Thriving in Discomfort with Sara Jalal 🇸🇦🇧🇪
Saudi Arabia x Belgium
Sara Jalal is a 26-year-old, half Belgian half Saudi Arabian marketing and branding professional. She currently lives in Brussels. I met Sara when we were both completing our bachelor’s degrees in Rotterdam. When I heard she was also mixed – with two very different nationalities – I knew I had to learn more.
We met over Zoom (as you do) to talk about her upbringing, her experiences being mixed, and the juxtaposition of her cultures.
What is Belgian & Saudi Arabian Culture?
If you’re anything like me, you have a pretty limited understanding of Belgian and Saudi culture (with a few unhelpful stereotypes mixed in).
Here’s how Sara describes Belgian versus Saudi culture:
Belgian culture, for me, is a melting pot of different cultures – you have the French speakers, the Flemish, and lots of Europeans coming to work in the institutions, but also internationals from outside of the “EU bubble.” Brussels in particular is very diverse. On the other hand, Saudi culture is more homogenous. It's a bit more of a “closed” culture as in it's closed off to the rest of the world, with the country only very recently having opened its doors to international tourism. But as a people, they're very open, hospitable, and family-oriented.
While her mother is Belgian and her father is Saudi Arabian, Sara mostly grew up in The Netherlands, where she attended international school. She identifies most with Belgian values (tolerance, easygoingness, pragmatism) as well as the openness and directness of Dutch culture, but family is also really important to her – a value she attributes to Saudi culture.
Even though she lived in The Netherlands and Sara and her family didn't adhere to all traditional Muslim practices, "you could notice the Saudi influence in our household," she says. "From the Arabian carpets and bidets in every toilet to the dallahs (traditional Arabic coffee pots) in the kitchen." Learning Arabic, fasting during Ramadan, and watching Arabic TV were also huge parts of Sara's upbringing.
Clash of the Cultures
For Sara, it was sometimes difficult to resolve the tension of living with (and between) two cultures. "My mom was very happy to have us dress however we'd like, have boyfriends and stuff. My dad was not always on board with that. Keeping up appearances was often important to him," Sara says. "As a child, it wasn't easy to navigate. Sometimes I chose not to fully express myself.”
Sara’s experience speaks to one I think many “half-children” can relate to. For many of us – Sara and I included – identity is adaptive, and we consciously decide which parts of ourselves to express. A recent study even found that some people use indifference – preferring to neither fit in nor stand out – as an identity negotiation mechanism.
A large part of negotiating multiple (cultural) identities is navigating the different norms and traditions between each culture. According to Sara, another way in which the Belgian and Saudi cultures clash is in their attitudes towards the elderly. “In Saudi culture, it’s really important to respect the opinions of your elders,” she explains. “Whereas in Belgian culture, people wouldn’t consider it disrespectful to treat the opinion of a young person on equal footing with that of an elder.”
Sara tells me she still has the habit of giving the front seat in a car to the eldest person in the group. “To this day, my older siblings will always get the front seat and I’ll find comfort in the middle back seat.”
The Fetishization of Saudi Culture
For many mixed people, the question "Where are you from?" is a dreaded one – not because we're not proud of our heritage, but because we're not sure how others will respond (also, it just takes longer to explain and some of us can't be bothered). As a result, many of us will adjust our answers depending on who we're talking to.
Sara usually tells it how it is and says she's half Belgian, half Saudi Arabian. Sometimes, though, she'll omit Saudi Arabia completely – again, not because she's not proud to be Saudi Arabian, but because it often sparks more questions. Sara is hesitant to mention her Saudi heritage with Muslims because she doesn't conform to traditional Muslim culture. "Basically, if I'm fully honest with them, I probably won't meet their expectations," she says.
When Sara tells white (typically upper class) people that she is half Saudi Arabian, it sometimes elicits a funny response. "I think sometimes it's even – and this is a strong word – a bit of fetishizing. People are rightfully fascinated and they have lots of questions about Saudi."
With mild hesitation, I asked Sara for some examples of questions she’s been asked in the past. Here are just a few (brace yourself):
Is your dad rich?
Are you related to Bin Laden?
How many camels do you own?
Does your mum dress like a ghost?
Offensive (and frankly, silly) questions aside, Sara is happy to answer questions about her own experiences, but she's apprehensive to make blanket statements about what Saudi culture looks like. "I'm not a representative," she says. "I can't speak on behalf of this whole culture. My experience is also very individual and unique because I haven't lived there, therefore it's not representative of the everyday woman in Saudi."
Ultimately, choosing whether or not to reveal her full identity is a form of protection for Sara – protection from judgment, discomfort, and sometimes, invasive questions.
Lions and Tigers and… Cheetahs? Oh My!
I'm sure you're familiar with some stereotypes about Saudi Arabia. For Sara, there are two specific stereotypes that don't sit well with her.
The first is that women are extremely oppressed. She says:
People don't really see the fact that women are very headstrong as individuals in Saudi. There are so many really impressive women that people don't know about. I'm not even talking about leaders, but even family members. To give an example, up until 2018, women were not allowed to drive in Saudi. Prior to this, women across the nation – including women I know – drove their cars and uploaded videos of themselves online in protest. Those are some very bold and courageous women if you ask me.
The second stereotype that bothers Sara is "all Saudi people are wealthy and are a part of the royal family." I find this to be such an interesting one because it's truly unique to Saudi (or the Middle East in general). No one has assumed that I'm part of the royal family (no offense taken… Okay, maybe a little). "Of course, it has a rich economy, but not everyone is rich. Everyone assumes that because I'm from Saudi, I must be part of the royal family or super well off. I'm not," Sara says.
Sara finds the assumption that she's incredibly wealthy a bit amusing because people assume that because she is rich (she's not) and is part of the royal family (nope), she spends it on gaudy purchases like cheetahs and lions (she doesn't).
Thriving in Discomfort
Another difficult question to answer for any "half-child" is "Where is home for you?"
For Sara, "Home is where there are open arms and kindness." From her current residence in Belgium to her experiences abroad in South Korea and Costa Rica, Sara has "multiple homes." "It's like I pick up something from everywhere I go."
With dark hair and light brown skin, Sara has a physical look that is not so easy to pinpoint. "I think I have a look that can fit into a lot of different places," she explains. "People think that I'm Latin or Southeast Asian." Because of this, she feels at ease adapting to different environments. Adaptability is an incredible skill, but it can also be confusing.
The paradox with us half-children is that we want to fit in, but we're also so used to being different that we often come to crave it. When it came to selecting a country to go on exchange during her undergraduate degree, Sara chose South Korea because however hard she tried, she would always be – or at least look like – an outsider.
"My colleague at the time told me that she thinks I thrive in environments where I feel I don't fit in because that's my comfort zone," Sara tells me. "That had me thinking: do people of dual nationality actually thrive more in environments where we are different?"
A Final Note On Empathy & Curiosity
While being mixed can be confusing and frustrating, it also helps to build resilience, empathy, and open-mindedness. Sara is also curious – not only about her own cultures, but also about other people's.
"Saudi and Belgium are very juxtaposed cultures and I think that has allowed me to be open-minded," Sara says. "I try not to make broad generalizations about people, but rather understand the context of where they're coming from and their stories."
The Lightning Round
⏩ Rapid-fire Q&A with Sara ⏩
What’s one thing people should know if they want to visit Belgium?
Belgium is much more than just the Grand Place in Brussels. Belgian people are really fun. And the food is great.
What’s one thing people should know if they want to visit Saudi Arabia?
Your best bet to understand the culture is to meet someone local. Also, don’t expect to be on a normal sleeping schedule because anything can happen at any time of the day. You can have family visits at 3 AM.
Complete this sentence: Being mixed is…
Amazing. A gift. Very cool.
How can people “consume” your culture(s)?
🇸🇦 Arabic music (Talal Maddah, Etab, Tariq Abdulhakeem, Waed)
🇧🇪 Belgian comics (Suske en Wiske, Tintin & The Smurfs) OR Belgian beer (La Chouffe, Duvel, Chimay, Vedett)
What are your favorite foods from Saudi Arabia and Belgium?
🇸🇦 Saleeg (rice dish cooked with broth and milk) and Kunafa (spun pastry soaked in sweet syrup, layered with cheese, clotted cream, pistachio, or nuts)
🇧🇪 Vol-au-vent (chicken stew in baked puff pastry) and Smoutebollen (literally: lard balls, so you get the gist)
Want to hear more from Sara? Follow her photography on Instagram to see more photos of Belgium and Saudi! @travelling_with_sara
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