Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Missing in Action

I haven't been around lately because of two trip to the United States in the past few weeks. It's been insane, fun, wonderful, and exhausting. My beautiful younger sister got married. I was so happy that I could attend her wedding. It was a privilege to witness her marriage to a really good man. I'm sure they will be wonderfully happy.

Sadly, I neglected to get a picture with the two of us. ?But I did manage to get a nice picture with my Mom, whom I absolutely adore.

Then I popped back to Saudi Arabia to hug and kiss my kids and spend a few days with my family. We farmed our four older children out to friends while my husband, youngest son, and I went to New York for a house-hunting trip. We lived in NY for four years before moving to Saudi Arabia. My husband's company sent us to Saudi Arabia and now want us to return to the USA .

Because of our wonderful expat package we were able to save a lot of money, allowing us to finally be in a position to buy a home. And in a few days, that's what we did. We haven't closed, but things are progressing well and we should be in our home (OUR HOME!) in a couple of months.

We've lived a nomadic existence for many years and have never been in a position to buy a home. It feels so adult to make this big step. We've saved and prepared for this and are thrilled that it has finally happened for our family.

The next two months I will concentrate on finishing up entries for this blog, trying to pack in all our amazing Saudi experiences. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sword Dancing and a Bit about Wedding and Marriage Customs

Sword Dancing is a unique and interesting aspect of Saudi culture and is only performed by men. I thought this article with its brief video clip gave a good overview of the practice and place in Saudi society. I've been told that these sword dances are performed at weddings. Which brings me to another interesting aspect of Saudi culture--not necessarily unique to Saudis as other countries in the Middle East follow the same custom.

The wedding reception is held for men and women separately. The men have their party with the bridegroom and the women have their party with the bride. At some point, the bridegroom comes and takes his bride away and the parties end.

Many Saudi marriages are semi-arranged, with the parents vetting and choosing a selection of potential mates for their children. Family alliances and tribal connections are carefully considered. The bride or groom do have a say in whom they wish to marry and can veto selections from their parents. When a couple is married, the woman still maintains absolute control over any assets and money she brings to the marriage. Divorce is allowed--though I believe it is easier for a man to obtain a divorce than for a woman. If a woman divorces, she returns to her family. She still has the possibility of marrying again without stigma.

Please check out the article and video clip. It is a brief interesting read about a fascinating cultural practice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Life Is a Either a Daring Adventure or Nothing

I recently discovered this quote featured on a scrapbook page. It struck me as the thread that pulls together my life. The full quote is from Helen Keller and says,

 "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure." 

Isn't that brilliant and true? Today I pulled out some pictures of our trip to Egypt and starting creating a scrapbook album. I realized that I was starting to sound redundant describing some trips I've taken in the last 10 years as "the trip of a lifetime". And yet so many of my trips have felt that way. When I visit a place I try to experience it as if I will never travel there again. Even if I have been there several times, I still approach it that way. It is such a satisfying way to explore and travel--adding a piquancy and urgency to the experience. 
I don't want to go someplace and feel regret for what I couldn't or didn't see. I want to feel content and full with what I have done. I think I've succeeded. 

(My kids have a sense of humor when they take pictures, like this one at Karnak Temple in Luxor.)

How do you live life with a daring sense of adventure? I think you need to approach life with a relentless and insatiable curiosity. You must have an openness to ask questions and a willingness to experience new things. I personally feel completely invigorated and renewed. 

Must you reserve this adventure for foreign climes? Hardly. I was recently in Kentucky attending my sister's wedding. We were in a part of Kentucky I knew little about and I discovered there was so much to do. I'm sad I couldn't explore more because of the wedding, but it is now on my list of places to explore. Yes, I put a small town in Kentucky on my list of destinations. That's the beauty of our world--we have such diversity and history that there are very few places that don't warrant a little time spent exploring and reflecting on what they have to offer. 

How do you approach life with a daring sense of adventure? If you don't feel that sense of adventure, what holds you back? Tell me about a dream destination and why it is a place you want to visit.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Janadriyah Culture Festival

The Janadriyah Culture Festival is held once a year and celebrates the heritage and culture of all the provinces of Saudi Arabia. We attended last year in February and had a fabulous time. If it is possible, we enjoyed ourselves even more this time.

This is the food aisle with fast food options. Exploring the province areas yielded more authentic and interesting food options.

We all found the military tent very interesting. This very friendly soldier spoke to us and demonstrated these robots. He was very engaging and wanted to really interact with people.

There was a shooting booth with a pistol shooting rubber bullets. The soldiers helped each of my children shoot at a target. Imagine my surprise when they invited me to take a turn. I wonder if they let Saudi women shoot.

This man was carving stone into designs and pictures. He was using another stone to do the work. This was a section demonstrating traditional Saudi handicrafts.

Even though Riyadh is a modern city, the culture is never far from its roots as a desert people. Livestock and farming were important means to feed people.

This was a fun booth showing traditional wooden toys.

This man was making different types of sling shots. My kids now own slingshots of their own. I couldn't resist.

This tent shows a traditional desert campsite. The rugs and cushions make it very comfortable.

You can't see it very well from this picture, but there is a very lean hunting dog, a saddle, and two falcons tied to their perches.

This man was playing this wailing instrument. He moved the bow across the strings to make an interesting sound.

This cow was drinking milk from its own udder. I had no idea that it was even possible, but this cow was extremely flexible and determined. The picture doesn't show it very well, but I promise I saw the cow sucking on its own teats.

I love the colorful saddles and blankets for the camels.

The muttawa were out in force patrolling the area like never before. I ran into more muttawa in 3 hours than I have in the entirety of my stay in Riyadh. Each time they asked my husband to make me cover. Lovely, right?? I ended up covering my hair for much of the time. I asked a Saudi lady to help me do it as it is kind of tricky. She was sweet, laughing as she helped me. It isn't my favorite look, but certainly something different and unique to the area.

We were lucky to catch a performance of sword dancing. These men marked the time with their feet and swords to a drum beat and some music. There were two lines of men facing one another. My son informed me that it was a military dance intended to hype the men up before battle. It also is formal and has controlled movements.

Here are some of the dancers taking a break. Saudi men wear white thobes and these checked head coverings in every day life. In the winter they wear heavier robes in grey and brown . Some men wear white shawls, but I think the red-checked coverings are more common.

Another obligatory camel picture. . .

My eldest and youngest are too cute for words. Notice the wall  pattern. Cool, right?

Just a picture of the market.

Not the best picture, I know, but here is a display of some traditional handicrafts.

A typical room with a fireplace, coffee karafes, rugs, and cushions. The bread in the foreground is baked on coals. It is hollow in the middle and filled with a sweet filling like cinnamon or honey.

This was a freestyle sword dance. The men leaped around the stage and were much more animated. After the dance I was walking away smiling when a Saudi lady called to me and said, "You look happy. You like it here?" I replied that I was happy and enjoying the cultural festival very much. We spoke to many people, both men and women. My daughter and youngest son practiced saying "Ana ismy ______" which means "My name is _____________" in Arabic. This charmed many people. I'm just glad my kids are willing to be open and talk to people.

A boat exhibit at the marketplace.

This was in the Mecca section. I'd really like to get a metal tea set with the tiny cups.

I just liked this scene with this man and the tea/coffee karafes and the bread. My husband calls the sandals "Jesus" sandals. Most of the men wear these when it is warm.

I had some henna art done by a lady walking around doing art on the spot. My daughter also had some done. It is very pretty. The kids found swords and daggers and begged to buy them. It was hilarious to see my daughter wearing an abaya (I found a cute one to buy her) with a fake dagger wrapped around her waist. At any moment she'd whip out the dagger and attack. This is what happens when you have four brothers!

Despite the muttawa, we had a really lovely time. I love interacting with the Saudis. They answered our questions, smiled at our children, and welcomed us to their country. 

If you have a chance, make sure you go to the festival. It closes on April 17th.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Blasting About in Bahrain

We like to get away to Bahrain occasionally. It's a four-hour drive North East through the desert from Riyadh. Once you get to the border, you are never sure how long it will actually take to get through all the checkpoints. There is nothing ominous about the checkpoints, it just takes time and waiting in line, or not as the case may be. We are talking about Saudi drivers here and Saudis for that matter. Saudis neither like waiting in lines, nor driving in lanes, so you can imagine that the "lines" are rather chaotic. I'm convinced if you unleashed a group of ladies from New York and New Jersey in Riyadh for a month or two, they would take care of the problem with line-jumpers and crashers in Riyadh. Never cut in line in New Jersey or New York, not if you value your life.

Speaking of lines and traffic, Bahrain traffic is actually pretty decent. It can be heavy, but you never really fear for your life. People actually do drive in lanes and there isn't insane lane cutting and they don't turn from the wrong lanes. I'm speculating that the reason that it is more sane is that women drive in the country. And you know we women folk tend to have a civilizing influence on men. Whatever the reason, it is refreshing to drive there. Not that I actually drive. But its nice knowing I could.

So back to Bahrain. We drive four hours through the desert to get there. I'm not going to put a Pollyanna spin on the drive. My kids are frequently awful and fight. The scenery is boring. You could count the trash on the side of the road, but no one can really count that high. We live in deadly fear of having to stop and use the restroom. Gas station restrooms are awful in any country, but are particularly awful in this country. I simply refuse to go and so only drink sparingly. I'm the mean mom who keeps her kids on the edge of dehydration to avoid the bathrooms. We've tried to stop on the side of the road before, but that only ended badly when we got stuck in the sand. Fortunately, someone pulled us out, but now we try to avoid stopping in any form. 

As for the bathrooms, my husband put it this way. "If you were rating bathrooms from 1 to 10 with 1 being the worst and 10 being the worst, Saudi bathrooms would rate a - 10." I would rate a bathroom we encountered in Germany a 10 where you pushed a button and the bathroom cleans itself totally ready for the next user. 

In Bahrain, we eschew culture and artistic experiences in favor of shopping, eating bacon, and relaxing. We stay in a nice hotel apartment suite with two bedrooms and a living room and relax.

The most important component of our vacation is procuring real pork bacon-not beef or turkey bacon, real pork bacon in all its salty, fatty goodness. Then we gorge ourselves on said breakfast meat, consuming a pound each morning. (Don't judge me. Consider how you would do in a country where pork products are outlawed, and then we'll talk.)

After an extremely leisurely morning lounging around our hotel, we may or may not take a jaunt around the Al Seef Mall where we shop, play at the amusement park, or just enjoy the sights. I personally revel in the feeling of freedom from wearing my abaya. Love it!!!!!!!! It is also delightful to see men and women eating together.

We also like to catch a movie or two at the cinema. This weekend we watched the Jack the Giant Slayer, which was enjoyed by everyone in the family. We like to eat at cool places. This weekend we dined on burgers, slurped thick malts, and danced to old tunes at Johnny Rockets. Good thing the muttawa doesn't reside in Bahrain, because I would have been picked up for unseemly behavior dancing to "Brown-Eyed Girl" with my little girl. Granted, the locals did a fair bit of staring at me but they didn't seem shocked or concerned.

We like to go to Wahoo and zoom down the waterslides, splash in the toddler-zone, try surfing, and race each other down the slides.

Because we can't get enough of swimming, we also hit the hotel swimming pool.

If we happen to be in Bahrain on a Friday, we like to attend church at the local LDS church in Bahrain. Bahrain's constitution guarantees freedom of religion which means that a variety of religions can and do meet in the country. Another cool thing about Bahrain is that the Bahraini ambassador to the U.S. is a Jewish woman. Bahrain even has a small Jewish community.

After all this fun and relaxing time, we return to Riyadh, refreshed and renewed, ready for the particular challenges of life there.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On Learning Arabic

I found an Arabic teacher quite by accident and so I've begun a crash course in the language. I'm embarrassed to say that up to this point, I haven't put any effort into learning the language for a few reasons. Firstly, going outside of the compound sadly affords little opportunity to speak Arabic. Many of the shopkeepers are not Saudi and so you tend to speak English in those situations anyhow. Secondly, Saudi culture isn't generally a mixing culture. From the walled villas to very private people it can be hard to develop relationships in which to actually use Arabic. That doesn't mean it is impossible of course. And I've found that there are opportunities to practice if you are outgoing. Saudi are also very friendly outside of Riyadh. It's like the city casts a pall of shyness over everyone. Once you get out in the desert things change, which is nice. I do believe that in other Arabic speaking countries, it is probably easier to learn and speak Arabic as you tend not to be as isolated and do mix more with locals. But Saudi Arabia is, as always, a very different ball of wax.

All of my excuses aside, I've been mentally uncomfortable with my lack of motivation. I learned Swedish, albeit not perfectly, nor even very well. But I did study for a few years, slogged my way through grammar, vocabulary, and textbooks. I wrote a few papers in Swedish and while I surely managed to butcher the beautiful Swedish language, I tried. Learning Swedish really enhanced my experience of living in Sweden. I think that learning the language allows you to interact more deeply and meaningfully with your host culture. Learning a different language often gives you insights into the ways a society and culture think and approach life.

Anyhow, despite all my failures in language acquisition, I'm enjoying my classes. My teacher is a friend from my compound who was born and raised in Egypt. She's fluent in French and English, so she understands second-language acquisition. I'm also learning how to read and write which is really fun. It takes some time to wrap my brain around the characters but so far there is logic and order in the characters.

Have you ever learned another language? Do you speak Arabic? What were some challenges you faced in learning another language? How did learning another language change your perspective?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Views from the Road

Driving in Riyadh is notoriously awful. If you ever want to spend a few hours in absolute horror, go over to youtube and search for "Saudi Arabia Drifting". A favorite past-time of young Saudi men, drifting is scary and dangerous.

People disregard traffic rules. They turn a 5 lane into a 10 lane road. Turns are made from anywhere the driver wants to be. It is insane. I've stopped watching the road, because it just scares me. My poor husband says that he will never be stressed by U.S. traffic again, including driving in NYC.

Since women can't drive, I've seen a number of boys who look younger than my 13-year old son driving their mothers around. There is something really wrong with a society that lets a 12-year old drive because he is a male but restricts that adult mother.

Traffic fatalities in Saudi Arabia are really high because of the disregard for safety rules, aggressive driving, seat belts not being used, and kids bouncing around freely in the cars.

And that brings me to my next bout of road horror. . . seeing kids hanging out windows, bouncing around on the seats, and babies sitting on fathers' laps at the steering wheel. Sadly the attitude of many people in an accident was that it was Allah's will, which makes combating the road conditions and terrible safety attitude very difficult.

The only good thing about the roads? Seeing camels strapped in the back of trucks being transported somewhere. I don't know why, but it makes me smile every time.