Saturday, March 4, 2017

2017 Yanbu Flower Festival Coming Soon

Last year I attended the annual Yanbu Flowers and Gardens Festival, which is a spectacular display of colorful flowers and plants in the city of Yanbu.

This year's festival will be held March 14th through April 7th, 2017.  There is no charge for admission.

Here in Saudi Arabia, one of my pet peeves is that it is difficult to find out about events before they happen. I believe the reason for this lack of proper advertising for events ahead of time was because of the culture's strict gender segregation policies which discourages mixed events.  In the past if the religious police got wind of a questionable mixed gender event going on, oftentimes it would be raided and disbanded. Many social events were kept on the down low, and event venues were often not disclosed until the day of the event by text message.  It can be very difficult to make plans to attend events like this.  While gender mixing is still greatly frowned upon in this culture, things seem to be slowly changing, and there is even a Ministry of Entertainment now in the Kingdom.

You can see more photos of the amazing floral displays on my post from last year by clicking HERE.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

My Name is Bilal

This post was sent to me by the author's mother, who is a friend of mine here in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  Her son, 25 year-old Bilal Raychouni, wrote this powerful letter to the current US President, in which he expresses himself and his feelings articulately in ways that Americans can understand what it's really like to be a Muslim today in the USA.  It is raw and poignant and I hope it will make you think.

Reprinted from the blog: 

"My Name Is Bilal"

Mr. Donald John Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Mr. Donald John Trump
721 Fifth Avenue, 26th Floor
New York City, NY 10022
Mr. Trump:
My name is Bilal. I am American.
I was born in the City of Williamsburg, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, to a woman whose ancestry extends as far back as the settlers of that colony almost four hundred years ago. My mother’s blood is the blood of the English and the Irish, the German and the French, all of whom came to this nation when it was a disjointed mass of Colonies, who sought better days in this Land of Opportunity.
My name is Bilal. I am Muslim.
I was born to a Lebanese man who left his home as a teenager in the middle of a war that threatened his life more than once, with barely a nickel in his pocket and not a lick of English on his tongue, praying he would earn that great American dream, that he could build a family, a career, a life for himself in this nation, whose Lady Liberty beckoned him with the promise of a better life.
My name is Bilal. I am condemned in my own home.
One month before my 10th birthday, the actions of the radical few, acting by order of a man so violent that his own family cast him out of their house, and in the name of a Prophet who would condemn their actions outright, brought your hometown and my home country to its knees and painted a target on my back. From that day onward, I was marked: I was and am a terrorist, because it is absolutely reasonable to blame a nine-year old boy from small-town America for being the mastermind behind such evil. I was and am a terrorist, because it is totally sound to take an entire faith and beat them into submission for daring to call God by a different name.
My name is Bilal. I am a Millennial.
I was born in 1991 and have witnessed the miracle that was the start of the Information Age. I am the one that older anchors on your favorite newscasts refer to with daggers in their eyes and spite on their tongues. I am the one dismissed as a spoiled brat who has it too good nowadays, while my colleagues struggle to build their lives out of the nothing that has been left to them. I am the one dissatisfied with recycled sitcoms and disgusted with the status quo you call God.
My name is Bilal. Your friends do not like me.
I belong to a number of different groups who have been told that in the grander scheme of the ideal America, our lives, our issues, our problems do not matter. I am a friend to far too many people who belong to groups even more diverse, who have been told that their lives somehow matter even less than mine. At some point, the powers that be decided as a collective that the assortment of non-Caucasian, non-Evangelical, non-heterosexual, non-biologically male individuals that make up more than half of this nation’s population simply do not matter to the success of this nation, that these individuals and their issues do not contribute to the ideal American Dream.
My name is Bilal. I was named for a man renowned for his voice.
Bilal ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian man born into slavery in Mecca. He was considered a “good” slave, with a rich, resonant voice and a confidant air about him. Drawn to the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad, Bilal was one of the first individuals to convert to Islam, and his master very nearly killed him because of this. As he drew what would have been his final breaths under the weight of a massive boulder in the heat of the Arabian sun, the Prophet’s family bought Bilal’s freedom, and the Prophet Muhammad asked that Bilal use the gift that was his voice to call other Muslims to prayer. To this day, every voice that echoes from the minarets of every mosque around the world emulates the call to worship first made by Bilal.
My name is Bilal. Contrary to popular belief, it is not you I fear: it is the deranged attitude that you encourage with your venomous tongue.
I am not black. I am not a woman. I will never experience the struggles faced by Africans in America, made to build a nation they did not want, whose heads, despite the weight of the polished shoes that have stood upon their shoulders for decades, are still held high as they continue the good fight for the right to be treated like any other American; nor will I ever experience the struggles faced by women in America, who have historically been silenced by their patriarchs, who have been told to their faces that their bodies do not belong to them, who are more easily regarded by men as mere playthings than they are as living, breathing people.
My name is Bilal. I have been told to sit down and shut up.
Your supporters would like me to get over myself. I have been told that the fate of this nation and of my people has been sealed with your Presidency. I have overheard the hoots and hollers of the working white man who praises your reign as a triumphant return to good old-fashioned values, a foundation for a new America built on the bones and sealed with the blood of my family and my friends. Every day since your inauguration, it seems, I awaken to news that if my people aren’t being beaten in restaurants or detained in airports, then my friends are coming home to shattered windows and spray-painted doors, to nooses in their trees and rainbow flags burned black on their lawns. But I am the one who is told to get over myself.
My name is Bilal. I am done putting up with you.
I do not know the struggle of the black community. I do not know the struggle of the female community. I do not know the struggle of the queer community, those individuals tortured and ostracized because their love is offensive under a bastardized translation of the word of the Lord, or because their gender may not conform to the strict dichotomy that color-codes children’s toys.
But, my name is Bilal, and I know hate.
I have been hated for existing. I have been randomly selected at the terminal and pummeled into the dirt because my father’s heritage makes me an enemy of the State. I am a terrorist because at the dinner table, my family’s Grace begins with Bismillah. As I grew older, I heard the stories of my friends, whose families have barred them from their homes because their love was deemed wrong, whose great-grandfathers tilled Dixie dirt at the end of rusted chains in the antebellum sun, whose grandmothers fled across stormy gray seas with numbers burned into their skin and unspeakable horrors burned into their eyes, who to this day are made to feel less than human because of who they are.
My name is Bilal. I am calling you out.
Because I am, for all intents and purposes, a Caucasian man, I have been granted a voice to which most people in this country may actually listen. Like the Bilal who walked with the Prophet, so too will I use my voice to unite those to whom you remain deaf. For my friends who are not white, whose skin is enough of a reason for your proud champions to pummel them in the streets, my voice is theirs. For my friends who are women, who have been told countless times that they have no right to their own body, who are paid peanuts when men who have done less are somehow awarded more, my voice is theirs. For my friends in the queer community: whether they have come out and have been subsequently abused for daring to be, or their identity remains secret because your advocates would deliver unto them their despicable brand of divine retribution, my voice is theirs. For my friends of all faiths, whether Muhammad is their Prophet or Jesus is their Lord and Savior, whether they observe Shabbat or worship nothing and no one at all, my voice is theirs.
My name is Bilal.
I have watched too long as my friends and family suffered at the hands of the powers that be. Your behavior over the course of your lifetime has been nothing short of vile, and the attitude that you have encouraged in this country, this attitude of contempt for anyone and anything that doesn’t fit in your delicate definition of America, is disgusting. We are a nation of immigrants, united by our collective differences. There is nothing in this world like the United States of America, which is defined by its diversity. To denounce difference, to spit in the face of that which makes America truly great, is, in a word, wrong.
My name is Bilal. I have a voice, and I refuse to get over myself.
My name is Bilal. I will not sit down.
My name is Bilal. I am American.
I will not shut up.
To read more writings from Bilal, check out his blog that he has been penning since 2012 by CLICKING HERE.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates

I just watched “Ladies First: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates,” a short New York Times video documentary regarding the historic elections in Saudi Arabia last December.  The film features three different Saudi women who were not only granted the right to vote in local municipal elections for the first time ever last year, but who also decided to run for office.  

While Saudi Arabia remains a kingdom, at the local level there are city councils consisting of elected officials.  It should be noted that Saudi men were barely given the right to vote and hold public office in 2005.  The next election wasn’t until 2011.  That same year King Abdullah announced that women would be able to vote and run for office in 2015.   

Offering a glimpse inside the lives of these brave, yet very different, Saudi women, the film follows the frustrations and roadblocks females face in her day to day existence, much less in running for public office.  If the man in a Saudi woman's life is not supportive of her dreams, he has the right to reject her desires - because every Saudi woman has the legal status of a child her entire life, and every decision about her life ultimately rests with her legal male guardian.  

I highly recommend watching this film if you are interested in how things work (or don’t work) in Saudi Arabia.  Great job by Mona El-Nagger, an Egyptian journalist who has been covering the Middle East for ten years. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"You're Lucky You Are Cute!"

"You’re lucky you are cute.  If you weren't, you wouldn't be sitting here next to me." I can't tell you how many times my husband has said that to me over the years.  While I feel like he is mostly joking, deep down I can't help but think that there must be some truth to it.  Lucky for me, he still thinks I am cute at age 65.  Lucky for me, he likes chubby women!  I've even asked him, "What if I were grotesquely disfigured in some kind of freak accident or a fire?" He says that it would be a deal breaker for him - and again, I feel like he is joking, but I certainly hope I never have to find out.  

The thing is that many, if not most, Saudi men probably feel this same way.  

I remember back almost 40 years ago when I first met my husband at university and I was getting to know him and his friends.  I would ask them a lot of questions about their culture, religion, education, views on life, and their thoughts about women.  I can recall asking several of his friends what qualities were they looking for in a wife? Every single one of them answered, "She must be beautiful."  

Surprisingly there weren't any other real attributes they were looking for in a woman. Personality didn't matter.  Intelligence didn't matter.  Neither did kindness, character, or even if she was an all-out bitch.  Physical beauty was the number one most important asset these Saudi men wanted in a woman.  Interestingly enough, the Koran is quite explicit about what type of woman a man should seek out when searching for a mate – and it’s not physical attractiveness.  Devotion to her religion is the quality that the Koran says a man should look for.

I know this makes my husband and other Saudi men sound like they are extremely superficial, and in this area, maybe they are.  But one needs to understand certain realities about the Saudi culture.  Extreme gender segregation is enforced from the onset of puberty.  Dating is not allowed.  And not only is it unacceptable to mix socially with the opposite sex, but it is also against the law - and one can be imprisoned or even lashed for being alone with a non-relative of the opposite sex.  Realizing these things, it’s easier to understand why physical beauty is so important to Saudi men.  In very conservative and traditional families, a couple may only meet face to face once prior to marriage, so first impressions are very important - and let's face it, in this situation looks matter.  

Some of my friends have told me about their relationships with their Saudi husbands.  Some of them are constantly belittled by their husbands about their weight or their cooking. Several of my friends have had weight loss surgery and some have had cosmetic surgery.  Some of them are persistently threatened with the very real possibility of their husbands taking a second wife, and several have even had to endure the pain when he actually went through with it.  Still others have been physically abused by their mates, while some are pressured to change themselves to be more to his liking.  I have always figured that my husband chose me because of who I am, not because of what he wanted to change me into.

Every morning at breakfast over our coffee, my husband looks at me across the table, with my disheveled hair and puffy eyes, and he tells me how beautiful I look.  And throughout the day when I least expect it, he repeats it again, and again.  I know I am lucky that he still sees me as that pretty young thing he first laid eyes on so long ago.  Even when I make him upset or do something mischievous, he still sloughs it off and says, “You’re lucky you’re cute!”  We rarely fight or get upset with one another.  Our marriage is an easy going one of mutual respect and lots of love.  He makes me laugh.  He makes me happy.  He makes me feel special - and beautiful.

I can only wonder how I got so lucky.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flash Mob, Saudi Style

This video was produced by a large supermarket chain in Saudi Arabia called HyperPanda in honor of Saudi National Day which is celebrated on September 23rd.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Waad Academy

Waad Academy just opened its doors this past fall to welcome students.  I recently had the chance to tour this impressive state of the art facility located in the Obhur area of the city.  

This new school offers a brand new concept in education here in Jeddah, focusing on turning out well-rounded individuals by feeding the mind, heart and body.  So in addition to academic achievement, Waad’s philosophy incorporates spiritual and physical well-being as well. 

This academy has succeeded in creating a nurturing learning environment, using modern technology, creative designs, and delicious colors which sets it apart from other local schools.  

The main building houses the administrative team, the beautiful and spacious auditorium which accommodates 1000, and the cheerful lunchroom. 
Shooting off from the main building are brilliantly designed wings which provide separate boys and girls campuses, which will eventually serve students from KG2 through Grade 8.  
There is also a beautiful modern library – which is "oh-so-much-more" than just a library.  
One unique and creative feature of the school are its mega slides, which certainly help to make learning more fun at the academy.  
The school's sporting and recreation facilities are extraordinary, including themed outdoor play areas, gymnasiums offering an assortment of indoor activities and sports, basketball and tennis courts, plus a soccer field, running tracks, swimming pool, and a rock climbing wall.
A host of extracurricular activities and a wide variety of after-school programs are also available to students.  There is even a wonderful nursery on site for the children of teachers and administrators.
Waad Academy encourages the involvement of parents in the child’s education and progress and also invites the entire community to participate in planned social and sporting events.    
The attention to detail makes it obvious that years of thought and planning went into the making of this institution.   The future of education in Saudi Arabia is here and now at Waad Academy. 

To learn more about Waad Academy, CLICK HERE.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Saudi Society Will Accept Women Driving

I just wrote a guest post about the women's driving issue for the site called SAUDI WOMEN DRIVING, which offers news and thoughts pertaining to the issue of - you guessed it - Saudi women driving.  

I was prompted to write this in response to a recent statement by the man who is a son of the current king of Saudi Arabia and who is also second in line to the Saudi throne, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.  Last week he unveiled Saudi Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan outlining the future course and goals for Saudi Arabia.  A very small part of that plan dealt with the women driving issue, and here is what I have to say about it in my guest post on SAUDI WOMEN DRIVING: 

That's me - driving in Saudi Arabia!

A few days ago Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, second in line to the throne, was quoted as saying, “Saudi society, not the government, will determine whether women will be allowed to drive cars.”

To that I would ask: Exactly how loud does society have to yell in order to be heard? 

Women have been demanding the right to drive here in Saudi Arabia since 1990 when a few dozen women organized and drove in the streets of Riyadh.  They were severely punished – by the government – with the ramifications affecting their lives for many years.  Since then, many other women have driven on their own - and those who were caught have also been arrested and punished.  In fact, women who drive in KSA can now be charged with terrorism, open to the government’s interpretation.  

But wait a minute! If the government isn’t responsible for keeping women from driving in Saudi Arabia and punishing them if they do, then who is?  Society?  Really?