Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Glimpse of Bahrain

Last week, Josh got to spend a weekend in Bahrain to get his work visa. Bahrain, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is its own little island country in the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf depending on where you live) connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway. Its capital, Manama, is the only city. I didn't go because Bahrain doesn't process women's visas. As a married woman, all that is required for me is to append my name to my husband's work visa!

Driving to the airport: The amount of construction going on in Riyadh is incredible. Look at all those cranes!

Josh's view of the desert on the way to the airport outside of Riyadh.

Riyadh's airport.

Saudi Arabia from the air: the sprinkler systems run in circles, making mysterious little crop circles in the desert.

Landing in Bahrain.

Bahrain has a reputation for providing all the guilty pleasures that don't exist legally in Saudi Arabia, and as such it's a popular destination for Saudi men on the weekends. Only a four-hour drive from Riyadh, Bahrain is everything Saudi Arabia isn't. The atmosphere is relaxed and social in a way that Riyadh definitely lacks. You can walk along the streets and see men and women talking together, some women covered and others in shorts and short sleeves. Since there are no restrictions on talking to the opposite sex, conversation just happens more naturally, meaning there are much more opportunities to practice Arabic. You can sit outside and drink coffee - a simple pleasure denied me here. (Coffee shops in KSA, aside from Starbucks, are men-only. Since malls are the domain of the women, with single men often getting kicked out, the men retreat to their coffee shops - virtually the only place where single young men can hang out.)

Bahrain also features - get this - movie theaters. It doesn't seem like such a big deal until you live in a place without them. At work, the teachers taking weekend trips to Bahrain get so excited about going to see a real movie in the theater.

As expected, the tight restrictions on alcohol and on mingling with the opposite sex explode in Bahrain in a shocking rebound effect. In Saudi Arabia, you can't look at girl's cheek, let alone her hair or her elbow. In Bahrain, every hotel doubles as a brothel, where you can bump into half-dressed girls every time you use the elevator. The nice hotels (by that I mean the ones with internet and air conditioning) are not for sleeping - try as he might, Josh was unable to fall asleep due to the pounding beat reverberating from the night club downstairs even though he was five floors above it. The hotels are also the source of alcohol, which is sold at the absolutely ridiculous price of $10 per beer.

Everything in Bahrain is expensive, from the taxis to the hotels and the souvenirs. Like everywhere, it has its pluses and minuses! I would be interested in seeing it sometime. For now, I have to content myself with Josh's stories and photos.

More photos:

The history museum.

Clay grenades on display at the museum.

At the museum.

The Fort in Bahrain. The fort dates to about 2300 BC and marks one of the strongholds of the ancient Dilmun civilization, written about only in Sumerian cuniform texts. They have excavated only about 25% of the fort.

The architecture in Bahrain is amazing - like in Riyadh.

Josh by the dock.

Men working on boats by the dock.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Our little one-year-old

Now that Sebastian is one, he is definitely more expressive. He babbles cutely and points with his index finger to anything he thinks is interesting. He also squawks noisily in protest if we try to pull him back from banging on our computer keys. He cheerfully waves hello and goodbye. And he loves to wave and play peekaboo on web cam! He knows that those are real people's faces on that computer screen.

Stacking his blocks is another new talent he has mastered:

Teething again - let's try sucking on a foot this time!

He loves Daddy's rides.

He's getting far too adept at opening cupboards and pulling out garbage, rags, and cooking utensils. We might need to get some baby locks - ug.

A few photos from his big day:

Misha helps Sebby rip into his present.

What is it?

A bathtub boat!

We got Misha a surprise too, in honor of being the big brother. He is eagerly practicing his new magic tricks.

Magic lessons from Dad.

Father and son.

Sebastian received a birthday card in the mail from his Great Grandma Mary, just a few days after she died. She was the last of my grandparents. I was always amazed at how she remembered the birthdays of all her children, grandchildren, and even all her great-grand children.

Other recent pictures:

Misha jumped right into this paint-by-number project we found in the bookstore. He also loves watercolors.

A date at Fuddruckers.

A family night out at an Italian pizza place called Amore. Here are the boys about to devour the tiramisu.

Enjoying a shake.

My handsome husband.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Women In Black


As we women teachers get ready to leave the university at the end of the day, we all put on our abayas and head scarves, as dictated by the dress code. (The full face veil worn by my friend on the left is not required for us but it is worn by all of the students. Just so you know, she doesn't typically wear her niqab; she wanted a more dramatic photo!) Normally, I don't wear the head scarf when I'm out shopping or walking, but since it's university policy, I do wear it each morning for about 4 seconds as I walk from the taxi to the university gate, at which point I disappear behind portable wooden walls that are staggered so as to hide the women the instant they enter the building. There are a few men guards who sit outside the gate. At times, they have to pass a note to the inside. They then stand by the gate, and a (covered) woman collects the note to take into the secretive world within, a world the guards can never know.

Inside the university, the students and staff are actually required to NOT wear the abaya, interestingly enough. Here we are in our staff offices.

Let's look at some pros and cons of wearing the abaya.

The cons are fairly obvious:
1. It's hot.
2. It's baggy. I catch my sleeves on apple stems and start landslides of fruit in the stores. I also step on the bottom of it, especially on steps. Also, I have nearly died trying to get into a flying-car ride at the mall.
3. The snaps pop open when I scootch over in the taxi or squat down. A white knee poking out? Scandalous!
4. It doesn't leave much room for personality in one's dress. However, you can find abayas with embroidery.

But there are a few pros:
1. It protects my clothes from dust. Josh's pants get covered in dust, while my skirt stays pristine.
2. If we're going grocery shopping, I can wear shorts and a tank top underneath, or even pajamas, because no one will ever see. Western men are discouraged from wearing shorts, unless they're on the compound.
3. If I get cold, as I often do at work or in restaurants, I always have it with me to give me an extra layer.
4. I have the perfect costume if I ever want to dress up as Hermione Granger ... or as a Dementor.

Arabic 101

Misha is an expert at counting to 10 in Arabic. See for yourself! Though most of his preschool is taught in English, he is exposed to some Arabic and he has learned the most common expressions that you hear. Two of his favorite words are la and halas (meaning "no!" and "that's enough/that's all!") - particularly with respect to his little brother.

He knows shokran for "thank you." He also knows alhamdulila, which means "thanks be to God," and is said in many, many situations. For example, when they finish eating lunch at school, they say alhamdulila. When you ask someone kaifa hal? ("how are you?"), they usually answer with just one word: alhamdulila. When someone asks how my children are doing, and I respond that they are well, they say with a smile, alhamdulila. When people talk of anything that happened for the best, they always include this word. For example, if there was an accident, they will say, "But we were all right, alhamdulila." If there was an exam, they might say, "I got full marks, alhamdulila!"

Arabic would not be Arabic without the phrase inshallah. It means "God willing" and it is sprinkled throughout conversation in places where we might use a word like "maybe" or "probably" or "hopefully," popping up for sure in any discussion about the future. Students will say, "I want to be a doctor, inshallah," or "See you next week, inshallah." When we teachers assign homework and tell them, "This is due tomorrow. Bring it with you!" the students (it never fails) respond with, "Yes, teacher. Inshallah." When, as it sometimes happens, some students come to class the next day without their homework and we tell them to bring it the following day, they say the same thing. "Yes, tomorrow, inshallah!"

Josh and I are now able to get around with basic Arabic. Last weekend on a little drive around the city, we managed to end up in an area that we were completely unfamiliar with. We rolled down our window and asked a cheerful, sparkly-eyed old Saudi in the car beside us, "Wen Faisalia?" ("Where is the Faisalia?" The Faisalia, if you remember, is the tall, pointed skyscraper near our compound.) He told us in Arabic to go straight, then turn left. We drove straight for awhile, and then suddenly noticed the same guy was suddenly beside us again, telling us we just missed our turn. He drove ahead of us to lead us to the U-turn and onto the right street. "Straight, baden yemin," he told us in a mix of English and Arabic. Straight, then right. We found our destination right away.

I have also had a few conversations in the women's waiting area at the clinic. (The waiting rooms, like everything else, are separate for men and women.) Sebastian was toddling around the room, and an older woman, completely cloaked, asked, "Kam amur?" ("How old is he?") We then had a small discussion about our kids, families, where we were from, and what we do.

We know enough Arabic to surprise our students; but then again, the students are easily impressed. If we say something in Arabic to them, it is not uncommon that they will start clapping with delight!

There are many different dialects of Arabic, adding to the challenge. The formal vs. informal is just one distinction. When I ask my students to tell me a word in Arabic, the first thing they say is, "Do you want formal, or informal?" In writing and when speaking with important people, they use formal. In everyday conversation, however, they use informal. The nice thing about the formal Arabic is that you will be understood in any Arabic-speaking country. The informal dialects change depending on the country and even the regions within a country. My students argue among themselves about the pronunciation of a word because they come from different parts of Saudi Arabia. How do we deal with this? Well, we just try to learn it all. We learn the formal word, the Saudi informal, and sometimes the Egyptian informal too - since we will be going there soon! For example, all of the following are ways to say "what": mathaa, ma, esh, wesh, shu. It depends if one is speaking formal or informal or Saudi or Egyptian.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Women in the Headlines

At times, life here feels so normal that it's slightly disappointing. You can order delivery from Pizza Hut, find Betty Crocker cake mixes and Hershey's chocolate chips, and buy Gap jeans. And then at other times, life is so completely bizarre that it feels surreal. The recent topic in the news about breastfeeding one's male co-workers definitely falls into the surreal category.

It takes a bit of background to understand why this issue came up. Saudi Arabia, as you know, interprets Islam very strictly in the sense of segregating the sexes. A woman can not interact with a man unless she is related to him. The exception to this, however, is if she has breastfed a male as an infant. This makes him a “breast-milk son” and the “son” is allowed to be with the “mother,” even when she is uncovered, throughout his life. Technically, Islamic Law calls for five fulfilling breast-milk meals before the child is two years old to clinch the privilege of considering him a relative.

Recently, a prominent Sheikh and adviser to the royal family, Sheikh Obeikan, issued a fatwa (a religious opinion concerning Islamic Law) that women who work with men should give them their breast-milk to establish maternal relations, thereby eliminating the chance of sexual relations. This idea was first advocated three years ago by a scholar at Al Azhar University in Egypt, who was then fired for his statement. He later retracted it and was rehired last year.

The debates going on now concern how to give the men the milk. Should they drink pumped breast-milk from a cup? Or should they suckle directly from the breast, as Sheikh Al Huwaini insists? You can't help but wonder about the logic of preventing sexual relations by having a man suck on a woman's nipples! I think Eman Al Nafjan, the author of Saudiwoman's Weblog, summed up the debate quite nicely:

“The whole issue just shows how clueless men are. All this back and forth between sheikhs and not one bothers to ask a woman if it is logical, let alone possible to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breastmilk meals. As I’m writing this, I’m cringing at just the thought of it. I’m a huge advocate of breastfeeding and I’ve exclusively breastfed my three kids for at least six months each. Plus I’ve also done the 'breastmilk sibling' thing for two nephews and a niece. Breastfeeding a baby is hard work and it takes a toll to be able to produce enough for a one year old, I can’t even imagine how much a thirty year old would need. … Moreover the thought of a huge hairy face at a woman’s breast does not evoke motherly or even brotherly feelings. It could go from the grotesque to the erotic but definitely not maternal!”

She also commented that for a society so concerned that women cover every inch of their bodies in shapeless black cloaks and keep everyone as much as possible in single-sex environments, the culture is remarkably obsessed with women. Quite true.

Though women are prohibited from doing many activities, from voting to driving to traveling alone, the government has been gradually increasing women's rights, always careful to keep with the people's Islamic traditions. In Saudi Arabia, it's the people, not the government, that hold so closely to their religion. The government has to walk the fine line of modernization and maintaining tradition. Something the government will not do is implement a drastic change that will cause widespread controversy, thereby subjecting themselves to the criticism of being un-Islamic.

The Arab News website recently featured a compilation of KSA's progress in women's rights. In 2008, Mecca's governor revised a labor law that prevented men and women from interacting in a work environment. Also in 2008, the Labor Ministry allowed women to make the choice to start or stop working, without having to defer to a male guardian. (That being said, most women would never go against the head of the family.) The Labor Ministry also reversed the ban on women staying in hotels alone. In February of 2009, King Abdullah appointed a woman to the position of deputy minister of education – that's the highest public office held by a woman in the KSA so far. In December of 2009, the first woman was appointed to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jeddah, and since then, four more women have joined the CCI in the Kingdom.

Many topics, while not yet laws, are being debated – such as allowing women to travel abroad or to other Gulf countries alone and allowing women to participate in elections. Other topics are more controversial, such as women driving and women's sports centers, but they still come up in debates. It looks like women driving will not happen any time soon; however, since Saudi Arabia is trying to decrease its dependence on foreign labor, allowing women to drive themselves only makes sense. Most of the girls I have talked to do not desire to drive in Riyadh, but they would like the opportunity to drive if they lived abroad. Also, many girls told me they have been taught how to drive in the desert by their fathers. Perhaps the public is more accepting of the idea than they realize. Even if women had the right to drive, I'm sure very few women would take advantage of it, at least in the beginning. But all they need is a beginning.

Women's sports centers seems like a fairly innocuous subject – but here, it's not. Centers for women do exist, but they are very expensive, not for youth, and not widely accepted by either sex. In this society struggling with obesity, diabetes, fast food mania, and a sedentary lifestyle in unbearable desert heat, what could possibly challenge a push toward exercise for girls? Sadly, many things. Some feel that sports centers only encourage girls to leave home unnecessarily – to enter a place where they will dress inappropriately in work-out clothes, listen to music, and waste their time. One mother in the article was quoted as saying, “It is a waste of time and religiously unacceptable for a girl to leave home for anything apart from education or work. A woman’s place is the home. It is more important for her to look after her kids and husband. Don’t tell me obesity is increasing — working at home gives her all the energy she needs.”

This is very sad. Women are now encouraged to study – so why should care of the body be any less important? However, I'm sure there are many in favor of sports centers, just as there are many opposed. Even for myself, living in a compound with access to a gym and a swimming pool, I find Saudi Arabia a difficult country to exercise in. The heat, the abaya, the traffic, and the random sidewalks are all deterrents to going out for a walk or a bike ride. Boys can play soccer, but I have not seen anywhere where women can play sports. And since Saudi Arabia interprets music as too worldly, art forms such as dance are out. (I was puzzled by this. A student explained to me that she doesn't listen to music because she wants to hear the music in heaven. If she listens to music now, she says she won't be able to hear it at the end. However, the vast majority of students love music – Arabic music, western music, you name it. It's kind of odd shopping in a mall where the only burst of music comes from the occasional ring-tones of cell phones!) From talking with my students, I get the general feeling that they would love having access to a gym at the university (after all, the boys' campus has one). At the same time, though, they are mostly content with their current role in society – they have told me on more than one occasion that “women are diamonds” in Saudi Arabia.

If you would like further information, I encourage you to read any of the following articles. I found them extremely interesting.

What's front page news in Saudi Arabia?

Women's rights gain focus in the Kingdom

Saudi clerics advocate adult breast-feeding

Will the Kingdom ever have sports centers for women?

Women will not drive cars in Saudi Arabia

Friday, June 18, 2010

Our Weekend in Pictures

We had a very nice weekend - not in the sense of accomplishing a lot or going a lot of places, but definitely in the sense of relaxing, getting refreshed, and spending some QT with the kids. Sebastian sucks our time and attention by default, but with Misha I really have to make sure I'm actively spending time with him. His behavior and self-esteem are so much better when I give him lots of attention. This weekend was good for that.

In honor of Sebastian's first birthday tomorrow, I have included several portraits of him. He has hit a new stage of cuteness - so curious, smart, intent, and happy! It's impossible not to be in a good mood when he's babbling cutely and handing you a toy. Misha and I made a chocolate cake yesterday to celebrate a little - and we also took on most of the responsibility of eating it.

Check out that new top tooth! That makes three.

And in honor of Father's Day tomorrow as well, here are a few shots of the man of the house and his charming sons. :) Happy Father's Day, Josh!

A good weekend entails several trips to the pool:

I brought food coloring from the States (though I wouldn't have needed to) so we could make play-do -- and this weekend, to Misha's great delight, we got around to making it!

Here he is, intent on his work. Below, our creations dry at top speed in the 50-degree Celcius heat wave outside on the balcony.

"Friday" night (actually Wed. night) we had some friends over (fellow teachers) and had a pizza party! Pizza Hut delivers all over the world -even if the pepperoni is actually beef here!

We also got in a game of Monopoly - or, as Misha calls it, "Na-opoly"!

Earlier in the week we hit a cool seafood restaurant, which is decorated everywhere with very cool fish tanks. Here is Misha's impression of a fish:

Weekends are the time for special breakfasts, like pancakes:

Both kids love pancakes!

Misha is forever doing art projects. Give him paper, scissors, and glue, and he goes to town. He made these bunny ears for himself. Later, he added pockets to the ears, with removable colored inside-ear pieces. Very creative.

Misha and I spent a few days recreating an old board game we have back home. This is the new version of "Mystic Tower," a 3-D game with moving parts.

At some point during the weekend, we always get groceries. Misha is appreciating this very large green squash.

Sebastian has discovered how to roll a ball between his own legs!

Play time at the park - the joy of sand.

Time for some basketball!

Misha had fun playing ball with another kid on the compound.

Good throw!

For a bit of what goes on during the week, see below. Here I am in my proper work attire (elbow-length sleeves and floor-length skirt) with a presentation some of my students made on Switzerland for International Day in the cafeteria.

And Misha has been having a great time at preschool, as you can see from the following photos provided by his school!

Ice cream art projects.

Class photo

By the ABCs

In the classroom. :)