Have you ever wondered what’s it like being a Jamaican living in Saudi Arabia?In this episode of “Jamaicans to the World”, Jamaicans.com founder Xavier Murphy speaks with Kevin Thomas. He has been living in Saudi Arabia for over 8 years.
Xavier: What it’s like being a Jamaican in Saudi Arabia? Hi, I’m Xavier Murphy, the founder the founder of Jamaicans .com. Today in Jamaicans to the world we talk to Kevin Thomas, who lives in Saudi Arabia. Welcome Kevin how are you?
Kevin: I am fine thank you Xavier. How are you doing?
Xavier: I’m doing good. First question, where in Jamaica you from?
Kevin: Junction St. Elizabeth.
Xavier: Oh, a St. Elizabeth, I think this is one of my first St. Elizabeth if I can recall.
Kevin: Really, it’s good to have a first Xavier.
Xavier: Tell us your story and how did you end up in Saudi Arabia.
Kevin: Saudi Arabia, I had hopes of going to Saudi Arabia but not quite yet.
Kevin: I was already working in China for seven years. My intention was to go to work in Japan. I have two friends there; one Japanese and one Chinese. Everything is all fine with them but as soon as we talk about politics then I have to be between them, there was this fight and I thought it would be best to visit the country of Japan to learn their customs and their way of life to better understand them. So then I decided, Okay, I’ll go to work in Japan. To get the job in Japan, I had to do an interviews in Bangkok, Thailand, and this was just after that big tsunami happened in probably 2011; I think it was. So when I got to Bangkok, and I got into the hall where we’re having the interviews, all the school from Japan canceled, every single one canceled. I remember standing there thinking, wow! what will I do now? And this is where, you know, I say at this point, I leave it in God’s hands, that’s it, let’s see what happens. There were three schools from the Middle East, there were Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi. They all liked me, all offer contracts. With Saudi, they offered one year while the others offered two years. I said, Okay, let me try Saudi for a year and I am still here, man. Yeah, yeah.
Xavier: My question is, this interests me because they offered you one year, everyone offered you two years. What was more interesting about doing the one year, did you wanted some flexibility?
Kevin: Partly because a sense of fear was there. A lot of my family mostly my American family, this was the time of the uprisings. I forget the name of it that started in Algiers, with you know, all the uprisings happening. The region was, like my aunts and family in the US would say, “look here they are surrounding you, eventually, they’re going to get to you, it’s not safe.” I said, “listen it’s just one year, I think it would be fine.” So yeah that one year turned into more than eight, almost nine.
Xavier: Wow!. Tell us a little bit about Saudi Arabia, let me start here with the people. What the people are like? What are the culture and the people like in Saudi Arabia?
Kevin: Of course one of the things I really like Xavier… I like the differences… We say our similarities are more than our differences around the world but our differences can be quite striking and from these differences they present you with great learning opportunities and you do your research before you get there. A big part of being there was that gender separation and having to navigate through this gender separation. It was all fine nothing prevented you from working or being yourself. But you just get to understand people and build friendships. It was very important that you remain respectful of the norms of the society and once people have ascertained that you are respectful of that Xavier, then friendships began to materialize and that’s why I ended up staying much longer. The fear of you know people are going to be difficult; no I didn’t find that difficult. I found them very friendly, very happy but on the surface you must agree to certain norms and respect it and they have to understand that.
Xavier: Ok I see. Was the transition in terms of the norms, because I have spoken to few other folks that are in that region and there was an adjustment. Was it a very difficult adjustment or you were able to easily adjust?
Kevin: For me, it was quite easy, from the get go, of course, going to a new place, you hang up your preconceived notions of what the place is and you begin kind of like zero point. So differences were kind of an invitation to learn about the place. When I had an all-boys classroom, I just learned to… I began to understand about myself, you know, you learn more about yourself in situations like this. You know you are moving from a mixed classroom to an all-boys class room; how do you manage it, what are the challenges and you just learn from that and go with it. And I found it quite enlightening.
Xavier: That’s interesting. When you were in Jamaica, what high school you went to, was it a mixed high school or was it all boys.
Kevin: There were two, there was Monroe College which was all boys. From a prep school which was mixed to an all-boys school and then my last two years was in Belair so then I went back to a mixed school.
Xavier: I see. I went to an all-boys, I went to Jamaica College so it was all-boys and so I figure if you went to an all-boys then probably that adjustment wasn’t as bad.
Kevin: I think it’s still quite an adjustment, because now the tables are turned; you are teacher as opposed to being the student. You are seeing it from a whole new ballgame, actually, learning how you operate as a child in that classroom, so it was quite interesting Xavier.
Xavier: What is the thing you would say, I absolutely love about this culture? What do you absolutely just love about the culture there in Saudi Arabia?
Kevin: What I really found interesting was, coming from home with friendships, you know, friendships, once they cross a certain line and a sense of honour steps in, you’re expected to live up to your friendships, through honour. No matter what happens, you have to maintain a relationship, it’s not so easily broken. I found in Saudi that was the case. Friendships became deeply meaningful. People are there to protect you all the time. I found that very, very reassuring that people will be there for me, once you develop these very deep friendships; it’s the sense of loyalty.
Xavier: I see. Let me ask you, I will press a little bit on that. Is making friends with the people, the Saudi people something that, some people tek (take) a while to warm up to you,? Is it that kind of way? Or is it; like we say, meet somebody and you are like, “bwoy, mi spirit tek yuh.” (Boy, my spirit take you – The person likes you)
Kevin: That’s a marked difference, in Jamaica there is an immediacy of friendship, coming from home Jamaica. Living in China it takes a while to warm up and I would say the Saudis are quite a friendly… Very quick with friendships but it’s not as immediate as in Jamaica, it does takes some warming up. They need to have this idea of who you are, where you’re coming from, what your values are and then once you cross that, then you’re fine. But it’s not as immediate as home.
Xavier: I see. When someone learns that you are Jamaica; what happens? What are the questions? Give me you know, if maybe you have an experience where you say, “I’m from Jamaica”, and then boom, this something happens; talk to me about that.
Kevin: Yes it happens all the time with people within society or arriving at customs. Are you Jamaican? Yes, I am Jamaican, and then they’ll ask me, are you sure? And then you want to say, you know, how sure am I going to be there’s a passport in your hand or people will say; are you really sure and then they’ll extend it further. They’ll say, are your parents Jamaican? I am like yes, they are Jamaica. Are their parents Jamaican? I am like yes, they are also Jamaicans and go as far back as I can go back, they are Jamaicans. There is this preconceived notion and there are times where, depends on where you are, there is a sense of mistrust; is he telling the truth? It does happen sometimes where, you get the look, you know, could he be really honest in where he’s from. When you live in parts of the world where there tends to be higher levels of mistrust or fear, you know, it takes time for them to really wash that preconceived notion of what Jamaicans look like. It offers a great teaching opportunity, you know, and then it gets into the history and how we came about. The opportunity is there for me to teach somebody about what Jamaica is, so I absolutely don’t mind it.
Xavier: Ok. The Saudi view’s apart from thinking Jamaicans are to look or the people you encounter, not only Saudi you have mentioned, that Jamaicans are to look one way? What are also their perception of Jamaican you know. I have heard different celebrities… They automatically know these different celebrities or some people may say once they realized that you are actually Jamaican you know some say the red carpet rolls out.
Kevin: Yes it does happened in some places where… they will test you, you know they will look at you, so you are from Jamaica, do you know Bob Marley and as soon as you say “yes”, you say you know Bob Marley, then that’s kind of key to say oh. Then some people may question you on some songs, of course, they all know, ‘No Woman No Cry’, so if you are Jamaican you are gonna have to know that. So in their way, they are still testing you because they are still in disbelief. One funny scenario within the region as well I remember, it must have been… I think it was Dubai. There are people on the streets who they are a part of illegal trade or whatever so they try to sell you something, of course, quite a few people they take on Jamaican persona. They are not Jamaicans they take on a Jamaican persona to be cool about something. I was approached by one guy; hey so, I am a Jamaican and I have the right stuff. I was like hmm, immediately I know he wasn’t and so I kind of pushed him you know, I kind of followed him along his train, I like listen you are talking to a Jamaican. Then he started laughing, I was like, ha ha hah! You are talking to a Jamaican. Then you know he got to the point where he said listen if you are Jamaican, I am not Nigerian. I was like haha!, oh, I thought you said you were Jamaican so now I know who you really are. It was just one of those moment where if you could dig a hole, he would have jumped completely in that hole. Because it is this fixed mind set and sometimes it is very difficult for people to perceived otherwise.
Xavier: Yeah I see, exactly. In terms of food in Saudi Arabia, what is the food like? And what would you say is the one thing if I was to visit Saudi Arabia or anyone is to visit Saudi Arabia and you would say, listen, you got to try this.
Kevin: You would have to try Kabsa. Kabsa is the dish, it can be chicken or beef or mostly lamb and it’s made on a big bed of rice and that rice is really nice rice. It’s spiced up with raisins and nuts and saffron. Really, really nice. It’s kind of like this soft strewed meat on a bed of rice and that’s basically what it is. And that’s very typical of Saudi dishes and when you compare Jamaica we have a lot more variety in our dishes, but in the Middle East there are greater varieties when you take other countries in to consideration, the Lebanese the Indians, Moroccans, the Egyptian. Then you get a Middle Eastern is quite… The variety are wide but within each one I think you know not as many varieties.
Xavier: Then my follow up is this; is there a Jamaican restaurant in Saudi Arabia or near where you go and get your fix.
Kevin: No, no, no, absolutely no. I would have to wait until I go home Xavier, that’s it.
Xavier: Or probably go back to, again I don’t know the stops. I think a lot of people say they travel through Landon or whatever on their way back home from that region. Probably London or somewhere along the way you would have to stop in or Dubai or probably go to Dubai for your Jamaican food.
Kevin: Usually on the way home to me; London, Miami then Kingston so along the way yes, I do get my fix, but you know, the real fix comes when I get home you know, my special dish is always waiting you know.
Xavier: And what’s that special dish when you get off the plane that’s waiting at home.
Kevin: That’s waiting at home, yes?
Kevin: Stew peas.
Xavier: Oh, ha, ha, hah, (Unclear audio 16:13) I love my stew peas too
Kevin: Yeah, on the way home usual from Miami, we always make a stop along the away which is close to… Just outside of May Pen We stopp to get patties.
Xavier: I know Saudi… People think of Saudi as oil, right. They think of oil when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they are thinking oil rich and so on. I am sure there are some places that you say listen this is an amazing place to go visit. Can you give me one or two of these places that you say listen if you come to Saudi Arabia; I would say go see this and it may not be a place, it may be an experience, it may be something that you say, “hey there is this restaurant or there is this thing; you have to experience this if you come to Saudi Arabia”.
Kevin: Ok, well with Saudi you know it’s within a vast desert area so one of the thing you definitely have to do would go out to the Red Sand Dunes, camp the night and just have tea. That would be a brilliant experience, having tea just camping out in the desert, absolutely brilliant. Just outside Riyadh there is a place called Edge of the World and it’s just out of this world. It’s a huge Plateau that just drops off hundreds of feet and you feel like you are way out there in space or something, very unique, very different environment. A very special one for me which may be hard for others to get into, was to go…. Every year there is an annual hunt for Falcons and this is close to the Kuwaiti border. So with friends, each year we would go to hunt Falcons. I was a lot in to doing photography, I would follow them around taking photos or watch them hunt trying to catch that falcon that the princes would buy for high figures.
Xavier: Let me dig in to that a little bit. What is the… Is there some Symbolisms, is it for food, is it for game, why Falcons, why in particular Falcons?
Kevin: Well Falcons, they do have a very prestigious way about them you know, they’re very elegant animals. The Prince ……., a beautiful falcon, they like to just have it kind of like a pet, so it is mostly as a pet, not for food.
Xavier: Ok, I see, when they do this hunt, you say once a year?
Kevin: In October, that’s the migration path, it’s usually October, it’s quite interesting.
Xavier: And you do photography, you say?
Kevin: Yeah, kind of like my hobby, yes I follow them around.
Xavier: I was just gonna asked and give the audience an opportunity to go visit if you had a website that you post your photos on. The audience can go see that. I don’t know if you do have a website you post your photos on. I know I am putting you on the spot here but…?
Kevin: No, that’s fine. Usually I do it on Facebook and on Instagram so on Instagram it would be, ‘Out of Many One People Travels’, and that’s where I put my travel photos. So it’s, ‘Out of many the number ‘1’ people travels’. So quite a few are there. Thanks for that Xavier.
Xavier: No problem. What is the thing that you would say you miss the most about Jamaica?
Kevin: I have been … what I miss the most, I have been travelling for a while besides living in China and Saudi, lots of travels. The thing I missed the most Xavier, is the immediacy of friendship which we touched on earlier. It’s that immediacy of friendship. It’s very quick, our eyes kind of become an extension of our smile and it’s that… It feels like that Caribbean warm sun is shining in the faces when people smile and it’s very warm and I miss that. Other parts of the world, the shine comes but eventually; not at the beginning so much. I really miss that immediacy of friendship and just warm faces, we smile with the face not just the lips.
Xavier: Yes, yes, indeed. So did you learn the language when you got there?
Kevin: Yes. I studied Arabic, I am kept in such English environment, like I have had that same challenge while in China. You are a part of such an English environment, the international schools. Learning on and off really doesn’t help, you really can’t say you speak a language if you just know a few phrases. At the end of my time in china I studied for a year in university. I wanted the same for Saudi but that system is not in place so I have to on and off try and it’s very challenging. It’s one of my most challenging language so far. When you think about exceptions we only have a few all the rest are in Arabic, believe me so it takes a while to get your head around it.
Xavier: Well we are winding down and the reason why I ask about the language is I am going to plan and put you on the spot now. Because I have been trying to say in the last few series; goodbye in the language that the person I speak to is learning, any closing thoughts and then you have to teach me how to say goodbye in Arabic.
Xavier: So any closing… Do you have any final words?
Kevin: Final words in terms of living in the Middle East or just in general about (Unclear audio 23:00)
Xavier: Anything it could be general about living in the Middle East, a piece… A word of advice, anything.
Kevin: The world is there, go for it, go travel. Just make sure before traveling, we kind of rid your minds of preconceived notions, do your research so you can understand the society, what the norms are. so you can be mindful not to offend anyone, which is highly important that you’re not seen as offending one’s beliefs even if you do not follow their belief system. From Jamaica, just say you know in many ways Xavier, we are role models in some way or the other, especially those leaders or people in the limelight. So for home, I would just… We’re still from a very blessed place, in terms of our cohesiveness as a society. I would like our leaders to continue choosing words or phrases, or speak responsibly so we can always build bridges and make sure communities stay very cohesive and connected. We can really be truly living and breathing entities of I think what humanity’s… One of the humanity’s best coin phrases, out of many one people.
Xavier: Great, yes.
Kevin: We are blessed in many ways in that way because I have seen tensions around the world and I wouldn’t want to see irresponsible communication affect that back home so something that we can remain mindful of.
Xavier: Good, good, Kevin, thank you for spending some time with us giving us some insights on Saudi Arabia and your story there. Now you are going to teach us how to say goodbye in Arabic.
Kevin: Alright, good I will do that, I am sure you have heard the term Salaam.
Kevin: Can you say that?
Kevin: Good, which means peace. So ‘masalaama’
Xavier: Alright so here we go masalmaa.
Kevin: You have to get the throat part in “Masalaama”.
Kevin: Close enough. I can give you 8 out of 10 Xavier.
Xavier: “Masalaama” Kevin.
Kevin: “Masalaama” Xavier and take good care.