Friday, April 29, 2011

Melkah! A Pre-Wedding Celebration

As you know, I was hoping to attend a Saudi wedding party before I left this country, so I am happy to say that recently I got the chance to see a "melkah." A melkah is a pre-wedding party in which the bride and groom sign the marriage contract, making it official. The melkah is usually just a small gathering followed by a big wedding; but in this case, the bride was having a small, private wedding, so she had a huge melkah - just the kind of thing I had been hoping to see.

The bride was the sister of one of my Saudi co-workers from last year. After checking with her on what was acceptable to wear, I organized my ride and got dressed. Saudi events are always very late – which would explain why I was zipping up my little black dress and putting on mascara at 10:00 at night, while my husband and kids were already fast asleep in bed!

Another teacher and I shared a taxi and made the long journey to the area of town where all the wedding halls were. When we reached the hall, we slipped inside, took off our abayas, checked our camera devices, got squirted with perfume and wafted with incense by the welcomers, and entered the all-women party. We walked in tentatively, looking around for one familiar face – but there was none. A lady approached us and asked us whom we knew at this wedding. We told her our friend's name, but the woman looked confused. To our embarrassment, we were at the wrong party. As we tried to call our friend and get better directions, the women at the current wedding invited us to stay and enjoy their party. "Thank you; that's so nice," we said, "but our friend is waiting!" Luckily, our friend sent her 16-year-old brother in a new white truck to show us the way to the correct wedding hall.

This time when we walked in, we immediately saw our friend Hanan in a beautiful sea-green dress with a jeweled top. We entered the lavishly-decorated hall packed with rows and rows of tables draped in white and topped with elaborate fresh flowers with sparkly lights. Carafes of coffee and tea, goblets of fresh juice, platters of savory pastries, and plates of Arabic sweets, chocolates, and tidbits to dip in various sweet sauces also filled every table.

We joined a table with a few other staff members from work and admired everything around us. The most impressive thing was the dresses. I felt quite plain in my simple black dress with no jewelry, especially next to all the other outfits on display. By American standards, these dresses would seem gaudy. I wish I could have taken photos, but that would have been impossible. Suffice it to say that huge flowers, bows, sequins, and jewels were everywhere. And the make-up! Eyes, cheeks, lips – everything was outlined and colored to an extreme extent. We found one woman particularly astounding – her eyes from lid to eyebrow were a dazzling green outlined in black. Her cheeks were topped with red, while the rest of her face was daubed in white. To top if off, her dress was the same shade of green as her eyes. The effect was, to euphemize, unusual.

A stage in the front of the hall was never empty. The wedding singer and her band of ladies sat on the edge and performed traditional wedding songs while members of the wedding party danced enticingly for an audience of only women. We learned that wedding singers can cost a fortune, depending on how elaborate of band one wants. It is possible to pay up to 150,000 Riyal (almost $40,000) for one night's entertainment. A full band includes not only the drums but the stringed instruments and flutes as well. Generally, the more religious a family is, the simpler the band. In this case, the singer was accompanied with drums only. We enjoyed watching more and more people crowd onto the stage to dance, including the bride herself, who after a while, led a parade of women through the middle of the hall before disappearing to sign the contract and escape the party. The guests stayed to dance and eat late into the night. I liked seeing the young girls attempting to imitate the older women's style of Arabic dance, stepping around the stage with one foot always leading, swirling their arms, and working their shoulders and hips. Young boys in pristine white thobes were present also – but when they grow up, they will never again be allowed to see what happens in a women's wedding hall.

At 1 a.m., the feast was served. (Yes, at 1 a.m.) Since the time was pushing our limits and since we didn't feel even slightly hungry, we just admired the food before finding our taxi home again. (Some people, like us, did have to work the next morning!) The food looked fantastic. It was a long buffet of traditional Arabic dishes – grape leaves with rice, sambosa, and on and on until the final huge platters of kupsa (rice) topped with lamb meat and even the lamb's head. The desert table had a five-layer cake and other specialties.

We met the bride's mother (who seemed very sweet) and said goodbye to our friends before sneaking away to find our ride. Once at home, I collapsed in bed, the beat of the drums still pounding in my ears.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Multicultural Birthday

Misha celebrated both his 5th and 6th birthdays in Saudi Arabia, but the difference between the two is immense. He turned five just two weeks after we arrived in Riyadh, well before we knew anybody here. His party was a family affair – just Mom, Dad, and Sebby as guests – in the hotel where we stayed for the first few weeks. We celebrated with a cake he picked out from the grocery store and some new toys to start him off in his new world.

His 6th birthday this April marked the culmination of a year's-worth of new friendships and life-changing exeriences. He had a school party and a home party. I was thinking that they would both be modest but fun celebrations; obviously I was forgetting that the culture we are in seizes each and every occasion, no matter how small, to have as big of party as possible. I sent 30-some homemade chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles to his kindergarten to share with his morning class, as well as several packs of cookies to distribute to the afternoon group for the day-care session. When I picked Misha up at the end of the day, he exclaimed, "It wasn't just a little party, Mom – it was a REAL party!" He described how his teacher brought her own huge cake for him in addition to the cupcakes I sent. He had to close his eyes before being led into a room decorated for the party, where they sang to him in English and Arabic and showered him with sugar and gifts. We needed a super-size bag to bring all of his presents home – each of the eight teachers he sees throughout the day gave him a gift. And not just a little kleenex-boxed-sized gift. No, we're talking huge, colorfully-wrapped boxes and bulging, sparkly gift bags. He got car sets, a watch, art sets, and enough remote-control cars to fill up a cupboard.

Ready to haul home the presents from school.

We had his home party the following day, since it was a weekend. My simple plan of ordering pizza and having the entire party outdoors at the pool actually worked out amazingly well. He had four of his good friends from the compound plus an American friend, the son of another teacher -- and of course, Sebby (who can now say "birt-day!"). The pool kept everyone happy and active, and the weather was great for swimming, splashing and squirt gun fighting. After swimming came the pizza and cake (topped with a cut-out of Misha the Power Ranger, his number six candle, and outdoor-only sparkler candles), followed by a burst of present-opening. Once again, Misha received a ton of large, flashy presents – more cars, trains, coloring books, airplanes! He had such a ridiculous amount of presents that Josh and I didn't even give him the gifts we picked out for him until the end of the week. He loved our choices - treasures from the little stands and stalls in the old Dira Souq - every bit as much as we knew he would. A collapsing telescope, an old-fashioned minute timer, shiny mini camel figurines, and a treasure box with a secret opening are right up Misha's alley.

As our time in Saudi Arabia comes to an end, we are very happy that Misha was able to have such a positive experience here. Being in a local kindergarten has really helped him build confidence and interact with the culture in a much more meaningful way than most foreigners are able. His multicultural friends on the compound have also been great for him as he explores his expanding world.

Naturally, I took many photos of his party. Unfortunately, our camera's memory card is going to need a little persuading before it relinquishes the precious photos it contains. I'm sure eventually I can find a way to retrieve them, but for now, all I have is the one shot from my iPhone of Misha at school.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Superheroes at the Door

One day a couple of weeks ago, we had a knock at the door. I opened it to find a little Spiderman and a little Bakugan, asking eagerly if Misha could come play superheroes with them. Misha's immediate response was, "I'll go get my Power Ranger costume!" and soon three superheroes could be seen dashing around the compound fighting imaginary bad guys and climbing all over the playground. They have continued their adventures on several more afternoons - and even inspired other children on the compound to don their disguises as well. I am so glad Misha has found friends within the compound. They now play at each others' houses as well as play outside together.

Three international superheroes: Misha (the American Power Ranger), Mark (the Czech Spiderman) and Omar (the Egyptian Bakugan).

Power Rangers need shoes.

Tag at the playground.

Flying on the swings.

Faster than a speeding bullet ... wait, wrong superhero.

A few other shots of the family:

Misha and Sebby love the swings.

Out at an Italian restaurant (within our little closed booth, of course, so I could shed the abaya).

Bedtime for the brothers. Sebby likes to copy Misha by bringing a book and snuggling under the covers.

Smiling on the balcony.

Daddy with his little imp.

Pool time!

Sebby snacks and watches the swimmers, even though he'd rather be in the water.

Misha swims with friends.

Time with Daddy.

Legos - the perfect group activity.

Daddy and his boys.

Looking up

Misha's always eager to play.

We got a used bike from someone on the compound, so Misha has been enjoying it. This picture is out of date though, because we have already taken off the training wheels! Within a day, he could ride and make wide turns, and now he's an expert at starting alone and pedaling at full speed anywhere he desires.

Doing a puzzle ... of our own family! Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa!

A model boat we built from a kit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Road Trip: al-Khobar

On our road trip, we saw this escaped camel cruising down this little road.
A minute later, we saw a poor fellow chasing after the runaway,
but it didn't look like he would catch him any time soon.

Since we are in a fascinating part of the world, we had hoped to be able to travel both within Saudi Arabia and to the surrounding countries. Unfortunately, our work schedule doesn't allow for vacations (except the two Eid holidays which were both at the beginning of the year), so we have to squeeze any trips we want to make into the space of a two-day weekend. With two kids in tow, weekend trips are practically nonexistent for us.

However, in March, for a double-birthday surprise for Josh and me, our friends (fellow teachers) conspired not only to book us a resort hotel in al-Khobar for a night, but also to babysit our children for the two days we'd be gone. It was a nice weekend, albeit far too short! We headed out Thursday, making the five-hour drive through the desert to al-Khobar, a city on the eastern coast of the country close to Bahrain. On the way, we enjoyed watching the changing desert colors and, of course, taking photos of camels like these.

Electric lines bring modernity across the far-flung regions of the Kingdom.

Beautiful red dunes.

Red changes to white. We pass a ferris wheel in the middle of nowhere. Very curious.

A farm edged with striking green trees.

When we stopped for a bathroom break, we met these camels and a dog poking around the garbage by the restroom.

Final Destination: the beautiful Holiday Inn resort at Half Moon Bay. This is a popular spot for Saudi families to come and enjoy the beach. We even saw women in abayas riding the jet ski!

A romantic grilled dinner for two.

The next afternoon, we had to head back home, but not before taking a little scenic drive of the area. Wooden boats decorate the land along the coast of al-Khobar.

If you look closely, you can see the causeway leading to Bahrain, a once-peaceful little island kingdom connected by bridge to Saudi Arabia.

A glimpse of the city of al-Khobar.

I realized what made this city different from Riyadh was its sculptures. Riyadh has no artwork to speak of, completely void of sculptures of any kind.

Starting the drive back home.

Are these the same camels we passed on the way out?

Upon seeing these mountains, we started to have doubts about our road choice. We stopped and asked a Saudi guy in a random car, and he assured us that we were heading toward Riyadh. He either failed to understand our question or purposely sent us on a misguided tour, because at the next checkpoint, the police recommended a u-turn.

Finally, some reassurance that we are going the right way this time!

Passing the camels on the way back. These do look familiar.

Red sands outside of Riyadh.

Oil tankers on the outskirts of Riyadh - just another common site in the Arabian desert.