At the expense of my health

Social customs force people to be courteous despite negative impacts


By Razaz Ainousah

Saudi Gazette

THE Saudi people are known to be courteous. They love to compliment others, particularly friends and relatives, by inviting them for dinner or lunch even if they are not well off financially. People without enough money tend to borrow from others and put themselves in debt just to invite people for an expensive dinner or lunch because it is a custom.

Due to such complicated social customs and traditions, some people end up doing something that will harm their health or financial position in order just to be courteous to others.

A person who is sensitive to cigarette smoke and is sitting in a big gathering with respected elderly family members who smoke cannot leave the place or ask them not to smoke because it will make him look disrespectful and may trigger a family issue. Such people end up harming their health at the expense of others.

Saudi Gazette interviewed some individuals who had to endure a lot of hardships in their daily lives in order to be courteous to others. They shared with us some experiences that impacted their lives negatively, but due to customs and traditions they had to put up with the circumstances.

Wid Taweli, a housewife in her mid-20s who was into the ninth month of her pregnancy, said, “I was in a gathering with a group of relatives and friends who were heavy smokers. They did not consider the fact that I was pregnant even though they knew about it. I was shy to ask them not to smoke because it might start a problem. I wanted to tell them that I cannot breathe because the room was full of smoke, but I could not. My sister-in-law, who hates smoking, was with us in the gathering and noticed my discomfort. She opened the window and the door to allow air circulation, but it was not enough.

"She whispered to me to tell the guests to stop smoking since I was uncomfortable. I told her that some of them who were smoking were pregnant themselves and they do not care about their health and then how would they care about the others."

She added, “If I asked them to stop smoking, then that will start a heated argument that will either end up in me leaving the room or them asking me to leave. If I left without telling them, then they will say she left early because she does not like to stay with them. To maintain harmony, I had to keep silent.”

Morouj Abubakr, a master's student at King Abdulaziz University who is eight months pregnant, faced a similar situation when she was at a tailor shop. The female tailor smoked while she took her measurements for a dress.

Morouj was shocked when the tailor did not put out her cigarette and instead she was puffing smoke on her, knowing clearly that she was pregnant. She had the choice to leave, but at the same time, she wanted her dress to be done and she felt shy to ask the tailor to put out the cigarette at her own shop.

“In the West, workers do not smoke inside their shops, and even if they do, they will put it out once a customer walks in. This is not the case here as a request to put out the cigarette may not be taken lightly. To avoid any hassles, I let it go even at the expense of my own health,” she added

Other people who spoke to Saudi Gazette said they had to be considerate to the elderly people around them risking their own health.

Umm Mahmoud, who did not wish to reveal her real name, was on a strict diet for health reasons and could not eat certain food. She was forced to face a health hazard when she was in her father-in-law's house.

Umm Mahmoud said her father-in-law was a nice and generous man who enjoyed serving a variety of food items to his guests as a form of hospitality. “It is very difficult to explain to my father-in-law what a diet is, as he is an old man with strict traditional code. It would be greatly disrespectful if I said that I could not eat a certain item on the table; he would find it disrespectful and offensive.

"My suffering started when I found that all the banned types of food were on the table, because I would be forced to eat them, even if I was allergic to some of them. He gave me a big piece of a banned item on my list and waited for me to eat it all. Despite knowing that this would negatively affect my health, I had to eat it just to be courteous to him and make him happy,” said Umm Mahmoud.

Ibtihal Alhujaily, a specialist in Qur’an Studies at Taibah University, had to make tradition a priority over health. One day she had a twisted ankle and could barely stand up. In a family gathering, where most of the people were respected people of the tribe, she was forced to stand up to greet every elderly member who arrived. If she chose to remain seated while greeting them, then that would be taken as a sign of disrespect, and not even a health report that showed the pain in the ankle could diffuse the situation. So she decided to endure the pain.

Sultan Al-Ahmadi, a Saudi student, said it would be disrespectful if a guest was not greeted with big feats. Sultan is broke and sometimes he does not have a single riyal in his account when he received his relatives. Normally, a man with no money to buy food to his guests, will apologize for not hosting them. But this is against the tradition of Sultan's family and tribe as he must provide a respectful meal to his guests. He ended up borrowing money from friends and relatives placing himself in deep debt just to show his sense of hospitality.

“I cannot explain this as it may sound strange to people who are not familiar with our traditions and customs. Yes, I have to fulfill my obligations toward my guests even if I have nothing to offer. This is in our custom and if I did not do it, then that is shameful to my family. Like I said I cannot expect a person who does not know our tradition to understand it, but this is the way it is, even if it means it will push me into deeper debts, but with no shame.”

Alhassan Alsharif, a Saudi sociologist, explains that people in Saudi Arabia tend to be courteous or oblige themselves over their capacities in order to satisfy others like parents, close family members and friends. "Mostly polite and kind people tend to do so. But courtesy sometimes affects people’s lives and makes it more complicated. Almost always courtesy costs money and is often time-consuming. Plus, it will disturb the lives of people who compliment others and affect their daily lives, duties at home and workplace, and their relationship," he said.

“We did not learn to say no to things that we disagree with in our families as we were young. We understood that saying 'NO' to others is impolite and we cannot show our weakness to others,” added Alsharif.

"There are several solutions to stop being courteous to others in difficult situations. First, we must learn how to say NO when necessary. Second, provide help to others as you will be in their place one day. Also, show care but don’t overwhelm yourself with others. Plus, do not commit yourself to what others expect of you. It means do not prioritize others over yourself and your health because they care more about themselves, not you. Then, try to respond to anyone who exploits your kindness in a polite way," says Alsharif.