A Saudi Wedding & Engagement Party

Sometime last term, one of my students told me she was getting married soon. Actually, because her English is terrible, she mimed the act of putting on a wedding ring. At the time she also asked if I would come, and I said sure. The term ended and the classes rotated and while I saw her a couple times in the halls and always said hello and exchanged kisses (Saudi greetings are multiple cheek kisses), I didn’t hear anything more about the wedding.

Then on Wednesday, she comes to tell me it’s the next day! Planning ahead hasn’t really caught on here in many ways. She couldn’t really explain where it was however, so we went over to the AA’s office to get some help. It transpired that I had misinterpreted the wedding ring sign language and the party was actually an engagement party. My AA sent an email with the name of the location in Arabic so we could get it to the driver. Saudi doesn’t use addresses, but this building (I was told) was known to every Saudi in Tabuk because it is used for all the weddings.

Once the times and locations were sorted out, next I had to figure out what to wear. Saudi weddings and engagement parties are a real excuse to dress to the nines. All those stores I pass in the malls that sell decadent evening gowns are catering to the wedding crowd. I myself had no such beautiful gown, the majority of my wardrobe is tailored around the school dress code, or my weekend adventure needs, neither of which is fancy.

Fortunately, I had just found a beautiful black velvet skirt on sale the week before. I had thought it was just going to sit in storage until it was time to go back to the much cooler PNW, but I decided it would be a good choice for a formal party. Sadly, all my non-stretchy blouses that had been sitting in the back of my closet as too hot/formal for school wear had mysteriously become slightly too tight to be flattering. Something about spending the holidays away from home may have led to a serious reliance on comfort food. I managed to find some stretchier tops that could be dressed up decently by the right hair and jewelry, and made a solid determination to curtail my afternoon snacking.

I didn’t have time to go to a salon, so I had to rely on a classic French braid ending in a bun topped off with one of my velvet and sparkly scrunchies from China. Long dangly earrings, and bracelets and rings on both hands finished off the outfit. I went for dramatic eye makeup since it was a late night affair. (It would turn out I had some of the most understated eye makeup there).

My driver was 30 minutes late, which was really frustrating because I had said I wanted to go after Isha’a (the night prayer), and he agreed he would come pick me up as soon as he was done praying. I asked him about what time that would be, and he said 8 or 8:15. He could have said 8:30 or 8:45 and I would still have been fine with it, I just hate waiting! So there I was, sitting around dressed for 30 minutes because I didn’t want to keep him waiting. I miss my car.

I arrived at the place, a huge building, the men congregating around the front entrance, and another gate off to one side with a tiny entrance for the women to slip through. Inside was a large courtyard where I could see dozens of women in various types of dress milling around and moving from one building to another. It occurred to me then that I had no idea where to go, nor did I have my student’s phone number. However, it is a testament to my cultural adjustment that this didn’t bother me, because I knew someone would help me. I was not disappointed. A lovely middle aged lady soon realized I didn’t speak Arabic well, and switched to English. I told her my student’s name and that I was her teacher, and she asked if it was the Bride or the Bride’s sister. This flummoxed me slightly, since I had been told it was an engagement party and not a wedding, but you learn to roll with it.

She led me across to the other building and knocked on doors and made inquiries until my student appeared. Before leaving me, she made sure I knew I was welcome to come and sit with her should I not have a place to sit as events unfolded. I adore the culture of hospitality in this part of the world.

I almost didn’t recognize my student when I saw her. Normally in class, she is a slight girl who dresses as tomboyish as is possible while still wearing a skirt. Once or twice I saw her come to school with makeup and had been surprised by the contrast, but she’s never struck me as “girly”. Now she was dressed in a stunning gown in a dusty red color offset with sparkling patterns of gold thread, sequins, beads and other sparkly bits. Her hair would have made Marie Antoinette sit up and take notice. She had always lightened it to a nice light auburn, but now it was up up up and big with falls of complimenting strawberry blond curls cascading from the top and gold and diamond pins dotting the main part of the do. Her makeup was no less extravagant. Huge eyes with deep khol lining, metallic gold eyeshadow and long false lashes. Her lips were plumped out with a wide liner and beautiful shade of red that complimented her skin and the dress. And her hands and forearms were adorned with intricate spirals of henna.

Taking pictures is very against the culture, and when they are taken, it is for personal use only, so I don’t have any pictures, but you can imagine something like this dress, this hair (but auburn with jewels instead of flowers), this eye makeup, and this henna.

When she spotted me we instantly became woo-girls, which it turns out is an international language. Not just polite cheek kisses, she embraced me in a full hug and told me over and over how happy she was that I came. We complimented each other’s dresses, I hugged the other student that was with her, and was quickly whisked off to another part of the building. Any doubts I had about attending or my dress or what to do were completely settled by the sheer joy that it brought to this girl that I came. I’m always seriously surprised and flattered when I find out my opinion matters so much to someone, and as a teacher I’m especially impacted when I can see I’ve touched a student’s life.

I was introduced to a whirlwind of ladies, cousins, nieces, aunts, mother, grandmother. I really hope no one was sick because I was subjected to sooo much affection. I was given Arabic coffee and sweets from the table in the reception room. Trying to shake hands while balancing these was very challenging, and between her excitement and my precarious balancing of too many things in my hands, we managed to knock the small cup out of my hand and narrowly avoided spilling it all over our dresses.

Having met everyone I needed to meet in that room, we headed back to the main hall. The room was set up with a stage and catwalk. I couldn’t take pictures, but I found this image online that gives a pretty good idea of the set up. Tables with carafes of Arabic coffee and sweet mint tea and plates of sweets filled the rest of the large room. Ladies filtered in from the reception hall and took their seats, passing around the coffee and sweets. I went through another round of introductions, handshakes and cheek kisses and was offered far more sweets than anyone could eat.

I noticed that only a dozen or so women were as fantastically dressed as my student. Most of the the younger women were dressed not unlike myself, in something fancier than every day wear, but not extravagant. There were another dozen or so all in matching deep burgundy velvet dresses, and a lot of the older women were wearing abaya and hijab, though in stark contrast to the daily all black affairs, these were brightly colored and bedecked with sparkling embroidery or beads.

The entire affair felt like the four corners meeting of the 80s, Disney Princesses, Drag Queens and 1,001 Arabian Nights. There were no actual drag queens of course, but I think that some of these outfits (dress, hair, shoes, makeup) would be right up their ally.

Then the music began. Music is a challenging subject in Islam. It has been explained to me that drums and vocals are generally accepted even in the more conservative parts of the culture, but that other instruments are more controversial. In my experience, its very personal. Some people will listen to anything (East or West, even dubstep), some will listen but only if the lyrics are not haram topics, some will only listen to Arabic music from other Muslim countries, some will listen to only drumming and vocals, and some will listen only to the Quran.

This student had been from the class that begged me to play music and dance any time we finished our work early, so it didn’t really surprise me that there was some lovely dancing music. There’s a sort of modern Arabic/hip hop fusion thing that I’ve heard several times here and am becoming quite fond of. It’s really great to dance to.

The dances seemed to have some meaning, but since my Arabic is very limited and the students of mine that were there weren’t very high level (plus the music was very loud) I didn’t really get any explanations. Some dances seemed reserved for just the fanciest dressed ladies, and others open to anyone. There was one dance where mostly older ladies (all in their fancy abayas) got up and danced with meter long sticks that had been decorated with colored strips of cloth. Other dances seemed to be associated with specific types of dancing depending on the music, some focusing on dancing steps in a circle, others a hip focused kind of belly dance, others more swaying and arm oriented.

All the while, young children frolicked around the fancy dressed ladies. No leaving the kids at home with the sitter, I saw women in fancy evening gowns and salon hair-dos picking up babies and trailing small children as they danced.

After a half dozen or so dances, the lights were dimmed and all eyes swiveled to the back of the room where, just like a western wedding, the double doors opened to reveal the bride. I found out later that this was my student’s sister, making it some kind of combined wedding and engagement party. While the rest of us studiously kept our cameras turned off, there was one official photographer to take pictures of the bride. As they passed by, women who thought they might be in frame quickly donned their hijabs or simply draped them over their heads and faces until the camera passed.

The bride walked very slowly down the catwalk toward the stage, not to any classical music, but to the same modern fusion dance Arabic music we’d been listening to before. She took one tiny step every minute or so, allowing people to admire her, the photographer to take pictures and her attendants to keep the dress in perfect position. All the while her bridesmaids (all those women in matching burgundy velvet dresses) stood on the stage clapping rhythmically and occasionally bursting into cheerful screams.

Once the bride ascended to the stage, she moved to the wide bench at the center and after posing for a few more photos, sat down. People came by to pay their respects, or congratulations, and sure enough, my student led me by the hand and up onto the stage to meet her sister.

Those of you who have been following the blog up to now know about the extreme gender segregation in Saudi. Men and women who are not related aren’t supposed to interact socially (professionally is acceptable with oversight). Weddings are notoriously social events, and of course all these beautifully dressed ladies could never let a non related man see them uncovered. So the men have their own celebration on the other side of the building, do their own dances and celebrate the groom. My understanding is at some point in the night, the men will come over, sending the women diving for abayas, and join the bride and groom together. But in the mean time, the bride gets to walk down an aisle of sorts and spend some time being the center of attention in an uncovered state.

After a few more formalities, the dancing resumed, and my student led me up on to the catwalk to join her in some dancing. Soon the other students that were there at her invitation joined in and we had quite a good time being silly and dancing. It’s amazing to me how not-body-conscious the women there were. I had felt uncomfortable getting ready because I wasn’t as sleek in my dress clothes as I wanted to be, but there were women of all body types there, dressed in figure hugging dresses and dancing their hearts out with clear joy. From talking with some of my larger students, they are interested in loosing weight, but it seems to be more health than beauty oriented, and they certainly don’t act or dress the way I do when I’m feeling fat, or the way I’ve seen many American women do when they are told they’re fat (eg loose/baggy/slobby clothes).

After some dancing, it was time to eat. My student led us over to another room where the floor had been set up with the traditional lamb kabsa. Squares of plastic sheeting were laid down at intervals, and a large platter of rice and roast lamb is placed in the center of each one. Side dishes and drinks are placed around for guests as well. Again, I have no pictures of my own, but this is a fair representation. Kabsa is meant to be eaten with the hands only, but my student politely provided us with spoons. I was seated with another of my students from the advanced class and was able to ask a few questions, and get some help understanding the comment’s from the bride’s mother who stopped by to check that I had everything I needed and opened up some new side dish containers for me.

I am a sucker for lamb, so I always enjoy kabsa. This one was interesting because there were also large chunks of lamb fat, not just the bits stuck to the meat. I encountered this first in northern China. There’s a tendency of poorer, rural areas in the colder months especially to consume animal fat in equal or greater quantities of actual meat. And lamb fat, when cooked well, isn’t tough gristly stuff, its creamy and rich, so much so, I tend to enjoy it in very small bites, but I think I could happily spread it on toast. It seems strange to a lot of Westerners, since we’ve become obsessed with lean meat, low fat diets, and while I wouldn’t want to eat it every day, it’s certainly a delicious addition to special occasions.

By this point in the evening, it was nearing the time I’d asked my driver to return for me. Since I wake up at 6am, and haven’t yet mastered the art of afternoon naps, I’m usually in bed by 9:30. Tonight I’d asked the driver to pick me up at 11:30, hoping this would give me enough time to enjoy the evening and not leave so early as to offend. I guessed well, since dinner seemed to end a little after 11, and there were many other people gathering their things and heading out. When I went back into the main room to find my student and bid her farewell, I noticed that the bride was no longer seated at the dais. I wondered if the men had come to carry her off like I’d read about or if she’d simply joined her new husband in private somewhere before heading off to their honeymoon suite.

I found my student and let her know my driver was on his way. She didn’t seem surprised or dismayed, which was a relief. She came out to the waiting area with me and tried to talk again once we were out of earshot of the loud dance music. She showed me pictures on her phone of the young man she was engaged to. He was handsome in a boyish way, and his smile contained kindness and humor, so I hope that turns out to be true. She asked me again if I was happy, and I told her I was so happy to be able to come, and to see her looking so beautiful. She seemed to harbor some apprehension, and told me shyly that she was going to meet with him that weekend. In Saudi, an engagement is a contract similar to marriage, so the couple are allowed to spend time together.

I asked her if she was nervous, but she didn’t know the word. So I asked if she was happy, and her face showed my first guess was right. I put my hands over my heart and made a fluttery gesture, and she made a fist over her chest and pumped it like a fast beating heart, nodding in agreement. I smiled and hugged her again. I remembered some of my first date anxieties, and I’ve spent my whole life socially interacting with boys. I can’t even imagine how scary and exciting it must have been for her, but we had no words to communicate these things, so we just hugged and smiled. It seemed to help.

As I donned my abaya and hijab to go, she told me she was sleepy too and would be going home soon. And after a final round of hugs and happies and beautifuls, I headed off to the parking lot to find my driver and get home.

Recently, I’ve been finding myself despairing of the location I’m assigned to. Tabuk is a small town, and many of the things I miss or find frustrating aren’t problems in cities like Jeddah or Riyadh. Expats there can easily get wider choices of food, better exercise and entertainment options and easier travel options both in city with Uber or taxis and out of country because they are major international airports. Just like living in a small town in England or America can be boring or stifling compared to London or New York.

But nights like this are the real reason I love to live abroad. Being able to make connections across cultural and linguistic barriers, to be accepted into people’s lives and make a valued positive impact means so much more than a better grocery store or bigger mall. So, while I might miss out on nighttime walks by the sea (Jeddah) or easy taxi access to the Diplomatic Quarter (Riyadh), there are some trade offs that make spending a year of my life in a small town a totally worthwhile experience.

Bureaucracy Wars IV: A Glimmer of Hope

I recently read another travel bloggess who pointed out that living in a foreign country is a constant, daily struggle to do ordinary things. She wasn’t complaining. Like me, she seems to love her life abroad, but when she described her own battles with visas, banks and other things we barely consider in our home countries she painted a picture of riding the metro back from yet one more frustration in tears, consoling herself with a kinder Bueno bar, and I laughed. Not at her pain, but at my own. It was briefly joyous to see that I was not alone and to remember that all of us who choose this life are facing the same struggles no matter what country we land in.

That being said, my recent trials and tribulations with the phone and bank systems here in Saudi have finally taken a positive turn.

First the phone.

When last we left our intrepid heroine in Episode III, she thought that the phone issue was resolved in her favor, having achieved the unlimited data plan on the prepaid SIM. Oh, but wait. Remember that post paid bill? The one I couldn’t pay because I hadn’t been able to open a bank account because my name was spelled wrong on my Iqama? It came back. Finally able to pay it, I went online only to discover that I had been billed for another month even though the phone company had turned off the line, and I’d gone into the store to switch to the prepaid.

The bill, which should have been 200SAR for the one month I used it, and had been inflated to 275 for reasons I never understood, had been inflated a further 200 to 475 while I was waiting for my bank account to open so I could pay it. Not from late fees, like we expect in the US, but from a whole other month of active billing on a SIM card that had been deactivated and was in a box!

I went online to the chat help place. The first time, they said they had to send the issue to “Technical Support”. I feel like this is a language barrier issue, because I’m like no, it’s not tech support, it’s billing, but the guy refuses to help me further and says I have to try again after 24 hours so Technical Support for Billing can look at the issue.

24 hrs later I try again, get another dude, who after some time finds that the resolution is that my account has been credited 175SAR.. not the full 200, but better than nothing. The big problem is that his English is so bad, I don’t understand this the first 4 times, because he just keeps copy pasting the same grammatically confusing answer. I don’t know if these guys are using Google Translate or some automated answer system, but I was on the English support site, so it’s not like I was expecting regular people to speak English, I was expecting the people hired for the job of helping English speakers to do so. Silly me.

He also kept calling me “sir” over and over, even though I kept saying I was not a “sir”. Once I finally figured out the credit issue, I then said, ok, lets cancel the line so I never get billed again. But he can’t do that, I have to go into the store… again. You know, the people who wouldn’t let me pay the bill with cash and didn’t bother to tell me that them turning off the service to the line was not the same as the line being cancelled.

While going around about this, trying to find some other way, he called me “sir” again and I once again asked him to stop doing that. Him: “Do you mean you’re a woman?”

Me: “I am.”

Him: “What?”

Me: “You call women ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am’, not ‘sir’.”

At which point he apologized, told me he could not help me and disconnected.

Maybe he was just tired of trying to explain the company rules and policies to me. After all, I’m used to being able to pay a bill or cancel a service on the phone or the internet, and it seems to me that having that technology, Saudi would want to use it to keep more women at home? But it sure seemed like he flipped out and ran when he realized he’d been talking to a woman. *shrug.

So the next workday, a Sunday, I get online and pay the 275SAR that was my first bill, leaving the rest unpaid (the supposed credit is not reflected in my account). I head back to the store after Asr (afternoon prayer) and have another protracted, whining conversation with the poor guy designated to help the women folk. We can’t go in to the main store unaccompanied. I guess the only reason I was able to go in when I went to set up my phone the first day was because a male co-worker was with me (to get a router for himself) and they assumed we were married. It’s the same guy who helped me the last time with the bill I wasn’t allowed to pay and getting the prepaid card up and running.

I explain the situation to date. He says I have to pay 74SAR to cancel it. Why? because 475 – 275 that I paid, -175 credit which should equal 25, but I’ve been billed 49 more SAR for the part of the month since the last billing cycle! I think this might be worse than late fees or interest. If you can’t pay for some reason, you both get your phone cut off and continue being billed at the full rate until you can? Technically avoiding the sin of usury while still sticking it to the people, what an astonishing grasp of capitalism!

I explain the absurdity of the fact that the company turned off the phone line, it was not my choice to stop using it, so why am I being billed for a phone line they turned off? The clerk says he can escalate it to STC (isn’t that where I am?) and I can come back another day. Another day!?! I feel like I’ve been fighting this battle for months (which I probably have) and cannot face the idea that I must arrange with the driver yet another day, to get home from work and wait the hour until prayer is ended to get back into my abaya and hijab and ride through traffic and wait in this tiny boring room to be told once more that it can’t be done. Suddenly 74SAR seems like a small price to pay to just be finished.

Fine! Fine. Finefinefine. I’ll pay.

So he goes away again and comes back to tell me that I’ll get a text message with the final amount and once I pay it they can cancel the phone… at this point my eyes are twitching involuntarily. He’s telling me that he’s still not cancelling the phone! I’m not receiving a text. The phone number that I’m cancelling is not the SIM in my phone. No problem, he says, the battle cry of the Saudi, I can put it in the phone when I get home and I’ll see the text.

There’s a moment I experience where I’m so incredibly frustrated, angry, whatever that I cross over some kind of event horizon, and enter the eye of the storm. I become unreasonably calm. This happened.

I patiently explained that I would never recieve this text, because the SIM was suspended by the company and would not receive texts. I know this because it is how I found out the number was suspended in the first place. No problem! he says, it can still get texts from STC. No. The calm is a physical force at this point. It can’t. Punctuation stabbing at the pauses between words, silently containing my outrage. I know it can’t because when I first noticed the line stopped working, I tried to log in to the website to figure out what was going on. They text you a PIN to log in, and I never got those texts, so couldn’t log in to the website. Those texts were from STC. I distinctly remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the company blocked my ability to receive it’s own messages including those about billing.

I remembered that the last time I was in the store to pay the bill, he had asked me for an ATM card (which I did not have yet, and for some reason a credit card wouldn’t do). But since then, I had opened my bank account and had my shiney new ATM card. Why can’t I just pay it now?

What? I can? Oh yay!

So he has me step outside so I can enter the main store (where I was not allowed to be 30 seconds ago) so I can swipe my ATM card and enter my PIN to authorize payment. This is another mind boggling aspect of the culture here. If it’s so important to separate women (for whatever justification) then why don’t you have a payment option for the separate women’s enclosure? And if we’re going to come in the main branch to pay, why keep us out at all?

Finally, I have paid the bill and am given the cancellation paperwork to sign. The line is paid in full and cancelled. I recieve texts on the prepaid line, now the only one linked to my Iqama, to tell me as much and breath a deep sigh of relief. A huge amount of frustration and about 525SAR later, I’ve learned that post-paid phones in Saudi are a total rip-off. But now I’m free.

Next, the bank.

As you may have surmised from the above, our intrepid heroine has managed to acquire a bank account since her last adventure. The new Iqama arrived and I learned that the way that the Saudis make the hard “ch” sound with no equivalent sound in their alphabet is to put the letter “teh” in front of the letter “shin” looking rather like “tsh” and I can sort of see how that sounds like “ch” so there you go.

I take my shiny new Iqama and a huge wad of cash (my savings since I started getting paid in September) down to the bank during school hours (the company has to give us time from work to do any company related banking). We got there early enough that I got a number only 2 up from the “being served” and I sat down to wait. My number called, I was given many forms to fill out, and sat down with my lovely unlimited internet phone to gather all the info I needed. I no longer have an active phone in the US (I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the globalization of mobile phones). I only have an address because my roommate decided to let me keep my name on the lease and stuff in the closet while I was gone. But you need both to open a bank account in Saudi, in addition to an address and phone number in Saudi. Who maintains two addresses and phone numbers in two different countries? The clerk suggested maybe I put my father’s phone number down, and without trying to explain that complexity, I suggested my mother’s instead, which was accepted. So, hey, mom, by the way, my Saudi bank has your cell phone on file as my US phone number 😀

Lots more paperwork later, I get my ATM card and a print out with all the necessary bank numbers and info like account and IBAN numbers. I am then directed upstairs to the tellers to deposit my cash. Victory! I have an account, there is money in it, I can pay my phone bill, buy my own airline tickets with SADAD and start sending money home!

I can’t link my Saudi account to my US account from the US end. I can open a paypal account in Saudi, but can’t link it to a bank account like you can in the US. So my only send money home option is to link the US to the Saudi account on the Saudi end. Which I am assured I can do online. So I hop on the website to discover that the security regulations are a little over the top. Not just the first, but every time you log in, they send you a new code via text. Then while adding the account (called a “beneficiary” on the website) I have to receive several more texted codes to enter and verify myself. In the end, I have to forward a text to another number. I get a text back telling me to call “Sambaphone” to activate the beneficiary.

So, I hunt around and find this entity, call it, enter my exceedingly long ATM number (even though I am calling from the phone linked to my account) and am then told that I cannot use Sambaphone because I don’t have a secret Sambaphone code and that I must go to an ATM or branch to get a secret Sambaphone code. Now, why in the world the bank didn’t have me create this code when I opened the account and chose my ATM pin I will never know. I’m sure if I were Saudi, I’d know I needed to ask, but of course I didn’t know, so now I have to go back to the bank.

Setting up the phone code was pretty easy. And I decided since I was in the bank, it would be easier to just have them add my US account while I was there. Except the clerk had no idea how. When the online attempt failed, I had recieved a text message telling me to remember to include the ABA (routing number, which is what US banks still use instead of an IBAN, because we can’t join the rest of the world in using metric, Celcius or international banking codes). I have my ABA, but there is no place on the form to enter it.

10940425_10152548489616646_1142087100051168821_nI explain all this to the clerk, that I know what the ABA is and have it, but I just don’t know where to put it. Neither does he. So who can we ask? Surely someone in this building somewhere knows how to do this? But no, he’s going to do it himself. He takes me over to a terminal and has me log in to the website and go through the process of adding the beneficiary again, because he is sure the reason it didn’t work was because I didn’t have my Sambaphone code so I couldn’t complete the final verification step (despite the fact that I showed him the text about the ABA). We then use the Sambaphone to submit the final authorization and he tells me it may take a few days to be fully set up but everything is fine now. I mention again that we did not enter the ABA, so I doubt this, but he is sure and we are done.

Even before I get home that day, I get a text from the bank identical to the first, letting me know it failed and not to forget the ABA.

At least now I have my secret Sambaphone code, so I can call the help line, which I do when I get home. The phone tree takes so long, that right before I get to a real person, I run out of minutes and the call is cut off (the phone knows it’s been defeated so it’s getting in some last jabs on the way down). So I get dressed once more to head over to the convenience store to buy more minutes where my day is very briefly enlightened by the little old Yemeni man who sometimes works the counter. He has the talent that many grandfatherly types have of complimenting you like a father rather than a lecher, so he makes me feel good. Up until that day, I’d never used any Arabic with him, but that day I asked for the phone minutes using Arabic numbers and he was so amazingly happy to hear me do so, I thought he would turn inside out.

Bolstered by positive human interaction, armed with plenty of phone minutes, I return home and call the Sambaphone. Finally get a real person and explain the issue once more. The answer? Use the second address line. Put the whole bank address in the first line, and in the second line type “ABA” then a space then the number. Why? Why make an online form that requires specialized non-intuitive knowledge of what to put where? Why can’t you just write a few lines of code and add an ABA box????

Anyway, this man seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and explained the solution very clearly, so I had a lot of hope as I logged back on and tried the solution. Of course, these form lines have limited characters, so the whole address doesn’t actually fit in the first address line so I remove spaces and abbreviate everything I can and hope it works.

After waiting a couple days with no failing text messages, I log back on the website to see that the beneficiary is now listed as “active”! Still cautious, I send myself a mere 25$ to test the transfer. The fee is 50SAR regardless of the amount transferred, but I feel like it’s worth it to make sure it works before sending thousands, because I can’t even imagine the nightmare if the connection wasn’t working and all that money left my Saudi account and never arrived in the US one. Trust but verify.

After a couple more days, I check my US account and LO! the money is THERE! Happy victory dances ensue, celebrations and affirmations! Endorphins run wild! After 5 months in Saudi, my dwindling US savings running dry paying student loan and insurance bills while no new money comes in, I can finally use the money I’m earning to accomplish the financial goals I set out to do when I took this job! Staring at that tiny transfer, I felt like I’d just made the Death Star run with the guidance computer turned off, and I could hear the pumping brass of the “Throne Room” music ringing in my ears as Princess Leia gave me a medal for defeating the Empire.

I also managed to file my US taxes entirely online this weekend, and should be receiving that refund direct deposit soon. I don’t think I’ve been so excited to be able to pay bills since I cleared out the last credit card.

I realize too that if my stories keep following Lucas, that the next episode is not going to be good for me. Whatever the bureaucratic equivalent of loosing a hand or being frozen in carbonite is, I don’t want to find out.  Inshallah, I never will.

So This Is Christmas…

Christmas, like all other non-Muslim holidays, is banned in Saudi Arabia. It is illegal to celebrate the holiday.

20141212_144325So what will I do today? Having returned from a regular day of teaching at the office, a day unmarked by any event, any well-wishes, or any holiday office celebrations, I will sit down with a traditional Chinese Christmas dinner of fried chicken because it’s the only traditional Christmas meal I can find here. I will find the Grinch on Hulu or Youtube. I will light the beautifully scented candles that my lovely friend sent me as the only Christmas themed item deemed safe to pass through customs. I will look at my paper decorations of red and green and long for a real tree. I will eat dates and dream of my family’s traditional date-ball Christmas cookie, which I cannot make because there are no rice-krispies in the stores here. And I will talk to my friends and family on Skype.

It’s all I can do.

I’ve celebrated Christmas every year of my life. My mother has given me an angel ornament every Christmas since I was born. We have traditional family Christmas cookie recipes that I had to re-invent when I went gluten-free and took me forever to remaster, but I did. We used to bake fruit bread and take it around to the neighbors while singing carols. I was in choir and band, so probably know every carol by heart. And it’s not even a religious holiday for me. I just love it.

I love the decorations, the tree, the food, the music, the lights, the parties, the special clothes. I loved waking up early as a kid to open my stocking, and I love staying up late as a grown-up to fill someone else’s stocking. I love wrapping presents. I love seeing everyone smile and forget that the world sucks for a while.

The only reason we had a nativity when I was a kid was that my grandmother was Catholic. Which is cool.

I have friends who have returned the traditions to their Northern European pre-Christian roots, celebrating Solstice or Yule with a neo-pagan religious flair. And that’s cool too.

The year I lived in China, it was like the perfect Christmas ideology. All the decorations, music, parties and food, with none of the controversy about how to “properly” celebrate a once pagan winter renewal festival turned Christian.

This year, it’s empty. It’s nothing.

I keep reading stories about people being offended about “Merry Christmas” if they’re not Christian, or by “Happy Holidays” if they are. I’m watching cities fight over holiday displays, a zombie nativity scene ordered removed, a Satanist display at the Florida capital vandalized, and Christians all over declaring that there is a “War on Christmas” in America. And I just can’t believe how each and every angry offended person has completely lost sight of what they have.

It is illegal to celebrate Christmas in any form in Saudi. If one chooses to try to celebrate one does so at the risk of being arrested and even deported.

That is a war on Christmas folks.

Someone else celebrating an alternative form of Mid-Winter festivities is not.

So stop being angry that someone else wants to celebrate, and be joyful that you can. Be joyful that you can find a fresh scented evergreen tree at a lot near your home. Be grateful that you can see beautiful decorations in shops and on homes all around you. Be ebullient that radio stations pipe free carols to you whenever you wish. Be in awe if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends or family. And when someone wishes you joy, wish it back.

Merry Christmas

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Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

As some of you may know from reading my previous posts about bureaucracy: The Visa Saga or Clash of the Bureaucracies, I tend to wait until the situation has become ludicrous bordering on the the Kafkaesque, a feat of clerical confounding that would make Orwell or Gilliam reach for the typewriter with pure inspiration before I type it into a blog story. Well, it’s finally happened again. I cannot fit all of the absurdity and frustration of this event into a mere facebook post any longer.

Let me begin with the Iqama.

This is the Saudi equivalent of a green card. It is a national identification card that you will use for everything while living here. It will take you at least three months to get this once you move here. For me, the Iqama journey started the day after I landed, back in early September. My first full day in Saudi I was driven to a medical clinic where they took some samples, asked for my passport and the 6 passport photos I’d been told to bring, and (supposedly) began the Iqama application process.

They returned my passport and sent me on my way. I thought this was odd, because everyone told me that the government would need to keep my passport while the Iqama was processed, but that this didn’t matter too much since I couldn’t leave the country until then anyway.

So then at the end of September, weeks later, I come to find out that they should not have returned the passport, and have not started processing the Iqama yet. But, now it’s Eid (a two week holiday when all the government offices will be closed) so they won’t get to it until the second week of October.

Ok. mafi mushkela. Deep breath. Keep waiting, Inshallah they will hurry and you will have it in only six weeks.

Why is this a problem? Well, because you can’t do anything without the Iqama. You can’t get a SIM card, cell phone or bank account. So it’s not just about leaving the country, but about getting off this cheap pre-paid dumb phone my boss has purchased on her Iqama for me to use in emergencies, and about being able to pay my US bills with my Saudi salary, cause it’s doing me no good accumulating in my lingerie drawer.

So, after much fuss and pestering, I finally get my Iqama on November 10th, a little over 2 months after I arrived, so really, despite the bad start, not too bad. Time to get a real phone! (check out the phone buying adventure/disaster in Smart Phone, Dumb Dating) In addition to the skeezy guy hitting on me as I got my SIM card set up, there was some serious confusion about the payment options. I was initially issued a pre-paid card, then issued a second post-paid card.

Now, in the US pre-paid is usually more expensive per minute and more limiting in data. Contracts where you agree to pay a certain amount per month tend to be a better deal. So, I thought that was likely to be the same. Silly me. More on that later, however, because now we get to the real reason I need a SIM card of my very own, the bank account.

You need a SIM to open a bank account, and you need and Iqama to get a SIM. So, Iqama: check, SIM: check… time to go to the bank, right?

Oh, no.

You also need a bank letter. This is a letter from your employer (who sponsored your Iqama) saying that you are employed and earning a salary. I’m not really sure why this isn’t obvious by the fact that I have an employer sponsored Iqama, but I need another piece of paper, so I ask my boss about this paper. Riyadh is working on it.

Why? I ask, did they not just send it with the Iqama? It’s not like getting a bank account is optional for me. The company requires me to get one so they can direct deposit my paycheck. Up to this point, they have been depositing it in my boss’s account and having her give it to me in cash… which we both dislike. So the company knows I need a bank letter whether I want the account for any personal reasons or not. So, why wait until I’ve received the Iqama (FedEx, btw) to start processing this letter (which also will be sent FedEx)????? Why not just start processing it as soon as possible and send them together?

My boss’s answer: because that would make sense. You see why I like her.

Sixteen days later, the bank letter arrives. It is now Wednesday November 26th. But I can’t go to the bank immediately. Bank hours are the same as school hours, so I have to leave school to go to the bank. Fortunately it is in my contract that the school must give me paid leave time to do this in. However, when any teacher is absent, their class is split among the remaining 2 teachers, so if possible, some forewarning and planning is appreciated by all. Thursday is quiz day. Friday and Saturday the banks will be closed. Sunday is the first day of the week and not a great day for me to miss class. So Monday or Tuesday it will be.

I leave as early as is reasonable, about halfway through my second class. Assuring the students I will be back for class three after lunch (and this is why we say Inshallah instead of committing to anything). We drive …

My driver has been having some attitude and entitlement issues of late. He stops at a couple of gas stations on the way. This is not ok. He’s been told to fill up the tank either before he picks us up or after he drops us off. And I’m trying to get to the bank and back to school in time to scarf some food before class three! So I text the SD, who has the AA call and tell him not to waste time (in Arabic).. while I’m still in the car. So natch, the driver gets mad at me for ratting him out. How hard is it to just do your job?

I go into the bank and take a number and sit down to wait my turn. It is a very long queue. I continue texting with the SD to remonstrate him for getting the driver mad at me. Whereupon, he apparently calls the driver and bawls him out (which I hear about much later). Next thing I know the driver has come into the bank and started demanding someone who speaks English to come and help me (even though it is not my turn).

This works. Not surprising really since so much in Saudi is about who you can get to listen. They take my Iqama to begin the process.

No, we cannot open account for you.

Turns out my name is spelled wrong in Arabic on the Iqama. I feel like my face is going to split and peel off in frustration at this point. I call my AA to help with some translation, because the driver has something to say but has very limited English.

He says we can go to (Arabic word I can’t recall) office and get them to change the Iqama there. No problem. Women can’t go into the building, but it’s ok, he’ll handle it, I can wait in the car. We arrive at the building just as Duhr prayer begins, so we have to sit it out. After about 30 minutes (did I mention this is the one day I decided to leave my water bottle in my office?), he can enter the building.

He comes back and asks me to go with him. So I go in, the only woman, feeling very conspicuous. We shuffle from one unmarked office to another. There are no numbers or names or departmental descriptions on these doors, just halls and halls of doors. (what did I say about the absurdity?). If nothing else, his impatience pays off here because he just keeps bothering people until we get to the right office.

He comes back out of the office unsuccessful and gestures me to follow him back to the car and to call my AA for translation. It turns out that they won’t allow him to make any changes on my behalf unless he has a stamped letter from my employer processed through Riyadh. And they won’t let me make any changes on my behalf unless I have a penis.

So, the Iqama must go back to Riyadh to be fixed. Oh, it gets better. I’ve already made plans to go to Dubai for my birthday in December, and you need to use your bank account to pay for your exit visa. But I can’t get a bank account. So I can’t pay for my exit visa. Because my name is spelled wrong on my Iqama.

Let me talk about the phonemes of Arabic. My last name starts with a hard CH sound. Arabic does not have this phoneme. The sound does not exist in the language. Words like “chocolate” and “sandwich” are pronounced with a soft “shh” sound. So when you want some Pringles, it sounds like you’re asking for a woolly grazer that goes “baaa”. They CAN’T spell my name “right” in Arabic. So this is semantic. They want a different incorrect spelling of my name.

We can do this! We find out how to enable my boss to use her bank account to pay for my visa and I give her the cash. So at least the trip isn’t ruined. And I turn over my Iqama expecting the new one to be back by the time I am. Not so much. A few days ago, the company informs us that they cannot fix the Iqama without the Passport, which my boss tells them they are not getting until I get back from Dubai. I did mention I like her, right?

Then, this Sunday (remember that’s the first day of the workweek), while I am sitting locked out of my office (cause my boss has my key) I discover that my mobile data is not working on my phone. Neither is my text, or calling. Looking at the date, I realize it has now been one month exactly since I signed up for my new phone, and because I have no bank account, I have not been able to pay the bill, so the service has (probably) been cut off.

When I get home, I try to log on to the website, thinking I will just pay the bill online and all will be well. However, the website tells me that “in order to protect me” I will be sent a text message with a secret code to log in on a new machine…. But, they’ve turned the phone off, and I can’t receive text messages.

So I download the app, thinking that if I’m logging in FROM the phone, this should prove I have the phone in my hand as effectively as a text message PIN. Right? Right? Nope. The app in the phone wants to send me a text too… I can’t even.

Ok! Well, I’ve logged in from my office computer before so it should be in the system, I’ll just deal with it in the morning before class. Nope. Still wants to send me a text. So, I meander over to my boss’s office over lunch to commiserate, and let her know that I’m not able to get calls/texts cause that’s actually work related news, and that I’m going to try to go into the shop the next day to pay the bill in person.

This moment is one of the things about Saudi I may never get used to. Advice here is infinite and contradictory. All the people who give you advice are well meaning. And I’m sure that each one of them is truthfully telling you what worked best for them. The problem is, that nothing seems to work the same way twice. It’s like there is an irrational number of possible methods to accomplish anything here. Infinite and non-repeating. So, when I mention the post-pay to my boss, she asks, why are you doing it that way?

Remember back at the beginning of this story I said it works different here? Turns out pre-paid is the better deal 9 times of 10. Especially for data plans. My post paid plan was 200 SAR/month for 2GB of data and unlimited in-network calls. To be honest, I felt like I was back in 2001, limited data and “in-network” calling? who does that anymore? But, I figured, hey, they didn’t even get camera phones until 2004, obviously they’re behind the times on the phone thing.

Pre-paid plans offer unlimited data plans for a decreasing cost in bulk amount. A year is 1500 SAR (breaks down to 125/mo, way cheaper and unlimited). Then you pay for calls by the minute. But since I hardly ever call anyone (sometimes call the driver to say I’m finished… usually less than a minute), and can communicate with the other teachers on WhatsApp or email, I don’t actually need calling minutes as much as I need data.

Awesome! I’ll just pay off this bill and leave the post paid deactivated, switch back to the pre-paid and get on the unlimited data bandwagon. Only a few problems with this.

One, I don’t have my Iqama. My boss handed it over to be shipped off to Riyadh to be “fixed”.

Two, I can’t find the other SIM card. !!!. I distinctly remember putting the teeny tiny SIM card into a little jewelry box, then putting that box inside the box my phone came in with all the warranty junk and receipts so I would have all the phone stuff in one place that was hard to loose.

Oh safe places. You know the ones I mean. The safe places that are so safe you can’t ever find them again? I turned my entire (small) apartment upsidedown looking for that box. I could see it in my mind. I looked in every drawer and cupboard. I got a flashlight and looked under the couch. I got the wobbly chair and looked on top of the wardrobe. I moved all the couch cushions and found a pencil I thought I’d lost forever.

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a new pre-paid SIM card. But for this I would need my Iqama for sure. But I could call or text the SD who had it. And I couldn’t call or text my driver to cancel the afternoon trip to the store. So, using the internet alone, I What’sApped my boss, to explain the situation and ask her to contact the other SD to arrange to get my Iqama and reschedule the driver.

Whew!

Then I sat down and spotted the box.

I took out the pre-paid SIM and installed it in the phone. But I decided it was still probably better to go ahead and get the Iqama and go to the store the next day after all the hubbub and confusion.

Finally, today, the day I went to the store to pay the bill and get the unlimited data plan. My driver picks me up at 4, after Asr prayer, and we drive and drive. Apparently its a long way away. I go into the store, same as last time I was there, but am shooed away and told to go in the other door.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because last time I had a man with me or what. But the “other door” led into a tiny white room with a tiny square hole at about face height. There was a big standing advert blocking my view of the main store (although I’m sure it was meant to be blocking the men’s view of me), and a little bell to allow me to summon a clerk.

In broken English, we establish that I am a current customer, that I have two numbers, that I want to pay a bill and recharge a card.

He goes away. He comes back. I can pay the bill with ATM. I explain I do not have such a thing, I do not have a bank account, I only have cash.

He goes away. He comes back. I cannot pay with cash. But I can recharge the pre-paid phone with cash… Soooo, this place is set up to handle cash. I paid for my SIMs originally in cash. The man who was with me at the time was told he could not pay for his router with a card, and had to pay in cash. But I can’t pay my bill with cash?

He goes away. He comes back. Nope, no cash. He tells me I can pay at a bank. I explain again I cannot pay with a card. I switch to broken Arabic: Iqama mushkela, mafi bank. There is a problem with my Iqama, I don’t have a bank. Inshallah, maybe one month I will have a bank and can pay. Finally, he is able to express that I can take cash into a bank and pay the bill through the bank even without an account. I remain skeptical, but this is irrelevant because banks are only open during school hours and I’m not taking more time off school to pay this bill. They can wait.

Ok. Ok. But what about the pre-paid card. I explain the offer on the website of unlimited data, and he says but not all phone numbers, maybe yours.

He goes away. He comes back. Ok. Your phone number ok. So I explain I would like to pay for the data plan and also put some additional money on the Sawa (the money used for pay by the minute calling). I hand him the money.

He goes away. He comes back. No. Finished. He cannot process the request, despite having told me earlier in our conversation that they could take cash for pre-paid. And he can’t really explain why, because the poor man’s English is just not that good.

I have learned some things about Saudi behavior by interacting with my students. These last seven weeks of emotional displays and demands for explanations of every policy or decision coming from women with limited English has given me a very direct and visceral understanding of how they react to unwanted situations, how they are culturally programmed to react. So, I channel my students. Why?! I demand, voice warbling into a higher tone, approaching the whine threshold.

I turn away, I raise my hands, tears well in my eyes as I continue to plead for assistance. He tries to tell me I can go to Extra or Panda (other stores) to buy a Sawa recharge, but I don’t know how to do this either, and I don’t see how it will help with the data plan, since all I know of Sawa is the pre-paid minutes aspect.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of my adopted histrionics. In the US, when confronted with something this frustrating, I would have calmly thanked the clerk, then left the store and screamed in the privacy of my own car while banging on the steering wheel to release tension before finding a new solution. But here, it’s actually rewarding to channel that frustration into an emotional display.

The clerk then offered to come outside to explain to my driver (in Arabic) what needed to be done. The driver then took the cash and I sat down in the waiting room and was brought a cup of sweet Turkish coffee to enjoy while I waited.

About 30 minutes later, the clerk came in with the receipts my driver had brought back, and then programmed all the credit into my phone, and signed me up for the internet plan I wanted. And, apparently for buying so much Sawa at once, I got like an extra 100 SAR credit on my phone too! Looks like I shouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything on the phone for at least the next 6 months.

To be sure the Bureaucracy Wars aren’t over yet, but I’m closing this chapter with a win. SIM card and Data Plan – achievement unlocked.

Smart Phone, Dumb Dating

I completely forgot about this story, fortunately I found it while sorting through some drafts. Enjoy!

About a month ago, I finally got my Iqama and was therefore able to get my own SIM card and my own phone. In Saudi, you can’t have your own cell phone without proper ID, and you can’t open a bank account without a registered phone number.

In addition to this inconvenience, I had also become really tired of trying to travel without access to a data plan to use for GPS and Uber summoning. So as soon as my Iqama was handed over, I arranged to go out and get fixed up with a smart phone and SIM. We determined that STC would be the phone company best for me, but headed first to Extra (the local equivalent of Best Buy) to get the phone itself.

Saudi only has three main phone manufacturers (though I swear I saw some really off off brand models in there too): Apple, Motorola and Samsung. I refuse to buy Apple products, this might make some of you stop following my blog, but such is life, I’ve eschewed Apple since the first Mac machines went up against my old Commodore.

I don’t have anything particular against Motorola, but I had a Galaxy back in the States and decided it would be easier and safer to go with something I knew I liked rather than try to research something new. I also tried to find out if the phones here are region locked, to see if I could simply get a new SIM when I go back to America or if the phone would be a brick. Like all else here, Inshalla, it’s not region locked, but there’s nothing I can do about it if it turns out to be.

Also, I covet the Google Nexus phablet that’s coming this Holiday season. So for these reasons, I decided to go with the Galaxy 3 rather than the 5 and saved myself a bunch of money, since unlocked phones are rather more expensive and there are no plan/contract discount packages here.

But what, Kaine, does this all have to do with dating?

Working on it. Having acquired my new (old) phone, we headed over to the STC office to get me a SIM. I begged my male co-worker to come in with me since he’d been through the process and I had no idea what I was doing. He was some help in this, but completely failed in his role as chaperon.

The (I will not preface the word with “gentle”) man who was assisting me to get registered started asking basic questions necessary for the process, confirming my name and employer. He noted, seeing my birth-date on my Iqama, that we were the same age and smiled at me. Then he asked if my co-worker was my husband.

I didn’t think too much of this at first, there’s a lot of legal connotations for married women here, and unlike a taxi or a restaurant, the SIM card was registered with the government and would be linked to my bank account once I got one. So, for the first time in a while, I had to tell the truth about it and admit that I was single.

This however may not have been a mere box tick on the registration form, because from this point the man became more and more forward with me. He continued to chat about things that were not relevant to the SIM process, made sure I knew he was single too, and talked a lot about how pretty I was. He also told me if I ever had any problems with the phone or service I was welcome to call him, giving me his name and a number.

When it came time to get the phone number set up, he made a special point to tell me he’d picked out a “good” number just for me. I’m not sure why it’s good (but I am sure that he took it home). My co-worker found the clumsy attempts at flirting as very funny, despite the fact that I told him it was his role to prevent these things from happening.

As we left, the man once again implored me to call him should I need anything.

*shudders*

We joked about it in the van on the way back to the hotel, marveling at how awkward the man was at flirtation. I pointed out that the men here have no chance to practice as boys and teens, let alone as adults, so it’s more or less constantly being hit on by your best friend’s 12 year old younger brother.

Sitting at home, slowly loading all my apps on to the new phone via wi-fi, watching Netflix and chatting online, my phone rings. I do not answer. I’ve programmed all the numbers for my co-workers already, and this is unrecognized, so I don’t answer. I do this in America, too. Admit it, so do you. Caller ID is magic.

Next, I get a text. It’s the man from the STC store. The text is just him identifying himself, presumably because he guessed I was screening my calls. I do not reply. Then he calls again. And I still don’t answer. It’s after sunset, by this point, so there is NO way he’s calling about anything related to a professional matter about my STC card.

So I block the number, and email my boss about the occurrence.

There’s this app called What’s App. It allows texting outside the phone’s text charges, presumably there are still places that have limited texting plans or this wouldn’t exist, plus it avoids any international phone charges. I’d heard of it in America on an NPR story as something that was gaining popularity in poorer countries.

It is very popular here. My company uses it to send out alerts to teachers en masse, so my boss had asked that I install it and set up an account as soon as I got my new phone, which I had done.

Screenshot_2014-11-14-08-50-21So then I get a message from the STC guy on What’s App. At something like 11pm. Way after hours. After not answering his calls or texts and blocking him once… I had to learn how to use the blocking function on What’s App rather faster than I anticipated.

Two phone calls, a couple texts, a What’s App and two blocks later, I finally managed to stop hearing from this guy. Talk about not being able to take a hint. My boss wanted us to go back to the store and report him, but unfortunately the male-coworker who needed to go with me (I’d need a man to intercede on my behalf) was extra busy for the next week, and honestly didn’t seem to take it as anything other than a joke.

But wait! There’s more.

What’s App apparently installs with the privacy settings on zero as a default. There wasn’t any kind of question or set up process that allowed me to set these before my profile went public!

10422161_10152399967446646_3074836361079130079_nI have no idea how people see public profiles on this thing. But I got several unwanted advances at ridiculous hours of the night before I finally managed to figure out the privacy settings and remove my profile photo and number from the public view.

This was the only one I saved a screenshot of before I just got fed up. When I posted about it on FB later, I realized how generally harmless it looks through Western cultural lenses.

People tried to commiserate with other stories of awkward hitting on or catcalling experiences, but I could tell they weren’t really getting the context of this behavior within Saudi.

I tried this metaphor:

“its really hard to express how far beyond normal skeezy cat calling this kind of thing is, like if the way a guy hit on a girl was to invite her out to kill someone’s grandparents with him, the behavior is not only illegal, in this culture, it is also morally repugnant”

It’s awful that women all over the world have to put up with being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by random men. It’s easy for us to sympathize with girls who get blatant offers for sex, graphic requests, invasive touching, or unsolicited dick pics because we all generally agree these things are not cool.
But trying to get people to understand that the STC man’s sad attempts at flirting and repeated calling, or this man’s kissy face emoticons have the same depth of skeeze within this culture, and that what I would have found funny, cute or at worst mildly annoying only a few months ago, now has the power to make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
This just goes to show it isn’t the act that makes something friendly/safe vs skeezy/gross it is the context. The next time a woman says that a comment or a catcall made her feel bad or in danger, don’t dismiss it as an attempted compliment or an innocent joke. Instead, realize that any behavior can be harassment if it’s invasive and unsolicited.

 

 

Traditional Saudi Dinner at the Najd Village

After we got back from the Edge of the World, I was just planning to spend the remaining few hours before my flight wandering the Granada Mall. However, in the restroom of the mall, the first place I headed after the long drive, I ran into the lovely Saudi sisters again. As we got to chatting, I mentioned I my plans. They were surprised to learn I had only come to Riyadh for one day, and insisted that instead of spending my few hours alone, that I join them for dinner.

It is very strange for Saudi people to spend time alone if they don’t have to. I read about this before I came here. We westerners often value our “alone time”, but apparently that is not something our Saudi brothers and sisters share. Pretty lucky for me, since I get plenty of alone time in Tabuk during the school week, and am happy for some company on my adventures.

These ladies were very erudite and cosmopolitan. One had been born and partially raised in the US, and some had spent considerable time in Jeddah before moving to Riyadh. I believe that they all still lived with their families, and were thus still single. The oldest sister had a great job in finance and the others were finishing up their degrees hoping to get similarly good jobs.

They spoke English excellently, and often with their friend, the fourth Saudi to whom they were not related. I got the impression that the reason they resorted to English was not just for my benefit, but because their home dialects of Arabic were different enough that it was sometimes easier to use English to bridge the gap. Which explains why I heard so much English at GCON. The youngest said she’d actually taught herself English from movies and music, amazing! That kind of dedication and motivation is something I wish my own students had more of.

Riyadh is a very global city. It is a huge, bustling metropolis where one can get nearly anything. There’s even a Victoria’s Secret in one of the malls! So even being native Saudis, in the heart of the country’s capital, the ladies felt very far removed from their traditional Saudi culture, so for them, the day was about having a “traditional Saudi experience”. It sort of reminds me of folks from New York going out to Texas to have a “real cowboy experience”.

So after going to the desert and riding “Bedouin style” in the back of a truck, it was time for a traditional Saudi meal.

img_0680The Nadj Village is a cute little restaurant that mimics traditional eating styles. The waiting area has a little coffee reception spot and comfortable floor style seating. Beyond that, each group has a private area to dine, a mini-Istraha, some outdoors set up like tents and others indoors with thatched rooves and fireplaces.

As we were having coffee awaiting our room, I asked them if they knew about the American holiday of Thanksgiving. They had, and I told them that the day before (Thursday) had been Thanksgiving, and I had no celebration, so this would be like my Thanksgiving feast. They laughed and said there was unlikely to be any turkey, but that we could order some chicken and pretend.

The menu was full of food I’d never seen or heard of before. Of course there was the obligatory lamb chunks on rice on the menu, but these ladies had very set ideas about what they would eat.

Saleek

A lot of Middle Eastern recipes involve first boiling then roasting a chicken. I’m usually opposed to the boiling of meat for any purpose, but as it turns out, there is a method to this madness. They use the water as a stock to make the soup or rice that the chicken will be served with, ensuring a blending of flavors and that no flavor is lost.

In Saleek, the chicken is boiled with cardamom. The broth created is then used to cook the rice base of the dish. I say rice, but its more like porridge. You cook the rice till its very mushy, then add milk, ghee and a kind of evergreen tree flavor called mastikah. The chicken is then grilled or roasted to give it a good outer crisp before being served atop the rice mixture. Due to the gloopy nature of the rice, a spoon is used to eat it. Yum.

Hamees Lahm

This is a dish of meat cooked with onions and spices. The spices are mainly sweet, like clove and ginger, with some black pepper as well. The flavor of the meat is enhanced but not covered. This is eaten with pieces of bread. Oh such bread! The normal pita I’d become used to in grocery stores and restaurants here had been replaced with some amazing version that most resembled na’an, that Indian Tandoor bread cooked on the inside of a clay oven. The flavor and texture were amazing. I think we forget in the land of processed bread how wonderful a food it can be all by itself, soaking up the meat juices it was pure heaven!

Jareesh

Jareesh is another type of porridge, but this one is made with whole wheatberry or crushed wheat instead of rice (although the complete dish is served with regular rice). Once again, you start by boiling some meat to get a good stock, in this case lamb. This is a long slow cook to get a tender lamb and a flavorful stock. The wheatberry is then cooked in the stock until soft.

Traditionally, this is hours of stirring, making it a special dish for weddings or celebrations, but it looks like grocery stores here sell a kind of quick-cook jareesh that takes only about 15 minutes. Finally, layer the creamy jareesh, the regular rice and the cooked meat in a single dish, topping it with parsley and/or fried onions. Again, a spoon is permissible to eat with. Serious winter comfort food!

Goursan

The best description I have from asking around is that this is a “kind of dough with meat & vegetables (zucchini, eggplants, pumpkin, potatoes, etc). This fits my memory fairly well, as I do remember some orangeish dish that I scooped a large slice of eggplant out of and found completely delicious. I’m hoping some of my online contacts come through with a recipe eventually, because I’m not sure what all the other flavors were beyond guessing at the standard Middle Eastern spice blend, favoring a combination of sweet (clove, ginger, cardamom) and hot (black or red pepper).

Sabeeb with honey

Described as “village brown bread topped with honey” these teeny little pancakes were no more than 3 cm across. The flavor reminded me in a way of buckwheat pancakes. The texture was very firm and slightly chewy. Sabeeb can be savory or sweet. My hostesses ordered the sweet version. The honey may have been melted or watered, because the bread wasn’t so much topped with honey as saturated with it. There was some debate over the proper eating method as the west coast ladies attempted to use the spoons, but the Nadj region lady informed us fingers were more appropriate. They’re also good leftover. I had the rest for breakfast the next day. Om nom nom.

Gisht

I tried looking a recipe up on google, no luck. Fortunately I remember this one pretty well. It was our dessert. In addition to more arabic coffee, my hostesses ordered some warm gisht. This is generous bowl of dates that have been cooked with flour, butter, cream and spices. It should not be confused with a cake or cookie or really any kind of baked good. It isn’t. There’s very little flour in the mix, just enough to get the butter, cream and spices to stick to the dates, really. And although it was served warm, I can attest that cold leftovers are also quite delicious.

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I wrote all the names down at the restaurant, but looked them up again for more details here in the blog. I think now that I’ve found some recipies, I might have to try my hand at making a few myself so I don’t have to wait until another serendipidy takes me to a traditional restaurant.

We spend a happy couple of hours chatting and eating. We took lots of pictures, many of which I cannot share because of the modesty culture here, but the rest you can see on my facebook page.

We shared stories, I told them about my experiences in Jeddah. They thought the taxi driver marriage proposal was so funny, they made me repeat it so they could record it. They loved instagram and snapchat. It almost felt like being back in America, everyone constantly looking at and checking their phones.

I showed them some pictures of the Pacific Northwest, camping trips and day hikes I’ve taken around Seattle. “This is your home?” one asked. I told them Seattle was very green with rain almost every day. She looked at me sincerely, concern in her eyes tempered with a wry twinkle, “Are you sure you’re ok here?”.

They showed me pictures of a Saudi engagement party and told me about some of the engagement traditions. They talked about the difficulty of being an adult still stuck living at home, wanting their own lives and freedom but constantly being checked up on and required to answer to parents. It may sound like a teenager’s lament, but bear in mind at least one of these ladies had finished her Master’s and had a good job of her own.

And, like all Saudi hostesses, they told me I didn’t eat enough even when I thought my stomach would explode.

As the evening drifted on, we chatted and drank coffee and nibbled on the remains of our sabeeb and gisht. Finally they called a driver to come pick them up and it was time to part ways.

They’ve invited me to visit them again, if I’m able to go back to Riyadh, to show me more parts of their city. It’s funny, because in America, extensions of friendship to those met briefly on a shared flight or chance public encounter are so often a veneer, a polite nothing. Especially in Seattle, where the Seattle freeze makes it more challenging to meet anyone except through those you already know. (which seems sad and boring to me, but hey).

Here in Saudi, they are quick to extend friendship, and they mean it.

Had I met with a group of beautiful successful ladies in the US, I would have expected to be shunned and avoided because I do not meet their social standards of beauty, wealth or culture. At best, I would expect nothing more than polite but shallow interactions, and to never hear from them again even if we exchanged email or facebook.

But these ladies were genuine in their concern for me, a stranger alone in their country, and I really think that they had as much fun as I did. They did reach out to me in email later, sending along more photos and letting me know they read my blog and hopped to see me again soon, and I plan to make a point of returning to Riyadh at least once more before I leave just to see them again.

The depth and warmth of the people I meet here in Saudi continues to amaze and delight me. This place and these people are so much more than I could have imagined or expected, and I am thankful this Thanksgiving to have spent it here with them.

The Edge of the World

When my previously hoped for November trip to Madain Saleh was postponed, I set about trying to quickly find a replacement for my monthly adventure. With very little warning and no time off from work, I decided it might be time to see what I could do with a tour group.

I contacted Haya Tours and discovered they were doing a trip to the Edge of the World on Thanksgiving weekend. Having no plans for the holiday here in Tabuk, and seeing that the Edge was on my Saudi bucket list, I decided to join the group.

I had read a little about the place, seen some pictures on Google, but it was hard to get a real idea of the place. Indeed, I took my own pictures, but they don’t really do it justice. It’s not unlike the Grand Canyon, the scale is simply to vast, the experience is so three dimensional that my poor little camera can’t even come close to capturing it.

Our instructions were to meet up at the Granada Mall at 7:30 in the morning on Friday. I flew into Riyadh Thursday night, the only flight I could get arrived after midnight, so I only got a few hours of sleep in the hotel before I had to catch my car to the meeting point.

We had a pretty large group, mostly made up of women. There was a group of Americans, a couple ladies from New Zealand, and a quartet of native Saudi women as well. In addition we had a contingent of Germans who were apparently in Saudi short-term on a contract to improve efficiency in certain industries… That was a funny conversation. And one older gentleman who’d been working in oil around the Middle East for 20+ years.

We all piled in to the 4-wheel drive SUVs and trucks and headed out of the city. We drove for about an hour and took the time to get to know one another. I was in a car with the 4 Saudi women and the lady from New Zealand. One of my favorite parts of travelling is getting to meet people from all over the place and hearing their stories.

The sky was looking very dark and threatening rain. In the desert, this is a big deal. We pulled off the highway where the “road” becomes a dirt track into the mountains and waited to see what the rain would do. It wasn’t just about our picnic being rained on, our guide explained, but because we had to cross a wadi. If it rained too much, we would be stranded on the other side for days. Laughing a little he asked us, “Did you bring your pajamas?”

Wadi literally means “valley”, but colloquially it refers to a river valley that is dry except when it rains heavily, and then its full of water. So, we waited for about a half an hour until the brief storm subsided and the sky was once more blue with fluffy white clouds.

Another long drive, this time off road, full of bouncing and drifting past beautiful desert plants responding to the recent rain and ever higher rocks jutting out of the ground sweeping past us. Oh, and camels. Lots of camels. They eat the an extremely thorny variety of acacia that grows out there.

We paused for a brief photo op at an oddly shaped rock and the ladies began shedding their hijabs. The three Saudi sisters had tied matching fancy pink turbans on under their hijab, so they could doff the black for photo ops while still maintaining reasonable modesty in mixed company. None-the-less they were fairly liberal, posing in jeans and bedazzled sweatshirts, using one of the ubiquitous selfie extenders to take group shots.

The drive in was not a long distance, but slow because of the off road terriain. Even though we only stopped once for official photo ops, I managed to get quite a few lovely photos of the desert as we traveled. Below are two of my absolute favorite shots from the drive in. You can see them all on my facebook page.

Finally we arrived. The spot we stopped at did not seem much different from all the other cliffs we’d passed along the way. The guide told us that we had 40 minutes to climb up and look around then we’d all gather again for a group photo before heading on to the next spot.

The ladies all abandoned propriety and shed our abayas as well. It was a little cultural vacation, this mix of local Saudis, foreigners, men and women. We were all dressed in “western” clothes, and for a while I forgot I wasn’t supposed to talk to men, and asked a few other visitors (not part of our group) about the best trail up to the viewing spot. Apparently, they forgot too, because they answered politely and without either the awkward formality or leering skeez that accompanies so many of my verbal exchanges with men in Saudi.

As we walked toward the area indicated, it became apparent that there was indeed an edge. As I crested a small rise and the full extent of the valley dropping away below us became apparent, all thoughts, all breath escaped me and I was filled with nothing but total awe at the spectacle of nature.

It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never been to see a great natural wonder in person. Photos and video are so easy to come by, most people are familiar with iconic natural wonders. So it’s hard to express why we should go to them physically, especially at great effort and expense, when we can see them for free from the comfort of our own homes.

All I can tell you is that it isn’t the same. Not even close. It’s bigger than the difference from 8-bit graphics to HDTV, from black and white tube tv to IMAX. We have so many more senses than the 5 everyone knows, and I’m not being supernatural. I’m talking about scientifically acknowledged ones. Plus whatever spiritual relationship with the universe you might have that makes tremendously huge things ping the sacred section of the brain.

The giant redwoods aren’t just “really tall trees”, and the Grand Canyon isn’t just another river valley. Standing at the edge, cliffs spreading out to the right and left of me and hundreds of feet below, ahead a vast expanse of sand stretching to the horizon. It is little wonder that this place is called the Edge of the World. Like standing on cliffs over the Pacific ocean, it seemed that emptiness before us was infinite.

I continued climbing, each step revealing more and more of the amazing vista. There were great desert raptors riding the thermals below us. I spotted a tiny lizard sunning himself on the rocks. The path went on and on, ever upward and outward. The views just kept getting more astonishing. My only regret is that with only 40 minutes, I wasn’t able to get all the way out to the very edge. I did make it out to the second to last peak before we heard the call to return to the cars.

The three Saudi sisters in the car with me had been among the last to leave the peak with me, and we’d chatted and taken many photos on the way back. Indeed, I have one of them to thank for pointing out to me that I should be using the Panorama function on my new phone to get the best shot. I think it turned out pretty well.Reluctant to leave and unsure of where we were headed next, we piled back into the cars and began bouncing through the desert again. The tour guide stopped us all for another brief photo shoot, pointing out the “Saudi Pyramids” and joking that the souls of the Pharos were visiting.

The Saudi sisters I was riding with asked the driver if they could put on some music and quickly linked one of their phones to the cars stereo via bluetooth. Riding through the Arabian desert, the Arabian music, traditional and modern, blasting through the speakers until I felt it in my bones, fusing with the vibration of the SUV and the shaking of the uneven desert terrain — I felt like a really glorious stereotype.We arrived at our second location, and like the first, it didn’t look like much from where we parked, but now I knew better. We wandered around the nearby area, looking at a dropoff that was so straight it could have been a quarry, the fault line in the ground had sheared off the rock so cleanly it looked man made.img_0668

The guides said we could walk up to the view, or they would ferry us up a small group at a time in one of the cars. I was quite fine walking, but as I overheard the eldest of the Saudi sisters entreating the others to ride in the back of the pick up truck “like Bedouin”. Her entreaties for company were a mix of English and Arabic, but I picked up the gist, which was “cool Saudi experience” and decided to join them.Five of us climbed in the back of the truck. We started off sitting (all but the eldest sister who stood in the truck bed holding on to the roll bar), but soon we followed her lead and were all standing side by side holding on to the bar, bouncing along the road, feeling the wind in our hair. “It’s like Titanic.” she exclaimed, and I threw my arm out and replied, “king of the world!”, and truly for a moment it felt like we were.

There is something amazing about sharing adventures and experiences with like-minded people. I like having friends to explore with, but often find myself travelling alone. So when I find strangers in my travels with whom I can share the joy and the excitement of adventure, it’s almost like an amplifier. Riding in the back of the truck with these women, being welcomed into their adventure, we did create something more. Talk to strangers.Just as we were nearly bursting with giggles and bounces, the truck rounded the top of the rise and the new view displayed to our right stopping the laughs and jokes with an involuntary chorus of “oooooh”s. The truck came to a stop and we all piled out.

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The guides told us to look for fossils, but no one really took this very seriously. After all, what were we going to find out here? Dinosaur bones? We climbed around on the cliff edges, admiring the views and taking more pictures. The other groups slowly caught up with us by walking or being ferried up in the truck. Once everyone arrived, a couple of the guides started picking up fossils and showing them to us.

Seashells!

The cliffs we were standing on, high in the air, in the middle of a vast desert that spans the entire peninsula had once been on the bottom of an ocean. We’re taught in school that this is the nature of the changing surface of the planet. I’ve seen fossils in museums with little tags saying where they were found. I’ve watched documentaries that show in beautiful computer animation how the land masses have changed over time. Nothing really compares to being there.

Driving for hours through a desert, riding and climbing up cliff crests to see the vast emptiness around you, then looking down at your feet and seeing a seashell embedded in the rock. Or of turning over a rock and realizing it was part of a fossil you have now uncovered for the first time.

After some final ooohs and aaaahs as we pointed out fossils stuck in the rock to one another and collected a few souvenirs from the loose fossils that had been dislodged by wind and rain, we piled back into the cars once more and headed back into the wadi. About halfway back to the main road, we pulled over in the shade of some larger trees.

One of the guides drove a few of us ladies a ways off to avail ourselves of a little ravine behind some acacia while the rest of the rest set up a little Arabic desert picnic. When we got back, the carpets we all arranged on the ground and cake and dates had been set out along with carafes of spiced arabic coffee and sweet black tea. And just in time too, since all of us were now quite hungry from the exercise and adventure.

In the US, we only have access to a couple varieties of dates, but here in Saudi there seem to be dozens of varieties. Our picnic had no less than eight visually distinct kinds. The cake was very reminiscent of sweet cornbread but with a date paste layer in the middle. Many of the westerners there were experiencing arabic coffee for the first time that day. Its a green coffee blended with cardamom and other spices. Bitter and served in tiny cups it is a perfect compliment to the dates and other sweets.

There was also a tin of what looked like biscotti, but turned out to be savory with a slight caraway flavor. The Saudi ladies informed us that they should be dipped in hot milk. Sure enough, there was also a caraffe of hot ginger milk. I don’t know why I’ve never had that before, but I’m never giving it up. Also, you should make some right now. Go on, I’ll wait. I bet it works great with soy, rice, almond, coconut or hemp milk too.

Slightly sweet and very spicy, I would have been content to sip the ginger milk like hot chocolate, but we did try dipping the savory bisuits and oh my goodness! Savory crunchy buscuits in hot sweet ginger milk… a local snack I will happily add to my arabic coffee and dates any day.

Full and sleepy, we piled back into our cars and headed back into the city. We chatted and listened to music, shared stories of our lives and other adventures. It was quite a lovely day. When we arrived back at the mall we said our farewells. I took a card from the Kiwi and left my blog and email with the Saudi sisters, requesting that they send me any of the pictures or videos that I was in with them (they took a lot).

And there my day might have ended, for my plans were just to hang out at the mall until it was time to go to the airport. But the universe has a strange way of bringing us what we need, and in the absence of friends, family or feast on Thanksgiving, I was given a chance for two out of three.20141128_121309

Please read on in A Traditional Saudi Diner at Nadj Village… coming soon!

And don’t forget to check out the rest of the pictures on facebook 🙂

King Abdulaziz Historical Center & National Museum of Saudi Arabia

I love museums. I am a nerd.

I grew up partially in Annapolis, MD which is only a short train ride from Washington D.C. and America’s coolest museums, the Smithsonian. Many a childhood memory do I have of wandering the Natural History Museum.

My mother was really good at managing a tight budget and two kids. And one of the things we did everywhere we lived was go to the local museums, cause its a cheap way to spend the day, and who knows, maybe you’ll even learn something. Some kids may think this is torture, but I’m a nerd, so usually I loved it. And as an adult, I still seek out museums everywhere I go.

I even went to the Shandong Provincial Museum while living in Jinan. The Chinese have a very different sense of historical preservation, to be sure. Not a lot of climate control, and very little separating the patrons from the displays.

So when I found myself in Riyadh with no plans, some helpful internet denizens recommended the Museum. Which to my nerd self sounded way better than a giant shopping mall. So I booked my Careem cars and headed out to see what I could see.

The museum is a royal endowment, so it’s got tons of money and costs the people very little. (one day I’m going to delve into the strange political/economic situation here) img_0313The museum is one of many buildings set inside a sprawling park. Even with three hours set aside, I only got to see two sections of park and the museum. Its huge.

In addition to the lush green lawns, play and picnic areas, there was a water park. Swimsuits aren’t the thing here because of the modesty, so it isn’t like swimming pools and slides, but more like a huge interactive fountain. Kids were playing in the water and having their pictures taken by doting parents.

After some lovely strolling and strategic picture taking (to avoid getting any people in my pics) I made it to the museum entrance. I paid my 10SAR (about 2.50$) and began the tour.

The museum is set up in chronological order, so you start from the beginning of the cosmos and end at the present day. Yes, that’s right, the beginning of the cosmos. In the most religiously ruled country on Earth (not counting the ones we consider terrorists/therefore not countries), the big royal museum starts off with the Big Bang.

The section is called Man and the Universe, and it is basically about how cool Allah is for using such amazing techniques as nuclear fusion, gravity, plate tectonics and evolution to form the stars, planets and life. Who says religion and science can’t be friends?

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This is a really neat display of the cosmos forming. It’s actually a video screen surrounded by mirrors, so when you walk up close to it, it feels like you’re standing in front of a giant globe but without having to spend the space on making one. Pretty neat, I thought.

img_0341And this is a mammoth indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula. The entire prehistoric display was pretty cool. Culminating in the connection to the oil that has made Saudi rich.

There were a lot of artifacts of old human civilizations, which I also found really interesting, since I had been led to believe that archaeology wasn’t a high priority here unless it involved the Prophet. As it turns out there was extensive research and very detailed information about the pre-historical and pre-Islamic peoples with no attempt to impose post Islamic beliefs upon them.

I keep mentioning this because in America, there seems to be a war between science and religion, as though one cannot believe in God and accept the evidence of science at the same time. Considering how “backward” so many media outlets portray the Middle East and Islamic religion, I find it pretty darn cool that they don’t seem to have this problem that plagues supposedly advanced/civilized America.

I’m also not saying this museum was secular. Not in any way. Aside from reminding us that Allah created the Universe, the important events of the history in the Quran are referenced often.

Along this wall, a replica of the Taima Wall made in part with stones from the original site, there is a timeline showing the different Empires and ruling tribes of the Arabian peninsula, side by side with the names of the important prophets, Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and of course Muhammad (PBUH).

There was a whole wall dedicated to the evolution of writing on the Peninsula (the linguist in me loved that part), and there were tombs and excavations of these ancient civilizations explaining how historical sites teach us about what people used to believe about life and the afterlife.

There were cases and cases of pottery, tools and jewelry showing the development of the techniques and craftsmanship over the last several thousand years. It was really well cared for and very clearly displayed with descriptions in Arabic and English, as well as time and place markers.

I have like 200 pictures, and I put 100 of them up on my facebook page, because I can’t possibly get them all on here with limited space, so please feel free to check those out.

After a wonderful show and tell history lesson of the pre-Islamic times in Arabia, we moved on to the Life of the Prophet section. Even as a non-muslim, I found this section very nice.

img_0422In contrast to the ancient desert feel of the previous sections, this section was almost sci-fi. This long wall tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Arabic and English. It really is a good story, it explains many things about the conflicts within Islam as well as the attraction so many find in it. I’m still not converting, but I enjoyed the display.

Also, unlike Christianity, Islam has a lot more historical evidence for its main prophet, so while its still clearly a hagiography, it is a better documented one that we’re used to seeing in religious displays. Plus, there’s a clear boundary between the sections, marking Muhammad’s arrival and the introduction of Islam as an historical event within the greater context of the museum, and not isolated religious propaganda.

The next section, the expansion of Islam, is where we start to get a feeling of religious bias that up until now has been happily and conspicuously absent. Clearly, the folks who dedicated, designed and above all paid for this museum do not feel that anything that happened before Muhammad is a threat to their legitimacy, but somewhere around the Sunni/Shia split all bets are off.

img_0449The display tells about the “rightly guided Caliphs” referring to the Sunni side, and focuses exclusively on that version of historical events. (If you’re not up to date on that one, the Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start) There are more artifacts, beautiful gilt Qurans and early inscriptions dedicated to Allah. There’s also a huge full wall map showing the scope and reach of Islam in its heyday, just in case you needed reminding they used to rule a huge chunk of the known world.

There  are instruments of art and science, reminding us also that Islam wasn’t always at war with the world, but shepherded the math, science, art, medicine and literature of the Hellenistic world while Europe went dark.

The next section is where the propaganda starts hitting hard and fast. Some of you may know what I only recently learned, that Saudi Arabia is actually a very young country, not in the sense of a “modern” country, but that the ruling family, Al Saud, has not been in charge for all that long. This section is about the first two shots they had at taking over the peninsula. They refer to Wahabism (also called Salafism) as the “true Islam”. Words like “purity” and “heresy” are invoked. It gets a little creepy.

This was happening around 1726-1814, so the Ottoman Empire was still the dominant Islamic power in the world. img_0476Saud managed to take over a swath of the peninsula by graft and force, and while the museum certainly couches his actions in terms of righteousness and purity, the displays in this section are pretty much all weapons. Gone are the beautiful jewelry, pottery, art and science of former ages of Arabia, replaced by guns, swords and spears.

Then again starting in 1901 and lasting until the formation of the current country in 1931 there was once again a lot of turmoil as a Saud descendant tried again. This display is actually an interesting cultural collage of the different people that were “unified” into Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting choice, but not surprising. They’re trying to celebrate the people that make up the new country, to include them rather than make them feel subjugated. I don’t know how well that’s working, since there still seem to be fairly strong tribal lines here, causing the culture from one city to another to vary greatly.

Finally, the last section was especially nice for me, since I will never be able to visit them in person due to religious restrictions keeping non-Muslims out, the Two Holy Mosques.

 

There were miniature models of the mosques in Mecca and Madinah as well as many artifacts from the area and models of the Hajj pilgrimage route.

All in all, the museum was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and it makes me really happy to know that Saudi families in Riyadh have access to such a wonderful park and educational facility.

Check out the rest of my pictures on the facebook page, and read up about my other adventures in Riyadh at GCON2014, the Al Faisaliah Spa and the Globe Restaurant.

🙂

#GCON2014: All Girls, All Gamers, No Gates

IMPORTANT NOTE: I asked every young lady’s permission both before taking any pictures and again in regards to posting the pictures on the internet. Privacy is a very serious matter for Saudis, especially women, so it is really amazing that these ladies have not only put so much effort into creating these amazing costumes, but are willing to let me share them with you. One young lady used her props to cover her face and another asked me to simply edit her face out, which I have done. Please respect them. If one of these pictures is of you, and you need me to take it down, simply message me and I will. I only wish to share your amazing talents and not to cause any issues for you or your family.


When I first learned that there was an all female gaming convention in Saudi, I just about turned inside out. That was less than three weeks before it was set to happen. I was excited for several reasons. One, I’m a girl gamer geek and love cons. Two, any access I can get to culture behind the scenes here is to be jumped at. And three, to put it bluntly, #Gamergate.

I wanted to see how the most oppressive to women country in the world (only place women can’t drive, women can’t travel without men’s permission, can’t work or keep their own money without men’s permission, must be covered in public… I could go on, but you get the idea) treated their gamer ladies while in America (land of the free) trollz are doxing, and threatening to rape and murder anyone with two x chromosomes who dares have an opinion about the games they write or play.

*(I’m including any transgender ladies who feel trolled upon too.)

I’m gonna talk about the con first, so those who want to skip the GG part can safely read on and stop at the break.

It was held Wednesday – Friday, but I was unable to get any days off work, so I flew down Thursday after class and managed to attend Thursday night.

When I arrived the con was absolutely full of young women dressed in all manner of geek clothes and cosplay. There was supposed to be a cosplay competition/show, but unfortunately some mother called the religious police and complained*, so it got cancelled and the night’s events ended early.

*UPDATE: GCON staff have told me that the Hai’a were never called (Ilhamdulilah!) and that the night ended early “due to a problem with several of the devices in the ballroom during the cosplay competition”.

Before we all got booted out, I got to take several pictures, not nearly as many as I would have liked, but I had to be very careful to ask permission and make sure that there was no one in the background. Several ladies were kind enough to grant permission to post here, too, so I hope you enjoy.

In addition to the pictures here, I saw 2 Malificents, more anime characters than I could count, I sat next to a Wednesday Adams who was super happy to be recognized, Pocahontas, a few dozen versions of the Day of the Dead full and half skull faces, witches, Hogwarts and other, zombies, not as many fairies as I’d have thought, one vampire, and many video game characters.

All of the attendees were women, so the cross dressing cosplay was especially impressive. Even though there were no men, the clothing was still fairly modest. It was really nice to see female cosplay done without T&A display being a priority. I really felt like showing off a good and accurate costume was more important than being sexy, which was neat.

The amount of English I heard was really astonishing. I did run into a couple other Americans at the very end of the night, but for the most part I was talking to Saudis, and I feel really ashamed of my school’s program right now, because many of these girls had near native fluency and barely noticeable accents. I had no trouble communicating to anyone, and didn’t even need to use my “ESL” talking style.

I found a red fez and got to have a conversation about the Doctor, she hadn’t started watching Capaldi yet, but we bonded over the universal love and humanity saving qualities of previous regenerations. That big blue box knows no borders.

I complimented so many people both on their costumes and their English, one girl even reached out to me on twitter afterward to say thanks. 😀

The main ballroom was intensely pink… I’m not sure if that was a gender choice or just that Saudi’s like bright colors, but pink*. There were big screen TVs set up with different games around the room, so that attendees could play their favorites or try new ones.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me that pink “was intended to make a bold loud statement when selected for the logo about women breaking into games”. Grl Pwr.

The expo room (?) had a lot of the sponsors doing advertising and showing off games or goods. Not everything was game related. Mrs. Field’s Cookies was there doing a raffle. I didn’t get to see too much of that room because I was hurrying over to the Artists Alley (the only room where photos were allowed). I did see an interesting console version of the old “Operation” game where the goal was to perform surgery, but the girl playing it had decided that a hammer was the way to crack a ribcage…

The Artists Alley was a little combination of dealer’s room, Art room and photo shoot. The tables were full of the works of local geeks and artists. There were beautiful canvas paintings, an interesting display of very surreal needlework. There were some antiques, and several booths with pretty good fan art, often sold on t-shirts, keychains and buttons. I really wanted to be able to buy some things to support these artists, but events decreed otherwise (keep reading).

If you want to support one of them, Nana (the lovely lady who made her own horns in the pictures above) gave me her card, her stuff is pretty cute and she does custom orders! (shameless plug)

Onward!

As they were trying to usher everyone out, there was a major Abaya Disaster. See, when women are secluded from men, they don’t have to wear the black tent, and many of these girls had checked theirs coat check style at the front when they came in.

Because of the rapid and early ending, this meant everyone was suddenly trying to get their abayas all at once, in a small lobby, from like two volunteers… eep. I had mine in my backpack so didn’t have to get into the line/press of bodies and decided to wander back into the main room and see more sights.

As I was staring at the crowds, soaking in the amazing girl geekness around me, a young woman doing an anime cosplay (that I am ashamed to admit I did not recognize: long orange hair in a partial ponytail, white sleeveless top and orange pants with flames at the bottom, plus katana) came up to talk to me. It actually took her a moment to get my attention because I was so dazed by everything going on around me, and had sort of stopped turning to face English by this time because I’d realized they were using it to talk to each other.

When I finally did realize she was talking to me, she invited me to come sit with her and her friends while we all waited for the Abaya Disaster to clear up. She told me she was getting her Master’s in English Literature. We talked for a little while about gamer culture in our countries. She was (as I expected) very surprised to hear about #Gamergate, and told me laughingly that boys in Saudi beg their parents to find them a wife who games. Then we moved on to other things. She shared my total love of global culture, so we bonded over academics for a while and of course I had to ask her what her favorite piece of literature was: The Great Gatsby. She admitted that she had seen the movie first, but that in the end, she liked the book a lot better. Her big take away was the way Gatsby idealized Daisy and their life together without ever recognizing the reality. Pretty sharp lady.

She also told me that the con itself was comprised of many of the smartest most educated girls in that age group (late teens/early 20s) in Riyadh. Can’t say I’m too surprised, nerdy girls are nerdy!

The Abaya disaster got worse. The poor volunteers trying to return the abayas were growing more and more frustrated and began screaming into the microphone at the girls to back up, get organized, wait their turn, etc. Apparently some girl actually passed out because the crowding got too bad.

The screaming into the microphone was making conversation more difficult, so I thought it might be time to wander back to the hotel. But the volunteer who checked me in and told me I could use her wi-fi to summon my car had disappeared (doubtless to help with the Abaya Disaster). I still had no smart phone at this time, waiting on my Iqama, so in order to summon an Uber or similar service, I relied on the tablet and wi-fi. My travel adventures will greatly improve now that I finally have a smartphone of my own.

I found some other girls who were willing to let me tether in to their mobile hot-spot, but couldn’t get strong enough signal to get the app up and running. One volunteer told me it would be really easy to get a taxi, so even though I had such horrible experiences in Jeddah, I figured I’d better try.

Wandering around outside, I hailed a taxi and handed him the Hotel’s business card. This normally works when travelling. Cards have an address and phone number in the local language. But drivers in Saudi don’t actually seem to know where anything is, and expect their passengers to direct them. I don’t live in Riyadh, so even if my Arabic was flawless, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell the driver where to go. Isn’t half the job of a taxi driver to know how to get there? Don’t you have GPS?????

Two failed taxi attempts later, both drivers refusing me (also strange, since all other taxi experiences in Saudi have started by the driver going “ok, no problem” then waiting until we’ve started driving to tell me they don’t know where to go), I went back inside to try once more to find wi-fi. This time with success. I love nice people.

While waiting for the driver, I heard a more native than other English voice and saw a very Caucasian face. I said hi, and she looked up and asked, “American?” When I confirmed, she bounced up to give me a hug. We chatted about our experiences in Saudi and other countries, and what we thougt of the con while we waited for our drivers.

I feel like I could write a whole separate blog post about the driving in Riyadh, even though I’ve done one on Jeddah… Short version, taxis are better but Uber and Careem are worse.

Finally got back to the hotel, but awoke the next day to find that day 3 had been cancelled. I’m not sure if it was the Hai’a, the Abaya Disaster or something else*, but that two hours was all I got to see. I did tell the staff that I’d flown all the way from Tabuk for the event, and they’ve offered to “compensate” me**, but I’m not sure what that means quite yet. I really hope they’re able to get another one running before I leave Saudi next summer, not just for me cause I can game or cosplay pretty much whenever in America, but for the beautiful, talented, intelligent women I met there who have so few outlets for their brains and creativity and deserve so much more.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me “The cancellation of the last day followed the Abaya situation & subsequent events, it was intended to avoid a recurrence of such incidents” and “the team and volunteers were at the venue the last day helping classify and return some personal belongings to their owners”. Good on ya!

**And further, they did generously not only refund my admission cost, but also put a dent in my travel costs, which was very gracious.


And what about #Gamergate? Well, in the lead up to this convention, some friends of mine back in Seattle were posting left, right and sideways about this thing. Felicia Day made her debut into the debate and was promptly doxed, and I was going through some serious soul searching as to whether it was even worth it to mention the word. I only have a handful of followers on this blog, but speaking out against the trolls who are perpetuating the anti-girl hate in the gamer community seems to attract a lot of negative attention on the web.

I actually had a long conversation with one of my girl-gamer friends about how ridiculous it was that I even had to think about whether or not I should be nervous or should avoid posting about a topic so incredibly important.

But the more women outside the US I talked to about it, the more I saw the look of horror and disgust, but only after I explained the situation, because those trolls aren’t actually reaching a global audience. They’re barely reaching outside the gamer community, and everyone I’ve taken the time to educate about the situation reacts exactly the same way. They cannot understand it. There is no part of threatening women and their families, or releasing their personal information for abuse that seems even remotely reasonable or sympathetic to anyone I’ve talked to from outside the US.

And what the girls here go through just for being women is so astonishingly foreign to me and all of my life experiences that I couldn’t even begin to draw a comparison between the subjugation of women in Saudi and the abuse of women in the US. They are both horrible, but its like trying to compare Ebola and VX: horrible but not the same.

The girls I met at GCON love gaming, but the men oppressing them aren’t trying to drive them away from their hobby*, threatening to rape them, or exposing their personal details to the world. They’re trying to keep them from being people, to stop them from wearing the clothes they choose even in private, from sharing the things they love or developing any sense of independent identity.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff did point out that even though #gamergate hasn’t reached Saudi, there was a large amount of blowback from some men here who considered gaming a male only community, but that there was “an overwhelming amount of support” that continues to grow.

The most important thing that the Saudi girls of #GCON2014 have in common with the victims of #Gamergate is the positive men in their lives.  Lots of articles about gender inequality stress the point that it will only be through male led actions that equality will be achieved. Men who don’t respect women aren’t going to listen to us when we say we need more respect, but they might listen to other men, or at least be forced to bend to social pressure if their behavior is condemned by the men around them. In both Saudi and the US, there are men who support women in gaming, encourage us to play, design, develop, cosplay and roleplay to our hearts content. Don’t give up on us guys.

A Weekend in Riyadh: The Globe Restaurant

The Atmosphere

img_0516After my wonderful spa treatment downstairs, I headed up to the very tippy top of the Al Faisaliah Tower. The tower is supposed to look like a giant ball-point pen (I dunno who thought that was cool for a skyline), and the “ball” part of the “pen” is a huge silver globe in which sits a gourmet restaurant called (originally) The Globe.

This place is super fancy and has a 300 riyal minimum for dinner. There’s also a cigar lounge with a 200 riyal minimum, and supposedly they do a High Tea in the afternoons, which I didn’t get to do because I opted for the Museum, having only one day, but really hope to do if I find myself with an afternoon free in Riyadh again.

The picture on the left is from the restaurant’s own website, since it was too dark and full of people for me to get a good picture when I was there.

As you can hopefully see, the entire wall is part of the glass ball. There is also a glass barrier between the tables and the globe itself, so the floor stops short of the outside wall, creating the fantastic sense of having the city spanning out under and around you. Not as vertigo inducing as you might think, however. To the right is the view from my own table.

They have seasonal rotating menus, and to make this easier, the menu is on a tablet rather than printed. My water (45 riyals) was in a beautiful glass bottle that was kept in a champagne chiller next to my table. The bread was actually a bread sampler platter with five different types of bread as well as butter and a tangy dipping sauce.

But Kaine, you don’t eat wheat! My friends exclaim… turns out that may be limited to America.

The Bread Basket

img_0535The crispy baguette (long and pointy at both ends) was my favorite. A super crispy outside with a soft fluffy interior. I finished that one. Moving to the right there are two brown bread buns, the one on the bottom was a little sweet with dried fruit pieces with a softer, chewier texture, and the one above was herby and savory with a slightly crisper crust (nothing like the baguette). Only one bite each for those. The bread in the glass at the top right was actually fried in some kind of herbed oil. It is what croutons want to be when they grow up. Alone it was delightful, crunchy but thin enough to be flakey, the oil was pleasant rather than greasy. In the dipping sauce it was outta this world. I didn’t polish it off, but it did get a second bite as well as second place. Finally the ciabatta, the square bread in the upper left. Also very nice, a crust that maintained a balance of crispy and chewy with a white interior, only slightly less fluffy than the baguette. Two bites and third place.

The Appetizer

img_0537Next, the waiter brought out a sample appetizer (or possibly a palette cleanser) that I hadn’t ordered, but was happy to try. If you could sort of imagine a guacamole ice-cream cone… which doesn’t do this justice. The “cone” was made from corn meal, but not just any tortilla, it was impressed with the crosshatch marks of an ice-cream cone and either made with a sweet corn (most likely) or a little extra sugar because it was just slightly sweeter than a regular tortilla. It was also delicately thin, like a wafer cookie. The guacamole filling was very creamy and mild. Totally smooth with a good blend of avocado and lime, but not enough garlic or chili to cling in the mouth or ruin the main course.

The Main Dish

I ordered lamb. I’ve heard really wonderful things about the quality of seafood in Riyadh’s high end restaurants, but I have a long standing aversion to ordering seafood in a land-locked place. Chicken is for safe bets when you’re not sure about the chef. And given a choice between beef and lamb, I’m partial to lamb, although I know the flavor isn’t for everyone.

img_0538I ordered mine rare. I’d read that Saudi restaurants often have trouble with this, but the Globe chef clearly knew what he was doing. I know rare is supposed to be cold in the middle and red all the way through, but I prefer the much more elusive warm and red center. He nailed it. The lamb was not only tender, juicy and cooked to perfection, it was topped with an herbed bread crumb crust and feta crumble which complimented the meat beautifully. Served on a bed of rosemary risotto and porcini mushrooms. Framed by tart grape tomatoes, lightly roasted and drizzled with a tomato reduction. I really enjoyed going back and forth between the flavors, trying different combinations of the savory risotto, earthy mushrooms, salty feta and tart tomato with the wonderful umame of the meat and each other. This was also a very generous portion, making me glad I’d skipped lunch.

For Afters

After a long slow savoring of dinner, it was time for desert and coffee. While I am an eternal chocoholic, there is one dessert I can never pass up at a fancy restaurant: the crème brûlée. I can still remember discovering this amazing custard treat, this creamy yet crunchy, cold yet caramelized culinary coup de grace…. my alliteration ran away with me there, but I really love crème brûlée.

img_0542This particular brûlée was served, beautifully plated in this chilled shallow dish. I have a deep appreciation for appropriately sized desserts that pack a huge flavor punch. I’ll take a tiny slice of mouth-gasm over a giant pile of meh any day.

The crispy caramelized top coat was, as you can see, not even slightly burnt, and yet it was a perfect hard crack with that ever so slightly bitter note that offsets the sweet creamy custard beneath. Atop this candied crust is a mango compote and a tiny scoop of finest vanilla ice cream.

Normally, I have strawberry or raspberry with my crème brûlée if I have any fruit at all. I would not have considered mango. Nor had I ever previously considered making a compote from mangoes. Salsa, sure, but a compote? The flavor was fascinating, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was some peach mixed in. It wasn’t anywhere near as sweet as fresh mangoes or what I would expect from any kind of fruit compote, but it clearly wasn’t made from the tarter, less ripe mango because there was no hint of sour flavors. There was a hint of pleasant bitterness that echoed the mildly bitter flavor in the caramelized sugar topping.

I also would never have considered adding ice cream to a crème brûlée. After all, the brûlée is so creamy and delicious already, right? But as it turns out, I was wrong. If you add really good vanilla ice cream to really good crème brûlée you get really really good frozen custard. As with the main course, I enjoyed mixing and matching the different flavors and textures in different bites as I slowly devoured my dessert course. The final bite included a tiny sprig of mint. I think a good chef will try to make the garnish a flavor pair with the dish, and not simply something pretty to be discarded (maybe I watch too much cooking channel). But in this case, my faith was rewarded, and the tiny fresh mint leaves gave me one last burst of new flavors, blending with the final mouthful of custard, caramelized sugar, mango compote and vanilla ice cream. Heaven.

I finished my meal with a double Turkish coffee while looking out at the view and revelling in my day of total pampering. Just when I thought it was coming to a close, the bill paid and heading to the elevator, the maitre d’ asked if I had been to “the Experience” yet.

The Experience

img_0543The Experience, as it turns out, is the viewing platform just beneath the Globe restaurant. This my view while standing just under where I was eating a few moments before, the city below reflected in the mirrored windows. If you choose to come here without dinner, the ride to the viewing platform is 40 riyals. It’s pretty freakin’ amazing. I admit, I was full of happy hormones from the spa and dinner (yay dopamine!), but wow.

The clear glass walls that surround the viewing platform keep one totally safe while presenting the illusion that one is on the edge of the top floor of the building. However, there is no ceiling. The winds that blow 30 floors up are dampened somewhat by the sheer height of the glass walls (about 10 feet), but are still a presence to be reckoned with. Riyadh is also a very hot city, and even at night its still quite warm, so the wind whipping my abaya and hijab around was not in the least bit chilly despite the elevation.

The Globe restaurant is listed as one of Riyadh’s most romantic dining spots, and the Experience viewing platform was testimony to this. Several couples came out while I was ogling the view. Ladies were carrying roses their husbands had liberated from the tables inside. Couples looked very happy and stood very close, even holding hands, which was more PDA than I’d seen anywhere else. Definitely a romantic locale! The women’s outter garments were clearly a step up from the daily black and showed a lot more color and bling than I’d seen in the rest of Riyadh. Moreover, they had not covered their faces! All the better to enchant their husbands with their beauty. I was asked to take pictures for more than one such couple, but always approached by the woman as her husband stood well back from me, respectfully.

img_0546I circled the platform a few times, taking pictures, admiring the view of the city below and the moon above, and pausing one final time to relish the long road to the Kingdom Tower, to imagine the eye of Saruman poised between those tines and myself on the windswept tower of Isengard looking for giant eagles in the night sky. Then, spa pampered and gourmet food filled, I rode the languid elevator back to ground level where my driver awaited me by the front door to take me back to my own considerably less fantastical and less expensive hotel and sleep.