Being that it is my first time traveling to this part of the world, I had no idea what I was in for. Intimidated is an understatement for what my initial emotion was while I stood in the customs line at King Fahd International Airport. It didn’t help that the customs official, a young Saudi man, snapped his fingers at me. How rude I thought. As I quickly learned that is just how most Saudis get someone’s attention, rude though it may be. I remember using this method to get, Ms. Gangemi, my 2nd grade teacher’s attention. Thereafter, she scolded me. Little did we both know that I was only practicing for my future journey to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
All jokes aside, my imagination was filled with images of angry Maz Jobrani types upon arriving in Saudi Arabia. Movies like Jarhead, American Sniper, and The Kingdom served to fill my imagination. To my surprise I encountered more Shaq’s and Oshea’s than I would have ever expected. That is, the Saudis I have encountered look more like black Americans and less like the Arab men in Hollywood movies.
I find it that aside from the traditional Arab garb worn by Saudi men there is very little that distinguishes the average Saudi man’s appearance from that of black men in America. Well, there is no black American type either, but I see Saudi men who remind me of my uncles, cousins, friends, and former classmates.
Humans are diverse, so I should not be surprised to find diversity in the appearance of Saudi men.
Nevertheless, from very light complexioned to very dark I was surprised and shocked to learn this about Saudis though.
Apart from their similar appearance to black American men (and medium to dark complexioned Hispanics) their faith and language are primary distinguishing characteristics. I also find it interesting that Saudis are more inclined to assume that I am of Islamic faith and mistake me for an Arabic speaking Muslim.
Rather than finding this off putting, I kind of like it. I blend in easily. Additionally, unlike in Korea and America where I felt I needed to shave my facial hair in order to fit in, the opposite is true here because beards are the norm.
Based upon my appearance alone I have been mistaken for an Arabic speaker more than once and this motivates me to learn the Arabic language. This never happened in Korea,i.e., being mistaken for a Korean speaker.
I have realistic expectations about how much I will learn during my time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however. For instance, while in Korea over nine years I acclimated to the intermediate level. I can speak, read and write Korean. My perception of the level of difficulty of learning Arabic makes me shoot for learning only basic phrases and vocabulary. After returning to America I do not expect to be able to hold full conversations with Arabic speaking Americans, which is something I can do with Korean Americans.
In Korea, I was never confused for being Korean given my dark complexion and non Korean features. Very often Koreans tried avoiding me because they assumed I wished to speak to them in English. The common response from Koreans was always: “Wow! You speak OUR language well!” In Saudi Arabia, if I speak Arabic I presume I will not get such a surprised reaction whatsoever.
If you’re wondering why I have failed to mention Saudi women it is because there is less observable diversity among their appearance. See below:
Addendum: Babel was mistakenly included in the original list of movies set in the Middle East, but I removed it because its story is not about the Middle East, but the North African country Morocco.