Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Favorite Photo from 2015

I was challenged to choose my favorite photo from last year and write a blog post about it when I came across a website called Social Print Studio and saw some of their favorite photos from 2015.   Social Print Studio is a San Franscisco-based company that creates really cool metal prints and photo books.

I take well over a thousand photos each month - some months I take 3000-5000 photos if I have visited somewhere special - so picking a favorite wasn't an easy task at all.  But I like this epic photo that I chose as my favorite so much that it also graces my photo blog as its header.

My favorite photo from 2015 is one that my husband actually took of me with several young Saudi women at the huge IECHE Education Fair that was held in Saudi Arabia's capital city of Riyadh in April 2015.  This annual fair is attended by thousands of Saudi students and their parents who are searching for the right institution of higher education for their child's chosen field.  The CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a.k.a. Saudi Arabia's religious police) even has a large booth at the event, trying to recruit new trainees.  The event is open to all and is free.  Hundreds of universities and technical schools from all over the world are represented, trying to attract students to their programs.  It is quite an impressive event.

Because of my ready smile, rosy complexion and light hair, I am frequently asked by total strangers here in Saudi Arabia to pose for photos with them.  These young ladies approached me at our booth and asked me if I would mind having my picture taken with them.  Of course I obliged!

Even though the quality of this photo could be a little better, what I love about this photo is that it dispels the notion that Saudi women are oppressed or unapproachable and it shows how really normal they are.

They just dress differently - that's all!

I love how you can actually see their eyes smiling even though you can't see their smiles underneath their veils.

I love that the one young woman is taking a selfie of us - such a typical and normal thing that most people do around the world now, yet it's something that outsiders may not ever imagine Saudi women would do because of the unfortunate misconceptions about them.

I love that these veiled women were as interested in me as I was in them.

I love that they all hugged me afterwards before they went on their way, leaving me with a warm fuzzy feeling that many people may never experience because their hearts and minds are not open to it.

I chose this photo because I love the feelings I get when I see it and how it gives me hope that one day we can all live together in peace and understanding and that we can accept and appreciate one another, differences and all.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pesticide Deaths in KSA: "It's Allah's Will..."

One day when we left our apartment shortly after to moving to Saudi Arabia, we were engulfed by a thick misty smoke-like fog.  I suddenly couldn't breathe.  I quickly covered my mouth and nose with my scarf.  My husband was furious as he knew all too well what it was.  A resident of the building we lived in had likely called the city or some extermination company to spray for annoying insects and pests. 

On any given day, many parts of the city of Jeddah are consumed with a dense and dangerous haze of insecticides that can send people to the hospital with respiratory problems or worse.  People have reported that some places are fogged with pesticides twice a day (morning and night), others twice a week, and some maybe only twice a year.  

Municipalities in many areas of Saudi Arabia routinely spray insecticides most often without warning.  Entire blocks will suddenly become engulfed in toxic mists of poisonous fumes.  Many people have ended up in the emergency rooms of local hospitals.  A friend of mine recently reported that her entire family fell ill when the Baladiya (municipality) switched from its usual type of insecticide to a different stronger one used to control mosquitoes.  Fortunately the family sought treatment at a hospital emergency room and they are all okay, but others haven't been so lucky.   

Even though there are bans in Saudi Arabia on certain types of pesticides which contain toxic chemicals, in particular aluminum phosphide, products containing it can still be purchased or brought into the country fairly easily.  These particular products are not intended for personal or home use and are frequently sold to untrained civilians who improperly use it inside homes with often times deadly results - and all too often small children are the victims.  

Apparently when humidity or moisture makes contact with aluminum phosphide, a dangerous gas called phosphine is produced.  Symptoms of phosphine poisoning can include difficulty in breathing, dizziness, headache, numbness, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Just a few hours of exposure to the toxic gas can result in death within 24 hours.   

I remember reading about the tragic deaths in February 2009 of two young Danish children living in a compound here in Jeddah after inhaling the toxic fumes of an industrial grade pesticide while they slept.  There have been many other similar tragedies.  During a period of about one year and a half between late 2007 to early 2009, more than a dozen deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia, mostly children, from deadly insecticide poisoning.  Two Ethiopian boys died in January 2009.  Two Saudi children in September 2008.  A Filipino woman in October 2007.  An Afghani teenage girl in Jeddah in March 2014.  Three Pakistani children in Madinah in September 2008.  Two Egyptiangirls in August 2007.  An entire Pakistani family of six living in Riyadh died at the hands of their careless upstairs neighbor in July 2007 when he poured toxic pesticide down his drain, poisoning and killing the whole family below.  Countless more have been hospitalized over the years - and it continues to this day.  

The problem of the misuse of aluminum phosphide / phosphine gas is so alarming that a film documentary called “Phosphine” was produced in 2014 with the cooperation of Saudi public health authorities in an attempt to educate the public of the dangers of using this lethal type of toxic substance. I have embedded the film here for you below.  It is in Arabic but with English subtitles. It has been viewed almost 5 million times.  Hopefully it will reach enough people to make a difference so these unnecessary tragedies will be avoided. 

One of the most disturbing themes of the documentary was how the families of the victims were dismissed so easily with the logic that it was God's will that their loved ones died.  This lack of taking responsibility is the prevalent attitude toward death in Saudi Arabia and justifies careless unnecessary deaths when taking small preventative measures would have saved lives.  For example, most people here still do not use seat belts and don't use car seats for babies.  Instead, mamas continue to hold babies in their arms in the front passenger seat and when there is an accident and baby dies because it became a human projectile crashing through the windshield, they say it was God's will.

I realize there are health concerns, what with dengue fever and the Zika virus, and this is why the municipality regularly sprays as a preventative measure, however shouldn’t the public be made aware of what type of chemicals are being used and given proper warnings prior?  Some people have reported their animals dying as a result of spraying.  Simple activities like walking or jogging must be curtailed due to these trucks coming around and spraying.  People can literally taste it in the air!  Some have been suddenly enveloped in the smoky fog while walking to the grocery store.  What are the dangers, the neurological effects, and other health risks after repeated exposure to these chemicals?  Don’t we citizens have a right to know?


Read more about this subject:

Two detained over Basateen poisoning

2 Danish kids die in incident at compound

Afghan girl dies in pesticide poisoning; four hospitalized - March 2014

Editorial 2009 - Pesticide Deaths

Insecticide Kills Again 

Silent killer: Saudi YouTube film "Phosphine" gains over 3.5 million views

Monday, March 14, 2016

Yanbu Flower Festival 2016

The 10th Annual Yanbu Flowers and Gardens Festival is in full swing and is scheduled to end next weekend, unless it is extended as it has been in years past. 
The entrance reminds me of Universal Studios or Epcot Center, with a big globe of flowers with 
"Flower Festival" written around it.
A couple of years ago in 2014, the festival established a new record for the world's largest flower carpet in the world, using millions of colorful blossoms in the process to achieve it. 
Yanbu is just a three hour drive north from Jeddah, so it's easy to make a weekend trip out of it.  
Some visitors manage to do it in one day up and back. 
The festival attracts thousands of visitors every year.  It is well planned and well executed.  
There are sections for food, souvenirs, a recycling exhibit, a mosque, and a play area for children.  
The carpet of flowers area is simply amazing to behold.  
It's hard to believe something like this exists in the desert of Saudi Arabia.  
The above photo shows a display in the recycling exhibit.  Grade-school children participated in making creative recycled art or repurposed useful items.  There is also beautiful recycled garden art and other things like planters and furniture. 
Souvenirs from Holland are available for sale, including live plantings or grow your own gardens.  
One can climb stairways up to several small rolling hills that are covered in flowers and topped with beautiful gazebos.
 The floral display are creative and include hanging plants and water fountains. 
The event can be enjoyed by all - men, women, and children.  
Kudos to the municipality of Yanbu for a job well done, and specifically to the Royal Commission for Yanbu at the Events Garden in Yanbu Industrial City.
Can you believe that this event is free to the public?
Yanbu itself is a wonderful city along the Red Sea and worth visiting. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Metaphorically speaking, if any group of people in the world epitomizes the West African proverb "Speak softly and carry a big stick," which was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, it is the women of the GCC countries.

If you have any doubt about the power, the resourcefulness, the drive, or the motivation of Middle Eastern women, then you must watch this video.  It is truly awe-inspiring and quashes any doubts about the quiet strength and determination of Arab women.

Focusing on being positive, the importance of education, and achieving one's goals and dreams, WEORITU is an independent youth initiative promoting female empowerment in the Middle East.  The above video called #WECANDOIT is one of their first projects.

There are plans in 2016 to release the full interviews of the women who participated in the above video, relating their inspiring stories about their achievements and challenges they overcame to make their marks on the world.  

Another undertaking of the group is a photography exhibit called the Inside Out Project, featuring portraits of over 70 amazing Arab women who are making a difference in their communities and setting great examples for the younger generation.  The photo project is part of a world wide art challenge spawned from French artist JR who explains the Inside Out Project in this interesting and inspiring TED Talk, whose mission is to change the world through art.  After watching the video, I can see that he is well on his way to achieving his goal. 

Photo from

In 2014 the group also produced the video #HAPPYQ8 - which features the upbeat world phenomenon song by Pharrell Williams.  

With all the negativity in the world today, I really appreciate this group of motivated young people and their efforts to spread positivity.  If you are in the position where you can contribute monetarily to assist in their mission, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Current Art Exhibitions Now in Jeddah

Now through February 9th, there are a couple of art events that are open to the public going on for those of you in Jeddah.  I hope that you are able to attend these two exhibitions, which are open each evening from 5:00pm-10:00pm.  Both venues are fairly close to each other off of Tahlia Street, so it is possible to go to both events in one evening.

Artwork on display at Al Khayyat Center for Fine Art (Photo by Vicki Callagan)

The first event called "Art for All and All for Art" is being held at the beautiful and ritzy Al Khayyat Center, which houses such famous upscale designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Etoile, Fendi, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Louboutin, Versace, Valentino, Tory Burch, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Armani, and many more.  This place is the Rodeo Drive of Jeddah.   Enter through the "Main Entrance" for the event (across from Louboutin) and take the elevator up to the 3rd floor. 

Here you will be treated to a variety of artworks by an array of amazing artists - sculptures, paintings, collages, photographs, Anime, live demonstrations, and more.  Many of the artists are on hand to talk to about their art.  There are even two incredible Dali sculptures on display.  Interesting and graceful bronze and wooden sculptures by Bahraini artist Fuad Ali Albinfalah are definitely worth a look.

A stylized Dali sculpture of an elephant at Al Khayyat Center
One of the exhibits on display at the Al Khayyat Center is called "Western Women's Journeys in Saudi Arabia" by photographer Abeer Bajandouh, which features photographs and and book of interviews with twelve Western women who are living in Saudi Arabia. And I am one of them! 

I am in front of photo of me holding my US Passport and holding a copy of the book (photo by Vicki Callagan)
The second event is being held nearby at the lovely Saudi Center for Fine Art (, which is located directly behind Noujoud Center from Tahlia Street.  They are closed Friday, but also open in mornings.  Nojoud Center houses Wojooh, Cortefiel, Mango, Adidas, H&M, and other shops.  This exhibition features the works of two artists, Tamara Jones and Awad Abu Salah.  Tamara is an American artist and a personal friend of mine who has been living in Saudi Arabia for the last four years.  She paints and also does amazing digital photography which reflects nature and has a very earthy quality to it.

Artist Tamara Jones in front of two of her paintings on exhibit at Saudi Center for Fine Art

I highly recommend if you are in Jeddah to make the effort to attend these two wonderful exhibitions, running now through February 9th. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gender Segregation is Insulting!

Few things about life here in Saudi Arabia get me all riled up like the extreme gender segregation does.  It is one of the things that I dislike the most and one of the things that I feel does WAY more harm than good.

In my opinion, gender segregation is largely responsible for many of this country's social problems.  Gender segregation stunts healthy emotional growth.  The high divorce rate can be cited as a problem partially caused by gender segregation.  At puberty young boys and girls are suddenly separated socially from each other and there is no interaction with the opposite sex.  As a result many young people who marry do not know how to communicate, act or behave around the opposite sex.

Photo Credit:

Many young Saudi men are often accused of harassing women - and it's directly due to the way this society is set up with severe gender segregation, plus the lack of accountability for men and their actions.  Instead, this society usually chooses to put the blame on women by punishing them for men not being able to control themselves around fitna-inducing temptresses.

At the university level, young female students often fantasize, become obsessed with, and even fall in love with male professors who conduct classes for women from a remote location via closed circuit television.  I’ve heard many stories about how female students frequently pursue these male professors, who are often married, much older, and not even particularly attractive.

And now the latest issue regarding gender segregation has come about involving two women who were elected to the municipal council in Jeddah.  These women were elected to their positions, just like the men on the council were.  Yet there is an anti-women crusade going on to prevent these women from taking their rightful positions on the council alongside their male colleagues.  

This faction is trying to preclude these duly elected female officials from participating effectively on the council, marginalizing the women by forcing them to sit outside the council chambers, like children who are being punished, instead of full-fledged elected members of the board. 
Seriously? Women in Saudi Arabia achieved a major milestone when they were allowed to vote and run for public office for the first time in their lives in December 2015 - a HUGE step forward for Saudi women.  But now others are trying to prevent them from effectively carrying out their duties.  Gender segregation carried to such an extreme like this is not only insulting to the women, it is extremely insulting to the men on the council who are being perceived as incapable of being trusted or of controlling themselves around a couple of female colleagues and incapable of seeing women as anything other than sexual objects. 

To make matters worse and to exemplify the severity of this extreme gender segregation, the two councilwomen, Lama Al-Suleiman and Rasha Hefzi, have now received death threats for attempting to take their rightful place at the meetings.  Fortunately there has been support for the women from the community, but there are some who oppose them.  
Don’t miss these two articulate opinion pieces recently written by a couple of Saudi women about this very subject:

“Saudi Women’s Work and Challenges in the Council Just Starting” by Maha Akeel

“Women’s Empowerment” by Nabeela Husni Mahjoub

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Spirit of Jeddah" 2016

I am happy to share with you this video produced by the US Consulate General of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  The under five minute video features clips from the city's recently held historical festival "Kunna Kida," which translates to "We were like this" in Arabic and captures the flavor of the festival.  The festival was held in Al Balad, the oldest sector of the city, which began as a small fishing village more than 1400 years ago.

In this delightful video, Jeddawis are on hand to share information about their ancient city, their fascinating culture, and their lives here in Jeddah.  Their spirit shines through and really gives the viewer a true impression of the pride and love these people have for their beloved city.

The narrative is all in Arabic, so for English subtitles, be sure to click on the "CC" option below the video in the lower right of the screen.

Be sure to subscribe to the US Consulate General Jeddah YouTube Channel to keep abreast of their future offerings.  Enjoy!