May 04, 2006
Banking Services in KSA: A Rant - Part II
I walked out, made my way round the corner and through the glass automatic doors of the men's banking halls upon which about one hundred employees, customers and floor staff looked up and fell silent.
At this early stage I should mention that the banking sector in Saudi Arabia has been subjected to the most comprehensive Saudisation process where only a few employees, and those only in the higher more strategic echelons, are non-Saudi. Since I had walked into a run of the mill retail branch, every single man who was looking at me was Saudi and in full white thobe and head dress, a daunting sight for any female.
After what seemed like an age I made my way to one of the cubicles where a young man was sitting contemplating my vision with horror. I asked him for the manager and he scurried away, not even offering me a seat.As I stood there waiting for the manager to arrive I looked around resisting the temptation to pull my head cover over my face. They were staring, nervously tittering like children and whispering in each other's ears. The veil would have shielded me from their eyes but I generally refuse to seek refuge in it, a mixture of pride and the belief that it is the closest thing to sticking your middle finger in some appalled man's face.
The scurrying man returned with a more senior looking specimen. He was dressed in a glorious luxurious thobe (yes you can tell, just think of business suits and how a cheap looking one can make you break out into a rash), was in his mid -thirties and donned a supercilious I'm-going-to-have-fun-with-this-smile. He greeted me and oh ever so gallantly apologised for the scandalous treatment I had received at the women's section and ushered me into his office. The first thing that struck me was how much the office reeked of smoke, even though there were No Smoking signs all over the place, the manager's pack of Cartier Lights rested beside an overflowing ashtray. I took a seat across from his desk and proceeded to explain what the problem was, my irritation with his smile growing by the second. He didn't even seem to be listening to me merely contemplating the situation and licking himself in the novelty factor of it all. To make the situation even more squeamishly uncomfortable, several of the bank's employees were finding pretexts to pass the glass doors of the office so they could ogle some more, some even coming in and asking riduculous questions addressing them to him while actually looking at me, with the same slighly patronising and also slightly unsure smile.
When I finished he leaned forward and said, 'How's the weather where you live? Is it nice to be back in the sun of Riyadh? Why are you living there on your own anyway?'
Flabbergasted, I didn't know whether to respond to his questions or tell him to fuck off. I compromised by shrugging idiotically. The uncomfortable silence was interrupted by the entry of a small South Asian man in a ridiculous little bowtie, carrying a tray upon which two Turkish coffee cups rested. He laid them slowly on the table, made no eye contact with me whatsoever, walked backwards out of the door and mumbled a belated 'welcome' to my thank you. 'Please' Smiley Manager said nodding at the cup of coffee. I was damned if I was going to be his date and sip sweet coffee with him so I declined and tried to get back to business, ruing the day I burnt bridges with the women's section. He dispatched a minion to procure paperwork, promised me the cash would be delivered into the office into my hands and pressed on withe some more small talk of the most invasive nature. I was baffled, this was not some teenage perv roaming the streets of the city in his Hummer bluetoothing girls with his number and a picture of him in Majorca, this was an older, more mature, articulate educated manager of the biggest retail branch of the bank in Riyadh. Was he merely being friendly?
I filled out the last piece of paperwork and signed (he never once took his eyes off me). As I handed him back the paper and the pen we made eye contact and my hand instinctively and without thought picked up the side of my head scarf and covered my face. For a moment we were both shocked and said nothing. Again instinctively I got up. He took his eyes away from my face and said gruffly, 'Go to the cashier window, he will give you your money'.
I emerged into the main banking hall with my veil on, collected my money and walked out of the building and into the car my pulse racing and my head pounding with rage. I opened the car window as it sped away. I uncovered my head and face, let the warm heavy air blow and realised, in both bank branches that day, I had been made to feel embarrassed that I was a woman.
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Typical. They just assumed that because you did not cover your face you were 'one of those girls'
When it comes to saudi, beware of the well dressed ones. The more starch in the ghotra, the nastiest. It is easy to avoid them, their 'male perfume' can be smelled miles away. I think riyadh in particular stands out in this department.
Side note. How did he know where you lived?
Posted by: Ali K at May 5, 2006 12:51 AM
she was at a bank. the manager had her account documents in order to help her with her banking business. account documents in most countries (well, maybe not in switzerland) have the address of the account holder on them.
also, if you had read "Banking Services in KSA: A Rant - Part I" you would've known that the manager was an old acquaintance of her.
there you go.
i do find it interesting that - despite your long residence there - you still let these guys get to you. just an observation ...
Posted by: raf* at May 5, 2006 02:42 AM
It's her bank. They know these things!
Posted by: Frandroid Atreides at May 5, 2006 02:42 AM
Yes but I didn't think banks in Saudi would open an account for you if your home address was outside the country. I never tried but I don't think they would.
Posted by: Ali K at May 5, 2006 06:12 AM
Ali, as long as you have an address in Saudi then you may reside in any part of the world you like. In addition, I had had several dealings with said manager on the phone when I was trying to expedite the opening of the account and he was the consumate professional.
Raf- it's only when I am caught off guard, to assume all Saudi men are scummy juvenile unprofessional giggly twats all the time surely is unfair, it only gets to me when I realise I should have been more paranoid.
Posted by: bint ash-shaitan at May 5, 2006 07:32 AM
I so wish we could hear the bank manager's perspective. He may have been embarrassed to be a man. His inquiries about the weather are suddenly freight with hidden meaning. (Of course, I too would be highly annoyed that a simple banking chore had turned into a major production.)
He may have been intoxicated with the novelty of a woman in his presence but he may have simple hungered to have a conversation with his countrywomen. The drawing of the veil was a harsh reminder that he too is locked into conventions and that a world is closed off to him. Poor guy.
Posted by: ursula at May 5, 2006 07:33 AM
Ursula, I have thought a lot about the questions you just raised and asked myself whether I would have been more tolerant of his behaviour if he we were an employee in a high street bank in Paris, London or New York. I think that because male-female relations are so clearly defined in KSA, at least in the public space, one knows immediately what makes one uncomfortable.
He was way too calm and collected to claim he was flustered, whether he was merely yearning to have a conversation with a woman or was just a pleasant guy (which I pondered as my level of discomfort rose as mentioned in the post) was undermined by his lack of sensitivity in picking up on my reluctance to continue conversations in that vein, possibly assuming that I was 'that kind of woman' because I was sitting in his office face uncovered.
I was a client conducting a business transaction, there was no world to be opened or closed to him, that lack of judgement is what I fault him for.
Posted by: bint ash-shaitan at May 5, 2006 07:59 AM
I will tell you what was going on in his mind (believe me I know a few - he had all the symptoms). To them there are two kinds of saudi 'girls' (no women here): those who expect the gruff treatment or would otherwise make a scene about it, and those who expect some flirting and would respond to it. There are no just-doing-business or just-being-friendly-and-asking-about-the-weather interactions normally everyday. I blame the segregation for this. To a guy like that 'cool there's a girl in my office. now which one is she? well she doesnt seem to want to cover her face. This is my only chance to talk to a girl in maybe months - better try my luck'. which makes life hard for those women who don't fit into any of these preconceived categories.
This of course didn't come out of the blue. For some women the idea of rebelling or expressing themselves revolves around seeking the attention of every starched-gotra pretend-im-talking-on-my-flash-mobile in the vicinity. Again because of segregation.
You could say they were made for each other. But where does that leave the rest of the population? Those who don't feel like soliciting numbers at the mall or be stuck with a Mr short thobe or Ms hand gloves?
The bottom line is, this segregation business is unnatural and it has to change.
Posted by: Ali K at May 5, 2006 01:07 PM
"The bottom line is, this segregation business is unnatural and it has to change."
Change to what?
Posted by: Djuha at May 5, 2006 07:06 PM
That is one of the most depressing vignettes I've ever read. It's Shooting an Elephant, Saudi style.
Posted by: Anonymous at May 5, 2006 07:26 PM
Well that's what is done around here Anon (is it Lazy Scum Anon or just some other generic lazy scum). No messing about with silver linings. Quite refreshing actually.
Posted by: Meph at May 5, 2006 10:10 PM
"Change to what?"
Something more normal. Like any other arab or gulf country.
Posted by: Ali K at May 6, 2006 01:25 AM
Insha'allah the bank situation will get better. In Kuwait, women and men work in and use the same banks. The Islamic banks have separate sections for women, but there's a women's section in each branch, as far as I know, and the employees are trained and professional. (And you take a number when you enter.)
I'm not sure why you write as if his offering you a cup of coffee was akin to his having a "date" with you, though. Wouldn't he have done the same for any other (male) customer?
Would he have done the same for a man? There were many male clients in the building who weren't getting the same treatment.
Posted by: Bint at May 9, 2006 01:23 PM
It's a normal thing - not for every customer who stands in line at the teller's window, but yes, for anyone who goes and sits in a manager's office to have him take care of some business. They ask you what you'd like - tea, coffee, cold drink, and the guy brings it for you.
Just like this: "The uncomfortable silence was interrupted by the entry of a small South Asian man in a ridiculous little bowtie, carrying a tray upon which two Turkish coffee cups rested. He laid them slowly on the table, made no eye contact with me whatsoever, walked backwards out of the door and mumbled a belated 'welcome' to my thank you."
The "tea-boy" is treated as a servant and would behave in the same way with a man.
It's a normal thing - not for every customer who stands in line at the teller's window, but yes, for anyone who goes and sits in a manager's office to have him take care of some business.
Ann, little incidents like the one Bint went through simply cannot be explained to you. Saudi is like... well there just isn't an analogy for it. But trust that normal is abnormal in Saudi. We can't tell you why or how we know.. but we do. The the manager wouldn't have given the same treatment to a male, and his concerns were far from attending to Bint's hydration.
Some things you just cannot rationalize, argue, and spin to safe sane shores.. read all you want, you will never get it.. it's fucked up. Plain and simple.
Posted by: Trevely at May 12, 2006 10:03 AM
Well, Trevy, Ann, being a Neo Salafi (but by her own account, less Salafi than some short-Thobed whanker friend of hers) sucker, is trying to hand wave away uncomfortable facts.
It's amusing she's trying to spin Bint, a native of the region.
Sad, but there it is.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 13, 2006 12:02 AM
Are you going to tell me that if you were invited into the bank manager's office to take care of some business, it wouldn't be normal for him to order you tea or coffee, and for it to be brought by the "teaboy"?
Ann.. lets not squabble over a tea-bag. You know it's not the damn tea (was it coffee? I forget..) and certainly not the poor inconsequential (in saudi, more so than usual) tea-boy that is the issue.
I guess it just amuses me the mindset many take on when they're faced with simple Saudi truths. It's almost like (sans almost) you're saying it's all in Bint's head... there you go... you've just embodied every saudi male outlook.
I still like the little fucked up shithole, but I like it for (and despite some) of what it is. Not the glorified holy-land some insist on seeing it as.
Posted by: Trevelyana at May 13, 2006 07:55 PM
To descend further into the realm of the hair-split, he never actually asked if I would like some coffee, just assumed I would be happy to guzzle some. Read what you will into that, as far as I was concerned, it just enhanced the sense of license that I felt he was taking.
I reiterate, I think that because male-female relations are so clearly defined in KSA, at least in the public space, one knows immediately what makes one uncomfortable.
But again, I could be fault finding in my rabid paranoia, I've only lived there for a decade or so so it's all new to me.
Posted by: Bint at May 13, 2006 08:32 PM