Monday, December 27, 2010

Sunset at Red Sands

Though the title of this post may sound like some kind of romance novel, it actually refers to the second desert trek we've made. The week before Christmas, we drove out of the city about an hour and a half to a place called Red Sands. It was amazing to watch the desert turn from its usual beige to a very distinct, rich red color, which only intensified as the sun sank lower. We parked our car near the others and started off on a little hike to explore the surroundings. The views were gorgeous - huge, red dunes rising from a landscape of grey dotted with hardy shrubs.

The sand was the kind of sand you would imagine finding on the perfect beach - incredibly soft, clean, super-fine, and a beautiful auburn color. We all had fun climbing the dunes and giving our legs a work-out. It's not unlike climbing a snow pile - especially how your feet sink in deep and the sand pours into your shoes. Misha, though tired at first, perked up when he saw us trudging up the red mountain of sand, and he came dashing up after us. Once at the top, he started to slide down on his stomach, until his parents suggested he not! (It was quite steep.) Sebastian also fell in love with the sand, so much so that he laid down on his stomach and went "swimming"!

Josh climbs the dune.

Hello from the top!

Sebastian, happy as a clam.

At the top of the dune, we admired the view of the whitish, flat desert on one side and the endless, billowing red waves on the other. We could even see the tiny "wave lines" in the sand made by the wind. Just like in a movie!

After our gallivanting up and down the dunes (and envying some of the others who were rolling over the sands in their ATVs), we circled back to our meeting place by the cars and had a small picnic before packing up and heading back. This time, we thought it best to leave before it was completely dark (like last time!) and it was a huge help in navigating our way back to the world of pavement.

Picnic time for the brothers.

For your viewing pleasure, I have included all my favorite photos:

Our family with our Canadian friend, Georgina. The white bars behind us keep cars out but allow camels to pass through.

Sebastian explores desert plant life.

Daddy and Sebby

Little boy in a big desert

The world is a big place ... better get started!

The backbone of the desert.

Misha climbed up this rocky cliff, which offers a great view of the Red Sands.

The kids on a walk

Josh and I back at the camp.

The sun starts to set. The tiny figures at the bottom are Sebby and me.

The rich red stands out against the blue, blue sky.

Camel tracks.

As we drove back toward the road, we passed several camels who were wandering back to their farm for the evening. They walked right in front of the car!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beginning to look "a bit" like Christmas

Though Christmas in Saudi Arabia is kind of an oxymoron, we have been getting into the Christmas spirit nonetheless. The kids make it feel like Christmas really is coming, especially how Misha counts down the days every day as he opens a door on the calendar we made.

Just like last year, we made a big tree calendar and Misha drew the pictures behind each door.

We then wrapped our door with an entire roll of (birthday) wrapping paper we found in the compound convenience store ...

and cut snowflakes to decorate our windows and cupboards!

We definitely miss the snow. Last year's heap of snow on Christmas day made the celebration all the cozier. Here, instead of snowstorms, we have sandstorms! This is the view from our balcony, which looks out to the Kingdom Tower that has vanished in the sand. Impressive!

The sandstorm from Josh's campus.

We were very excited when we noticed that the compound's little store also had actual Christmas trees available. Things in KSA have definitely loosened up since the times that airport security used to confiscate Christmas cards from newly arrived Westerners. We even found candy canes in the Safeway-owned grocery store chain Tamimi!

The kids love the tree. Misha loves it because he knows what goes under it, and Sebastian loves it because he likes to pull on the lights. We wrapped a few presents finally a couple days ago, and Misha noticed right away the next morning with a gleeful exclamation: "Mommy, there's hundreds of presents under the tree!" (There were 5.) How can it not feel like Christmas with kids?

Exploring ...

Josh and I got an early taste of Christmas when we attended the "Winter Wonderland" party at the U.S. Embassy. It was a formal event, so we dressed up.

Hot chocolate and marshmallows - perfect for the season.

Meanwhile, we have nice, cool weather with highs of 70-some and lows in the 40s. Here we are back at Salam Park, our favorite outdoor spot.

We observed this interesting entertainment option for kids at the park - hop inside the bubble!

Sebby takes a ride on the slide, with a new friend along.

Sebby discovers Ramen Noodles.

The kids playing happily together. Short-lived, of course!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

One of the things that jumps to people's minds about marriages in Saudi Arabia is the fact that they are arranged. And since their society segregates the genders from even the most innocuous mixing, getting married is a huge step into a very different world for both the bride and groom. My students, like all Saudi women, socialize only with other women, attend school with only women, and even party with only women. Likewise, the men socialize only with other men. As this is a considerable contrast to relationships and marriages in America, I have always been curious to get my students' thoughts about their customs.

Discussing weddings is perfectly fine in class, but when it comes to religious issues, we foreign teachers must be quite delicate. So, my discussion topic was simply Saudi weddings, and I asked them various questions in small groups and learned all I could. Since I have gotten to know them now for several weeks, I feel I can ask them for their honest opinions. They are always eager to share their traditions.

A lot of them love dressing up and buying expensive dresses ($1000 or more for a fancy wedding) – and of course, they say you can't re-wear a dress to another wedding unless there is an entirely new set of guests! Since they come from large families (they generally have between 3 and 10 siblings, sometimes more), going to a wedding is a very common event here. Weddings are, naturally, segregated. Basically, for these girls, a wedding is a chance to dress up, eat, talk, and dance ... with other dressed-up women. At some point in the long, late evening, they may have a chance to glimpse the bride and groom together, but only if they cover their stunning dresses and hairdos with their abayas and scarves. On the men's side, the guests sit, talk, and have a meal. They never see the bride unless they are directly related to her. After the wedding, the couple takes off on a honeymoon – which often lasts a whole month as the name implies, and almost always involves destinations outside the country, such as Malaysia or Europe.

Most university-aged women today are not yet married. In fact, most of them have no desire to bear the burden of a husband and family any time soon. They are content to enjoy their freedom and friends and to pursue their studies. Most want to graduate and have a job before they even think about getting married. Some of them have had marriage offers but have refused. Of course, it was different in the past. The majority of my students' mothers were married at around age 18, and most of their grandmothers were married between 10 and 15. Can you imagine being married at 15? I asked. They shook their heads, eyes filled with relief that they did not share their grandmothers' fate. These girls - with their education, Blackberries, designer clothes, and private pools - can no more imagine being a wife at 15 than I can.

Since marriages are arranged in Saudi, there is virtually no chance of choosing one's spouse. However, marriages to cousins are quite common. Some girls find this a positive factor, because they have a better chance of knowing the boy if they have played with him as a child or grown up with him around. Some girls, however, dislike this tradition, especially if a girl is matched up from childhood with a fellow cousin and given no choice in the matter. When I asked if parental pressure is a large issue with marriages, I got mixed answers. Some told me that there was absolutely no pressure and that the final decision to marry someone rested with the woman. Others told me that within some families there is intense pressure, leaving the girl, and often the boy as well, with virtually no say.

It is the man, with the help of his mother and sisters, who actively seeks a bride. If his mother recommends someone, the man will approach the woman's father to arrange to meet her. This "first glimpse," which can last anywhere from five minutes to perhaps a half an hour, is the first time a woman is uncovered around an unrelated man. Naturally this produces plenty of anxiety for her! The woman's father is also present, but he may leave to allow the couple to speak privately for a short time. I asked the girls what they would say to a suitor. They either giggled or looked horrified and said they wouldn't say anything unless asked.

After this first glimpse, if both of them wish to continue seeing each other, they must sign a 'promise' of sorts that makes them a legal couple. They are then able to see each other in public, call each other, etc. during their engagement period. At an engagement party, the man presents expensive jewelry to her and pays a hefty dowry. As in our culture, the engagement can last a few months up to a year or more. If a girl gets engaged while in university, she will often wait until she finishes to have the wedding. Unlike in our culture, however, the engagement is an actual marriage contract, and breaking it technically means that the couple has divorced. I asked if the woman can change her mind during this engagement period, and they assured me that yes, of course she could. The wedding can be canceled, but she would still be considered divorced, despite never having enjoyed any of the significant perks of being married. (The couple can not live together until after the wedding, though the actual wedding party involves no ceremony. It is strictly a time to celebrate.). I then asked if breaking the engagement was embarrassing. Some told me no; it was up to the woman and she could break the contract with no serious problems. One girl's sister had done just this. Others, though, told me that yes, it was embarrassing – especially to be stuck with the "divorced" label.

The whims of men seeking brides have produced some amusing stories. One girl said her sister was in a candy shop and a man was so taken with her (despite her being covered) that he approached her parents and asked to arrange a meeting with her. Her parents refused, saying that their daughter was not a piece of candy. That was the end of that. Another girl told me a story about a man who saw a photograph of a woman on a birthday cake and immediately asked the store employee for her parents' contact information so he could marry her. It's hard to imagine things like this happening in any society other than one that keeps women so far out of the reach of men.

Eventually I wound my way around to asking the girls what they thought of their marriage system. Did arranged marriages work well? Did they wish they had more choice in who they married? I was actually a bit surprised at the responses. As I had expected, many of them said arranged marriages are an Islamic tradition and that their parents know best whom they should marry. Close to half of them, however, said they wished that they had opportunities to choose for themselves. Why? "Because how can I know if he is a good person?" they said. Five minutes is an awfully short time to judge that.

Only one of my students is married, and one is engaged. The one who is engaged said she saw her fiance for only five minutes at their first meeting. After deciding to continue the relationship, she received a special necklace from him and they are now able to get to know each other during their engagement. They can call each other and meet occasionally. Luckily, she seems very happy.

With just a few of my small groups, I broached the subject of multiple wives. I started by saying, "In Islam, a man can have four wives, right?" They said, yes, that's right, but the Qur'an stipulates that this is allowed only if he has the means to provide for them and only if he treats them all equally. Unfortunately, this rarely happens in real life, where wives often simply reflect on the man's social status. Somewhat awkwardly I asked, "So ... if your husband wanted another wife, would you be ok with that?" The answer was immediate: "No, Teacher!" they gasped. "Would you want that?? I would tell him to divorce me first! No woman would want that."

I know that many of Josh's students have fathers with multiple wives. I didn't outright ask my students if their fathers had more than one wife, and no one volunteered that information if they did. However, I asked about their grandfathers, and several of their grandfathers had two wives. Naturally, wives of the same husband can have rocky relationships. One girl has two sisters, both second wives of their respective husbands. One sister fights constantly with her husband's other wife, while the second sister actually gets along great with the first wife. Sometimes, they told me, a man will take a second wife to get revenge on his first wife if she doesn't treat him the way he demands. But sometimes, the husband and wives work together more productively. One of my students has an aunt who couldn't get pregnant, so she herself chose a second wife for her husband. Ironically, both women then got pregnant and they raised their children together!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Into the Desert

At long last, we have taken advantage of unique geographical location to go exploring in the desert! And I have to say it's the best thing we've done so far.

For our first foray into the sandy abyss (two weeks ago), we joined a large group of expats who arrange desert outings every weekend. It was helpful to have cars to follow out to our destination, Wadi Laban, aka "Buttermilk Canyon." The city road turned into a not-so-well-kept road but it was still paved. Eventually we turned off this road and headed out into pure packed desert. The "roads" were nothing more than paths etched in the sand by SUVs and other 4x4 vehicles, often indistinguishable from the rest of the desert. Most of the time, our little Hondai did pretty well, until near the end of the drive, when the sand became much looser and our car got stuck. Luckily, there were people to help us out.

You can see the tire track lines in the loose sand near our gathering point.

We all gathered near a big, lone tree in the valley, surrounded by beautiful canyon cliffs on each side. Then we divided into three groups, depending on what time of excercise one desired. We joined the "short walk" group, thinking that with two kids, the "long walk" and the "run" would be a bit much for us. The short walk turned out to be perfect. Misha had an absolute hay day climbing up and down the rocky canyon and running across the sand. Sebby kept wanting to walk as well, though the terrain made him fall a lot!

At one point on our walk, we were excited to see a group of camels wandering down the valley. The beautiful brown, black, and white creatures appeared rather nervous to see so many people in their usually-quiet canyon, and they picked up their speed. I don't believe I've ever seen camels run before!

Misha poses on a rock.

Little boy in the big desert.

A few plants add a touch of green to the sand.

Desert gourds?

Profile in the canyon.

Sunset in the desert.

Since it's the holiday season, the organizers planned a Christmas concert - with a sound system to pump out the carols and mics for live music. They also made a huge bonfire, which was much appreciated as the weather cooled off significantly. Here, the kids warm themselves by the fire.

Driving back to the city was another experience - but at least we didn't get stuck! It is quite easy to see how the beautiful, mysterious, lonely desert can also be quite terrifying if one were lost. I was glad to have the headlights of other cars behind us.

We will definitely be making more trips to the desert!