In Saudi Arabia, most people never heard of family togetherness. But no other pattern would ever occur to them. None ever has.
Sit around and visit with any Saudi Arab friend or acquaintance, and you'll understand this very quickly. Take Saad Muhammad, for example. Saad is the muraqib, or Foreman, in Aramco's welding shop in Dhahran. One of the best. For several years he was an instructor.
After working hours, he's a husband and father—a family man.
The scene in his home in Dammam has things about it that are just like life in your own home—and things that are different.
During early evening when the day's work is over and dinner has been enjoyed, it is family time.
"I like to play with the children," Saad explains, leaving no doubt. He has seven: two boys, five girls.
The oldest is Latifa. The other girls are Miriam, Manra, Haie and Farida. The boys are Omar and Jamal.
The children love to play with their dad, too. There's a nice, warm feeling during family time. Probably it's due to the mutual appreciation and satisfaction of the group performing as a family unit. Saad and a couple of the boys might play a game quite like "horseshoes." A couple of others sit with their mother, watching "Storytime" on television. The youngest are in bed, but the sounds give them a good feeling of security and belonging. Latifa sketches very well and Saad is proud of her talent. "Sometimes she paints; sometimes she sketches," he modestly explains.
A favorite game in which almost everyone can participate, is played out in the yard. Saad makes a small, shallow hole. Then he puts down a dried lime or some other dried-out fruit maybe 6 inches from the hole for a beginning tot, 12 to 14 inches for an older player. The trick is to stand from 8 to 18 feet away from the line—depending on how adept you are—and toss a 4-inch ring so it will hit the lime and push it into the hole.
"Sometimes," Saad mentions, "a toy or some other prize will have amazing effect on everyone's aim. When you have seven children, you can't always buy something for all of them, you know."
But, family time is not all play. Latifa attends a private school, and Omar, 7, goes to one of the Government schools. So, there's home work. And, like children everywhere, these youngsters appreciate a helping hand from their dad. To help Latifa with her mathematics, Saad even brought home a blackboard.
Sounds pretty much like an average American home, doesn't it? But, it's not all the same. Take the matter of shopping: generally, the husband does the shopping.
The reason is that woman's position in Arabia is much different from what it is in the Western countries. She lives in full privacy and is not seen by men other than her husband and close male relatives, or, in appropriate circumstances, long-time family friends. In the homes of rich and poor and in the tents of the wandering Bedouins, the women have separate quarters. Only men who are intimate members of the family may enter there. When women go outside their homes, they are heavily veiled.
But, does the husband do all of the shopping—food, furniture, house furnishing, dishes—all these things?
"That's right," Saad assures. "Oh, sometimes women go to the store for a few groceries, and we go together to buy the children's clothes, but usually the husband does it."
While he's gone at work all day, Saad's wife and the children will attend to chores around the house: the cleaning, washing, ironing, sewing, gardening and so forth. Instructing the children in all these household duties is one of Saad's wife's responsibilities.
"When she's not in school," you learn from Saad, "the oldest girl does all the cooking. She and the other girls can use the sewing machine, too."
Indeed, helping with the household chores is part of growing up for every Arab child, especially the girls, just as it is in Vermont or Kansas. And, just as in Vermont and Kansas, this gives the wives their chance to get together and chat.
One difference, though: there's no talking "over the back fence," because there's no fence. Every home is surrounded by a wall which forms a secure little compound. The chat sessions are indoors.
In Saudi Arabia, Saad claims the husband is the boss. No doing dishes. No cooking. Fixing things around the house, yes: a faucet out of order, an electric outlet not working - things like that. And helping discipline the children. Otherwise, no.
"Before I leave in the morning," Saad says, "I say what I want for dinner. Maybe it's meat, or fish, or chicken, or whatever. I say what I want, and that's what we will have."
"There are no arguments. Oh, maybe my wife will say, 'Why do you do this?' or 'Why don't you do that?' And I'll think it over, and if she's right, I'll do what she wants. But the husband is boss.
"On my days off, we do different things," Saad recalls. (Aramco employees are off on Fridays - the equivalent of our Sunday. Thursdays are alternately off-days or half-days.)
Sometimes, just sleeping late and taking things easy is what they feel like. Maybe Saad will do some reading. Later in the day, some men friends may drop by and pass the time in his majlis (living room). His wife may have some women visitors in her own rooms where they can exchange stories about their children or perhaps watch television. Like housewives anywhere, they enjoy programs that feature tips on home-making, as well as ever-popular travel programs that everyone seems to appreciate.
"Sometimes, we'll get in my car—the whole family—and drive to the beach," Saad explains. "I have a very good friend who lives near me, and often he and his family will drive out with us. We have all known each other ever since we were small children.
"Other times, we will go to al-Khobar (a thriving, mostly-new shopping center of about 25,000, south of Dammam). In the winter when it's cool, we like to take our lunch and go to the gardens in Qatif or even down to Hofuf (about 90 miles away)."
The term "gardens" is used in Arabia to designate the luxuriant oasis areas, with their thousands of trees, flowers, ponds and streams.
There are variations, of course, in family relationships in Arabia, as everywhere, but one element of the basic pattern is strong and enduring: family unity.
As Saad was saying when you mentioned that tomorrow would be Friday and asked him what was he going to do:
"My friend and I are going to get into our cars with our families and go fishing."
Somebody should tell him about togetherness?