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Wednesday, 25 December, 2002, 01:27 GMT
Expat e-mail: Saudi Arabia
Jane with her family around the
Christmas in the Middle East can be hard work, especially when customs officials impound your tree, says Jane Rhodes in our series featuring expatriate readers of BBC News Online.

When we moved from Kuwait to Riyadh, our Christmas tree (in one of 100+ boxes of cargo) was confiscated by Saudi customs officers. All the decorations were given back to us but the tree was taken.

Map of distance between Newcastle and Riyadh
Riyadh is about 3,220 miles from Newcastle
What Jane misses most is having a permanent home
So in November myself, my husband Mark and two sons Jack and Sam drove to Bahrain for a few days for a well-deserved break and to make ourselves sick on pork and alcohol.

There we bought a replacement tree and put it into the back of our car with our suitcases.

Customs at the Saudi Arabian causeway gave us such a hard time, with the officer telling Mark how Christmas trees were not allowed in the country and it would be a big problem if we were caught.

After some gentle persuasion - gentle being the right word as we don't like to push our luck at such a delicate time - he let us off with the tree.

We decorated it as soon as we got home. As Christmas is not even recognised here, we feel pretty lucky to be able to get a tree.

Tensions on rise

I left Newcastle-upon-Tyne 12 years ago at age 18 and moved to Bahrain. After five years I moved to Kuwait to work for the national airline as a sales and marketing executive. There I met Mark, who is also English.

Jane with her husband Mark
Jane met Mark in Kuwait
Then in summer 2001 we prepared to make the move to Saudi. While Mark went to Riyadh to start work, I packed everything up before returning to the UK to get our visas.

Originally Jack and I were to fly out to join him straight away. But because I was pregnant and because of 11 September, I stayed in the UK to deliver our second son at 16 minutes past midnight on New Year's Day - Sam was the first baby to be born in the north-east.

We eventually moved here in March and it's very different from Kuwait. All women, including Westerns, have to wear an abaya - a full-length black cloak. When I leave the compound, I have to carry a headscarf in case I come across the religious police, who ask us to cover our heads.

Women in black robes
Saudi Arabian women in traditional dress
And women are not allowed to drive, so I have to rely on my husband or use either the compound buses or private taxis.

Tensions have increased, especially with the prospect of war with Iraq. We're thinking about leaving for good when Mark's contract comes up for renewal in March.

A woman started screaming at me when I was shopping in a souk [marketplace], saying 'Britain is a friend of America, Britain is a friend of Israel, Israelis kill Palestinians.' I was just gobsmacked, and I no longer shop on my own.

Desert Christmas

But life on the whole is OK. The weather is great, so we can sunbathe and organise barbeques in December.

Jack, who is three and a half
Jack is getting accustomed to sandy Christmases
And it's given me the opportunity to study to be a personal trainer, something I wouldn't have dreamed of doing had I been in the UK.

Because we live in a compound with about 280 other Western families, there are more Christmas activities than if we'd spent December in the UK.

Last week we had a party in the desert for the children and Santa Claus arrived on a camel. But Jack, who is three-and-a-half, wanted to know where Rudolph was. Can't win 'em all!

Every Tuesday we bring you the story of a Briton who has upped sticks and moved abroad. Do you live far from home? Tell us your experiences, using the form below.

Smuggling a Christmas tree in may seem like harmless reflection on the tough life in Saudi Arabia, but Jane needs to keep in mind that such comments impact on thousands of other Westerners when it comes to customs clearance, police questioning, etc. A more savvy move would be to keep quiet about her 2002 success and hope that Christmas trees eventually leave the prohibited list as a matter of practice, if not policy, in the future. We want the Christmas tree to be a regular import for all in the future.
David Pfeiffer, Middle East

More than 20 yrs ago we lived in Saudi Arabia in the ARAMCO campus, where Christmas and other non-Islamic religious observances were permitted, so long as they were "low-key". My wife brought a few Hindu icons, beautiful and expensive. When the customs official opened our bags I was sure he would confiscate them. But he nodded his head gently, as if to admonish us for our naughtiness, and let us go. I had many such encounters of religious tolerance from ordinary Saudis.
T Ramakrishnan, US

Most of our friends have been evacuated due to the political situation. The friends we should have been spending Christmas Day with have gone to Aruba on their company's instruction, they went yesterday. We have decorations up and a small tree but it doesn't feel like Christmas. Midnight Mass was cancelled, we can't move around much as we need to save petrol.
Janine Dawson, Caracas, Venezuela

My wife and I spent almost 4 years in Jeddah and Christmas certainly was different. Some highlights were: (1) being taken into the back room of a shop by the Saudi owner who was proud of his illicit Xmas tree and deccies stash; (2) at the hospital where my wife worked the word turkey had been scrubbed off the menu by the religious censor and replaced with the words "Big Chicken"; (3) the newspaper censor editing the imported British newspaper and putting a big black cross through the brussel spouts on a Sainsburys ad.
George Bower, Lancashire

Today is Christmas Day, and like the rest of Japan I'm at work. I've got a foot-high Christmas tree on my desk, which my colleagues find hilarious, my strange foreign ways. I'm hoping to catch the Queen's speech on the radio on the internet. Normally I wouldn't bother, but being the only foreigner for miles has made me quite the patriot.
Robin Andrews, Japan

Christmas doesn't seem so big here in Chile. We'll all be working again on Boxing Day; in my partner's family at least, presents are only given to the children; and we received only one card from a Chilean. Still, the shops make big displays with spray-on snow, holly, and Santas in hot, fur-trimmed suits, even though it's glorious summer.
Andrew Cooke, Santiago, Chile

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See also:

02 Nov 02 | Country profiles
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
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