Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sobering reminder that you can't get away with messing with the cultural rules around here. . .

I read the following interview today over at Blue Abaya.

I think that it is important to realize you don't mess with cultural rules here. Yes, things are unfair here and wrong, but a western woman is not the person to try and change it. Sadly. . .

In case you aren't interested in following the link, here is a brief summary.

A Finnish woman spent two years in Saudi Arabia, working as a nurse at a hospital. For the most part, her experience was positive and she enjoyed it.
However, one day, after work, during Ramadan, (the time when Muslims fast during the day for a month and then break their fast in the evenings), she was riding in a car with some male co-workers (who were Arab, but not Saudi) to get some food. She stepped out of her car and was accosted by the muttawa and police. She was sent to a female jail for two days, without being told what was going on. (In Saudi you are guilty until proven innocent.) Her crime was riding with males to whom she wasn't related.

I think the post bears reading because the woman describes what happened in the jail and how little she was told.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shopping Fail--in which I do battle with H & M and lose

I normally avoid shopping at all costs.  But we've got a little trip planned and I wanted something light and summery because we are going to a place that doesn't require the dreaded abaya!!!!
H&M was my friend in Sweden. I frequently found cute, inexpensive clothes there. I bought my FAVORITE coat there when we first moved to Sweden. It lasted me through 5 winters and then was stolen the last month of our time in Sweden. I'm still bitter.
So I thought I would be able to find some decent clothes. I was also confident in the sizing of the store as I used to buy most of my clothes there. The sizing thing is a real issue here as you can't try on clothes in the stores. So you have to buy, then try. There were loads of darling summer dresses. I bought WAY more than I needed, thinking I would find at least 2 or 3 that would work.
Total FAIL. Not one dress fit properly. I thought the sizing was a little off in the store and choose a couple of sizes larger than I would normally. I have put on a bit of weight since moving from Sweden, but this was ridiculous.
So now I have to return all the stuff and I just found out they don't give you money back (even though I paid in cash) but give you a store card. Normally, not a problem, but I really don't want to buy a lot of stuff here.
At least the hat and glasses fit and look fabulous.

(In case you were wondering about what this post teaches you about Saudi Arabia. . . you cannot try clothes on in the stores so shopping is a lot of guess work.)


Now that we've established that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, perhaps you wonder how I get around.
That is a very good question. There really isn't a public transport system of buses or trains.
There are five means of transportation for a woman.

1) The husband drives his wife in their family car.
My husband is happy to drive me on the weekends and evenings if needed. However, he isn't always available during the day.
2) Limo service provided through the compound (not applicable to a Saudi woman)
My compound provides a "limo" service with decent drivers. I just book a car when I need to go out. It's pretty simple to use this service.
3) Taxi service, available 24 hours
I've only used a taxi a few times because I don't always trust the drivers. If I need a taxi, I call a couple of drivers who we've used before that are safe and reliable.
4) Shopping buses provided by the compound
Shopping buses from our compound go out twice a day, 6 days a week to various malls around the city. I have a monthly schedule that gives me the times and locations.
5) Personal driver
Some families hire a driver who is on call whenever the family needs him. This isn't really an affordable option for our family, but I know families who do have personal drivers.

So what do you think? Does it sound difficult or bizarre?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pictures from Riyadh

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Before moving to Saudi Arabia, I had read on some blogs that some magazines, especially women's magazines, are censored when they enter the country. Sometimes, they cross out images with markers and other times, they rip out offending pages. Until today, this was something I had read about but not experienced.
I recently bought a book from Prevention magazine about walking workouts. The women pictured in the magazine are dressed modestly. So when going through the book a little more thoroughly today, I discovered that a few pages had been RIPPED out. I cannot even begin to imagine what the muttawa found offensive about this particular book. Strange, huh.
Good thing I had my favorite magazines go to my sister in the States!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blogs I enjoy about Saudi Arabia

My life isn't exciting enough for a new post. However, you may enjoy these blogs about Saudi Arabia.

A Canadian in Riyadh
This blog has really funny and useful posts about life as an expat. She doesn't go much into Saudi culture. I read a lot of her blog while looking for places to live in Riyadh and getting a feel for what life would be like. She no longer posts as I think she has moved back to Canada.

Blue Abaya
This blog is written by a Finnish woman, married to a Saudi man. She works as a nurse at a hospital. I find this blog interesting because she has a lot of interactions with Saudis. She has an insider/outsider perspective that I find fascinating. Her posts are funny as well.

American Bedu
This blog has a lot of fascinating posts about Saudi history, culture, and useful info for expats.

Images of Saudi
A photography blog with images of Saudi Arabia.

I know there are many more, but these four are blogs I read frequently. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kingdom Bazaar

The one thing I had heard about before moving to Saudi Arabia were the coffee mornings hosted by various compounds throughout the months. All sources I read insisted that the Kingdom Bazaar was the best to hit. A couple of friends from other compounds and I agreed to meet at the playground during the bazaar to let our kids play together.
So I have to say, what I read didn't do the bazaar justice. It was much better than I imagined and will definitely become part of my monthly routine.
So what exactly is a coffee morning? Some compounds actually offer a breakfast buffet and shopping. But it seems like shopping is the central feature of Kingdom coffee mornings. And the shopping did not disappoint. I love craft fairs and bazaars because you get to wander around, seeing crafts and art, and having a more personal connection to the items displayed, then some ritzy mall.

What was available? There were book stalls, selling kids' books in English, activity packs, Easter treats, a small scrapbooking booth, (I suspect the lady was selling stuff from her stash. Her prices were pretty high. If I had not prepared so well, I may have been tempted.), a photographer selling beautiful photographs of Saudi Arabia, dvd stalls, a jam stall, (homemade jam!) abayas, and stall after stall selling Saudi items like carved camels, beautifully decorated plates and trays, framed and mounted daggers, handcarved chess sets, etc.
I hadn't intended to really buy anything, but I did come away with a few items. I bought a pack of beautiful postcards from the Saudi photographer. The jam stall was too enticing, and after tasting yellow plum jam with vanilla, I couldn't resist buying a small jar, and at $10 it was pricey, but the indulgence was SO worth it. I found a gorgeous calender with exquisite black and white photos of Saudi Arabia. I'm going to frame the photos and hang them on my walls. At one stall, I ended up buying a beautiful leather camel, loaded down with bundles, suggesting an exotic journey on the spice trail, which captured my imagination. I can't wait to go back next month.
After wending my way through the stalls, I took Bubba J outside to enjoy the playground while I met some friends. Unfortunately, Bubba J was seized by an attack of anxiety and wouldn't go two steps from my side, hindering conversation and interaction with others.
Oh, and one other tidbit from my day! A friend introduced me to a delicious arabic treat of thin bread, filled with an extremely salty cheese and then briefly cooked in a very hot oven. Delicious! I paired the bread with a perfectly tart lemonade and thoroughly enjoyed the treat.
It's official! I love bazaars and look forward to going to Kingdom next month.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Family Seating and Male Seating at a Restaurant

I've talked about the strict gender segregation before, but I don't think I have fully explained what that means in daily life, even to something as simple as going to eat at a restaurant.

Restaurants, though not all, have two sections: family seating and male seating. The latter is seating for men only and women do not go in those sections at all. The booths are not hidden, but sit in open view. For example, in the malls, male seating is typically out in the open, without curtains or anything. Family seating is a different matter. In the mall, family seating is behind a set of walls. In restaurants, family seating is set into a different section of the building. The booths and tables are curtained. If a restaurant only has one section, it means that only males can go in. There are not any female-only restaurants, that I am aware of, in the area.

Only males can sit in the male section. I believe fathers can sit there with their sons. Family sections are designated for families--fathers can join if they have daughters or a wife with them. And of course, women are only allowed to sit in the family section.

Generally, this isn't a problem. But sometimes, restaurants only have male sections, which means that a woman isn't really supposed to go inside. I could be wrong (and Saudi readers are welcome to correct me), but that is definitely the impression I get. Yesterday, I went to the bookstore (bookstores are, as a rule, delightful--and this one was no exception). Following my grueling shopping expedition, I was very hungry and had an hour to kill before my taxi came to pick me up. There were a number of coffee shops, including Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, a Cake shop, an arabic pastry place, etc. As I walked along the row of shops, I realized that none of the stores seemed to have family seating, which meant, that I couldn't go in. My son was starting to get desperate. Luckily, I found the family entrance to Starbucks and was able to get in.

I bet none of you even imagined having different sections for people at a restaurant, did you?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Writer in Embryo

My little girl comes home from school everyday and runs to our craft cabinet. She pulls out pens, paper, markers, and scissors. For hours, she draws, colors, cuts, and pastes. Her projects litter our home--drawings of fairies, snowmen cut-outs, paper glasses, masks, and picture books. Her need to draw is almost compulsive, and her output is impressive. I look at her and see an artist in embyro. And I recognise her need to create.

I'm a blogger because I can't stop the words from coming. They fill my mind all the time. I'm constantly composing essays in my head, spinning words to describe my experiences, or constructing arguments about current social issues. Most of it doesn't get written because I forget a lot of it by the time I have a minute to sit down and write. I'd like to say that what does get written is the best of a lot of junk. But that simply isn't true. I write because the need is compulsive. I process my experiences, my thoughts, and even my positions through writing.

I've resisted the label of writer, because I don't feel like I'm good enough for the title. My prose doesn't hide layers of meanings, my language isn't sophisticated, and I certainly don't entice readers to visit my site in droves. I don't polish every post, preferring to write off the cuff.

However, after watching my daughter create art, I am starting to wonder I could possibly accept the label as a writer in embryo. Is one a writer because you can't stop the words from coming? Perhaps not. But at this point, I'll take it, promising myself I'll work on this craft, developing better skills and someday, perhaps, calling myself a writer. Until then, I'll gladly say that I'm a writer in embryo.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bubba J Adjusts

Bubba J tromps along on the sidewalk, holding my hand. He chatters to me happily as we walk. It occurs to me that he has adapted to this new country remarkably well.

2011 was a strange year for our family. We had anticipated our move to KSA for a long time. And yet our way was littered with roadblocks that invevitably brought a great deal of stress to my husband and I. We packed and moved twice last year. We spent an entire month visiting family, while we stressed about finding a short-term lease. My husband traveled a lot during that year.

As we finally managed to move to Saudi Arabia, I wondered how my two-year old would deal with yet another move. But honestly, I think he is doing incredibly well.

He went from sleeping in a crib, to sleeping in a big boy bed. He took to that change like a duck to water. When we arrived at our new home, he took in his surroundings and immediately started playing with his stuff. It was like he realized "finally! we are all together."

He hasn't complained since. What is there for a two-year old to complain about? The weather is nice enough that we go outside everyday, without the encumberances of a coat or boots. He goes swimming frequently. We have three playgrounds we can walk to within 2 minutes. And he sees his daddy every single day.

Yes, life is pretty darn good for a two-year old boy--even living in Saudi Arabia.

Buying a Car

My husband drives 45 km outside of Riyadh to the desert where he works long hours in the sun, working on his solar project. It's a long drive and he, ever the independent, chafes at being unable to get around on his own schedule. (I have to say that I am dealing with not being able to drive FAR better than he could handle it.)

When we first arrived in Riyadh, my husband took a taxi a few times out to the solar village, but eventually, he got so annoyed with it and having to wait for our car allowance that he rented a car. This is completely out of character for him as he hates to spend money on things like that.
It took some time for our car allowance to be delivered. When it was finally deposited in our account, my husband was ready to go shopping THAT day.

We had done some online searching on a local "craigslist" type of service. We found a car that had potential, but the owner wasn't willing to barter about the price. Since his asking price was out of our budget, we walked away.

Just for kicks, we looked at a couple of car dealerships. Women are allowed to go in these dealerships, but I did get some funny looks from the salesmen when I went with my husband. I am sure the salesmen are used to western women having some knowledge about cars. I generally try not to think about not driving here--as it only serves to frustrate me. However, seeing those beautiful shiny cars, made me long to test out at least one car. I'm curious if it would be possible for me to drive out in the desert. Hmmm. . . must inquire further. We weren't really serious about buying a car at a dealership either. The prices were WAY out of our budget and it is silly to buy or lease a new car when you are only going to have it for a year.

Our next stop was a used-car dealership--where we found a place that had a car that met all our requirements: 7 seats, sturdy SUV body, and of course, a price that fit in our budget. The dealership told us they had two 2008 Nissan pathfinders parked in another lot that we could try. They gave us directions and off we went.

One thing you should know about Riyadh is that you can go from one fairly nice section, to being in a slum-like area within a few blocks. As we drove through the city, we began to see fewer "pretty" areas and started to get into a more "industrial" area. Finally, we found the lot, in this appalling quarter with rubbish piles everywhere. My father owns a construction company and I thought I was thoroughly versed in grease, grime, dirt and dust. I was wrong. For a former grease monkey, I found some of the lots appalling. Fortunately, the cars we wanted to look at were parked in a relatively clean shelter. Compared to the other lots, this particular lot could have passed the white glove test, figuratively (definitely NOT literally), but sometimes comparisons are helpful when you want to endure something.

We found the two Nissan Pathfinders and chose the car that looked in better shape. Dh test-drove the car around the block. Given our time and budget limits, we felt like this car would be fine.

My husband took me home and returned to the car dealership to buy the car. I thought he would drive home the new car that night. Not so. The car had to pass an inspection before we could pick it up. A few days later, we get a call from the place saying the tires were bad and so it didn't pass the inspection. We knew the tires needed replacing. We said, "replace the tires and we'll pay the additional money." Seems logical, right? Well, nothing is logical in this country. Rather than putting new tires on the car, they switched tires from the other Nissan to our car, temporarily, so it would pass the inspection. Then the brakes needed fixing. This time, they couldn't fake that repair and so actually did it.

Two weeks later, all the inspections were completed and we were allowed to pick up the car. We still need to get new tires, but we all fit, safely in the car. It has enough oomph to survive on the brutal streets, and if we are in a collision, I'm pretty sure we'll survive.

I much prefer buying a car in the U.S.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Healthcare in a foreign country

One tricky thing any foreigner has to navigate is health care. If you have children, chances are high that you will have to visit a doctor at some point. Thus far, I haven't been terribly impressed with the health care in this country. I'm still talking to people about doctors. And I've received a few recommendations.
In the past few weeks, we've had a few instances of accidents and illnesses. I took my daughter to the doctor once but really wasn't impressed. (Of course, it didn't help that when we took her to the doctor, her symptoms disappeared.) Yesterday both my son and my daughter hit their heads pretty hard and cracked them open a bit. My son has a gash, but he wasn't bleeding profusely and the gash didn't look deep or wide. I really wanted to avoid a visit to the emergency room as people have repeatedly told me that it will be a bad experience. My daughter was hit by a bicycle and has a pretty large goose egg on the back of her head. Both are doing fine.
If I were in the U.S., I would have run my son to the pediatricianm but that just isn't an option.
Today, I noticed that my daughter has a rash on her body. I should probably get that checked out, which means I'm going to be making some calls. Sigh. . . hope I can find a good doctor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The best part of being at an international school is. . .

the global diversity.

Our transition to this new school was rocky. It has taken me some time to get over some of my frustrations with the school.

However, I have no complaints about how the school handles its international designation. They celebrate it!
My son and four classes celebrated some of the folk traditions of Saudi Arabia and then introduced us to the international diversity of the students. I loved how the children celebrated their home countries and taught us lessons of acceptance and tolerance for different cultures and traditions.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cultural Differences

I apologize for my frequent references to my experiences in Sweden. I refer to them because they are relevant to particular experiences I am currently having. They also give me a frame of reference when I am baffled by something in this strange and exotic land.
When we moved to Sweden, things were a bit deceptive there. For the most part, Swedish culture felt similar to American culture. People wore the same kind of clothing. You could catch American television with Swedish subtitles any night of the week. Likewise, American music and fast food could be found easily. Swedes speak English with an astonishing amount of fluency.
All of these similarities really tricked me into thinking that our cultures were almost identical. Now I see that it was a naive judgment. As my stay in Sweden progressed, I began to realize the subtleties (and I'm sure I'm still on the outside) and complexities of Swedish culture. No matter how similar the U.S. and Sweden are, there are significant differences, which, if you really want to learn to enjoy the country fully, you must learn so that you can navigate through without too many embarrassing collisions.
Now living in KSA, it is easy to assume that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are so different culturally that we have no commonalities. After all, one only need walk around a mall to realize you are a in very different place--despite the designer and luxury stores. Seeing women stroll around in black abayas, heads covered, and faces veiled, is a pretty stark reminder that culturally, the U.S. is light years away from this place.
In trying to understand these differences, and also, hopefully, to discover commonalities, I've been studying a couple of books, that hopefully, are accurate. Understanding Arabas: A Guide for Modern Times, 4th Edition by Margaret K. Nydell, looks at the Arab people as a whole, giving general information about cultural customs and, to some extent, insights into religious practices and how they relate to daily living. The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture for Saudi Arabia, is a more country-specific guide. I think it is especially interesting for the business man or woman as it gives really direct advice and insight. (Again, I hope this is a credible source.)
So far, both books have been helpful. My husbands works closely with many Saudis. My husband and I have been discussing the things I'm learning and have found many specific instances where it has been useful.
Sadly, my interaction with Saudis is limited. I'm observing as much as I can, venturing to speak when I think appropriate, and studying all available material. We have been invited to stay with two different Saudi families in Jeddah--invitations we intend on accepting as it provides a rare opportunity to get a better understanding of this really different culture.
In the meantime, I continue to observe as intently as I can. At this stage of the game, I want to learn more and get a better understanding for the reasons behind various cultural aspects that I observe. I promise to share my insights.
What do you know about Saudi Arabia? What aspects of their culture do you find perplexing or interesting?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Random thoughts and blog teasers

* So I haven't blogged in a few days--not for lack of experiences. On the contrary, the new experiences have been coming fast and hard. On top of that, I'm still a mom to 5 kids. So when I finish some interesting and fun activity or an interesting but rather less than fun activity, I still have to go home, make dinner, nag my children through their homework, and then get them to bed. Then I have to get myself to bed. . .
*Have I mentioned that we get up at 5:30 a.m. now? I know millions of people get up at 5:30 a.m., and some of them even like it. I had hoped that I had at least one or two years reprieve before we started that part of our lives. But here it is and I'm still adjusting. I am most definitely not a morning person. But sometimes you have no choice. Well, I do. But my choice is have the kids miss the bus if I sleep in. And that really isn't a good option for all concerned.
For my sake, here are some things I need/want to post about in the next few days.
*Picture buying a car in a foreign country. Now imagine what it is like to go to a dealership, where women are practically forbidden from entering the doors, and think of the looks a woman will get for stepping across the halllowed threshold. (FWIW, the looks were priceless!) Then imagine driving to the seediest part of the town (so I wasn't doing the driving, my husband was) and taking at the look at the car the dealer recommended. The car was great, the locale wasn't. More to follow. . .
*I'll take a minute to wax a bit sentimental about the good things an international school offers to kids. Imagine my little T wearing traditional Saudi clothing and doing a sword dance. Awesome!
*More griping about shopping and meaningless pursuit of it. . . And I spend some time asking what Saudi women do. Unfortunately, I don't have good answers.
*A different take on shopping--a least bazaar shopping with Saudi vendors--significantly more interesting than designer clothing shopping for which I have no money or interest.
*My new rep on the compound--let me give you a hint--it has to do with family size. (Oh the shock!)
*Remind me to tell you the brief anecdote about the prayer singer (I am sure there is a name for the position) during Ramadan and his voice going out of control. It may not be funny to any of you, especially if you have never heard a call to prayer, but to someone who is familar with the call to prayer, you'll be rolling.
*I am contemplating Petra for my birthday--well, I really can't GET Petra for my birthday, but I sure would like to visit. Thoughts? If you lived in the Middle East, where would you like to go?
*Not sure where Petra is or what it is?
Not sure how accurate the source is, so take it for what it is worth. . .

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sickness. . . bleh!

I've been waiting for the sickness ball to drop around here. My kids were sick a lot our first year in Sweden. When we were in the Middle East 5 years ago, we were hit with some very violent colds. My theory is that when you move somewhere new, you have to get used to the local bugs.

I'm surprised we've escaped colds and stomach bugs so far. But our streak of luck is over. Bubba J is running a fever now and spent last night vomiting. My daughter is complaining of an upset stomach. Good times. I think we'll be having a pj day at our house.