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Glamping (glamour-camping) is nothing new to Saudis and their desert-dwelling neighbors. Saudis love to camp. Some families go every weekend. Ancient Bedouins knew how to camp. Their traditions persist, as I recently discovered, with only a few minor adjustments.

Saudis, these days, drive out of the city in Suburbans and Yukons on 4-lane highways. Quad bikes have replaced camels. Electric spotlights have replaced oil lamps. Tents adorned with twinkle lights glow across the landscape for miles at a stretch. In the distance, high on the dunes, enormous tents on private land offer hints of luxury camping that I have yet to experience. Meanwhile, rental encampments for middle class families (and lowly teachers, like me) crowd the side of the road. Food trucks, illuminated by colored lights, lure single men to escape the family tent, if only  for a while.

Even the tents at the low-budget camps (where I went with my co-workers last weekend) are huge, with colorful patterns on their interior canvas. Dozens of carpets line the floor inside. Outside, more carpets are laid out around the fire pit. Tea kettles rest on the cement fire ring and the logs on the fire give off a rich, smoky aroma. Cushions on top of the carpets invite us to sit and enjoy the snacks set out in small bowls. Big, upholstered arm-rests make lounging more comfortable and we settle in to sample the dates, nuts, stuffed grape leaves, crackers and baklava. We wash it down with fruit juice, water and soft drinks.

But first, we must dance. The abayas and head scarves come off (this is a women-only trip). Shareen (dressed head to toe in leopard print) connects speakers to her ipod and cranks up the volume. The wailing Middle Eastern singing sounds just right in this setting. The women bust out their best dance moves. Someone has brought a red hip scarf, jangling with gold coins. They take turns wrapping it around their hips as they flaunt their dance skills – lots of seductive hip action and hypnotizing finger twirling. The Westerners try to imitate the Arabs, with limited success. A young cowgirl from Utah tries to teach everyone the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Now, who’s laughing?

Then it’s time to break out the Shisha. The women enjoy smoking the fruit-flavored tobacco from a hot pink pipe. They lounge next to the fire and blow smoke rings into the starry sky. Shisha finds it way into most Saudi celebrations – along with those other perennial favorites: dates and Arab coffee served in tiny cups.

Meanwhile, the male drivers are camping next door; a cloth fence separates their camp from ours. We have a large, sandy enclosure with a volleyball net, soccer balls and a port-a-potty. The drivers will cook our dinner while we play.

Two of the women have babies and we take turns passing them around while the very young moms, Rasha and Ruqaida, dance or ride the quad bikes around our little oasis. In a country where women are not allowed to drive, camping provides an opportunity for women who ‘feel the need for speed’ to get behind the wheel of something other than a baby stroller. One of the women in our group spends most of the evening riding the bike, faster and faster, until she finally flips it. No injuries, thankfully.

Speaking of reckless driving, one of the customs that is difficult to watch, during the long drive out of the city, is the habit of carrying babies in laps. Saudi Arabia has an extremely high traffic fatality rate, but car seats for infants and children are not common. In a country that is uber-protective of women, the lack of concern for child-safety on the roads is just one more contradiction in this culture that is full of contradictions.

By 10pm, the crescent moon has travelled far across the sky and the Westerners are hungry. True to this part of the world, dinner isn’t served until after 11. Thin plastic sheets are spread along the carpets, by the fire. Our drivers carry over plate after plate of food (which requires a rush to don abayas and headscarves for the five minutes the men are there). We feast on salad, tabouli and kebabs of lamb, chicken and beef. We smear great slabs of flat bread with hummus and discover a new favorite: thin, grilled meat patties seasoned with herbs, spices and bread crumbs. Yum!

Everything is delicious and definitely worth the wait. A giant cake decorated with the company’s logo reminds us of who is hosting our little trip. As an added surprise, our boss shows up after midnight. He has driven an hour out into the desert just to cut the cake and to wish us well.

The babies are tired and so am I. We head home, discussing plans for our next trip. We’ve bonded, as people do, over food, music, babies and laughter. The camping trip was a success! A nice break from the restrictions and claustrophobia I feel on a daily basis. Saudi Arabia is a tough place to live for a Western woman. The physical environment is harsh and so is the lifestyle. However, I have to admit, this place is growing on me. I may not love it, but I do love these people.IMG_0042IMG_0011

 

 

IMG_0064 IMG_0025 IMG_0019 Saudi Arabia is not exactly a hot spot for tourists. The Janadriyah Cultural and Heritage Festival is one of the few ‘touristy’ activities here in the kingdom. Begun in 1985 as a vehicle to showcase regional traditions and reinforce cultural pride, it has become an annual celebration. Janadriyah is like a county fair, with camel races, traditional dance performances (men only, naturally) and booths selling food and handicrafts. It takes place during the relatively cooler month of February and lasts 2 weeks.

For an American, like me, many of the regional differences are too subtle for me to notice. One group of men in thobes, dancing with swords, isn’t very different from another group of men in thobes, dancing with swords. But the overall experience is exhilarating because of the authentic nature of the festival. This is a festival for Saudis.

People-watching is a favorite activity of mine and the chance to watch Saudi families, without them noticing, is a rare treat. An even rarer treat is to photograph Saudis, unawares. Taking photos of Saudi women is taboo in this culture. It just isn’t done. I took advantage of the crowds to pull out my camera. Parents were taking photos of their kids and others were taking photos of the performances and exhibits, so I felt comfortable (for the first time!) taking pictures in public.

Seeing the re-creation of rural villages, observing families dressed in robes, waiting in line to buy hot sambosas (deep-fried dough filled with meat and spices), visiting colorful souvenir booths, I thought of the county fair back home. But a county fair with a twist.

This fair is much closer to what Jesus would have experienced with his family than any fair I could take him to in my home town. This culture, which is so foreign and so restrictive for me, is similar to the culture in which Jesus lived. He dressed like these people. He ate like these people. His family and friends looked like these people. He was familiar with religious police who watch for any infraction and are quick to condemn those who don’t conform.

When I experience this culture, it is tempting to criticize. It is tempting to compare it with my culture and decide my culture is superior. However, I can’t help but wonder. In which culture would Jesus feel more at home?

valentine-4Saudi Arabia bans Valentine’s Day. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (religious police) consider Valentine’s Day a “pagan holiday.” They forbid the selling of anything red in the week before February 14. Red clothes, red roses and heart-shaped products are banned. Merchants caught selling such things risk arrest or the closure of their businesses. This has created a black market for roses. The traditional flower costs up to four times its original price. In one of the most conservative Islamic societies on the planet, even married couples are forbidden what would seem to be the most simple and innocent expressions of love: a bouquet of flowers.

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I was abruptly transferred from Khobar, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, to the capital city of Riyadh. Such is the life of an English teacher in KSA. Flexibility and adaptability are essential personality traits for anyone considering living or working abroad. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, is different when you leave your home country. Culture includes social customs, food, family, religion, art, literature and language (to name just a few).

But culture also includes business practices. One of the fascinating aspects of life in the kingdom is observing workplace customs. I am still a learner. Many workers in Saudi Arabia are not Saudi. They are Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc. So, when I begin to make assumptions about the culture, am I basing my opinion on what are actually a Jordanian’s opinion of Saudi culture? Or have I heard American opinions about the culture and now accept them as truth? It’s all very complicated.

I love to listen. I learn so much by asking  questions.

“Tell me about camels, Nawaf. I’ve always heard they like to bite and spit.”  Nawaf, my trusty driver, then launches into story after story about camels and the people who love them. After an hour, my stereotype of dog-hating Muslims (and we all know there must be something intrinsically wrong with ANYONE who hates dogs, right?) is replaced by a picture of affectionately silly camel owners who will buy back a baby camel they’ve sold because they can’t bear the sound of its mother whimpering in grief over her loss. Stories of people who pay huge sums of money for a camel and notice the droop of its lip  (the droopier, the better) and the shade of its coat (white is the best).

“Tell me about Shia Muslims, Rowia.” My highly educated, Sunni Muslim friend tells story after gossipy story that she has heard, but never actually witnessed. (‘They sacrifice babies!” “They have one night a year where they go out and have sex with strangers!”) No wonder there is such friction between Sunni and Shia Muslims!

Americans are no different from people in the Middle East. We tend to use broad brush strokes to paint pictures of people and places. Before I came to Saudi Arabia, an intelligent, educated friend told me, “You know, they hate women, over there.” I’m not sure who ‘They’ are or where, on a map, one would find ‘Over There’. What I do know is that there are people in this world who hate women, but there are many more who don’t.

Trying to interpret this culture for my friends back home is impossible. I’ve only been here 5 months. Yes, women’s eyes are the only part of their body exposed in public. Yes, there are public beheadings. Yes, families live behind high walls and dine in restaurants surrounded by folding screens. Yes, immigrant workers are sometimes treated as slaves. Yes, the Royal Family are obscenely wealthy because of oil. And yes, the muttawa (religious police) really do patrol the malls, making sure unmarried couples do not meet for coffee or exchange phone numbers. Yes, the muttawa admonish western women to, “Cover your head, Sister.” (the only English phrase they learn in muttawa school)

I asked another ex-pat from Nebraska how he explains Saudi Arabia to his friends and family back home. He’s been here for 2 years. I like his succint description. “They hear all these crazy things. So, I tell them they have Applebee’s Restaurant here. That always surprises them. It helps them understand the place a little bit better.”

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count, so let’s put it to rest. I have no address. Saudi Arabia is unlike anywhere I’ve been. In Khobar, where I live, streets might have names, but street signs are rare. People are not accustomed to using street names. They rely on landmarks, like Saudi Burger or al Olaya mosque. Numbered addresses don’t exist. If you look online for a particular business, you will find something like this: Custodian of the Two Mosques Road, near Tandoori Restaurant.

The building I live in has a name but the sign is in arabic. Many of the taxi drivers are from other countries and can’t read arabic. I’m getting better at directing drivers. The typical instruction is, “Rashed Mall, Gate 7.” I then point the way down a winding alley until we reach my apartment building. Hey, whatever works.

There have been rumblings in the U.S. about the postal service eliminating Saturday mail delivery. Makes me laugh. How often is mail delivered here? Trick question! What is mail?

So, you may ask, how do people send things? Companies like UPS, Fedex and DHL fill the void. They are very expensive and require a taxi ride to drop off or pick up. A bit inconvenient just to send a birthday card. I’ll be sticking to email, for now.

 

 

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Saudi Arabia is the leader in protecting its citizens from dangerous toys. Cheap imports from China threaten the lives of children. The moral lives of children. An agency within the kingdom makes sure that the little ones are not corrupted. Somewhere, people are sitting in rooms with permanent markers. They black out offensive images on the packaging of toys, books and magazines. Who are these people? How does one apply for this job? They must have an iron will to resist the temptation of ogling the exposed arms and legs of women. Does the job pay well? Is it a plum assignment? Just one of many mysteries this ex-pat ponders each day in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

FUN IN THE SUN!

Time to Pray…Again?

Typical manufactured prayer mat showing the Kaaba

Typical manufactured prayer mat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prayer breaks are a part of daily life in Saudi Arabia. They shape the day. Rather than watching the clock, I find myself checking the prayer schedule online and jotting it down for the upcoming week. Before I arrived, I was aware that Islam required the prayer ritual to be performed 5 times a day. What was surprising to me was that the prayers are not scheduled by the clock, but by the sun and the moon. The times change from week to week, as the seasons change. I can’t memorize the schedule because it is always changing. It is only a few minutes difference each week, but over time, those minutes add up. As the days get shorter, the time between prayer shrinks, as well.

So, what does that look and sound like? My friend, who lives directly across the street from a mosque, is awakened every morning around 4:00am, when the first call to prayer is broadcast over a loudspeaker. If I happen to be walking on the street during the call to prayer (not, however, at 4am), I hear a distinctly middle-eastern chant with rising and falling vibratto. The mournful wail echoes throughout the neighborhood. Men in white thobes, often with sons in tow, hurry toward the mosque.

In the mall, shops and restaurants lock their doors. People scurry around to finish their business before the shops close and the lights are dimmed. People continue eating their meals or walking around, but the benches quickly fill with abaya-clad women, who chat, while keeping an eye on their children at play. Men, all in white, sit in the coffee shops and watch the world go by. Even the fountain in the center of the mall shuts down during prayer. There is a mosque inside the mall, as well as women’s prayer rooms, and many people go to these during prayer time. Islam allows prayer to be performed as soon as possible after the call to prayer, and not everyone chooses to pray at the mall. Many, like me, window shop or sit and rest during the thirty-minute break.

The university where I work has a carpeted prayer room, enclosed in glass. But, not everyone uses it. Some will pray in a corner of an empty classroom. The teachers’ office is overcrowded and noisy with laughter, but I am now accustomed to seeing a teacher put on her abaya and hijab, lay out her prayer rug and pray in the midst of the chaos. I have also observed the female cleaning crew using the prayer room for naps, and I don’t blame them. It’s carpeted and quiet. I’ve learned to schedule breaks around prayer times. Awkward when class begins at 3pm and prayer is at 3:15. But that is life in the kingdom. I am also accustomed to students occasionally reminding me that they are overdue to pray.

The city hums along and continues to function, in spite of the prayer breaks. Hindus from India drive many of the taxis. Catholic Filipinos operate many of the restaurants. Business owners must adhere to the prayer schedule or risk attracting the attention of the religious police. The grocery store can’t really shut down completely, but the cashiers lock their registers and lower the metal security gates. By the time prayer ends, the lines at the registers are six deep. Restaurants allow people to exit, but not enter.

The rhythm of life in Saudi Arabia is slow. The call to prayer ensures it remains that way. I find myself slowing down because of prayer. Type-A personalities struggle with the culture. Things get done, but not right away. Mexico is known for its ‘manana’ (tomorrow) attitude toward life. The Saudi equivalent is ‘in shaa’ allah’ (if God is willing). I don’t hurry out the door to shop if I know it is close to prayer time. I may find myself lingering at a restaurant or just sitting on a bench until prayer is over. I find myself thinking of Daniel, who prayed 3 times each day. Not a bad habit.

Let’s Talk Toilets

English: Large image of toilet seat

GREATEST INVENTION EVER!

Of all the challenges a traveller faces, one of the least talked about is also one of the most stressful. I’m talking about toilets. It’s really incredible that humans have invented such a variety of ways to do-do something so universal. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

The local toilet is unavoidable. At some point during your travels, you will have to go and you  will conform to the local custom. One of my fears about working abroad is having to use a squat toilet.  Especially while wearing an abaya. Fortunately, in Saudi Arabia, the restrooms I have encountered, so far, were my preferred porcelain throne. But I have found, in multi-stall facilities, both seated toilets and squat toilets.

Why both? I never dreamed I would hear these words uttered in English: “Actually, I prefer the squat toilets.” But, hear them, I did, spoken by a South African with such a lovely, lilting accent that I almost nodded my head in agreement. Apparently, my western preference for a seated toilet is not shared by the rest of the world! In fact, Asians will occasionally step on a western toilet seat to assume their preferred squat position, as evidenced by dirty footprints on the seat. The language school in the U.S., where I worked last year, posted signs in the stalls: picture a stick-figure drawing of someone squatting on a toilet seat, with a red circle and diagonal slash across it – the universal sign for DON’T DO THIS!

I sympathize with those newly arrived students, who want to plant their feet on the toilet, but are shamed into abandoning their old habits. Who would think that different cultures had so many ways to do the same thing? My first hotel room in Paris ,many years ago, contained a bidet. I wish someone had posted a sign, explaining its function. Instead I received a severe reprimand (in French) for using it to wash my clothes. I still cringe at the disgust on that housekeeper’s face.

The Saudi toilets have an added feature that western toilets do not: metal hoses with spray nozzles. Suffice it to say that there is nothing like a shot of cold water in the nether-regions to wake you up in the morning. Each stall is equipped with a small trash bin for the paper towels you will carry into the stall for drying yourself. For those of us who like options, toilet paper is sometimes provided, too. But you can forget about toilet seat covers. Instead, an attendant comes in and regularly sprays down the toilet and floor. Bathrooms are often soggy.  Drippy hems are no fun, so rolling the abaya up around your waist is a valuable skill. (I’m still working on it)

In Saudi Arabia, where international norms have not been adopted, I find the signage for restrooms charming. For females, a woman’s face in profile, her head covered by hijab (head scarf). The men’s room signage shows a man’s face in profile, his head covered by keffiyeh (the big scarf that is secured by a rope-like headband).

No skirted stick-figures signs here! Stick-legs exposed? No way!

Sink or Swim

The Deep: 1 of 8

Why not jump in?

Some people have expressed horror at my decision to go to Saudi Arabia. I feel compelled to answer the question: Why Saudi Arabia?

I went through a painful divorce two years ago and found myself having to create a new life for myself. Having spent a good part of my adult life as a stay-at-home mom, I find myself playing catch-up. Both career-wise and financially. I went back to school to earn my TOEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) and began exploring opportunities around the world.

Living abroad, even short-term, has always appealed to me. It soon became clear that if I wanted to do more than just subsist, I would need to choose a country whose government was supporting English learning for its citizens. It also became clear that, because of my age, not every country would welcome me with open arms. (unlike in the US, employers abroad are quite frank about their preference for younger employees. In some ways, its refreshing…no wasted time applying for jobs you will never get!)

During this time, I began to work part-time at a language school and came into contact with students from all over the world, but primarily Asia and the Middle East. I also rented out rooms in my home to Saudi students from the language school. I developed relationships that helped me to appreciate the people of Saudi Arabia, as well as their culture.

Because of its wealth, Saudi Arabia is one of the better-paying employers for ESL teachers. Since my first priority was to save for retirement, Saudi Arabia seemed like the best choice. And because I am eager to boost my resume, a challenging position abroad will (hopefully!) make me more valuable to future employers elsewhere.

And, hey! It’s only 9 months. To be honest, I don’t intend to return for a second term. But I am at a stage in my life where I can do this and so I am ready for the adventure. I need to make some new memories. Why not jump into the deep end of the pool?

People’s reactions to my decision have been decidedly mixed. Bewilderment and fear from some, but also encouragement and excitement from others. I appreciate so much the concerns for my safety and well-being. I also appreciate those who are willing to let me go without guilt or regret.

I am hoping to tap into a vein of rich experience, to emerge from these months a changed person (a better version of me, I hope!)

Am I scared? Terrified.

Think of me the next time you’re tempted NOT to jump into the deep end.

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A monarchy is something Americans read about in history books. European monarchies continue to fascinate us because of their money, glamour and scandals. But what is life really like in a modern-day monarchy? Does the king really wield that much power?

Case in point: In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, those in power decided that the traditional weekend of Thursday and Friday was incompatible with international business practices. The king decreed recently that the new weekend would be Friday and Saturday. Done.

Now that’s power.