Thursday, February 24, 2011

Enjoying the Outdoors

There is something about going outside that is essential for mental health. The difference in mood is particularly evident in the kids. Once outside, the fighting stops and they become friends - brothers facing the world together. There is enough space for both of them to run and explore to their hearts' content. Of course, we go outside on the compound quite frequently, but even though it is convenient (and I don't need an abaya), it gets old. Hence, my main goal on the weekends is to get outside somewhere with some grass.

The photos featured here are from one of the few open, green spaces in Riyadh - our trusty hang-out spot Salam Park. The thing is, since there aren't that many places like it, it gets rather crowded, especially on the weekends.

Even so, the park is big enough for everyone, and I relish the moments when I can see Saudi families interacting together. In stores, people tend to keep to themselves, and in restaurants, families usually eat in booths behind drawn curtains. But at the park, there is something a lot closer to community life. People smile at me, children come up and ask Sebby's name, and everyone has consciously dedicated the day to enjoying the nice weather together.

Family shot on the bridge.

Misha took this shot of me. We took turns climbing the palm tree. Without an abaya, I think I could get a lot farther!

Misha poses between palm trunks.

Laying on the grass looking up ...

Beautiful fronds against a blue, blue sky!

Exploring some more.

In addition to riding the swan boat with Daddy, Misha tried out the a mini paddle boat just his size. He enjoyed it:


Sebby and I enjoy our little picnic.

Josh taking in the atmosphere.

And now for some people-watching photos. I really like these glimpses into every-day life here.

The park is filled with abayas. Most women wear the hijab (head scarf) and niqab (face veil) as well. The woman in front with the red scarf is probably not Saudi; perhaps she is Syrian or Egyptian. Plenty of men wear thobes (often white, but during winter it is common to see brown or dark-colored thobes), though plenty wear Western attire as well.
The woman on the left shows her personal style through her red nails, her shades, her bag, her phone, and her shoes.

Kids run and fly a kite on the hilltop.
A troop of boys follow their father.

The park scene is peppered with black, white, and splashes of color. People grill, picnic, and push strollers.

A woman walking around offered henna hand-designs for only 10 Riyal. Having never had henna before, I eagerly accepted. When I asked for a photo, she consented. It was nice buying something from a woman for once. And Misha was fascinated with her speed and skill at tracing out a pattern on my hand.

Up close.

The henna turned dark red by the next day and lasted for almost a week.

Back on the compound, the kids enjoy the little playground. Misha has made several friends on the compound now and it's so fun to watch him playing tag or "police" or "superheroes" with kids from different countries - Egypt, Czech Republic, Lebanon.

Sebby can now go down all the slides by himself. Here, he's trying to follow Misha back up the slide!

I am Sebby; hear me roar!

A Day on a Saudi "Farm"

Second semester for the university has just started up - meaning we all have new classes full of new students (24-plus per classroom) with lots of new names to learn. At least we had a few quiet weeks between semesters! During the weeks in between, the teachers had various workshops, trainings, or simply lots of time to read. For one of those days, the company that runs the English department invited all the teachers to visit their farm. What could be better than going to "work" outdoors? We had a very enjoyable day.

For us American and British teachers, the idea of a farm conjures up a place with muddy pigpens, fields of cows and horses, rolling hills of grass, wheat, and corn, and a homey barn with paint peeling off.

What does a Saudi farm look like? After riding in the bus for an hour, we arrived at ....
something that looked a bit more along the lines of a weekend get-away resort!

Instead of fields of wheat, there were lemon trees and palm trees. Instead of a dilapidated barn, there were several luxurious buildings, one with a pool inside. Instead of the farm animals we pictured, there were ostriches, pigeons, geese, and rabbits. And instead of rolling hills were neatly manicured lawns with beautiful gardens and a mini water amusement park. Perhaps the oddest part about it was that it looked like it was hardly ever used. Apparently many Saudis have farms, staffed with workers, that they visit only on the occasional weekend.

Cheerful lemon trees.

A cool-looking desert plant. As you can see, the farm is located in a valley between two rising, rocky cliffs.

A huge waterslide, covered in dust and winding its way to a pool drained of all but a few inches of water.

More water slides.

We were served a fabulous lunch buffet of traditional foods - kubsa (rice with chicken or lamb), mashi (stuffed peppers or zucchini), rice-stuffed vine leaves, kibbeh (round bread balls with meat and onions inside), hummus, samosa (fried triangles with meat or cheese inside), salads, fruits, deserts, and much, much more.

Before and after lunch, we could wander the grounds at our leisure. The nice weather and the playground equipment brought our the inner children in us, and we rode the swings and teeter-totters and did cartwheels. Then we admired the animals.

The pigeon coop.

Ostriches are so unique looking up close!

Since male and female teachers certainly couldn't be allowed to mingle, the women's campus day was on a Tuesday while Josh went the next day with the male campus. Children were invited along for the men's day (but they were not allowed for the women's outing, which puzzled me), so Misha got to enjoy the farm as well.

He loved the ostriches

and he got to play on the playground equipment with some of the other kids.

Now this is a scene that would fit into any farm. :)

The Return of the King

King Abdullah has returned to Saudi Arabia. Since he was out of the country for the last three months, having back surgery in New York and recovering in Morocco, his return yesterday is a BIG deal. In the last few days, I have noticed the appearance of rows and rows of green Saudi flags and hundreds of posters, billboards, and several-stories-high banners of the 86-year-old King, waving from the road with a friendly smile, traditional dress, and his youthful brown beard. The posters are accompanied by words welcoming him home and saying "alhamdulilah" for his good health.

This poster of King Abdullah waves to the traffic from the median. I took these photos from my taxi on the way home from work.

Josh and I have watched in astonishment as nearly all the countries immediately surrounding us have erupted in protests against their leaders. Tunisia (whose leader took refuge in Saudi Arabia) was just the beginning. We watched Egypt with curiosity, recognizing names of places we had been only last summer (our youth hostel in Cairo was right by Tahrir Square). Many of our Egyptian friends and co-workers kept a constant eye on the news, celebrating the day of Mubarak's removal from power with chocolate cake all around. Bahrain was another big surprise, especially the violent way in which the government reacted against protesters. Josh took a small weekend trip there with some work friends just one weekend before the protests broke out. Other protests have been happening in Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, and - particularly disheartening - in Libya, where the government's blatant turn against its people has resulted in between 300 and 700 deaths so far, depending on sources.

All of this has people wondering what this means for Saudi Arabia. However, protests in Saudi have always been nearly nonexistent. It seems to me that either the people truly revere their beloved King, or that the King has an excellent PR office. Perhaps both are true. When the girls at university write about their role models, they often choose a parent, Prophet Mohammad, a past king, or King Abdullah himself. One of the first celebrations in Misha's kindergarten this year was in honor of the King. Misha came home with Saudi flags, buttons of King Abdullah, a crown with King Abdullah inside a heart, and coloring sheets that read "I am Misha and I love King Abdulah." We have read and heard that King Abdullah is moderate and modern-minded, trying to lead his people gently in the future. That seems to be an accurate description.

That being said, the fact that the King has, upon his return, just allocated 35 billion dollars to programs to benefit Saudi citizens seems to lead one to conclude that he is slightly concerned about the possibility of his citizens taking this moment to make some demands. Government employees will receive a 15 percent raise, and huge amounts of money are going toward education-abroad funds and housing loans for the people. In addition, the King has proclaimed that this coming Saturday be a national holiday - which means no school! We are all thrilled to have our first-ever three-day weekend. With teachers proclaiming "Long live the King" and students in great moods about their extended weekend, it seems that the King's decision has indeed boosted public opinion of him.

The King smiles from the overpass with the Faisalia Tower in the background.

For those wondering if we feel safe here, the answer is yes. We do, naturally, feel restricted in various other ways, but with safety, we have no qualms. In all of the Middle East, I don't doubt that we are in the safest place possible.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


You may have noticed that we have not been to a lot of Saudi homes. In fact, the only time we went was once last year when one of Josh's older students invited us over to eat with his wife and family. We have heard and read that the Saudi culture is very private, and it takes a lot of time to enter into their inner circle of friends. This has proven true in our experience (but this is not to say that they are unfriendly). So, when one of my students from the first semester asked if I would like to come to her house for her older sister's celebration of her newborn baby, I jumped at the chance.

My student Nouf has a Saudi father and an Egyptian mother. Egyptian tradition calls for a celebration when the newborn is seven days old, which happened to fall most conveniently on the weekend – a Thursday night. So, while Josh was out paint-balling with his students, Misha, Sebby, and I got to hang out with my student's family. Since this is Saudi Arabia, the celebration was women-only. My student is one of 10 children – so that meant that I was ushered in to a room full of her sisters, her brothers' wives, the sisters of her brothers' wives, her mother, her mother's sisters, and her cousins, nieces, and young nephews.

Since I knew I wouldn't be taking any photos of the women, I left my camera with Josh for his paint-balling excursion. However, I did take a few photos of the evening with my iphone – all showing the children only, of course. My student said that she personally doesn't mind people taking her picture, but as her father is Saudi, he wouldn't allow it!

To start off, they brought the sleepy newborn to the middle of the floor, where the grandmother stepped carefully over her seven times to the rhythmic ringing of something that looked like a mortar and pestle made of metal. The other women watched and clapped, the smell of incense filling the room. Then came the children's candle parade. Each child received a lit candle and marched around the house in a grand circle to the musical clanging. Misha was thrilled to join the parade with his candle, and Sebastian was fascinated by the flame's bright glow.

A young cousin lights Misha's candle.

Two cute girls with their candles.

Sebby with his briefly-lit candle.

Then came the feast, which, as far as I could tell, consisted entirely of sweets. The long blanket spread out on the floor was filled to the brim with huge boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, platefuls of sweet laban bread, cinnamon rolls, baklava, chocolate cake, honey-soaked balls, custards, powdered-sugar doughnuts, dates, and cups full of Arabic coffee and sweet tea. Everyone ate to her heart's content and then some. It was a bit odd to watch mothers serving spoonful after spoonful of chocolate cake into their young children's mouths!

I loved this cute little guy with his Saudi shumagh!

Afterwards, Misha and Sebby ran around outside within the walled courtyard, playing on bikes and scooters with the other children. When they got cold, they came inside to another room, where my student and her sisters showed me the difference between Egyptian and Saudi dancing to the tunes of their favorite Arabic singers. It was a nice evening, and I am very glad I got to join in. I got an affectionate hug and kiss from my student's mother before I left, and Misha and Sebby came away with bags full of little toys and treats.

Meanwhile, Josh enjoyed paint-balling with his fun-loving students. He had high-level students this past semester, many of whom have even lived in the US for a number of years. They have taken Josh out to eat on more than one occasion, and they decided to do a class paintball trip before the semester ended.

Josh and his class, in paint-ball gear.

Josh after being shot in the eye.

Another new contact we have made here is Misha's kindergarten teacher. Misha has nothing but praise for his wonderful Teacher Noura, and I'm happy that he's so excited to go to school every morning. He has even told me that he wishes she were his mom! (How can I compete with someone who gives him toys, chips, and chocolate every day?) Up until a few weeks ago, we had only communicated through Misha or through cryptic text messages that appeared to get lost in translation. But then, she surprised us and invited us out to eat with her family. We all met at a Chinese restaurant and enjoyed an opulent meal together - and they paid for everything before we even realized it.

Misha and his teacher's one-year-old daughter, Haifa.

And Misha with his teacher's husband, Mosa. Glaringly absent, of course, is the picture of Misha with his teacher herself, ... but c'est la vie in Saudi Arabia!

Only increasing his teacher's status in Misha's eyes is this pet turtle that came home from school with him one day in a tupperware bowl. I was a bit surprised to say the least! Who sends home a turtle as a gift with a kindergartner?? But we have adopted him and he now lives in a slightly larger pot on the counter!

Sebby is excited about our new pet too.

Misha's drawing of Alfie, the turtle. (Named for the tortoise in the book Essio Trot by Roald Dahl.)

Alfie up close.