Probably the most difficult change to which I have had to adjust is the change in weekends. I have spent my entire life loving the idea of Friday afternoon and the idea of Saturday and Sunday, occasionally Monday, being a time of respite and repose. You know – The Weekend. Not so in Saudi Arabia.
Where I work, we refer to Wednesday as Virtual Friday, and it’s the day we all show up without ties, maybe no jacket, sometimes in jeans. When we plan a weekend trip, we are talking about Thursday and Friday. Usually, on such a trip, one would leave on Wednesday night. When I went home in February, I planned it so that I completed my work week and left very early on Thursday morning. On my return trip, I set it up so that I’d get back to Riyadh on Wednesday, which gave me Thursday and Friday to recover and regroup for Saturday – the start of the work week.
I understand Friday as part of the weekend. Friday is the Islamic Holy Day, complete with special prayers around noontime and a sermon. There is a specific prohibition in the Q’uran against conducting commerce during Friday prayers, so you don’t find a lot of stores or eateries or anything, really, open prior to the conclusion of the prayers and sermon. Some stores do open. Carrefour, a French-based clone of Wal-Mart/Target, opens on Friday morning. During the normal workweek, if you happen to be in the store at prayer time, they’ll close the doors and let you stay inside and shop – you just can’t check-out. On Fridays, though, they boot you at 11am, no questions asked, and they don’t let you back inside until 1pm.
Thursday, as may have been surmised, takes the place of Saturday. Most store open during the morning, with many open during the afternoon (though, as is traditional, most stores close from about 12pm to 4pm or 4:30pm). Most restaurants operate their normal hours, so lunch time is just like the rest of the week. There’s a twist, though.
The weekends are very, very family oriented over here. On Thursday evenings and on Sunday evenings, families often go out as a group, particularly the malls in this shopping obsessed nation. Some malls will not allow single males to shop in the mall proper during these times; although, some of the malls limit their prohibition to younger males and figure that we older gents are not going to harass the women folk. But, when it comes to restaurants, families rule. Some eateries provide only access for males, but most have family sections. Those that have family sections will often close the singles sections to singles and use those spaces as additional family spaces. For example, on Thursday evenings, a friend of mine will often go to a Japanese restaurant in a mall near the compound. Any other day of the week, we eat in the restaurant proper. On Thursdays (never eaten there on Friday), we’re stuck on a small, circular dais with enough room for about 12-15 unaccompanied men/boys.
The choice of Thursday as the second weekend day seems to be peculiar to Saudi Arabia. Most of the surrounding countries (and other Islamic nations on the whole), the weekend is Friday and Saturday. One of my Syrian friends, who grew up here, says that there has been some talk of making Thursday a work day and making Saturday an off day, to bring KSA in line with other Arab countries, but it just has never happened.
For me, the whole thing is disconcerting. The end of my work week comes, and all of my friends (the Internet is an amazing tool) are knee deep into the middle of their work week. The start of my work week begins, and the email lists are DEAD because all of my friends and family are sleeping in, or are on a trip, or just don’t want to mess with a computer on their day off. Then, when they fire up on Monday morning, rearing to go, I am in stride with the meat of the work week – thinking that Wednesday is only a couple of days off. TGIVF!
So, here it is Thursday night – the very middle of my weekend. Tomorrow is Friday – the day I buy groceries, maybe do some laundry, vacuum the carpet, clean out the cat box – you know, weekend stuff. Saturday brings a new week with problems to resolve and planning for the week and all sorts of meetings.
I have been doing this for a year, now. It still seems as odd to me as it did a year ago. I am guessing that it will be odd to me until I leave here.
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