Thursday, March 7, 2013

On the way to Egypt I Learned about Islam and Friendliness

Way back in October we had a two week holiday called Eid Al Adha. It is basically the Muslim Christmas i.e. it is a BIG deal. It is when they celebrate Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son on the altar, him obediently preparing to do so and they Lord replacing his son with a ram. Same story that we believe only the Muslim world believe he was asked to sacrifice Ishmael (the father of the Arab world) and that Ishmael knew of the sacrifice and was a willing participant, and we believe he was to sacrifice Isaac (the father of the Jews) and that Isaac had no idea. 

What it means for me is that I had two weeks off. I went to Bahrain, Oman and finally Egypt and it was wonderful! Flights out of Bahrain are cheaper and Bahrain was rumored to be lovely, so I bought the cheap tickets on the train and settled in for 4 hours. Cheap seats do NOT include windows you can actually see through...

 They do however include seats that smell like mold and a train car full of women in abayas who drink coffee and gossip with each other while packs of children run around wild and form train gangs and fight with each other. A very entertaining albeit loud 4 hour journey.
We arrived in Dammam and had to hire a car to drive us across the border. Bahrain is an island that you access via a 16 mile bridge. Most importantly it is NOT Saudi Arabia, meaning, there is music and dancing and movies and men and women talking to each other and Abayas are optional (I opted NOT to wear mine). It is lovely. 

 I was only there for 2 days so I swam in the lovely pool at my Marriott hotel (thank you Tawna)

And then I took a tour of the big beautiful mosque down the street from my hotel. I have been living in Saudi Arabia but here I am not allowed to go in mosques or talk to men. It was very refreshing to be able to not only go into a a functioning mosque, but to ask all the questions I wanted. Needless to say, this 15 minute tour turned into a 2 hour tour so that I could figure out so many of the mysteries of this religion. 
You do have to wear an abaya and cover your hair inside the mosque, but it was awesome to be able to wander around and ask and ask and ask.

Here is a book case full of Qurans. You are not really allowed to touch them if you are not Muslim. They consider the book so sacred that unclean hands cannot even touch it.
Some of the stuff I learned: Mohammed (Like Jesus) never wrote any of the revelations he received, they were all written by other people about what he said.
Muslims believe in all the prophets of the bible, they even respect Jesus as a prophet although NOT the son of God and not the Savior. 
They believe Mohammed is the last great prophet, he said all that needed to be said and the Quran contains everything the world would need to know. 

Muslims pray five times a day. In places like KSA and other largely Mulsim countries you can hear the call to prayer over loud speakers. Typcially men pray in the mosque, women pray at home. This diagram shows the different stages of the prayer and what needs to be said in each position.

The times of the prayer changes each day because it is according to the sun. 1st prayer is at sunrise (usually around 4:30am here in the middle east) 2nd prayer is when the sun is at the highest point in the sky (before noon) 3rd prayer is when the shadow that the sun casts is double the height of the object (around 3pm) 4th prayer sunset and 5th prayer when the sun has gone down completely and the sky has reached a certain level of darkness. In KSA all businesses and stores must, by law, close at all these times and remain closed for the duration of the prayers (15 to 30 minutes). It is very annoying here in KSA when you are trying to get something done or get to the check out before your frozen goods thaw...but I digress.

We flew to Oman the next day. For the record I LOVE Oman! It is a beautiful country full of such kind and friendly people. KSA is NOT known for being kind and friendly, Oman is! I was traveling with another teacher and she had a contact in Oman, who picked us up and took us to see his beautiful country! We stopped along the water of the Persian Gulf to get some kebabs.

 We stopped to take a few photos of the palace of the beloved Sultan of Oman and heard all about how there are all sorts of rumors about his sexual orientation but that it is still strictly forbidden in this area of the world so nobody can or would confirm or deny.
 We went to a souk...abayas are optional but many women still choose to wear them. In Oman they don't wear the face veil and have colorful hijabs, perhaps that is what makes them seem friendlier...
 My friend smoked some shish sha and I had a Lime and Mint Lemonade.
 We dipped our feet in the water of the persian gulf.
 And we slept in a really nasty hotel. Oman is not cheap and we were only going to be there one night so we braved the cockroaches and scary stains.
 The next morning we got some tasty pastries for breakfast.
 This random Omani guy, in true friendly Omani fashion saw us walking and picked us up and drove us around the town to show us the beautiful city and then gave us traditional Omani sweets.
 And then my friend's Omani contact drove us back to the airport to head to Egypt.

Egypt next....

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Grinch Stole Christmas...and its not all that bad

So the holidays in the western world are over and here in Saudi Arabia it is as though they never happened. When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became a country in 1932 King Abdul Aziz formed the country by banding together a bunch of nomadic desert wandering warring tribes using their common religion as the glue that holds them together. (The billions in dollars they receive each year in oil profits certainly sweetens the deal though)

 This is the fort that is considered the birthplace of Saudi Arabia. 

This means that KSA is under Islamic law, also called Sharia Law, which means that we celebrate Muslim holidays and follow the Hijri calendar.  This also means that Christmas and New Years and every other holiday that involves religion or celebrations or alchohol or music or dancing or fun or general merriment is strictly forbidden.  There was absolutely no sign that Christmas was happening.  No Christmas trees, no lights, no Santa, no music playing in the malls, no Christmas sales, no days off of work, no candy canes and worst of all no egg nog.  We weren’t even allowed to say Merry Christmas to each other at work. It was crazy, but at least I was able to see what Whoville would have looked like if it wasn’t for Cindy Loo Who.  

As strange as it was to be in a place with no Christmas during Christmastime, it was also fascinating to take a look at Christmas without the culture and the commercialism. When you strip it down to the bare basics what you have is a chance to examine why and how you personally celebrate Christ. 

There were also some other benefits to having Christmas in KSA.

1) Friends become Family-It is one of the things I love most about living abroad. The expat community is very tight knit and in the absence of blood relatives, you create a family of friends.  I spent the evening of the 24th with a group of fascinating, wonderful people from the US and Taiwan and some absolutely adorable kids at their house on their compound.  Look they didn't need to piece together costumes from bathrobes and sheets, they just took out the typical local garb and voila, nativity scene in a place not all that far from the original. 

We sang carols and had a lovely evening that included homemade pies and a huge Nerf gun fight in which I was attacked by a troop of 5 little boys. Perfect night! 

Then on December 25th I got together with a group of awesome people... 

These are two ladies who are here teaching English at women's universities...and they both went to BYU. 

We went out to eat at a traditional Saudi restaurant, where you just lounge on pillows on the floor and eat delicious food off of mats. This is the front, the ladies entrance is around the back and up the stairs.

...and here is a cool car that was in front of the restaurant and me with one of the most fabulous ladies ever.  She has 5 adorable children and treats everyone like family.

2) You get to focus on the real reason for the season- In the rest of the world, Christmas is everywhere you look. Even if you didn't really want to celebrate it, it would be unavoidable. Here you have to make a conscious effort to acknowledge it and to celebrate it in your own way.  It makes for a lot more introspection.

3) You don't have to worry about buying gifts- This year I didn’t buy any gifts for anyone. It was positively liberating. My love language (of the famous love language book series) is not gift giving. I neither feel nor communicate love through gifts, so it was no great loss to my feeling loved but it was a huge relief to not have to guess what people may or may not hate. There was no stress, there were no deadlines, no long lines.

I did however receive a few gifts from people.  This lovely duck was from one of my teachers. I named her Petula after the teacher who gave her to me and I find her delightful!

4) You can go shopping on the 24th, 25th and 26th and there are NO crowds.

5)You never have to listen to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"

I did, however, run into this guy at one point...shhh don't tell anyone. It appears that he and his reindeer snuck in.

That all being said, I did miss seeing family and friends and look forward to many Christmases that are celebrated in the traditional Western way.  With Christmas music, Christmas trees, giving gifts, and lots of egg nog. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I am going to attempt to respond to some of the questions that those of you who have left comments have asked.  Several people have asked about what I eat here.  I cook my own food so I eat stuff that is very similar to what I ate in the states.  I am happy to report they have all the chip and candy bar varieties you can handle including lots of new flavors of chips and lots of candy from Europe.  There are toblerone bars everywhere you look...but beware of the Saudi version of Ketchup flavored chips...I learned that one the hard way!
I shop at big beautiful grocery stores that look more like grocery stores in California and Utah than those in NYC.
 They even have a lot of the same products.  You can get just about anything here that you can get in Europe or the states as most of it comes from those places. That goes for products at the grocery store as well as fast food restaurants and clothing and make up stores. All the major restaurants and stores are here including Applebees, Outback Steakhouse, Sephora, Mac, Bath and Body Works and on and on and on.  Saudi Arabia is such a young country that it hasn't had time to really develop its own stuff.  Before 1930 it was still made up of warring desert tribes, when all of a sudden oil was discovered and it was magically transformed into one of the richest countries in the world.  They needed to act like a first world country and fast, so that the people would have somewhere to spend all this new money, so they borrowed from the other rich countries and as a result have malls that look a lot like posh malls in America and Europe.
They have an assortment of cereals.  The ones from the US are a little more expensive but after trying the Saudi version of coco puffs I can assure you it is worth it.


The Saudi's are fond of ketchup.  My students put it on EVERYTHING! ie falafel, gyros, turkey sandwiches, pretzels etc.

The Saudi's have attempted to create their own versions of all of these imported processed goods and most of the imitations are AWFUL.  As you can imagine, produce is pretty sparse in the desert. Watermelon and carrots grow here but not much else.
So most of it is imported from Europe which makes it taste kind of old.  There are some produce items imported all the way from the states.  Some even came all the way from my hometown!

I am pretty sure these came from Bakersfield too, since it seems they are charging us for their plane ticket.
 There are small differences if you are looking for them. Some are good and some are bad.  The hummus, taboulah, eggplant tahini and babaganoosh are fantastic. As is the pita bread they make fresh each day.  I east a pita at each meal and they are delightful. They have some delicious juices.  My favorite is Kiwi Lime.
 Here is a jar of homemade pickles.  I played it safe and bought vlasic.
Locally grown and halal approved if you dare...
 I tastes gamey and tough and the flavor is pretty bad, so I would prefer chicken to camel but camel to cow stomach (which they also sell, but i fortunately learned my lesson in Chile).

If I ignore the women shrouded in black,  I often feel like I am in the US in the supermarket right up until you hear the prayer call and the whole store closes.  They lock the doors and nobody can come or go and all the employees disappear for 30 minutes to go pray, and you are stuck in the refrigerator section, not wanting to put the items in your cart until the pray is over.

So I eat hummus and pita and oranges from Spain and apples from France and lots and lots of European chocolate.

My friend Alana and I went out one day to have real Saudi food at a Saudi restaurant.
We took a picture of the front of it, but we couldn't enter at the main entrance (being women and all) so we snuck around the back to hidden women's entrance.
 The decor was all very traditional. No tables and chairs, just rugs and pillows on the floor for more of a lounging around eating.

 They serve the food on the floor on a big woven mat. We got some cucumber, yogurt salad, some camel kabsa (nasty) and some pumpkin chicken mixture (amazing).
 The women eat upstairs in these private rooms so NO ABAYA...WAHOO!!

 We also went and had Turkish food one night.  It was really good.

 I didn't get a picture but a group of teachers went and had Armenian food one night which was fascinating.  I had lamb that had been cooked for hours in what tasted exactly like cherry pie filling. It was better than dessert.

Middle Eastern food is good, but the Saudi's are embracing American and European food so fast that it is hard to find, and most of the fast food Saudi restaurants don't allow women at all, so perhaps I will never know.  If my students are any indication of what Saudi's eat I would say they have a steady diet of coffee, chips and candy bars.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Under The Invisibility Cloak

One of the advantages of being a woman here in Saudi Arabia is that I get to talk to and see women under the black cloaks that keep them hidden from the rest of the world.

In Saudi Arabia women have a very strict dress code. They must, without fail, wear a black abaya, a black hijab and a black niqab. I am told that only recently have the abayas been permitted to have a little bit of sparkle or a splash of color on the ends of the sleeves, but only foreigners wear those. A real Saudi Women is a purist and wears plain black. An abaya is intended to take away all a woman’s curves and hide the way she walks from men. Girls start wearing the abayas when they start going through puberty. You can see 9 or ten year old girls wearing training abayas that are just black robes that they leave open in the front. They don't wear the hijab etc until they are about 12 or 13.

There are stores like this one all over the place that sell nothing but black abayas, hijabs and niqabs.

The hijab is the head scarf that is meant to cover a woman’s hair. In KSA it is black, foreigners sometimes wear colors other than black, but it makes you stick out and invites everyone to stare at you. The niqab is a piece of black cloth that is tied around your head over your hijab to cover your entire face with a small slit for your eyes to peer out.
There are niqabs that have a thinner fabric over the eyes so that not even your eyes are visible but those are less common. Non-muslims are not required to wear the niqab but some do just to avoid the unwanted attention. The entire ensemble is intended to make women invisible. Saudi’s will tell you it is to protect women from men and their (apparently) uncontrollable need to attack women. I think it is to help you know what it would feel like to be invisible.

And if there is a wardrobe malfunction and a woman is visible...there is always photoshop to erase them. In case you haven't read it, the Ikea catalogs for Saudi Arabia have had all the women removed. There are no pictures of women on billboards or advertisements, products or signs. In major European or American stores, the in store displays are modified to erase the women's faces.

My students are all 18 to 19 year old girls with fancy smart phones and in each class, after they became comfortable with me, one of the girls would shyly walk up to me with her phone and nervously piece together the words of a request to take my picture. They are strictly forbidden from taking pictures of themselves, their mothers, their sisters and their friends so when I agree (because I really don't care if my picture is taken) they all whip out their phones and to the soundtrack of giggling and squeals of delight they take 100s of photos of me but are extremely careful to not stand in front of a camera. They duck and avoid them as though they are loaded guns, shrieking if they think someone is pointing the camera at them. They gave presentations about their family and only showed pictures of men, even though we are in an all women's university.

This uniformity of appearance can present challenges because you really can't tell people apart. I remember I went to the mall my first day here. It was full of women and wonderful shops. As it turns out there are TONS of big beautiful air conditioned shopping malls. I understand that this is what the Saudi Women do all day. They can’t work, they can’t drive, there are no movie theaters here and eating at restaurants can be complicated without your husband so their husbands drop them off at the mall and they stay there all day. If you do want to catch a bite to eat at a public place like a mall you can buy it at the "ladies window" and then take it behind these screens to eat it. Men can't go back there because there are women who have raised their niqabs to eat.

Women have a separate entrance to Mosques, restaurants and even banks!

All the women are in full black getup whenever they go out. They all look exactly the same, long flowy black abayas and a black hood covering their head and face. Only their eyes are peering out and some even have their eyes covered. I was standing in the crowded supermarket and saw a little 5 year old girl running frantically around and calling for her mother. She, like most children at some point or another, got separated from her mother and was now frantic to find her. I was thinking how much more difficult that situation would be for her. She was looking at a sea of black burqas and the only way to identify her mother would be to hear her voice or to see her eyes closely because even everyone’s eyes look similar. I am told that Saudi children learn to notice their mom's height and size, the way she walks and the shoes she wears or they are just cautious not to get lost.

That all being said...UNDER the invisibility cloak these women are smart and sassy and stylish and outspoken and fun! I just adore my students and love working with them. At school they don't wear their abayas and it is always a shock to me to see them putting it all on as they approach the exit. While on campus each girl wears a black skirt and a modest top, but the uniformity ends there. Their hairstyles, shirts and shoes and even glasses seem to scream at the top of their lungs that under all that black fabric they are indeed unique. They have style and interests. There are hipsters, and athletes, and nerds and tomboys and prima-donnas with tons of make up and high end clothing. They laugh and joke and play and cry and even pray here in their private world and then at the end of the day they all head for the door and just before they walk out into the men’s world beyond they wrap themselves completely in black and join the uniform ranks of women, where their uniqueness is only evident in the eye makeup and fake lashes they wear There is usually a mutawa (religious police) waiting just on the other side of the gate to make sure that everyone is completely covered.

I love being able to see both sides of this fascinating culture. But I am glad I don't have to see it from behind a mask.