I first entered Saudi Arabia in the summertime, during the break from school, almost 10 years ago. Since we’d just moved from overseas, we didn’t have a home of our own and so we lived in the in-laws house. During the summer, the number of people in the house increases as my sister-in-law comes from Jubail with her 4 kids and various other related children come and spend the night. At one point there were 17 family members residing in the house with 5 bedrooms and a couple more children going in and out.
My in laws house is old and built in a traditional way on one floor. The family living room is located in the center of the house with all the bedrooms surrounding the living room. There’s no “yard” like in western homes and the original patio has long been built over to accommodate the growing family on such a small plot of land. The numerous children have no place to go “out” to play so they play in the living room. There are whole soccer games, tag games, climb the entertainment center games, and various other games played out in this small living room as the adults try to talk through the din. This is bad enough during the rest of the year but during the summer, it becomes a type of purgatory to be endured until school starts up again.
Sleeping habits here vary from family to family. Several of our family members allow their kids to be up the entire night until it’s time for them to go to school. They then get dressed and go to school only pass out immediately upon returning home and eating. They then wake up some time in the early night hours after missing all the days prayers and repeat the cycle the next day. Several of my sister-in-laws kids have been caught dozing off in school. Mothers complain about this and about how sleep deprived they are as a result of their children's bad sleeping habits. My response is, “tell them to go to bed” accompanied by a look which says “DUH!”.
This backwards sleeping schedule isn’t limited to children. While teaching at a university here, I noticed several of my students arriving to my 8 AM lectures in full make-up and complicated hair-do’s. For a while I thought, “wow, what time did they wake up in order to pull that look off?” I didn’t take long to figure out that they were waiting to go to bed after my lecture finished at 10 AM. Several housewives go to bed after their kids go to school then wake up at around noon when they come home.
Getting back to my first summer in my in-laws house…
The first few weeks after arriving in Saudia were spent with my new family and of course, following their lead. I ate what they ate, went where they went, and slept when they slept. I had absolutely no choice in what time I slept seeing as how the door to my bedroom was off the living room where the entire family spent their time and the children played till they were worn out. Even when I tried my hardest, I couldn’t sleep at night because of all the noise in the room next to me. Also, my toddler felt as if she was missing out on all the fun and wanted to join her new cousins instead of being confined to bed at night with mom.
My mother-in-law and sister-in-laws would get to sleep some time after sunrise a 5 to 6 AM but the kids (all under age 10 at that time)… still had a few more hours of noisy, raucous play in them. They’d stay awake for at least 3 more hours after adult supervision had given up the struggle and went to bed, doing basically anything they pleased. They go up to the roof and throw things down onto the street below, they’d go to the kitchen and “create” culinary masterpieces, they’d bounce on sofas and use overturned tables for forts and dancing platforms. Being kids, they’d go in and out of their moms room with various complaints and requests waking her to solve their problem. She’d also have to rise to seek out the source of wailing after one of the “dancing stages” gave way and broke under them or they misjudged the distance between the top of the wardrobe to the bed when attempting flight. Eventually around 9 or 10 AM they’d start to wander off to bed one at a time and the house would finally be peaceful.
This type of schedule went on or rather, dragged on till it seemed that I couldn't’t take any more. I constantly had headaches, my toddlers behavior was awful because of the lack of structure, and I felt so down and depressed as a result of being away so far away from everything familiar to me. Eventually, we got our own apartment and I could have things the way I want them right? WRONG! Because our social life revolves mainly around the family, whenever they had get-togethers I have to do it according to their schedules, not mine. The weekly gathering would commence sometime around 9PM and go till 1AM at night. That was fine for them, whose kids had just woke up shortly before they left the house at night but for me and my kid, we’d be sitting there exhausted wanting to go to bed. They’d follow this schedule during Ramadan too. Everyone would sleep after sunrise and not wake up until after 2PM in the afternoon in order to pray thuhr prayer before ‘asr was called and to start cooking for the evening meal. Since sunset was at 5:30pm they’d only do without food for a few hours…kinda like skipping breakfast. Doesn’t seem like fasting to me.
The only exception to this backwards sleeping in this family is the working men. They follow pretty regular schedules. Once when I’d mentioned what time I normally sleep and wake my father-in-law commented, “what are you, a man?”
I spent two whole years like this, going against the grain of my in-laws backwards sleeping schedule. Whenever I’d mention wanting my children to sleep at 8 PM at night on school nights, it was almost as if I were being cruel to them. Then, we went to England where the country sleeps with the chickens. Most places were closed by 6 or 7 at night except for pubs and the weather was so crappy most of the year there wasn’t anything else to do but sleep. This suited me fine but my hubby was still sleeping on Saudi Standard Time, staying up most of the night doing his studies.
We’d come back to Saudia every year during the summer break only to have me counting the days left till we’d go back to England so I could get a full 8 hours sleep. I loved being around the inlaws but since we’d given up our apartment when we moved to England, we were in the family’s house during these trips home with a few dozen feral kids running amok. Summer trips here became hellish with fatigue as well as boredom due to the bad weather. I wasn’t the only one suffering as all the mothers of these wild children complain endlessly about how tired they are. It becomes a type of contest of sorts; “I’ve only slept 2 hours in 2 days”, one will say as another confirms she’s had only one hour more sleep than her. Women are dozing off while sitting and chatting with others and everyone is popping headache pills and drinking liters of tea.
Am I the only one who doesn’t understand this situation. I know not all Saudis do this as many of my friends as well as some family members do force their families to sleep at night, although they are in the minority. Some argue that’s it’s due to the harsh weather that people stay awake at night. This doesn’t make any sense to me because the a/c is working no matter what time they wake and sleep. Also, this is not traditional as many older family members have confirmed. Most people in the past used to be awake all day with a siesta in the afternoon.
As for myself, I’m going to sleep (when I have things the way I want them) around 11 to midnight. I wake for fajr as this is the time my baby wants fed too, and go back to sleep until mid-morning. Most stores open up after 4 pm until around 11 pm so if I need to go and buy something we go out in the evening. This seems to me to be a sane alternative to the sleepless chaos going on in my in-laws house. My mother in-law couldn’t even keep her eyes open yesterday when I saw her because her head was throbbing due to sleep deprivation. Since we’ve had several family activities recently, our sleeping schedule is going much later with me finally getting to bed after I pray fajr (I’m in the process of shifting it back). We have 3 girls spending the night at our house with the understanding that when at my house, they must sleep at night and wake-up mid-morning.
I’ve been saving this post for the summer break only because that’s when I feel its bitterness the strongest. It’s normal, for many places around the world, for kids to stay up later and sleep in during summer break. As many other things in Saudia, this is taken to the extreme!
***sung to the tune of “where’s my little dog gone”***
Oh where oh where has your Daisy gone?
No new posts! oh how can that be?
She’s not sleeping till way past dawn.
“School’s out” means no blogging for me.