My time working with a Saudi family in Dubai was a fantastic period of my life. It was a time framed by Oud, flowing incense, Koranic verse and flowing thobes set against abaya; chess pieces in the family dynamic. I received amazing hospitality great pay and an enviable career enhancing experience. Even though the Gulf States have recently become a destination of choice for many expats, working within an Arabic family is still extremely rare, the cultural and language gulf can be vast but with a few pointers and resilience it can be done. More job opportunities are opening up and many Arabic families see an investment in a western tutor or governess as ideal preparation for their children to be educated in an international or even a British school.
Before blindly taking an offer a lot of thought needs to go into your decision. The ideal situation would be a family where one or both of the parents have been educated or have lived in the west and are very supportive of your role. A family involved in business is usually preferable; a father with skills in calm diplomacy, knowledge of hard graft and ambition for his children will generally be extremely supportive of your endeavours. Wealth and influence should also be taken into account not just in relation to your increment but in terms of how comfortably they can look after you in regards to housing, flights, support staff and connections with the authorities if there are any hiccups.
The Islamic dimension.
Although you will hear stories of rampant expat hedonism the Gulf States are as a whole Conservatively Islamic; nowhere is this more evident than in an Arabic home. The indigenous population has taken on some aspects of a western way of life but they are at heart still very orthodox. During your first meeting I would suggest that you make it clear that you have some sort of understanding of their way of life. If you are a guy don’t stare at the mother or hold eye-contact with her for an extended period, don’t offer your hand to her but wait to see if she extends hers towards you. A confidently pronounced “Salam Alikum” will be met with a smile, parental relief, and the answer of “Alikum Salam!”
The house will generally be divided into parts, a female area, a kids/general area and the domain of the father which will probably include the parents bedroom. At different times the access will probably change but you will need to learn which areas you have access to and which parts are out of bounds. If you are wandering around the staff areas I would suggest knocking loudly and greeting those inside so if the ladies have their hair uncovered they have an opportunity to avoid embarrassment.
Tread lightly when talking about your beliefs, atheism is seen as a big negative so If you are truly without salvation I would suggest you bite the bullet and say you are Christian. If you are Jewish I would think very carefully before taking on a role in Arabic household. The staff and the children may be quite inquisitive about your life, religion and culture. You may be asked who you pray to, the best answer I found to this question is that you pray “to God, the same God as you, there is only one! We just worship him in different ways.” This may gain you some extra brownie points. You will also likely be asked why you are not a Muslim, I found an acceptable answer to this question is that you were born a Christian as your parents were Christian but if you born an Arab you would have been a Muslim!
After a while the family and staff will become more accustomed to you and inside the household the mother and female family members may become more relaxed in your presence. But when outside of the home or with guests they will behave in a strictly conservative manner and you would be advised not to attempt to talk with them unless the husband is at their side or you are asked a direct question.
When you first start working the family and staff may be very eager to emphasise the peaceful and sophisticated nature of their culture. Some of the parents still shudder at the stereotypes that have portrayed of Arabs in the western media. In the eighties a famous WWF wrestler named “The Iron Sheikh” was met with loud “Boos” whenever he entered the ring. More recently the tragedies in New York have shaken the younger generation and further reinforces their desire to show you the positive aspects of the culture.
If you have a chance before you leave home, pop to a good bookshop and pick up some works regarding the Islamic enlightenment. During this period in history Ibn-Battuta was travelling the world like an Arabic Marco Polo. The great works of Greek and Roman philosophy were also being translated and preserved in the huge Eastern libraries, well out of the way of the chaos and religious intolerance in the west at the time.
You will hear stories about wads of hard cash being given to you and it’s true that wealthy Arabic families can be very generous, especially if you have worked hard and have put your whole self into the job. Do not expect it but keep a few quality cards and envelopes at hand (especially at the end of Ramadan) to write a huge thank you if receive anything at all.
Arabic is a fascinating language and has many dialects, Saudis are said to have the most Classical Arabic and I would suggest taking lessons if you have any spare time. Speech is punctuated with reverence to Allah in a way that will have you study your own language for similar references.
A few pointers (with very haphazard spelling and translation!)
Salam Alikum – Peace be upon you. (Greeting)
– Alikum Salam – also upon you (reply)
Ana ismi – i am (name)
Ana Inglisi – I’m English
Shukran – Thank you
Mafi Mashkala – No Problem
Yela – go!/hurry!
Halas – finished/over
Kois – great/super
Shoof – look
Avoid the big mistakes!
Number one on the list is don’t hit on Arabic women, especially family members, they may be beautiful and interesting but unless you have a serious desire to convert to Islam and marry them you stand no chance and will enter a whole universe of difficulty. Just to confirm, I have never made this mistake but in expat circles there have always been hushed unconfirmed rumours of expats making this fateful choice.
Don’t turn up to work hungover. If there is one thing that has the potential to irritate an Arabic father more than anything it is a sweating, bloodshot-eyed Englishman stinking of a heavy night sitting in front of his slightly confused and slightly scared children. An obvious path to an early dismissal.
Don’t bare too much skin. For guys, don’t turn up to work in short shorts and a T-shirt. Ladies, cover your shoulders and legs. This is the Gulf not St Tropez.
Don’t eat in front of the family or staff during Ramadan. Learn about Ramadan and the fasting dates. The kids may not practice fasting and you may eat with them but don’t swig water or tuck into a sandwich in front of those that are observing.
Take your shoes off inside the house, Arabs are meticulously clean and anything connected with feet is seen as dirty.
Don’t ruffle hair or touch anyone on the top of the head, this is seen as extremely disrespectful.
Don’t slap anyone on the back or go in for hugs with adults. Arabs generally only hug very good friends or their families. If you want to show affection to other men learn to touch foreheads. (Google it). Woman can generally get away with hugging children of both genders. Men should only really hug boys or if older touch foreheads/ shake hands.
A mistake that I made was simple but was fairly embarrassing, the mother of my charge was walking with her daughter and I waved frantically calling out the daughters name. The mother had already seen me and had prepped the daughter to look straight ahead and keep walking. Thinking the girl had not seen me I called louder and waved more frantically until the party seemingly oblivious walked right passed me.
If there is no male relative present, smile and look ahead, they will see you and appreciate that you understand their culture.
This is of course my own perspective and it is that of a guy. I presume a lady may have a different experience especially if they are working in Saudi Arabia. I hope I have helped you make a more informed choice. Remember the Gulf Arabs are an extremely polite, hospitable people with a unique culture that is not well known. There is so much more than can be put into one article so if you have a question that you would like to be answered please write it in the box below and I will attempt to answer it to the best of my knowledge.