Saudi Arabia Culture and People

Saudi Arabia culture and people

General

The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians are Arabs, descended from the indigenous tribes and still today maintaining tribal affiliation. Along the Arabian Gulf coast, there are some Iranians.

The number of expatriate workers is large with the bulk coming from Egypt, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines. The economy is almost totally dependent upon foreign labor, though efforts are beginning to be made to lessen this dependence.

Language

Arabic is a Semitic language. It is spoken and understood in various forms by millions of people throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is one of the official languages of the United Nations.

Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, is used only in writing and rarely in speech. A standardized modern Arabic is used for newspapers, television and conversation with local variations.

Arabic is written in a flowing cursive style from right to left. The alphabet consists of 28 letters, all consonants. Vowels are expressed either by positioned points or by inserting letters in positions where they would normally not occur. The letters take different shapes depending on their place in words. The appearance and guttural sounds make it seem a complex language; however, basic conversational Arabic is not difficult to learn.

Clothing

The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate conservative dress for both men and women.

Foreigners are given some leeway in the matter of dress, but they are expected to follow local customs, particularly in public places. As a general rule, foreign men should wear long trousers and shirts that cover the upper torso. Foreign women should wear
loose fitting skirts with hemlines well below the knee. Sleeves should be at least elbow length and the neckline modest.

The best fashion guideline is “conceal rather than reveal”. Teenagers are also required to dress modestly in public places. Jeans should not be tight fitting and low necks and tank tops are not recommended. Shorts and bathing suits should not be worn in public.

Whatever their job or social status, Saudi men wear the traditional dress called a thobe. Wearing the thobe expresses equality and is also perfectly suited to the hot Saudi climate. During warm and hot weather, white thobes are worn by Saudi men and boys. During the cool weather, wool thobes in dark colours are not uncommon. At special times, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe. These are long white, brown or black cloaks trimmed in gold.

A man’s headdress consists of three things: the tagia, a small white cap that keeps the ghutra from slipping off the head; the gutra itself, which is a large square of cloth; and the iqal, a doubled black cord that holds the ghutra in place. Some men may
choose not to wear the iqal.

The ghutra is usually made of cotton and traditionally Saudis wear either a white one or a red and white checked one. The ghutra is worn folded into a triangle and centred on the head.

When a Saudi woman appears in public, she normally wears a voluminous black cloak called an ibayah, a scarf covering her hair and a full-face veil. There are varying opinions regarding the wearing of the abayah and the veil; however, Saudi women cover themselves in public and in the presence of men who are not close relatives.

Women’s fashions do not stop with the ibayah though if you are a male, that is all you are likely to see. Beneath the black cloak, Saudi women enjoy fashionable clothing and take great pride in their appearance. They enjoy bright colours and lavish material.
Non-Muslim women living in Saudi Arabia often wear the ibayah as a sign of respect for local customs.

The Arts

The Arabian peninsula has a poetic tradition that goes back to pre-Islamic times. Poetry and storytelling are common folk traditions.

The Quran limits public performances of music and dance (pictured) and prohibits the making of graven images by artists. Hand-lettered Qur’ans are produced with complex geometric and floral designs.

Gahwa (Coffee Making)

The preparation, serving and drinking of gahwa — Arabian Coffee — are each individual rituals derived from Bedouin hospitality; traditions that are still bound today by the same ceremony and etiquette which have ruled for centuries.

The gahwa ritual starts when the host places a set of four coffee pots, called della, next to an open fire. He pours the coffee beans onto a mahmasa, a shallow, long-handled iron pan which he holds just above the flames. He stirs the roasting beans from time
to time with a yad al mahmasa, which is attached by a chain to the small pan. When the beans are cooked they are left to cool before being pulverised with a pestle in a mortar called mahbash. When pounding the beans it is necessary to strike the side of the mortar occasionally with the pestle to free the grounds from sticking together. This noise is considered music and the guests should listen carefully and show appreciation of the host’s artistic expression.

The largest della contains the coffee grounds from previous days, so water is poured into the second largest pot, to which the freshly ground coffee is added and then boiled over the fire. Meanwhile, the host pounds the cardamom seeds, and sometimes a pinch of saffron, in the mahbash. These spices go into the third della which is then filled with the freshly brewed coffee from the second pot and brought to the boil again. Finally the gahwa is poured into the fourth and smallest pot ready to serve.

Gahwa is never sweetened with sugar. Instead, fresh dates are offered as the standard accompaniment to the aromatic brew. The papery-skinned fingers of fruit contain 55% natural sugar which refresh and sweeten the palate between each sip of gahwa.

Miswak

Public care of one’s teeth is perfectly acceptable in Saudi Arabia, and is done with the miswak, a natural toothbrush-cum-toothpaste. This multi-purpose stick cleans the mouth, whitens the teeth and sweetens the breath, and is widely used throughout the Arab world.

Muslims use it on the recommendation of the Prophet Mohammed, who used to use it during fasting and also advised its use as a breath freshener before prayer. By contrast with the conventional plastic toothbrush, the miswak can be used any time, anywhere. It completely dispenses with the need for toothpaste squeezing, vigorous brushing, foaming at the mouth or spitting.

Use of the miswak appears to be totally confined to men, for no clear reason, and it seems more popular with the older generation than the younger. Many young Saudis combine modern and traditional methods, by brushing with a plastic toothbrush in the morning and carrying a miswak with them to work or college, in order to freshen their breath as the day progresses, especially before praying.

Tents of the Arabian Desert

The Bedouin of the Arabian Desert uses a black tent known as the beit al-sha’r, or ‘house of hair’. These tents are woven from the hair of domesticated sheep and goats, and their design is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia. The animal hair is woven into strips of coarse cloth known as fala’if, which are then sewn together. The natural colour of the animal is retained — mainly black goat’s hair, with occasional addition of sheep’s wool, which gives the tent a streaked, brown/black appearance.

The size of the tent depends on the importance of its owner, or on the size of his family. An average family would use a tent made up of narrow strips, each seven and a half metre long, supported by two tent poles. An important personage, such as a tribal sheikh, would have a more imposing dwelling, made of about six broad strips, each about twenty metres long, supported by four tent poles. Anything larger than this would not be easily transportable.

Tent furnishings are extremely simple, consisting of carpets and mattresses (dawashaks) spread on the floor, with pillows (masanad) placed on either side of the owner’s camel saddle, so that guests can sit in comfort. Hammocks may be stretched between the tent poles. The women’s section contains food stores, cooking utensils and spindles, together with the camel litters in which the women ride.

Role of Women in Saudi Arabian Society

The position of women in Islamic society in general and in Saudi Arabian society in particular is a complex and frequently misunderstood issue. It is certainly true that Muslim and Western views of the role of women show sharp cultural differences but the stereotype of Muslim women, as uneducated, with no rights and no opportunities is a caricature born of ignorance or malevolence.

From the beginning of Islam, women have been legally entitled to inherit and bequeath property, holding their wealth in their own names even after marriage, without obligation to contribute that wealth to their husband or their family.

Under Islam, a woman is enjoined to behave modestly in public and, as in the West until recently, is generally expected to give a full commitment to making a family home – a home within which, incidentally, she enjoys a pre-eminent role.

Such expectations are rather different from those now widely held of women in the West, just as the stability of family life and the security of women in Islamic society differs markedly from the conditions which women now face in Western society.

Although women in Saudi Arabia have a pre-eminent role within the family, it would be a mistake to think that the role of women in Saudi Arabian society is confined to home-making. The development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has brought with it increasing opportunities for women in both education and employment. In 1960, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia undertook the introduction of a national education program for girls. By the mid-1970s, about half of all Saudi Arabian girls were attending school. Five years later, education was available to all Saudi girls.

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