There exists in Saudi Arabia a government body named the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The famed religious police, or mutawwain, operate under the auspices of this committee. I have been lucky enough not to encounter any mutawwain thus far, but they are a fact of life in KSA. I actually really like the English translation of the committee's name, because who's not for the promotion of virtue? Granted my idea of vice is very different than theirs, and I tend to be pretty liberal in my tolerance of the (legal) vices of others. I knew that I'd encounter limits on certain freedoms in KSA, especially as a woman. But I find it's not the restrictions I worried about at first. Being back in the U.S. for a short break has me contemplating the way I feel about some of these said restrictions.
I don't drink, so the official ban on alcohol doesn't bother me in the least. I rarely wear the abaya anymore; I think I've worn it once (and even then unbuttoned) since the beginning of October. There's only been one event I couldn't go to because of my gender (and it was something I wasn't particularly interested in anyway). But what I really miss the most? Bacon. And driving.
Who knew bacon would turn out to be one of my biggest vices?! Certainly not me. And since I can occasionally get bacon and other pork products through special circumstances, it's not like I'm completely cut off. It's more the idea of bacon, if that makes sense. Pork products are the butt of many jokes among my friends, pun intended. It doesn't help that I have a lot of friends serving in Muslim countries who frequently post about their own bacon withdrawal or their convoluted ways of obtaining it on Facebook. It's a classic case of wanting what we can't have, and the constant conversation keeps it at the forefront of our minds. One friend, who shall remain nameless, convinced herself that her overdue baby wasn't coming out because she was feeding it a steady diet of bacon, having found her underground supplier. She tried quitting cold turkey. I think she lasted 12 hours. Part of that was overnight. (Baby has since been born and seems not to have been influenced one way or the other by pork products.)
So what was the first thing I ate when I left KSA? Pork sausages in Heathrow, of course. I got really upset one day last week when the ham sandwich I'd ordered turned out to have turkey instead. And while I don't have pork with every meal, I at least consider it a whole lot more than I normally would. I thought this might just be me until I had breakfast last week with a high school classmate who is currently teaching in Saudi. We're both back for Thanksgiving and met to catch up. And we both ordered something with bacon. She told me that she is trying strategically to work pork into most meals. I started laughing and said I knew exactly what she meant. So it's not just me.
Driving is a whole other thing. I knew I would miss this. I love driving. A lot. A lot lot. But more than driving, I love getting into a car and losing myself in the act of driving. It's a time when I can either think hard about things or not think at all. I love listening to the radio, music, or books. It's a time to be by myself, to explore my surroundings, to just be. And while no sane person would wish to drive in Saudi (there are no rules of the road but lots of senses of entitlement), I do. Because it's less about the physical act of driving than about going places independently. As it is, I have to call motorpool and plan ahead. And then plan for how long I'll be wherever. Spontaneity is seriously restricted. And the other thing is never being alone in the car, so I lose that bubble. And even though our drivers are great and very accommodating and friendly and immensely helpful, I wish I wasn't totally reliant on them.
It wasn't until last night, when I ran errands for several hours by myself, that all of these feelings coalesced quite clearly. I was alone with a car, with no specific time I had to bring it back (gotta love sharing vehicles), with nobody needing to know where I'd be at what time. It was freeing. It's interesting, because I hadn't felt this loss of independence so acutely in Saudi. I'd felt it to some extent, but that feeling of freedom let me know what I was missing all along. So I'm not sure what I'll do with this new realization, but I am coming to realize that this is the hardest part of culture shock for me.
I almost had to sit down in the grocery store. Not only was I there by myself, with my own car, but there was pork and alcohol for sale. I had to stop myself from thinking "haraam!" I had to laugh. Tomorrow I'm going to a movie theater. To see a film about magic. Now if that isn't haraam, I don't know what is :-). Viva la vice while I can, I guess!