m pool for my regular swim training.
One could survive within the confines of the walled compound, if one chose to do so. I also have friends living there.
“Wow, you live in Saudi Arabia! That must be so interesting!” a friend I hadn’t seen for years recently remarked.
But, if you were to ask me about what happens beyond the compound walls, I’d have a hard time telling you about anything that has not been in the news. I certainly get out and about and have experienced the beauty of the Kingdom through many camping trips into the desert, scuba-diving in the Red Sea and road trips across the Kingdom. And I regularly head out into the city to visit malls, restaurants and the Corniche. But I cannot say that I’ve got to know its citizens – except, of course, through accidental encounters.
Granted, the historical cultural differences between local and expatriate communities may have made it difficult to get to know each other. But my friend is right. It is time for me to make more of an effort and to get to know the people who have played host to me and my family for many years. I have taken too much for granted.
I have started taking an intense interest in what people, especially women, are doing around me. The timing of my new approach has been perfect because there are many social changes taking place in Saudi Arabia at the moment. In June 2018, the 61-year-old ban on women driving came to an end – a huge step forward for local women and Saudi society in general.
And so, I am making a point of talking to as many people as possible – whether at the mall, doing grocery shopping, visiting the vet or waiting to pick up my bags at the airport carousel.
Initially this wasn’t easy for me; I have been taken out of my comfort zone. But what emerged from these conversations has prompted me to tell others about what I was discovering. “Aswat: Voices of Arabia” was born. It is a non-political podcast that aims to document people going about their daily lives.
The process has been invigorating. As humans we need to reach out to each other, to hear each other’s stories. And I want to share what I hear, whether from those who have achieved global fame or from seemingly ordinary people who have interesting stories to tell.
Join me as I explore the lives, aspirations and achievements of the wonderful people of Saudi Arabia and the region.