Monday, September 30, 2013

On the Independence of Women Within the Kingdom

In the past week, I read this gem of an article explaining why women in Saudi Arabia cannot and should not drive.  As a mother to five children, with a sixth on the way, who also happens to drive, I suppose this explains why I don't have 10 children after 15 years of marriage. It does not however explain the situation of my friend who has 9 children. Maybe if she had allowed her husband to drive, she might have had twins more than once. (Just as an aside, I think this sheik holds the opinion of the minority, not the majority.)

But I digress. A friend of mine currently living in Riyadh posted the following on her Facebook wall.

"In August, I went to mobily and was not allowed to enter the store to pay my bill as my husband was not with me. On Thursday, I went to mobily and was welcomed into the store as I was chaperoned..... By my SIX YEAR OLD SON. thanks son, I guess I am supposed to take direction from you from now on..... Mmmm... Only in Saudi!"

Mobily is a cell phone provider. 

These two incidents contrasted with my own return to the United States have highlighted a very important aspect of my identity and experience as a woman. In the United States, I have the full atonomy and independence to perform the duties necessary in my role as a mother and wife. In the past three months alone, I have logged hundreds of miles taking my children to doctors and dentists, ensuring their continued health and well-being through these visits. I have been able to do so on my time-frame without relying on taxi drivers or my husband, who is very busy with his job. I have met with school officials and been able to arrange for the academic needs of my children. I have been able to manage finances and other family matters without having to rely on others to help me. In other words, I have been able to arrange my schedule to suit the needs of all the members of our family. My husband and I arrange our schedules, responsibilities, and work for the benefit of all. As such, I feel like we are fully equal partners working together toward a common goal to benefit our family. 

While living in Saudi Arabia, the burdens my husband carried trying to meet these needs of constantly driving, doing all the financial and business transactions, even a bulk of the shopping, in addition to working full-time were enormously stressful. I couldn't alleviate those burdens by sharing in the responsibilities. It was frustrating for both of us. 

There are hundreds of compelling reasons why women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, not the least  that it is immoral and unethical to deny them such a right because they are human beings, not a sub-class of mindless children unable to think or make decisions for themselves. 

Within the context of Saudi culture, where families are paramount, it makes sense to me to appeal to the importance of families and especially of the importance of women to be able to act as matriarchs, leading and serving their families. I believe their ability to do so fully is hampered by the many restrictions on women to act with intelligence, decision, and independence. 

* Fortunately, there are some people who are really addressing the issue with intelligence and good sense. Such as this article.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Time, Places, and Change

My oldest son was recognized for his outstanding work in Student council at the end of the 2012-2013 school year at his international school. It was one of those moments that makes you feel a little dizzy as you realize how much life can change in a few years.

Ten years ago, this boy was three and we lived in Sweden. Our days were filled with going outside, playing in the cold weather, reading stories, and making lots of messes. Ten years later, we were in Saudi Arabia, while my youngest, who is now three, sat on my lap. My youngest plays in the dirt, makes messes, and enjoys the pool.

Where will be in ten years? The mind boggles at the thought. I never imagined living in Saudi Arabia and yet we did and had a grand adventure. Nor did I ever anticipate living in Sweden. What surprises my life has held. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Grocery Stores and Prayer Time

There a few things you should know about shopping in KSA.

1) There are grocery stores in most malls. Kingdom mall doesn't have a grocery store, so don't plan on grabbing milk or any other essentials while you are there.

2) Prayer time happens five times a day and when it starts, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING stops. A few minutes before prayer time, lights go off in the stores and gates come down. There are a few stores which allow you to continue shopping, while others shoo you out the door. They will announce the closing before they close.

When in Carrefour during that time, it was amusing to watch the mad dash the customers made to the checkout stand to purchase their food. If you time it right, you can get in just before they close, shop in peace and quiet (except get your vegetables weighed) and then finish just as the doors open.

The stores I shopped at most were Carrefour, Danube, and Tamimi. Carrefour was a French grocery store. Tamimi falls under the American Safeway brand. I assumed that Danube might be Austrian, but I can't find info about it. There are other stores of course, but these three were my favorites. Tamimi usually carries a good selection of American products at import prices. So if you are looking for an American fix, you should go there first. Carrefour usually satisfied my craving for European foods. I also got a kick out of reading the labels as they reminded me of reading labels in Sweden. Danube was always very clean and well-kept. They also had a good selection of quality dark chocolate.

One of my favorite things to get at the grocery store is cheese pizza, baked in a wood oven. Yummy!

Shopping in KSA was actually pretty painless, unless you were insistent about getting a certain ingredient. I personally learned to just go with the flow of it. I would buy the best looking produce, supplement with a little meat, mostly chicken, and make do. I guess knowing how to substitute ingredients and cook without recipes is really essential.

There are outdoor markets that you can visit. We often saw little stands on the back of trucks on the side of the road selling fresh produce and always watermelons.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What I Wish I Had Said During the Podcast

Yesterday, I was one of the guests on the Paperclipping Roundtable Podcast. PRT is a wonderful podcast that discusses scrapbooking. They have a great following of listeners around the world. Noell and Izzy Hyman do a great job of creating a consistently interesting podcast that really does educate, entertain, and inspire me.

The podcast I participated was called "Rootless". We discussed the concept of Third Culture Kids (TCK) and how scrapbooking can help highly mobile and transient families deal with the challenges of the lifestyle.

Here are some thoughts I had that I wanted to share.

1) Highly transient families families often experience loss with possessions as their lifestyle doesn't always allow for these things to be carried with them everywhere. Scrapbooking has become a way for me to preserve memories and experiences that I have no other tangible link to.

                                       (Visiting an ancient Roman ampitheatre in Ceaseara, Israel)

I have given away, sold, or thrown away couches, tables, beds, knicknacks, toys, clothes, shoes, heirlooms, kitchen equipment, bikes, bike trailers, strollers, etc. When we moved to Sweden, we pared down our belongings to what could fit into a few suitcases. (I did burden my parents with several boxes of books that have spent many years in storage. I still can't bear to let them go, but I'm realistic enough to realize that may have to discarded at some point.) While living in Sweden, we knew that we would be moving ourselves back to the United States. There would not be a moving company to pack up our belongings to our new home. We did not accumulate things. I didn't buy paintings, decorations, or souvenirs. My memories of our life in Sweden are recorded in our pictures and documented with my scrapbooks. When we lived in Israel, I couldn't afford to buy hardly anything. We did purchase a Christmas Creche made out of olive wood. But otherwise, our pictures and scrapbooks are the only physical link we have to our amazing experiences.

                                        (The view of Riyadh from a hotel room. This picture inspired
                                           the name for this blog.)

Granted I can't lug my scrapbooks around. They often go in storage during our travels. But they are precious enough that I keep them.

2) Scrapbooking often provides much needed perspective to process both the good and bad experiences of expat life.

I scrapped my last year living in Sweden a few years after it had occurred. There is a difference in that scrapbook versus the pages I made while living there. I was much more humble about our experiences. I found I was able to ascribe meaning that I simply couldn't process at the time the events occurred. I imagine I will need a little time and distance to process my Riyadh experiences.

                 (I am still coming to terms with wearing an abaya for 18 months on a daily basis. It was a necessary part of my experience, but one I still don't have the words to fully describe what it was like. It wasn't totally awful, but neither was it totally awesome.)

3) Scrapbooking allows family memories of grand adventures to be preserved. My kids can look back in the albums and remember what their snowsuits looked like in Sweden. They can remember the playgrounds they explored in Israel. They can remember the grocery stores in Saudi Arabia and the color of the desert sand.

4) Creating scrapbook pages helps me deal with the loss of treasured friends as we leave behind friends or are left behind.

5) Scrapbooking helps me emphasize our family stability. Even though we don't always have stability of place, we always have one another.

6) Scrapbooking helps me approach my life as an expat with gratitude, curiousity, wonder, and an open mind. I am so grateful for the experiences and life I lead. I would never trade any of our adventures for a different life. It is MY life and I own it, good and bad.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Luxury of Never Substituting

I stood in the baking aisle, scanning the shelves for Andes mint chips. Finally, I turned to a woman standing beside me and asked, "Have you ever seen mint chocolate chips here?" The woman said she had and proceeded to help me look. After several minutes of carefully looking, it became clear that there were no mint chips to be found. As I considered alternatives, the woman held a bag of walnuts in her hand and asked, "Do you think I could use pecans in place of walnuts in my banana bread?" I assured her that the substitution was fine, when she continued, "You see, I never substitute ingredients in recipes, ever."

Her remark literally stopped me in my tracks. The last several years have been one culinary experiment after another as I have tried to approximate beloved recipes in different countries. In Sweden, we had to make up our own baking powder, because the Swedish baking powder had such a terrible aftertaste. We chopped chocolate in place of chocolate chips. I used creme frache in place of sour cream. I learned to make my own cream soups and bases in lieu of cream of crap canned soup. In Saudi Arabia, I couldn't use pork products, so my beloved Sweet and Sour Pork became Sweet and Sour Chicken for 18 months. Whenever I made scones, I used plain yogurt instead of the sour cream called for in the recipe. I rarely cooked or prepared salads with fresh spinach as it was hard to find.

Living in a foreign country often feels like an endless series of adaptations and substitutions. Sometimes we try and recreate pieces of home with recipes or celebrations. Of course, the flavor is never quite as authentic as we wish. But we still try. And other times, we bend to the inevitable, accept the alternative and make new recipes. My cooking creativity always feels enhanced when living abroad as I learn to adapt to the available ingredients.

And then we bring flavors from our adopted countries home. I can never quite recreate the beautiful food and cuisine centered around the pear so beloved in Sweden. I desperately miss the flavor of Danish chocolate. Sometimes I dream about an authentic Israeli falafel that literally makes me drool. My kids talk about shawarma longingly. I was at a shawarma shop in Boulder, Colorado a couple of weeks ago and shocked the chef when I asked if they put french fries in their shawarma. I miss the delicious flavors of India my friends shared with me. Or the fresh flavors of Korean fare that another friend introduced me to.

It's always a give and take, isn't it? We are always leaving behind something we love and appreciate wherever we may go.

So while I envy the lady in the grocery store the luxury of never having to subsitute ingredients, I feel a little sorry for her as well. She's missed out on some grand culinary adventures. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Camel Beauty Contest

During the month of December thousands of camels and their owners from all over the Middle East gather in the desert about 310 km north of Riyadh for a month-long auction and Camel Beauty Festival. My husband, our five children, two of our friends, and I drove three and a half hours to explore the auction and festival. When we saw thousands of tents pitched in the desert and camels everywhere, we knew we had found the right spot.

Before checking out the camel beauty contest, we first explored the camel auction and souk. The souk was set up on both sides of the desert track and had many tents filled with camel equipment such as saddles, blankets, bridles, herding crops, and bells. There were stalls with necessities like food, water, fuel, and stacks of firewood. Along with the necessities there were stalls with carpets, fur-lined coats and vests, and other typical things you would expect to see at bazaars.

After driving through the souk, we entered the area where camels were penned in and auctions were taking place. I did not need to understand Arabic to recognize the rhythm of an auctioneer calling bids and selling camels. Along the wide desert track, cars full of young men raced along with windows rolled down, playing loud music and shouting welcome at us. Camels were everywhere, penned in makeshift corrals of barbed wire. Some camels were hobbled on the ground. And then there were the herds of camels crossing the road. Some were hobbled on one side so they could not run, while others were free to roam at will. One mammoth white camel was separated from his group by our car. He looked irritated as he tried to poke his head into our open car window. I was amazed at how the camels ignored the chaos of noise, cars, and people with perfect disdain.

At one point we stopped to see if we could at least touch a camel. Before long, we found ourselves surrounded by young men eager to show us camels and talk to us. Our friend was invited to get on a very cranky camel. Then the camel herder wanted to put my kids on the camel, but they were scared of the hissing, cranky camel. To show us the camel was docile, the herder jumped on its back and stood up while the camel also stood up from the kneeling position. It was amazing! We were as interesting to the group gathered as the camels were to us. They all wanted pictures of us, especially my youngest son with his blonde hair and blue eyes. One cheerful man with yellowed teeth gave my daughter a kiss on the cheek, which made her cry. At the point, I shoved the kids in the car, away from the crowd, and we drove off.

After a short drive, we entered the camel beauty contest where we watched a herding show. A group of white camels would enter the arena following their herder on a black camel. The herder would take the group through their paces, showing the judges how the camels could follow a pattern and work together as a group. We saw three different herds on display. It was interesting and brought to mind cattle shows and rodeos I grew up with in Wyoming.

We joined a large group for lunch and more activities at a large outdoor camping area set up with a large tent with the sand covered with rugs. My kids rode camels while we snacked on different types of dried fruits and buns filled with chocolate. We watched a demonstration of dogs resembling greyhounds that chased a kangaroo rat. My boys’ favorite part of the day was seeing the beautiful peregrine falcon. Falconry in Saudi Arabia is a centuries-old sport and exists to this day. The falcon was graceful, elegant, and poised, tolerating the crowds of people clamoring to touch him. Our day ended with a delicious meal of Saudi traditional dishes eaten outside on a carpet we shared with other families. It was an adventure not to be missed and will rank high on our favorite things we have done in Saudi Arabia. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Catching Up and Moving On

I haven't written in months as our family transitioned from expats living in Saudi Arabia back to living in the United States. Since June I have endured the challenges of the first trimester of pregnancy, moving, closing on a house, unpacking, traveling across the United States to visit family in the west, and driving back to the East Coast to get settled in. My head spins with appointments, schedules, boxes, cooking, home ownership, bills (I have to grapple with those again!), and life in general. It is all good but many times overwhelming.

In trying to transition back to the USA, I haven't thought much about our time in Saudi Arabia. It is a bit of a coping mechanism, but I see gaps in my narrative on my blog--crucial stories that need to be told. So as I wrap up my life in Saudi Arabia and say farewell to my experiences there, I'll be trying to complete those stories to the best of my ability.

I'm so glad we lived in Riyadh. It was challenging but rewarding. Stick with me a bit longer, please, and I will try and share more stories and experiences.