Sebastian Farmborough is a photographer who grew up in England but has lived around the world including in Saudi Arabia, where he spent three years, and the United Arab Emirates.
While in the Gulf he developed an appreciation for Arab culture and embarked on a project to his photography to foster cross-cultural communication between Saudi Arabs and Westerners.
His work can be found on his website, and two pictures from his photo series 'An Emerging Mystery' are featured in this interview.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about his impressions of living in Saudi Arabia as a Westerner and the cultural differences he experienced.
Although the theocratic regime of Saudi Arabia is responsible for a horrific litany of human rights abuses, both domestically and in its spread of Islamist ideology internationally, our purpose here is to explore the experiences of a Westerner engaged in cross-cultural dialogue with ordinary men and women inside Saudi Arabia and look at the country from the point of view of those who live there.
Clarion Project: You lived in Saudi Arabia for three years. As a Westerner, what surprised you the most?
Sebastian Farmborough: Having previously lived in the United States, I found it rather surreal as the roads and infrastructure were the same, but the people and language were so incredibly foreign to me. It was daunting, particularly considering everything that I had seen and read in the Western media.
Given all this, what surprised me most though was just how friendly and welcoming the Saudis were.
Clarion: What was your favorite thing about Saudi Arabia? What was your favorite place?
Farmborough: I think I would probably have to say speaking Arabic. When I moved there I had no intention of learning the language. My plan was to work for a year, save money and go and study photography in Costa Rica. However, the natives kept being so kind so I had to try and find a way to thank them. I started learning and it soon became addictive, because the more I learnt the better I was treated. It's a beautiful language and so poetic.
In terms of location, I loved being in the desert. The first time I went I thought it was going to be boring, with nothing to do, but every desert is unique and has its own beauty. The tranquility is wonderful. I really enjoyed wearing Saudi clothes, riding camels and camping out there, it was such an adventure.
Clarion: You've said your work is about cross-cultural communication. What should Westerners know or bear in mind when trying to communicate with Arabs? What mistakes do you think Westerners typically make?
Farmborough: The key to communicating successfully with any culture other than your own is understanding. You cannot judge another culture from your own perspective, first of all you need to learn and experience theirs. Only from their point of view can you really make anything approaching a correct assessment.
In the absence of this understanding, things can really get out of hand.
For example, the manager of a hotel in Dubai told me about a delicate situation he had to deal with. Two couples met in the lobby, one was Saudi and the other was French. Both men worked together and as the men greeted each other the French lady became extremely upset and started shouting at the Saudi man. She was offended because he had not acknowledged her.
She saw this as enormously disrespectful, which of course, in her culture is true. However, from a Saudi perspective, he was actually showing her and her husband a lot of respect. Had he made eye contact or touched her that could have suggested inappropriate intentions.
It is not easy for Westerners to communicate with Arabs because there are an enormity of cultural practices that they need to be aware of. For example, I am ambidextrous, so I really struggled with only using my right hand when giving and receiving things.
Eventually, you adapt, but it is all about making an effort. You will make mistakes, but they, too, need to try and understand your cultural norms so that you can meet halfway.
Clarion: What do you think Arabs find difficult or get wrong about communicating with Westerners?
Farmborough: I would say it would be with how they interact with Westerners of an opposite sex. They may not be used to this as in those from Saudi Arabia and the differing cultural practices of both parties may lead to misunderstandings and even cause offense.
Clarion: You have said you found the restrictions of living in Saudi Arabia hard. What was the hardest thing about it?
Farmborough: Being unmarried in Saudi Arabia is tough, not just for women, but for men too. As a single man you do not have access to the family section in a restaurant and the bachelor one is typically vastly inferior. Shopping can also be an issue as some malls have special hours when only families are allowed.
Clarion: Having also lived in the United Arab Emirates. What do you see as the biggest cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?
Farmborough: The United Arab Emirates and, in particular, Dubai are enormously different from Saudi Arabia.
This is due in large part to the demographics. In Saudi Arabia, Westerners are a minority so they have little impact on the culture and are welcomed to it. However, in Dubai, foreigners greatly outnumber the natives. The cosmopolitan nature is interesting, but in a way it is sad, the Arab culture seems lost and this is clearly illustrated by the use of English as the main language.