Monday, April 30, 2012

Science and Technology Exhibition

Feast or famine, baby! It seems as if I go days without anything happening and then boom! I'm swamped. Yesterday was such a day. I had a bunch of events yesterday that piled up on each other. I was completely exhausted by the end of the night.

My husband is a scientist doing some energy research. There was a big Science and Technology Exhibition featuring not only his work, but the work of other (all male) scientists in the area. Most fields of science and technology were represented.

We took the kids there knowing it would be a fun afternoon, and it was. T and B loved the planetarium. W was enchanted by the robotics exhibit. He's taking a robotics class at school and really enjoys it.

I was impressed with how the scientists took time to try and explain to me, often in slow, halting English, their experiments and work. English is a hard language to learn, but to throw technical and scientific jargon into the mix makes for a real challenge.

We enjoyed the unfailingly kind reception we received from the scientists. Saudis really do love children and always interact with my kids. They treated me with dignity and politeness. There weren't many women at the exhibit, but a lot of kids.

It's always fun to wander around exhibits like this because they usually offer fun little toys. This exhibition was no exception, except the quality of the toys and gadgets was much higher. But, they do have money to spend.

Toward the end of our stay, a film crew was filming the exhibition when they spied my Bubba J--two-year old boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. When the crew saw him, they followed him for about 5 minutes and filmed him, and then later my husband and I. I don't know if we ended up on the news as we don't get television at our house. But it was fun to watch the crew enjoy Bubba J.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


I am a little bit obsessed with camels. For some strange reason, I find them completely adorable animals. Don't ask why. I can't explain it. It just is. I have not yet been able to ride a camel. But I plan to when the right opportunity arises. I always get a little thrill when we are driving around Riyadh and see camels in the back of someone's truck. Or when we are driving out in the desert and I see herds of camels in the sand dunes.

I keep imagining what it would be like to have a camel of my own in the U.S. Sadly, I don't think camels are really well-suited to the damp and cold of New York. Wyoming has the requisite dryness, but not the stable heat. I don't think my dad would be very keen on inviting a camel to hang out with his horses.

The other day I met a co-worker of my husband's who actually owns camels. My children were charmed by a nearby camel exhibit with Bubba J proclaiming that "The camel is cute!" when the co-worker whips out his cell phone and shows us picture after picture of his camels. Very cool. He invited us to visit and see his camels. Inshallah. Whether or not that happens, and whether or not I'll actually be able to ride one of his camels, I don't know. But either way, if we get to at least interact with some camels a little more closely, I'll be good with that, for the time being.

You will, I promise, see a picture of me on a camel by the pyramids in Egypt. Until then, I'll keep enjoying my camel sightings.

What do you think about camels? (Yes, I know, not a very intellectual topic, but I'm kind of worn out mentally. And anyhow, it's fun to think about silly things!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My life as an ex-pat

I've trying to post to this blog often to keep a record of our experiences. I enjoy sharing what we are learning and doing with others. And I don't want my readers to lose interest. I'm probably the least interesting ex-pat to ever write a blog though. A lot of my life is spent at home. I'm okay with that because I'm a bit of a homebody and I also have some health issues that necessitate me carefully budgeting my energy resources. But that doesn't always make for interesting blog fodder. The other challenge is that I'm using this year as a chance to regroup and recharge. I've got personal projects that I can finally focus on with more time on my hands. Again, that makes for less than exciting blog posts. But that is the reality of this experience. Not every day has an earth-shattering cultural experience. I'm still the mother to 5 children. That requires cleaning, cooking, homework monitoring, etc. All of those things take time. Add to that my personal projects of scrapbooking, spiritual practices (such as studying scriptures), piano practice, and an effort to exercise more and I don't always have the time to run outside the compound for interesting excursions. And did I mention that I have a 2-year old son who stays home with me? I believe in naps with my whole heart. So we are usually home in the afternoons so he can nap and function normally. That is why I've made a personal goal to go out at least twice a week. I don't care what it is, I try and go out. And I try to make the most of those experiences. I'm always observing people, architecture and trying to interact with others. Sorry if my posts are less than riveting. But that is reality.

I can't really speak for what other women do on the compounds. I think that if I didn't have children, my life would be very different. I would probably try and work or volunteer extensively. Some women take classes like art, music, or cooking. I see a lot of socializing with mums meeting and visiting. The pool is becoming a real hot spot.

I appreciate the opportunity to meet and socialize with other women from all over the world. I love learning about their lives and hearing them talk about cultural differences. That kind of stuff is so rejuvenating.

I also appreciate the quiet pace of my life. I like being able to work on my projects without interruption. I am happy that I can sit down at my piano and play for 30 minutes. It's lovely. I also enjoy writing for this blog and compiling recipes for my cooking blog.

So believe it or not, I feel very content with my life right now. I adjust things as needed. If I feel stir-crazy, I make going out more of a priority. If I need rest, I pull back. That is definitely working for me right now.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Things to Think About

A couple of days ago, I posted the following:

"I read this very passionate article today from an Egyptian woman about the plight and status of women in the Middle East. Before moving to Saudi Arabia, I would have read the article and thought about it a bit and then moved in. It is much more poignant and real to me after living in Saudi Arabia. If you do read it, let me know what you think.
Beware: this post does have some graphic language in it and is pretty harsh."

In retrospect, after reading a few comments, I made a couple of mistakes.
1) When I posted, I didn't clarify my own position or thoughts about the article. I also didn't give the article closer examination or look at it critically.
I posted the article because I was interested in what a Muslim woman had to say about the experience of women in the Middle East. The author, highlighted a number of terrible offenses against women. Other news reports have confirmed some of the incidents discussed in the article. But the author's whole purpose is to pull together a very bleak picture of being a women in the Middle East. A Saudi man, whom I know, commented on the post and pointed out that the actions of a few men shouldn't characterize the whole of Middle Eastern culture and society. Alhasan's comments reminded me of conversations I've had with my husband where I rail on gender inequality and evil actions of men and my husband gets defensive. In the past, I would get so mad at my husband, but as we've talked, he's reminded me that  (Please read his comment--I think it was an excellent one.)
2) I was looking at Saudi Arabia culture and judging it from my own context and culture. After living in Sweden for such a long time, I've realized that is an incredibly arrogant thing to do when you live in a different culture.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My life in Riyadh versus My life in New York

A purely humorous exercise: comparing my life in New York to my life in Riyadh. I'll let you decide if the things I experienced were good or bad. Either way, I had a good life in New York and look forward to returning to it. I also have a good life in Saudi Arabia, though I don't think I would want to go back to Saudi Arabia again.

Life in New York
Expensive living costs--required a lot of tight budgeting
Rented a smallish house
Owned and drove my own car
Husband drove his own car
Great access to great medical care
Busy with PTA and church responsibilities
Hobby shopping (i.e. scrapbooks, paper, and books)
Limited access to gyms and swimming pools (too expensive)
Gravel driveways meant that my kids had a hard time biking, roller-blading, or scootering
Snowy driveways
Catching the train to Manhattan
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Manhattan LDS Temple
Pork and pork bacon
No helper or housekeeper
Gorgeous scenery
Apple picking in the fall
Farmers markets
Wildlife: deer, raccoon, skunks, turkeys, birds, mice (yuck)
Small school
A great ward with many friends
The Hudson River
Lots of work cooking and cleaning
Lots of work raising 5 children
Dh has long work hours
Playdates require time and planning
Activities for kids are expensive and time-consuming
Busy life
Lots of shopping choices

Life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Access to 5 swimming pools
Warm weather
No humidity
Shopping buses
Private school
A helper who cleans my house twice a week
A piano
No temple in a 1000 miles
Camel burgers
Lots of middle eastern food choices
Opportunities to meet people from all over the world
Free time to spend working on hobbies
Lots of work cooking
Lots of work raising 5 children
Dh has weird work hours, trying to juggle Saudi Arabia and New York work hours. . .
itunes (it is becoming a vice for me)
Paves roads so my kids bike, skate, and scooter all day long
Friends are close so playdates are instantaneous
Activities for kids are cheap and easy to schedule
Not so sure about the great medical care here
Close access to a great gym--lots of opportunities to work in exercise
Slower pace of life with more time to do things I enjoy
Not being able to drive
The chance to travel and see places in the Middle East

Fewer expenses and so we can save more and pay off debts (thanks to the company)

I'm sure I'll think of more, but in the meantime, it is kind of fun to compare the two.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Kinder, Gentler Mutawa?

A new head of the mutawa (religious police) in Saudi Arabia has been appointed. Rumor has it the new leader has counseled the mutawa to be kinder. Are changes on the horizon for the mutawa and the enforcement of religious practices in Saudi Arabia? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I don't think this would ever happen in the U.S.

I was sitting at a table in the Family Food Court at the mall, waiting for half of my children and my husband to return with their food. While I sat, I noticed a group of Saudi women, heavily veiled, as is normal, covered in black abayas. They were chatting while wrangling little children. One woman was holding her little baby--probably about 4 months old, and talking to her friends. The baby was exceptionally pretty with dark, abundant curls and beautiful dark eyes. I smiled at the mother and using a form of signs, told her how pretty I thought her baby was. The mother smiled in return, enjoying my obvious adoration of her baby. The women left, carrying the children away.

Five minutes later, the women returned to my table, where the mother held out her extremely pretty baby and motioned for me to hold the baby. Initially I was reluctant as you just don't hand your baby over to strangers, at least not in the U.S. I couldn't resist the lure of the baby though and opened my arms to accept her. I cooed at her and enjoyed her for a couple of minutes. Then I returned her to her mother. I was rewarded with an enormous smile from the mother. And then the group of women left.

I was a little shocked by the whole exchange, but enjoyed it anyway.

I do appreciate going out in public with my family because no one frowns at me for my large family. On the contrary, I frequently hear compliments about being a mother to 5 kids. The only people who are ever disparaging about my large family are other expats. Oh well. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Study Abroad

My great-grandfather Lockwood promised his future wife, Hattie, that they would settle down and never move.  He broke that promise on a number of occasions, moving Hattie and their children a number of times. His traveling gene seemed to skip a few generations with both my grandfather and father. I was born in the same hospital as my father and attended the same schools. I don't think anyone in the family ever expected that I would be the one hit so hard with the traveling gene.

As a kid, I found adventure going on bidding trips with my dad. My dad owned a construction company and would bid on road jobs throughout the state. It didn't matter where we were going, I always thought exploring those little towns throughout Wyoming was the coolest thing.

When I started school and learned to read, an entire world opened up to me through books. I blazed my way through the fiction section in our small school library and then began to tackle the non-fiction section. My endless curiosity about history and new places drove my book choices. Books about the Aztecs would fire my imagination, giving me an intense desire to go to Mexico to see the ruins. Reading Greek myths, and then later, studying Greek, for a very brief time when I realized that while I loved Greek history, literature, and mythology, the language did not love me, nevertheless fueled the deepest desire to go to Greece, explore the islands and discover what drove those people to such heights in literature, philosophy, and culture.

In high school, in fulfilling an assignment for a class, I wrote a list of several places I wanted to go. I honestly never thought my dreams would be fulfilled. I grew up in a small town in Wyoming where most of the people I knew were homebodies. Travel, while initially exciting, was viewed with a bit of mistrust. People in town would survey the gorgeous mountains (and no doubt about it, that particular area is one of the most beautiful places on earth) and ask how I could ever dream of leaving it. But I kept dreaming, because the thought of being stuck in my home town was scarier than venturing out in the world.

In college, I saw advertisements for study abroad programs that interested me, but money was a factor. I usually went home during summers to earn money to pay for tuition. And my parents weren't so keen on me going. Then I fell head over heels in love with this great guy who asked me to marry him. When we married, I put away my dreams, thinking that when we retired, we would get a chance to travel.

Oh how wrong I was. After 3 years of marriage, my husband presented me with the most interesting opportunity of my life, other than marriage and a family. "What would you think," he said, "if I were to get my PhD in Sweden?" I didn't need to think. The idea sounded AMAZING. My husband had served his mission there and had been dying for a chance to go back. Of course, there were a number of logistical problems to solve, not  the least of which were our two little boys. We sold everything we could, boxed a few treasures, packed up what we couldn't live without and moved to Sweden.

I felt like our time in Sweden was an intense study abroad period. I didn't get to sit in classes with renowned professors feeding me knowledge or exploring great works of art or countries under the tutelage of an expert. My language courses were at night and during the day I tried to sneak in practice and homework in between cleaning a house, entertaining toddlers, and naps. And my explorations pushed me to research and ask questions and find out for myself about the country. I learned more about the culture through trial and error. I grew to love Sweden as my home.

During our 5 1/2 years in Sweden, we were able to travel to different European countries, where I thought I would die from happiness. I was able to explore cathedrals, beautiful countryside, visit the greatest museums in the world, and see places I had read about.

It was a lot of sadness that our time in Sweden ended and we moved back to the U.S. Our four years in New York were characterized by a lot of challenges, and not as much exploration as I would have liked. (But I have a lot to look forward to!) We were still able to explore some great places on the East Coast. We truly didn't expect that we would get another opportunity to live abroad again.

Then we had a chance to move to Saudi Arabia for an international assignment through the company my husband works for. So we took it and here we are. I love it. I love the chance to learn about a new culture and see places tourists don't get to see. In fact, you can't really come to Saudi Arabia as a tourist, so this is special. So while I never got to go on a Study Abroad course with my university, I feel like I have had the most amazing study abroad experiences. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I hope you experience some of the excitement and interest that I feel in my life on my study abroad course.

A couple of pictures of the desert

I've been to a few deserts before such as a few spots in parts of the Western United States. I've even seen parts of the desert near the Dead Sea. But nothing I've ever seen has ever prepared me for seeing a small part of the desert near Riyadh. 
 The first picture shows some sand dunes. We were traveling on the highway and I wasn't able to stop to get a better picture. But don't they look amazing? I'm so glad I was able to catch the reddish tinge coloring of the dunes.

 The second picture shows, not very clearly, camels in the desert. This was a common site on our little trip. I loved seeing the baby camels. And yes, I do have a slight fascination with camels. Still haven't ridden one yet, but it will happen!
This third picture shows a car stopped on the side of the road. Sometimes you see people eating their picnics. I'm not crazy having sand play such an integral part of my picnic, but I suppose it feels natural for Saudis. As far as I could tell, they didn't sit on mats or rugs, but I could have easily missed it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Thoughts on choices and freedom in the Kindgom

I recently read this piece from Blue Abaya

I recommend reading her post, but I've also included a summary here as I read and understood her remarks. To clarify, Blue Abaya identifies herself as a Finnish woman married to a Saudi man and living in Riyadh. She has lived all over the world, according to her blog. So I think she has an interesting perspective about wearing the abaya and its purpose.

Blue Abaya makes the following argument:
1) Western women have the right to uncover--dress as they please. She asserts that western clothing is often driven by the need to flaunt skin and is encouraged by men so women can be ogled. She brings up the point that Western women are driven by unreasonable expectations of beauty and go far by means of dieting, botox, and plastic surgery to achieve impossible beauty standards. She sees our current western styles and unhealthy obsession with appearance as another means for men to control women. Finally, she points out that current western cultural standards persist in making women out to be sex objects.

For the most part, I think Blue Abaya has some good points here. As a Mormon woman, I believe and practice the principle of modesty. I do think that the current trends in Western society pushing to achieve an impossible body ideal are unhealthy and destructive. 

2) Then Blue Abaya's argument moves to how Muslim women who choose to cover in the western world are treated. She makes some good points about how their value is diminished in western society, particularly those who veil their faces entirely. She points to the ban in France against veiling. (To be fair, France has also made some restrictions on other religions--the ban isn't strictly against Muslims.)

Again, good points here. For me, seeing a women completely covered in an abaya and face veil is disconcerting. I feel like she has the ultimate privacy barrier and thus is totally inaccessible. As a woman in Saudi Arabia this frustrates me as I feel like I can't make a connection with other women here. 

3) I'm quoting Blue Abaya's final paragraph in its entirety.
"That way a woman shifts the focus from her body to herself as a thinking, feeling person. This is the wisdom behind the Islamic dress code for women. By no means is it oppressing, I would rather say LIBERATING from the pressures women face about their bodies being under constant scrutiny.
Take care and cherish your body, because it is beautiful no matter its size and shape. You dont need to display it to the whole world to get acceptance..Not every woman looks like Claudia Shiffer, so Islamic dress code makes women more equal and decreases envy and jealousy."

I see where she is going with this, but I don't completely agree. Sure, you remove a level of pressure off women to achieve a certain beauty ideal when dress is not the focus. However, considering the fashions I see at the malls, I question if women in Saudi Arabia are really free from this type of pressure. Sure they are covered by the abaya in public. If the clothing displayed in the malls is ANY indication, they aren't dressing more modestly than western women. To me, what is worn underneath is more indicative of what they are really feeling about beauty and its ideals.

Should women cherish their bodies and not damage them in an effort to achieve impossible ideals? Absolutely. But that can be done just as well without wearing a tent.

Some additional thoughts and these are my thoughts--not those of Blue Abaya.

Do I have a problem with a woman who geniunely believes and follows the Islamic dress code? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I find her devotion and geniune belief in her religion refreshing and admirable. However, it is remarkably difficult to ascertain (for Westerners) whether Muslim women are donning the abaya and veils because they are geniunely religious or do so out of fear from the muttawa or out of family rules dictated by the male authority in their homes.

Likewise, it is difficult to see how wearing the abaya is not oppressive when you see Muslim men wearing western clothing without reprucussions. It doesn't feel equal to me and that bothers me.

Saudi Arabia has decided to enforce their codes upon all people in their country. As a guest in their country, I accept those restrictions and do my best to abide by them. I don't necessarily like them as I would have chosen to dress modestly and appropriately in any case. I feel uncomfortable by this element of coercion from the government and the muttawa.

Likewise, France has taken a stand, not just against Muslims, but other religions as well, in enforcing a certain code. If you can say that Saudi Arabia has the right to enforce this code, then the same courtesy ought to be extended to France.

I'm not saying either country is right in this. If you are going to praise one, you can't condemn the other.

I do think that countries, including Saudi Arabia, ought to respect the rights of religious people to demonstrate their faith in visual ways--so long as those ways do not infringe upon the rights of the majority in the society. Likewise, I expect (yes, I know this idealized) immigrants and expats to demonstrate respect for the prevailing customs and cultural rules of the country in which they reside. This means that westerns ought to dress more modestly in Muslim countries. Likewise, Muslims ought to respect that western countries are uncomfortable with total veiling of women's faces.