Stage Managing in Saudi Arabia: It Is Nice to Meet You
“If you smell something good, go inside.” A piece of advice from a taxi driver in Vancouver, Canada. It has led me on several great adventures, and I hope it guides you well in yours.
Everyone travels differently. You have to keep that in mind going into this article. What makes me comfortable, you might not need to feel comfortable. I’ll admit that I struggle with anxiety and not just travel anxiety – I’m actually usually a lot calmer during travel because I am able to acknowledge things I can’t change – but that rationalization from my stage manager brain doesn’t always flow through to anxiety brain. Anxiety brain is often the one worrying about the bottle of water I have in my backpack in the overhead luggage right now, thinking about “did I screw the cap on tight enough?” “What if it’s leaking all over my laptop?” “How do I check without waking the stranger next to me?” “What if the water is on his laptop too!?!?”. Anxiety brain follows me everywhere – especially to Saudi Arabia.
Throughout this article you will find tips on both travel in general and specifically Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I’ll even suggest the best iPhone apps to download. Take what you find useful, ignore what doesn’t apply, and if you happen to have answers to the questions I still have, please feel free to reach out.
As I started my journey, I felt under prepared. When I left Vegas, I was going to be working three different gigs before returning – preparing for that seemed daunting. I had also, only a couple days before leaving, relocated to Vegas from Michigan. Disorganized doesn’t do the feeling justice. I read in an article about packing for a flight, that you shouldn’t pack for the WHAT IFS of the world. What if it rains? Buy an umbrella. I know that’s a very simple what if – but the theory is the same. As a stage manager – trained to be prepared at all times with random supplies – it’s hard to do, but I tried my best. For work I brought:
- a clipboard that opens up to store notes/paper, sticky tabs, and my flash drive
- one pencil container with my go-to favourites and essentials
- spike and gaff tape
- my computer (I use a MacBook Pro and highly recommend for other SMs)
The above list served me very well – I didn’t need the binders, notebooks, writing utensil hoards, or stage management books. When you travel for work, there are things you just cannot prepare for – no matter how much your stage management brain says you need to. The less supplies you have, the better you become at being able to use the environment and people around you to solve everything.
Once I knew I was travelling to Saudi Arabia, I researched. I read articles, I asked for advice – everything I took in was different.
You’re going to hear and read a lot of things that would make anyone nervous. The possibility of being arrested for showing shoulders, interacting with the opposite sex, or having tattoos can make any secure traveler, feel just a bit more uneasy. The truth is, Saudi Arabia has made a lot of progress in the past few years, especially in Jeddah. Reflecting on it after my trip, I don’t think that being nervous was bad – it kept me alert, aware of my surroundings, and safe. Thanks Anxiety Brain!
Clothing wise, I ended up not packing the Ariat hiking boots or composite toe work boots that I usually like to work in. Instead, I opted for a pair of regular black boots that were easier to pack – wrong choice. Make the room. Pack the good shoes. For Saudi Arabia, I packed the following:
Abaya – THIS IS AN ESSENTIAL ITEM
Essentially a dress with long sleeves. I suggest looking into one that is made of a light weight material. Mine was not. Though progress has been made and there are many women who wear an open abaya, your travel will be easier if you wear the traditional abaya.
Hijab – THIS IS AN ESSENTIAL ITEM
This is the scarf head covering. I suggest also investing in bobby bins and a strong headband for underneath. If you are not Muslim, you do not need to wear it. HOWEVER, I encountered a lot less eyes and cold shoulders when I was wearing the Hijab. For convenience, I’d say buy and wear – definitely wear when on the plane into Saudi Arabia.
Loose Fitting Clothes
Honestly, because I wore the abaya all the time while out in the city, it seemed silly to have all this clothing that clearly wasn’t going to be seen anyway. Most days, underneath the abaya, the ladies wore swimsuits or shorts and bra. It’s too hot for much else. More on work appropriate outfits below. NOTE THAT SHORTS ARE ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED IN PUBLIC.
These are fabulous for travel like this. You put all your clothes in a bag, seal it and suck all the air out of it. It makes it harder to manipulate in packing, but you have more space. When packing for multiple climates, space bags are good to have. Make sure you have access to an iron when you unpack though – good lord the wrinkles!
Note on Culture, Tradition, and Oppression: When you are there to work, keep your head down and follow traditions. Wearing the abaya and hijab has a lot to do with modesty. Understand that even though Saudi Arabia is a country driven by the patriarchy, women there can also feel empowered in their dress.
On the plane into Saudi Arabia, I made friends with the gentleman sitting next to me. First, he questioned if I did indeed have the window seat and I made him very aware that I did. Then he pointed out that I had finger tattoos and asked if I was Muslim. We talked about why I was coming to Saudi Arabia and he told me why he had been in the United States. He actually ended up giving me his phone number saying, if I needed anything or ran into any trouble, that I could contact him. We also follow each other on Instagram now. When we landed, he didn’t leave my side. He made sure I knew where I was going for immigration, met me on the other side, waited with me until I had both my bags, and made sure I connected with the correct company driver.
I think about his kindness a lot and very much hope that you find similar kindness in your travels.
Some of our company members said that there were men with guns at the airport yelling at people getting off the plane. I had no such experience. For immigration, I was ushered into a line where I waited to step up to a woman who looked at my passport and visa, took my photograph and finger prints, and then waved me on my way. The entire company ended up with government issued visas. That might not be the case in the future, and I will let you know if that had anything to do with our seemingly smooth travels in.
Note that travelling OUT of Saudi Arabia as a woman, you will be directed to women only entrances and search areas. Don’t be afraid, they’re awesome. You walk around a corner and it’s a bunch of women chit-chatting and looking through your purse and scanning you. Easily the best security line I’ve ever been though.
FUN FACT: There are a lot of cats on the streets of Jeddah. I mean A LOT. Once I made it to the hotel, the director and company manager took me to dinner, and we walked past a garbage bin with no less than 15 cats on and around it. It’s not like they remind you of your Sir Fluffy Whiskerton back home either, they’re MEAN looking cats. They do good work in controlling the smaller rodents and cockroach hoards, though.
Like I said, you’re going to read a lot of things that make you uncomfortable. You’ll read about women needing guardianship papers, about the religious police, about all the various ways in which a woman shouldn’t exist. The majority of what you read applies to women living in Saudi Arabia, not those visiting for work. If you read something that you’re not sure about, give me a call or send me an email – I’m more than happy to talk through your concerns with you.
Entertainment is new in Saudi Arabia, and because of that, we encountered more than a few hiccups along the way to opening. It left time for exploration…which is an adventure within an adventure.
We were all housed inside a hotel that was within walking distance of the Mall of Arabia. I never walked there by myself, though I did feel comfortable walking with just other women in our company and we didn’t encounter problems. One time I went alone I took an Uber and my driver made fun of me for not just walking. I can understand his confusion but do what makes you comfortable and never mind what anyone thinks.
IMPORTANT: You need to know when the prayer times are as a lot of their world is focused around it. Our company manager actually got stuck inside a pharmacy because they lowered the shop gate and did not open it again until after the prayer – which can be over an hour sometimes. Download the Muslim Pro app. You can pick which prayer times you want to be notified for – maybe you need to know the one right at lunch time or the one close to show time but probably not the one at 4 am.
Uber is available in Saudi Arabia – although I had more than one occasion where the driver would text me in Arabic. Download the Google Translate app and have it ready just in case.
Other Good Apps:
- WhatsApp – messaging/texting app for international communication
- ExpressVPN – install it on your laptop & phone for places with restricted access
- IHG – give hotels the member number you receive and earn points
- Whichever airline you’re on – more on this below!
Airline App: There are dozens upon dozens of airlines out there, BUT most belong to certain groups. Star Alliance (United, Air Canada, Lufthansa), Sky Team (Delta, Air France, Saudia), or One World (British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas). Meaning that if you’re signed up to earn miles on Delta, when you fly on Saudi, you earn miles for that too. All of this was new to me, but after booking and changing so many flights, I have a much better understanding of how airlines work.
Once our delays were over, including the rebuild of the circus tent and then also the rebuild of the stage, we were able to get started on the rehearsal process. Since the venue was ours, the women were able to remove the abayas. The guideline was that it should be on if we were around a lot of local people. While working, I erred on the safe side for a few days, wearing baggy pants and baggy long-sleeved shirts. After those few days, I ended up in black jeans, a black tank top, and usually some sort of sweatshirt or flannel as a covering when needed. No problems at all.
Note that if something makes you uncomfortable, trust in your company manager or your direct supervisor to help handle the situation. There was one day where I experienced several local crew guys taking pictures of a worded tattoo on the back of my neck – the abaya didn’t cover it. The company manager noticed and let me know then kindly stood in their view when possible. It was probable that they were simply sending it through for translation, but still, it was a very uncomfortable situation. Later that day, I also dealt with one particular man staring at me. I have no problem following local culture and respecting that, but it was very hard to bite my tongue in this instance. At a certain point, I leaned over to the company manager who was standing close by and asked him to move two feet to his right to block this man’s view. There isn’t a lot that my company manager could have done besides what he did. If you don’t have immediate access to someone like I did, let someone higher know – they likely know the right people to report that behavior to.
Notes on Feminism & Trust: There wasn’t a single guy on our crew who wouldn’t have intervened in a situation, guided us away from a situation, or reported a situation to someone higher who could help. Like most feminists, I have the phrase “I can take care of myself” embedded in my head. It is OKAY to LEAN on OTHERS. It is OKAY to ASK for HELP. You are not weaker as a woman because you find yourself in a situation where a man is more capable. Those situations exist and they do not change your knowledge, your ability, your power, or your independence.
There was a lot of craziness throughout our time in Saudi Arabia. The government wanted the show performed for a visiting prince, so we opened a few days ahead of our schedule, even though we still had a few acts that hadn’t been rehearsed into the show. This meant we had frequent rehearsals before and between shows to put those acts in. We also ended up doing additional shows requested by the government on anticipated days off. There wasn’t much time to explore the culture after those initial few days! I joke and make light of not wanting to go back but the truth is, that abaya is in my closet and I’d pack it again in a heartbeat. Experiencing a culture and life so different from your own is nothing short of wondrous. One of my brave solo excursions took me to a beautiful, hidden coffee shop on the second floor of the Mall of Arabia. All of their treats were designed in flower pots. At first, I just admired and walk a few feet past the shop. I remembered what my taxi driver in Vancouver advised and made my way back. I was there to explore, and I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t stop.
Something that definitely makes me nervous is the language barrier. Will they speak English, will I look rude if I don’t understand? You won’t look rude, just listen and watch their body language to help you translate what they are saying. It might be wise to listen to some of the language before travelling – that way, at least you have an ear for it already. I listened to my barista and went with his favorite – the chocolate cake and Nutella. Even through the language barrier, we were able to laugh, smile, and exchange stories. As I was waiting, he came up to me with a paper bag and said, “I want to give you a gift”. Inside was a handcrafted pot, Saudi Arabian soil, and the seeds from a Madagascar Periwinkle flower. Working together to find the words in each other’s language, he walked me through the steps of planting and caring for the plant. I left with my coffee, my Nutella cake, and my gift, the happiest little British American Circus Stage Manager you’ve ever seen in Saudi Arabia. That pot now sits on a table in my living room with four beautiful seeds growing strong. It was one of the most precious gifts I have ever received, and I will truly remember that interaction for the rest of my life.
The biggest and most valuable lesson I have learned is that the phrase “It is nice to meet you” holds so much more weight and meaning than I ever thought it would.
Often times, it is said as a greeting or farewell, not holding much meaning, just going through the motions of human interaction. Not now. Now when I say that phrase, I mean that I have heard and seen who you are as a person and appreciate the life that you are living. So, go meet those people.