Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shopping at the Fruit & Vegetable Souk

Jeddah's big open air Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Market (in Arabic, the word is "souk") is not far from where we live. It is about three blocks long by three blocks wide. Imagine something like a Costco or Sams selling ONLY fresh fruits and vegetables. There are parking spaces all the way around the market and across the street as well, but if you go at a busy time, you may end up haveing to park several blocks away. Once you arrive, you are approached by several attendants in brightly colored jumpsuits, each armed with a small flatbed, trying to get you to pick them to assist you in your shopping experience. The attendant then follows you around, filling up the flatbed with your purchases, and then loads it all into your vehicle, all for a small tip when you are done.

Most of the entire area is covered by very high roofs which provide shade for the produce, the vendors and the shoppers. There are a couple dozen wide aisles separating sections of citrus and melons from onions and potatoes to peppers and legumes. At times when we have gone there during warmer weather, the smell can be overwhelming, and NOT in a good way. But it is actually quite a pleasant and fun expedition in the cooler weather. I find the enormous and plentiful displays so colorful and artistic and my camera finds these aesthetic delights irresistible. For being an open air market, the place is surprisingly clean, though, not surprisingly, worn with age. There are row after of row of neatly stacked produce, in boxes, cartons, bags, and crates. You can buy in bulk for astoundingly cheap prices. Or you can buy smaller amounts of produce which has been washed and packaged for a little bit more, still well below the prices you would pay in the States.

There are some items that I have never seen, much less tasted before. I never knew that cabbage and eggplant could grow that big! Around the city you will see many much smaller open air produce markets, but I believe this big market is where most vendors get their produce to sell elsewhere. I am sure many restaurants also buy their fresh produce from here as well, as you just can’t find prices any lower than this anywhere. The only products available for sale here are fruits and vegetables, with the exception of a small kiosk in the middle of the market that sells cold drinks and ice cream, which on a hot day can be welcome lifesavers.

Privacy is highly regarded here in this country, especially by women, so I would never take pictures of women’s faces without their permission. I also prefer to ask the male gender if they mind if I take their picture as well, and usually the responses I get are delightedly obliging. Once when my husband and I were at the ultra-smelly open air Yemenis market, I politely asked a vendor if I could take pictures of his huge pot full of dozens of cooked lamb heads, but he wouldn’t allow it unless we bought one. Consequently, now I try to be a little more aggressive and just start snapping away at inanimate objects that I like and think will make a great shot for fear that I will be denied the opportunity.

On our most recent outing, my camera hung happily and eagerly from its strap around my neck. I began shooting the colorful displays of fruits and vegetables that were just begging me to take their picture as we walked along. With my hubby selecting our purchases and wheeling and dealing (which I am no good at), I had plenty of time to look around and get my shots. Adnan is able to bargain with vendors and gets the products for sometimes half the price of what was originally quoted. After a transaction was completed with one vendor, I asked the man if I could take his picture. He happily obliged. Well, word must have spread like wildfire because after that, vendors approached me right and left to take their picture. Everybody wanted in on the action. I don’t know what exactly was being said around the market, but one vendor actually asked me if I was taking pictures for television or the newspaper! My husband just closed his eyes and slowly shook his head in disbelief. At least I am making his life a little more interesting than it might be otherwise!

So, I have posted a new photo album which, I warn you ahead of time, some may find a little boring since it contains photos only from the Fruit & Vegetable Market. So for those of you who appreciate beautiful fresh produce and enjoy the various colors and artistic qualities fruits and vegetables possess, or if you'd like to view some interesting faces of the delightful vendors, click below to see my photos of …
Jeddah's Open Air Fresh Produce Market

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day ... or NOT !!

Today Valentine’s Day was celebrated in many places around our globe, but here in Arabia, it was actually forbidden. The government evidently comes out every year (for the last 7 years) with an edict forbidding the sale of red flowers, red hearts, red lingerie, red heart shaped boxes of chocolates, red balloons that say “I Love You” and other illicit red lovey-dovey items during Valentine’s week in hopes of discouraging people from celebrating it. Valentine’s Day is viewed as an obscene western holiday that encourages unmarried individuals to engage in “immoral relations.”

When I told my husband that I had read several articles online saying that the Saudi government had taken this action, he - being the pessimist that he is when it comes to believing news reports - reacted by saying that it couldn’t possibly be true. Now mind you, my husband spent the last 30 years in America, so this is his first Valentine’s Day back here in Arabia in that long. So after we dropped our son off at school today, on Valentine’s Day, for his rugby practise, I convinced my husband to stop at a flower shop along the way to disprove the validity of these reports I had read. We walked into the shop and the man behind the counter was putting together a beautiful bouquet - of red roses! There were also several other bouquets on display around the shop boasting red flowers. So seeing all this, my husband confidently steps up to the counter and asks the guy if the government had put out an order against selling red flowers during this time. The guy replied “Yes!” but that they just ignore it and go ahead and sell the stuff anyway.

The Virtue and Vice Squad swoops down on shops and confiscates any Valentine themed items, including teddy bears or other racy symbols of love. What this government action does in reality, however, is to cause the prices for these black market items to skyrocket during Valentine’s week. The V&V Squad cannot possibly hit each and every floral shop in the Kingdom, so just imagine how much of these scandalous products get sold at ridiculously gouged prices during this time. The government is actually helping out the floral shop owners who are able to make a much higher profit on such in-demand contraband!

What I don’t understand is - who in the heck does the Saudi government have doing its Public Relations work? Coming out each year and decrying Valentine’s Day – what purpose does this serve? The government here does this to satisfy the powerful "Muttaween," the controversial religious police who are in charge of imposing strict moral codes onto Arabian society. But the harm it does to Arabia’s image to the rest of the world is very damaging. The thing is, though, that this government is very comfortable in its own skin and it really doesn’t care about its flakey image to the rest of the world. But instead of coming out with rubbish like this each year forbidding this holiday, why not just keep “mum” on the subject (excuse my play on words – I couldn’t resist) and let the holiday slip quietly by without any attention drawn to it?

I don't expect roses or anything like that, but I'd be awfully happy with some dark chocolate when my not-so-romantic husband gets home tonight! Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Price is Right!

Most things, in general, are cheaper here in Arabia. Gas, of course, is a lot cheaper. Adnan fills up his SUV for about $8-10. But not only that, an attendant pumps the gas for you and you get a free box of tissues with every purchase! In fact, we got 3 boxes of tissues with today’s fill-up! One of our kitchen cabinets is full of boxes of tissues. Adnan’s mom bought him a Toyota SUV for about $25,000 - an enticement she dangled in front of his nose to persuade him to move back home. I would guesstimate that a comparable vehicle in the States would run between $30,00-35,000 plus taxes. He recently took it in for service to the Toyota dealership and it cost $20 US for complete servicing, and it included a car wash.

One big reason why things are cheaper here is because THERE ARE NO TAXES! So think about it: vendors and businesses do not have to pay income taxes, sales taxes, city state or US taxes, occupancy taxes, licensing taxes, or any other kinds of taxes that US businesses are hit with, which in turn must be passed on to the consumers. Smaller businesses here have a much better chance of surviving because they don’t have to fork over so much to all the government agencies nickel and diming them to death like in America.

Food – whether buying groceries or eating in a restaurant - is also cheaper here. One night we went to a burger place and the three of us ate (burgers, fries, onion rings and drinks) for about $8. We’ve gotten into the habit of trying to get Dominos Pizza the first Monday of each month because they have a 2-for-1 special, plus you get a free TV movie guide. (So far I haven’t been able to find any TV programming guides, so this helps.) We get 2 large pizzas with whatever toppings we want plus 2 liters of soda, plus the movie guide for about $10-$12. By the way, the Dominos Pizza here is fabulous - I never cared much for Dominos back in the States. The pepperoni and sausage are not made of pork, of course, but whatever meat they use for it, it’s delicious and they are not at all stingy with it.

Fresh produce is incredibly cheap here when you buy it from the outdoor markets instead of a supermarket. For example, at one huge outdoor vegetable market, we got two crates full of big beautiful tomatoes, with about 24 tomatoes in each crate, for 5 riyals, which is about $1.25! Bread is about 75 cents for 2 loaves. We often share groceries with Adnan's mom - she has us over for meals several times a week and she always has tons of food. She even makes her own potato chips and cheese! She also makes a lot of things I have never had before. Adnan is a better cook than she is, but her food is good, most of the time anyway. Food seems to taste better here too. Now this could have something to with that maybe it has more fat and may not be as health conscious. Or maybe because it is fresher and not processed.

Clothing and shoes can be just as expensive as the states if you shop in the more expensive stores. But you can get really great quality clothing for a fraction of the cost if you go to the right places to shop. I have gotten some long traditional dresses made out of really nice fabrics, beautifully embroidered and embellished with beads and sequins for about $8 each. And that’s the regular price, not a sale price. We bought Adam some nice school pants and polo shirts for about $8-10 each as well, which is about half the cost of his uniforms back in Florida.

Electronics – cameras, TVs, DVD players, etc. – cost about the same as the states, if not slightly higher. But they do have sales, and we purchased a PS2 for about half the price of what it is in the states. DVDs and CDs are ridiculously cheap here – and this is because they are pirated copies, I imagine. They are at least 1/10 to 1/20 of the cost in the US. You can also purchase one single DVD with a half dozen Julia Roberts films on it, or all the Harry Potter movies, or a collection of action movies and the like, for about $1-$2 per DVD. You do have to be careful though when purchasing movies that have just come out in the movie theaters and are not yet out on DVD – the quality can be really poor.

One thing that is interesting here is that areas or streets have mainly one kind of business. Like if you want to repair your car, you go to, say, Al-Hera’a Road and there are dozens of car repair places right next door to each other to choose from. If you want electronics, you go down to another street. For household items, go down to the Al-Hindawiyah section, or if you need computers or electronics, just go down to this particular area or street. For fresh produce, there is this huge open air vegetable and fruit market with hundreds of vendors that everybody goes to, and the prices are amazingly cheap. You can also go to supermarkets similar to Safeway, but you end up paying twice as much for fresh produce. For some things, there is just one section in the whole city, which makes it pretty inconvenient if you live far away. But for other things, there are several areas you can go to in the city, so it is much more practical. It does make it easier, I guess, when you are comparison shopping. Like when we were shopping for furniture, we just parked the car and went from one shop to another in the same area. There are a few 1-stop shopping stores here now, similar to Super Target or Super Walmart, which are becoming popular. Pharmacies aren’t like Walgreens or CVS, which now carry many other items outside the realm of “drug stores.” If it doesn’t pertain to health, chances are you can’t get it there. At the same time, the only stores that carry aspirin or ace bandages are the pharmacies, so you still may have to go to several different specialty stores just to get your shopping done.

One evening, we went out looking for an optical shop to fix Adnan’s broken glasses. He had set them down on the front passenger’s seat of the car, and OOOOPs! I accidentally sat on them and broke the frames. These glasses were at least thirteen years old, big square shaped tortoise shell horned rim glasses. I broke off one of the arms by breaking the hinge. We spotted a small optical shop, so Adnan parked the car and dashed inside, while Adam and I waited in the car. Less than half an hour later, Adnan returned to the car wearing a brand new pair of glasses! The guy at the shop said that they didn’t replace the hinges on glasses but that he could take out the old lenses, cut them to size and put them in brand new frames. Now Adnan is not a fashion conscious guy at all, but I must say, he selected a really cool stylish metal frame that looks great on him. The frame is incredibly flexible – he can just about tie the new glasses in a knot! Adnan paid 150 Saudi Riyals for the new glasses – about $56 US! And the really amazing part for me is that he walked in off the street and walked out of the shop with the new pair of glasses in less than half an hour. Could this scenario EVER happen in America? I think not!

Most of the utilities are also less expensive here. Our electric bill for a whole month runs about $25-30 US per month. And that is with running the AC all day and night. Of course, each room here has its own individual AC unit, so the AC only runs in the rooms that we are using. In Florida our electric bill would run over $200 a month during the warmer months when we ran the AC and about $60 the rest of the year. Here you don't really get monthly bills in the mail. Since there aren't really street addresses per se, mailing out monthly bills isn’t an option. If you want to receive mail, you have to get a P O Box. The phone bill and the electric bill are actually sent to Adnan as text messages through his cell phone. I would have to say our phone bill charges are comparable to what we paid in the US, including international long distance. The hi-speed internet is handled like a prepaid phone card. You purchase the card and then you have hi-speed for the next month, or 3 months if that's how much you purchase, etc. The cost is roughly the same as the US. It's a tad inconvenient, especially when the time limit expires on you, but I guess people here are used to it that way. I don’t believe we have any more monthly expenses than those.

Tata has a full-time live in maid from Indonesia and her monthly salary is 600 Riyals, which is about $225 US. She gets her tiny quarters plus all her meals, but she works every day from early morning until night without ever having any days off. She was hired on a two year contract, which can be renewed. One of my sisters-in-law has two maids. One gets the same salary as Tata’s maid, and the other gets 800 Riyals ($300 US). Domestic help here is very cheap and is always performed by foreigners from poor countries, as well as hard labor and most service jobs.

Of course you can go to the big fancy malls and fancy restaurants and spend as much money as you want, as you can do anywhere, but so far my impression is that overall the cost of living here in Arabia is much cheaper than in the States.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Islam & Me - When in Rome...

Let me just start off by saying that the intent of this post is not to offend anyone or any religion. The opinions expressed here are solely my personal feelings and beliefs and I realize many people out there will not agree with what I have to say, but I hope you will agree that I have the right to my own convictions. I am comfortable with how I feel about this whole religion thing, but again, this is not intended to annoy or provoke, and if it does, I apologize in advance. Plus, I do not profess to be an expert in Islam (or any other religion), so what I am speaking of in this post are merely my own observations. If I get something technically wrong, again I apologize.

Shortly after I arrived in Arabia, I began participating in the prayers with Adnan and Adam, and other members of the family when we happen to be together at prayer time. This has greatly pleased Adnan and his mom and his extended family. It means a great deal to them. I do feel like I am only going through the motions since I do not know the prayers and don't know that much about Islam, but I must admit I do rather enjoy the physical movements associated with the prayers. In some ways it reminds me of Yoga, practically the only form of exercise I have ever enjoyed besides swimming, softball, biking, and tennis, and it's been so long since I have actually participated in those sports, that the praying movements actually feel good. During the first prayer of my day, usually my knees and ankles are pretty stiff when we kneel on the floor, but by the end of the day, I find that I am much more limber. And I have noticed that any back pains I might be experiencing seem to be alleviated when I am in the prostrating position, as I consciously try to relax my back at that time. As a result, I have very little back pain now and if I do, it is gone after prayer! This is good!

Muslims are called to prayer five times a day over loudspeakers from the minaret towers of each and every mosque in the city. No matter where you are, you can hear the calls to prayer broadcast from the minarets of several nearby mosques. There are mosques every few blocks or so, several in each neighborhood, in every direction. From our house, we can hear at least 5 different “muezzins” singing the calls to prayer. The closest and LOUDEST one is a very low voice that sounds like he’s using a kazoo, with a deep bassoon or viola sound. I think it’s the loudspeakers that make him sound that way. However the fact that he sounds like he is pressing his whole mouth upon the microphone probably doesn't help. I hate to say this and I don't mean any disrespect, but this guy sounds like a cow mooing. Dare I say, it’s a little obnoxious sounding? Another’s voice is much more pleasant sounding, very melodical. A more distant one sounds like a buzzing bee and another almost sounds like a mosquito flying around your head. Many of the muezzin’s voices sound like various musical instruments, almost like an orchestra of dischord, and since they are not in unison, it is fascinating to hear.

The prayer times are roughly at about 6am, 12 noon, 3:30pm, 6pm and 7:30pm. I don't always make it up for the early morning prayer, but the other four prayers, I do regularly. Sometimes Adnan, wearing his white thobe and his little white cap called a “kufiya,” walks down to the closest neighborhood mosque just a couple of blocks away to perform the prayers there. Every Friday, all the men are required to go to the mosque for the noon prayer and a service, which is broadcast over the loud speakers as well, so the women at home can hear it, I guess.

The first call to prayer alerts you to ready yourself for prayer. There is about a 30 minute window of time that you have when you can do the prayer. You must perform “wudu” or ablution, which is to wash up. This is a ritual cleansing, done only with water. There is a very specific method to this. You must wash your hands 3 times, your face, mouth, nostrils, and ears, and also splash some water on your hair. There is a particular order and method that you must use also. You also must wash your arms up to the elbows. And lastly, the feet must be rinsed off as well. Oh, and right nostrils, right ears, right arms and feet must be washed first, before the left ones. Adnan is always telling me that "Muslims are people of the right." Along this line, left handers are required to eat with their right hands. This is because when you clean yourself after using the toilet, it must always be done with the left hand, therefore eating and drinking are always done with the right hand. So for sanitary reasons, this makes sense. I bet many Westerners weren't aware of this. Actually the Koran is a practical guidebook to every day living, with guidelines covering just about every situation and aspect of daily life, from eating, to sex, to money matters, to raising children, to business dealings, etc.

About 15 minutes after you hear the first call to prayer, there is another call to prayer when the prayer itself is actually broadcast. You don’t have to wait for this 2nd broadcast if you have performed wudu and are ready to pray. Praying too has a very specific method, including standing with your right hand over your left, bowing, kneeling, sitting, and prostration, or bowing down with your head to the floor. And your eyes must be open - something a little hard for me to get used to since I have always prayed with my eyes closed my whole life.

I personally have never been a big fan of the rituals of religion, but I am coping with all of this and feel that it is a small sacrifice for me to make to please my husband and his family. The entire ritual of washing up and praying actually takes maybe ten minutes altogether tops. To pray, men must be dressed modestly; short sleeves are acceptable, and they must be covered to below the knee. It is not necessary for men to cover their heads with a cap or scarf, although many men do.

Women are another story ... they must be totally covered up with only the face and hands exposed. Adnan’s mom Tata gave me a “sharshaf,” a loosely fitting hooded one piece covering that all the women wear at home for prayers. It literally covers me from head to toe, with a small opening for my face and elastic at the wrists. The fabric is a lightweight cotton, and it can be any color and many that I have seen are in a tiny floral print. It is so ample that it fits over anything I might be wearing. I feel kinda like the Pillsbury Dough Boy when I wear it! Women have to be totally covered for prayers and for going out in public, but men don’t – and I must say that I still have a little problem with that. Women here have accepted it, were brought up this way, and most don’t even seem to care to question it. To them, it is natural, just a fact of life. In fact, the women cover up proudly to save their physical attributes only for their husbands. From what I have read and learned, the Koran doesn’t specifically say that women must cover up like this all the time, but instead the Koran says that both men and women should merely dress modestly. The problem seems to be that mortal men have done their own interpreting of the Koran, so it looks to me like they apply it more loosely to men than for women.

Adnan says that the reason women's skin and hair must be covered during prayer and when in the presence of other men is that it is too sexy and distracting for men. I told him that I find his hair and skin sexy, so maybe he should cover up too! He says that I cannot change what Muslims have done for centuries, so I am resigned to the fact that mine is a losing battle. I do hope that one day I will come to understand and accept this aspect of the religion that I see as an unfair inconsistency. The covering of the hair thing really bothers me. Now mind you, it's not just the hair, but the entire SEXY neck that must be covered up as well. I think having to cover my neck is the most uncomfortable thing about it for me. For almost 56 years, I went through my life, hair uncovered, blowing freely in the wind, tossing my head this way and that if I chose to do so. It was okay for Adnan’s brother Adel to see my hair and skin when he visited America, but here in Arabia, it is not allowed. Also I now cannot hug or kiss his brother on the cheek (or any man for that matter) when we are saying hello or goodbye. It is difficult for me to follow this as I am a touchy feely person, but I am trying my best.

Allow me to say at this point - and I don't mean to rattle any cages here - that I do not necessarily believe that I must pray 5 times daily at certain times in order to buy myself a pass to heaven. And I also do not believe that I must be covered up from head to toe in order to pray either. I believe that my god listens to me whenever and wherever I choose to speak to him (or her!) regardless of what I am wearing. In years past, some of my best conversations with God that I can recall took place when I was home alone, stark naked in a nice warm bubble bath! This is, after all, how we all came into this world with God's blessings. Ok, maybe not the bubbles part.

I am here because I belong at my husband’s side and I want to make him happy. This alone brings me happiness and peace. I am by no means miserable or upset by performing these Islamic rituals. I just find certain aspects of it difficult to understand – the reasoning seems one-sided and doesn’t make sense to me, that’s all. And I have never been one to just accept things blindly or to not question things I don't quite undertstand or agree with. Maybe one day, it will make more sense to me. Insha’allah. (That means - "God willing" and people here say it about a jillion times a day). When Adnan told me before I came to this country that things would be easier for me if I had the certificate saying I was a Muslim, I had no idea what he really meant by that. Apart from easing my ability to obtain my visa to enter the country, I now see how happy it has made his family - and I think this really is what he was really referring to as far as it making things easier for me. I am learning more about the religion - and I still don't agree with or believe everything I have heard - but knowing that the effort I am putting forth is making my husband and his family happy is worth it to me.

Having been raised a Christian, I must admit I got a little sentimental and sad as Christmas came and went. Being so far away from my family isn't easy, especially around the holidays. But my husband was sensitive to my mood and we spent a very pleasant Christmas day with his family, eating, playing cards, and then several of us went to downtown Jeddah that evening and it was amazing. Downtown Jeddah is a beehive of activity at night. It is hoppin’! There are street vendors much like you see in New York City. There are huge department stores and malls and hundreds of smaller shops teeming with activity. And the traffic – ah! the traffic. Anyway, my son Adam and I had a really good day, even if it was nothing like our Christmasses past.

Ever since I was a kid, religion has been a very personal thing to me. I attended church and Sunday school regularly, sang in the choir, even went to church camp in the summer. I grew up with close friends who were Catholic and Mormon. My mom had no problem with me accompanying my friends to their churches. I think because of that, I am very open-minded about religion, but I don't necessarily believe that any one religion is the right one for me. I just don't completely buy into everything that many religions teach and believe. I never could understand, for example, why my Catholic friends had to confess their sins to a middle man and then be directed to do 7 Hail Marys to wipe their slates clean when I have just always believed that I have an open direct line to my own very forgiving god 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Yes, I believe in a higher being and that there are unexplainable miracles that can and do happen. But I truly believe that most religions are basically the same and have very minute differences. We all know that there are many hypocrites and extremists out there who claim to be "religious" and do all kinds of immoral things. So, I have come to believe that my faith and spirituality are between me and my god, and I don't have to prove anything to anybody else. I do not feel incomplete or lacking in some aspect of my life. I believe what I believe. It's as simple as that.