Saturday, March 29, 2008

Struggling With The Arabic Language

My first exposure to the Arabic language came when I met my future husband back in 1977. We were college students and I had never really been around Arabs before. Adnan and his other Arab friends would hang out, socialize, and share meals together, and of course, speak in Arabic. I used to sit back and listen to these men conversing in this alien language, with its strange guttural sounds. One surprising thing that I eventually got used to was hearing the use of the “F” word sprinkled amidst the Arabic words. The inappropriate English word actually forms the ending sound for many normal Arabic words. I would wonder how this fascinating language could often sound so harsh, crude and abrasive, yet always appear so beautifully artistic when written out in script.

I began asking Adnan how to say easy phrases in Arabic, which I wrote down in a notebook. Fawzy, a friend of Adnan’s, also took it upon himself to try to teach me some Arabic as well. He even taught me to sing a beautiful love song in Arabic, which I still remember to this day. One of the lines from the song, loosely translated, says something like “whenever I try to speak, the only sound that comes out is your name… Your name is written on my voice.” I remember being requested to sing it a few times at some gatherings the Arabs had, and boy, did that make an impression on those in attendance. Here was this young blonde American girl singing a love song in Arabic – they loved it!
Years later, when our son Adam was born, my husband began speaking to him only in Arabic. So Adam has a much better understanding of Arabic than I do. And he is learning to read and write it in school, which I am thrilled about. It is not easy to learn any language when you are in your mid-50s, and certainly not a language as difficult as Arabic. I have two books to help me learn the language and lots of human helpers as well! Everyone tries to help me with new words and phrases. I try to speak it as much as I can and I ask questions about how to say things in Arabic, but it isn’t happening as quickly as I would like. If I could get to where I would understand much of what is being said around me and be able to carry on little conversations, I would be happy.

But to make matters worse, conversational Arabic is different from classical Arabic, which is used in the Koran and by newscasters and others on TV here. All native Arabic speakers of every dialect can understand what is being said on TV and in the Koran, but it is not the way people on the street speak. I remember years ago when I went to Egypt and tried out the Arabic I had learned from Adnan and Fawzy, I thought it was funny that Egyptians would tell me that I spoke with a Saudi accent. I thought Arabic was Arabic – silly me!

Many English words are actually rooted in the Arabic language. For example, many words in the areas of food and drink come from Arabic, like alcohol, coffee, lemon, orange, sesame, spinach, and sugar. Arabic also has contributed words to the English language in other fields as well, such as geography, architecture, navigation, music, plants, sciences, sports, commerce, textiles, chemicals, colors, and minerals, to name a few.

Some sounds used in speaking Arabic are non-existent in English, and vice versa. Arabic does not use the sounds of “P” or “V,” thereby making it very difficult for Arab native speakers to pronounce these letters when speaking English. Some Arabic letters represent sounds in English that are made up of two letters like “th” and “sh.” Other sounds used in Arabic are so difficult to describe, I won’t even try. But trust me, these sounds are very difficult for English speakers to enunciate correctly.
Trying to learn how to read and write the Arabic language may be well beyond my abilities. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters which are consonants and three vowels which can be sounded short or long. Arabic letters look nothing like the letters in the English alphabet. Many Arabic letters are squiggly, curvy and curly, some with dots above and some with dots below, some with one dot, some with two. Depending on whether the letter comes at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, its written appearance can change. This makes it all the more difficult and confusing.

Arabic is written and read from right to left, the opposite of English. Something I find fascinating is that Arabic books which were written 1,500 years ago can be read and understood by any Arabic speaking person today. English didn’t even exist back then, and other languages that were in existence like Persian, Chinese and Greek have changed so much over time that older texts in those languages can only be read by scholars. Written Arabic is so beautiful it stands on its own as lovely artwork. Many Arabian homes display gorgeous artwork consisting of Arabic calligraphy made out of a variety of mediums such as metal or paint.

Arabic numbers are written from left to right, like in English. So when there is written Arabic text with numbers inserted into the text, the words read from right to left, but the numbers read the opposite way! Help!!! Plus some of the Arabic numbers are similar looking to English numbers, but some of those are totally different numbers. Interestingly enough, true Arabic numbers are what is used in the US. In Arabia, the numbers actually come from Hindu/Indian!

I have read on several other people’s blogs about how they were unable to achieve proficiency in becoming fluent in Arabic, despite having lived in the country for twelve, fifteen or even twenty years. This was discouraging for me to read since I had high hopes of somewhat mastering Arabic in maybe a year or two…or three! I think now that maybe that was unrealistic on my part. But I will continue to strive and I will not give up.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

March Madness in Arabia

Basketball is a popular sport in the Kingdom. Just like the NCAA Final Four Tournament, there is also a "March Madness" of sorts that goes on here, just like in the USA, marking the end of the basketball season with a big tournament championship. The final game was just played this past week and the team from Madinah beat out the team from Jeddah for the title.
One of my brothers-in-law here (that's him on the right below) works for the Ministry of Information and his job entails some refereeing and mainly sports casting for basketball games. We have seen him many times on Saudi Sports TV calling the games. He sits down on the floor at a table next to the team benches, usually with another sportscaster who banters back and forth with him. They use excited and animated voices when announcing the game, in Arabic of course, and I have to laugh out loud when amidst all these Arabic words I hear “Tecka-nickel Fow-el! Tecka-nickel Fow-el!” and then on with more Arabic commentary.
Team players are recruited from all over the world. There are several ex-professional players from the US that now play for Saudi Clubs. The teams here come from private athletic clubs. From what I understand, the local Saudi players (who might be college students or maybe young men with day jobs) play for the pure love of the sport, while the foreign recruited players get paid to play. My husband told me that it is more like college basketball with some pros thrown in to make the game more interesting and to improve the quality of play.

These clubs play other teams within the Kingdom from various cities near and far, as well as athletic clubs from neighboring countries like Iran, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Basketball is quite a popular sport in almost all Middle Eastern countries (as well as soccer).
Fans attending the games consist only of men. NO WOMEN ARE ALLOWED IN TO SEE THE GAME AT ALL! So, the team players' moms, sisters, or wives never get to see their loved ones play, except on TV. Remember, men and women are never thrown into social situations together and are not allowed to mix. Young girls are allowed to go to games until they reach the age of "womanhood," but I haven’t spotted a girl in the crowds yet. Obviously there are no cheerleaders (I think male cheerleaders would be frowned upon in this society!), but I must say, the pre-pubescent boy fans do a very good job of cheering and jumping around from their seats. A scan of the crowds reveals an ocean of white thobes, with a brightly colored shirt popping up here or there. The fans toss confetti, jump up and down, chant into bullhorns, wave shirts or hats in the air, and scream their little hearts out.
At the conclusion of the tournament, dignitaries handed out trophies in a game floor ceremony following the game. The floor was covered in confetti and other paper. The winning team from Madinah danced around the floor in something like a Conga line. Players took turns cutting off the hoop’s net with scissors and then a player from the winning team donned the netting around his neck.
Except for the Arabic language sportscasting, I almost felt like I was back home in the states!

(Note: Sorry for the poor quality of the photos in this post - they were all taken directly off the TV!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Compound Interest

There are many gated communities here in Saudi Arabia, which are called compounds. Some are large with many services provided and others are small. These compounds are not only gated, but most of them have security or even armed guards 24 hours a day. Compounds provide housing for foreigners who have come to the Kingdom to work, although more and more Saudi families are opting to enjoy the freedoms that come with compound living. Both family and singles housing are available for rent and are usually furnished. With singles housing, you might be assigned a roommate, sort of like college dorms except nicer accommodations. As an incentive, most work contracts include some type of housing allowance for the workers, which could cover all or at least most of the cost of renting in a compound.
 Not only does the compound provide a relatively safe environment for its residents, but the people residing in the compounds actually have a lot more freedom and activities than someone in my position. Inside the compounds, inhabitants can dress however they want - in other words, women don't have to cover their hair or wear the abaya. The larger compounds even have recreation centers, convenience stores, gyms, transportation, libraries, bowling alleys, restaurants, swimming pools, beauty parlors, etc. There are also many social events, clubs, classes, and sporting activities, plus many family oriented activities that go on within the confines of the compounds. Many larger compounds even employ a social events planner to keep residents involved and busy.
Within these walls, residents have learned how to make their own moonshine (alcohol is strictly prohibited) and others hold worship services in their homes, since Islam is the only religion allowed in Saudi Arabia. Some employers discourage workers from venturing outside the compound’s walls, citing safety issues. I have read that some 60% of the population here are foreigners. There are still many jobs here, like manual labor and service jobs, that are beneath the Saudis, and are filled by mostly Asian workers from the Philippines, India, or Pakistan. Higher paying professional positions in healthcare, communications, defense, and of course oil, are mostly held by Western workers from Europe or the USA.

Unfortunately as a result, one of the consequences of compound living is that many people who come here to work rarely get to experience what life is REALLY like outside the gates of their compound. The problem as I see it is that they are living in a foreign country yet not really experiencing what the country is really like since they are isolated from its society. I wonder how many foreign workers have actually made true friendships within the Arab community, or have been invited into an Arab home for dinner, or have attended a Saudi wedding. Unless required for their job, very few foreign workers learn the language and not many are able to assimilate into the society and culture. The ones who do generally don’t live in compounds and are married to Saudis or other Middle Easterners.
Despite their separation from Saudi society in general, most of the accounts that I have read that were written by those who have lived here under those conditions had overwhelmingly positive experiences.

In Saudi Arabia, compound living keeps the foreigners from socializing and interacting with the country’s citizens, a situation that succeeds at curbing the influences of the Western world from seeping into the society here. Score one for the Saudi government.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Meet the Cousins

Recently Tata (my MIL) and I were invited over to my sister-in-law’s home. I knew it would be “Women Only” because I was told to dress nicely and wear makeup and jewelry. When we got there I learned that it would be a gathering of Adnan’s female cousins from his mom's side of the family, which meant that Amal would be there. Amal is the one who took off every piece of jewelry she was wearing the first time I met her and gave it all to me. If you remember, this was not ordinary jewelry – this was a collection of heavy handmade silver Bedouin jewelry.

Tonight Amal’s sister, whom I hadn’t met yet, would also be coming. When the two of them finally arrived, I hugged and kissed Amal and exchanged pleasantries, and then I turned to her sister Widad and introduced myself. As I hugged her, the smell of her lovely perfumed intoxicated me. I told her, “You smell so good!” She immediately reached into her purse and pulled out a big bottle of expensive Amarige perfume and sprayed it all over me. Then she handed the huge full bottle to me and said, “It is yours!”

Ay, chihuahua! When will I learn to keep my mouth shut? I really have to watch what I say around these women! With Saudis, if you compliment them on something that is not nailed down, it is yours. Automatically. I have always complimented people all my life. I enjoy making people feel good by letting them know I like something about them or their home or whatever. So this is a very difficult habit for me to break. I first experienced Saudi generosity like this back when I first met my husband and his friends would give me anything and everything that I happened to comment on. As the years passed and all of his friends returned to their countries, I relapsed into my old habit of bestowing compliments where I felt compliments were due, without a second thought.

First we sat and talked in the elegant navy blue and gold living room. The furniture is surprisingly comfortable for being so formal looking. We were served drinks of gahwa (Arabic "coffee"), tea and fruit juices. There was also an assortment of sweets including chocolates, baklava and cookies. For most of the conversation, I just sit there smiling, or laughing when they do. I am able to pick up words here and there and sometimes figure out what the topic of conversation is. Other times I am way off base about what I think they are talking about or I have no clue whatsoever. My thoughtful SIL Baheeja will frequently break in to tell me what is being discussed so I don’t feel so left out and clueless.

Once all the guests arrived (there were about ten of us altogether), we went into the neighboring room, the formal dining room. The table and chairs are a glossy white lacquer finish. The large table can comfortably accommodate 16 people or more. There was a beautiful buffet set up along one wall of the room. It was a feast. There were so many different dishes I couldn’t even take a small serving of each item to taste as I usually like to do. My plate was so colorful and scrumptious looking I just had to run and get my camera to take a picture of it before I took one bite. The ladies all giggled at me. My SIL Baheeja then told them that I love to take pictures of everything I see - even the lavender garbage dumpsters and the attendants wearing matching lavender jumpsuits. This made them all laugh even more.

The two salad choices consisted of Tabouleh (its main ingredients are finely chopped parsley and bulghur) and a colorful macaroni salad with kidney beans, corn, garbanzo beans, and red bell pepper. One of my favorites was the lemony Stuffed Grape Leaves which were good even though they were stuffed only with spiced rice instead of a meat mixture. Whole green bell peppers and zucchinis were stuffed with a short grain rice mix spiced with lemon pepper. The Sambuseks (like a meat eggroll) were different than the way Adnan usually makes them. These had a outer dough shaped into a ball and instead of being deep fried, they were baked. Something I had never had before were the Fried Meatballs, called Gaddi al Gootha, which had a crunchy fried batter coating. The main dishes were red rice with lamb and boneless baked chicken served on a bed of Fareeq, which is a grain similar to bulghur, except the grains are much larger, plumper, and fantastically textured. This Fareeq dish was my absolute favorite dish of the evening. I love the texture as I chew on it! Absolutely everything was scrumptious!

We then adjourned to another neighboring room for coffee and dessert. This room is an even larger living room with bright burgundy crushed velvet couches. Among the desserts were cheesecake topped with strawberry jam, a wonderful crème caramel (or Flan – not quite as good as my friend Elisa’s mom used to make though!) and the chocolates, baklava, and cookies from the first part of the evening. I was stuffed from the meal so I gave myself a good hour before I waddled over to try a small taste of the cheesecake and the flan. Before the cousins left, I presented them each with a set of jewelry that I had made (matching earrings, bracelet, and necklace). They were very appreciative and gracious, tried it all on right away, and smothered me with kisses and hugs. I felt good. It was a great evening!

The following weekend Baheeja had another get together for the cousins from her dad's side of the family. I arrived at about 7:30pm, a little early but my hubby wanted to beat the busy weekend traffic. My SIL had set up a big garment rack just outside the front door with a small table holding pre-numbered papers and pins, so each arriving guest could hang up her abaya and attach a number for easy retrieval later on. My hair was still wet and my hair dryer had broken, so my SIL was happy to let me use her blow dryer at her vanity in her beautiful spacious bedroom. I've had my hair short for so many years, so growing my bangs and the rest of my hair out so I would be more comfortable wearing the hijab (scarf) has been driving me crazy and I still don't know what to do with it. Once I felt I was sufficiently gorgeous (ha!), I made my way downstairs. It was still early for the guests to arrive, so I went around doing my thang - taking photos! There were so many guests expected that Baheeja had hired 3 extra servers for the evening. Only a few of the older guests would be eating at the dining room table since it would not accommodate everyone, and the rest of us would just eat wherever.

By 9:30 pm, Baheeja declared, "They're late!" And then the guests began trickling in, until suddenly there were so many arriving at once that I thought they must have all taken the same bus! Before I knew it there were over forty women and girls of all ages, shapes and sizes in the house. As they made their entrance, the women already in the room would rise, and the newly arriving women would make the rounds, greeting, kissing, and hugging everyone there. Most of the women I had never met before, but they all seemed to know who I was even before I introduced myself. The older women were seated in the formal navy blue and gold living room, and the younger ones were herded into the plush burgundy living room. There were 3 and 4 generations of the family in attendance. Immediately the servers brought around the gahwa, tea, and chocolates. And then again. Always.

The traditional Arabic coffee drink of "Gahwa" is served in very tiny glass cups. It is not sweetened and the main ingredient is crushed cardomom. Gahwa is Arabic for coffee. Green coffee beans are used in this drink as well. To me, an American coffee drinker, Gahwa tastes nothing like coffee, or I should say the coffee that I am used to drinking. It is a greenish color and the cardomom flavor can be pretty overwheleming. I still haven't acquired a taste for it, but I politely drink my one or two small cups quickly - "Down the hatch!"

Adnan's most elderly aunt arrived last, at almost 11pm. I'm guessing she must be close to 80 years old, so I was surprised that she arrived so late, but I was later told that she eats an early dinner and goes to bed by about 7:30, and that she got up after a nap to come to Baheeja's party. When the elderly aunt arrived (she uses a cane), she sat in the closest empty chair and all the women took their turns getting up and going to her to welcome her. This was a show of great respect for the woman. Surprisingly even SHE knew who I was when I approached her to greet her.

It was about 12:30 am when we were called to eat. There was a huge buffet set up in the dining room. I was starving by this point. As usual I tried to take a little taste of everything and it was all fabulous! In no time, I was stuffed. Shortly after the meal, the ladies began departing. At least half of them invited me to their homes to visit, or to an upcoming wedding. They were all very gracious. By 2am almost everyone was gone.
During the evening, one of the younger cousins had asked me which was better: America or Arabia? I told her that it was hard to say because there were good things and bad things about both places, and that they are very different, so it would be hard to say one is better than the other, like comparing apples to oranges. Another one asked me how I liked it in Arabia so far. I didn't have to think at all about my answer. I replied that my experiences have mostly been very positive so far, and that the reason is because of Adnan's wonderful family. If it weren't for them, their graciousness, their generosity, I doubt I would have had such wonderful experiences here and such good impressions of this place. Family makes all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

TV in Arabia

Oprah is alive and well - in Arabia! And complete with Arabic sub-titles, no less!

One day when we went up to the rooftop of our building to have a look at the surrounding cityscape, I noticed that there are dozens of satellite dishes on top of each and every building. More than likely some of these dishes are old and non-functional, but I'm sure most of them are in working order, providing a link for millions to the outside world of violence, immorality, sex, and profanity - and of course, Oprah! We even get Dr. Phil, too.

Our own TV reception is not by dish but through the internet - when it works. This can be very frustrating because our service has been out for more than a week at a time on several occasions, and keep in mind that I have only been here in this country for five months! When it's working, we get over 20 Showtime channels (Comedy, Series, Kids, Sports and Movies) and I must admit, I am surprised at the number of fairly recent shows and movies we get. I just saw the Good Shepard for the first time, and I have gotten to see many of my favorite movies as well.

Sometimes curse words, kissing, and of course sexual scenes are cut out, but on other channels, it's full steam ahead, baby! I am shocked by the fact that we also get the racy Nip/Tuck and the violent The Sopranos, and I am thrilled that we get favorites of mine like the Daily Show, Seinfeld, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and House! Mainstream news shows are also available - the evening news shows that air in the US at 6:30pm on CBS and NBC are on here at 4:00am, which is within an hour or two after the original broadcast in the states.

We also get Discovery, Disney, History, and channels like that - except we don't get one of my favorites yet which is HGTV!

Of course not everyone here has the Showtime subscription. Before we got it, our viewing pleasure was much more limited. There are some Arabic channels with English language programming. I try hard to watch sometimes, but when I watch TV, I really like being entertained, and well, I guess I just don't find the Arabic shows that entertaining. I even try watching the dignified Arabic language programming too, but alas - it is VERY difficult for me to get into it when I don't understand a word being said, and it is REALLY dry. When we are over at Tata's, I sit and watch the Arabic shows for an hour or so with her, but that is about all I can take. She does watch some English language shows too though. Her favorites are Tom and Jerry cartoons and the food channel, which is called "Fatafeat" here (meaning "Crumbs" in Arabic) and airs shows like Emeril.

There are also Middle Eastern game shows, which are probably made in Dubai or Syria or such ... certainly NOT in Saudi Arabia. There is even a Middle East version of The Biggest Loser - some of the women contestants cover their hair and some don't. Call in shows are very popular here, ranging in topics from religion, to health, to music, and so on.

Arabic commercials are just as bad as American commercials. You've got your seriously grave, sterile, intellectually health conscious commercials, where the narrator's voice sounds like an overly exaggerated, seriously boring Keanu Reeves. You know what I mean, don't you? McDonald's commercials are so serious here! And then there's the overtly goofy group of obnoxiously super happy young adults who take great joy in performing this ritualistic dance as they swirl a bottle of soda in a circular motion around their whole heads and then pass it on. Oh, and I can't forget the kindergartner dressed up as a daisy performing on stage with his class who interrupts the whole show to call to his duly embarrassed mom in the audience, telling her something about cream cheese that the whole audience hears. I am by no means saying that commercials in the states are any better at all. I just wish that they would aspire to be a little more original, with higher standards, than imitating the poor characterizations on American TV. Ugh!

One thing that I do like about TV here is that the sheer number of commercials is way less than in America. Oftentimes the show fades out like there will be a commercial break, and instead, it immediately continues with the next scene of the show. But just like in America, the commercials are run over and over, again and again, and the repetitiveness drives me crazy.

Another thing that drives me crazy is that they run a show series here for about a month solid and then suddenly it's off the air and another show is on. This happens all the time. Plus there is no online programming guide here - or a printed one for that matter - so I always end up missing shows here and there that I would have liked to have watched. Imagine at the top of the hour or on the half hour, having to flip through all the channels just to see what is on. By the time you figure out what you want to watch, you've missed half the show. We probably get just about every American TV show imaginable but just don’t know it. Also on many channels, if you miss a show, you can catch it 4-5 hours later when it is repeated again.

All in all, for English speaking viewers, the TV viewing choices are not all that bad...and you do get used to the Arabic subtitles after a while! And as long as we've got Oprah ...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Little Bit About Jeddah

You may have noticed a new look to my blog recently. The new heading graphic featuring the blog title is actually from a photo I took myself here in Jeddah. After some manipulating with Photoshop, the result is what you see now. It looks like a painting, doesn’t it? This is the original photo ...
This is the picture that I created my blog header from, taken at an amazing structure which was built by one of my husband’s cousins, a highly successful and shrewd businessman who passed away not too long ago. We were driving around the city one evening when hubby pulled off a main road and stopped the car in front of this enormous and magnificent development called Altayebat International City for Sciences and Knowledge. The educational facility was built to teach underprivileged children and even houses many of them who are orphaned. It was closed, but even at night the structure itself was quite an interesting sight. Hundreds of oxidized metal antique lanterns provide lighting for the outside. The entire walled-in compound consists of eleven different buildings which are all white with intricate decorative wooden detailing on all windows, doors, facades, balconies and porches painted brown. There is a huge green dome plus several beautiful minarets towering over the buildings. What I was able to photograph was an enormous replica of Old Jeddah constructed along one of the outside walls of the facility. The mini city appears to be made of clay or gypsum and spans an area of about 25 feet wide by 4 feet tall. The charming little village has arched doorways and windows and flat roofs with lots of attention paid to every minute detail for accuracy.

Adnan’s cousin also had built one of Jeddah’s finest historical museums which unfortunately was lost in a fire several years ago. I have seen many photos of this museum and it was splendid. The museum had a collection of some 10,000 artifacts which reflected the history and progress of Jeddah’s civilization. The tragedy of the museum fire was an immeasurable and tremendous loss for the city of Jeddah.
My husband has told me that when he was a boy, Jeddah’s population was only about 30,000 people (compared to estimates of upwards of 4 million today) and that the city was completely walled in. At night the gates to the city were closed and no one could get in or out, and families felt safe enough to sleep up on the flat rooftops when the weather was too hot. The high stone wall totally encircled the town and was actually rebuilt by the Ottomans during the 16th century, to protect the citizens of Jeddah from aggression from Portugal. The Ottomans remained in Jeddah until 1915 and their influence is still evident in Jeddah today, seen in the architecture throughout these old historic parts of the town. Today the wall and its gates are no longer standing as Jeddah’s phenomenal growth has pushed its boundaries way beyond that original wall.

Jeddah’s history goes back some 2500 years, when the area was first inhabited as a small fishing village. Its location on the Red Sea and its close proximity to Mecca played important roles in Jeddah’s importance and growth in the ensuing years. Mecca is the holiest city of Islam. All Muslims are required to journey to Mecca at least once in their lives for the religious pilgrimage called the Haj, with many Muslims making the trip more times than just the once. Since Jeddah is the closest seaport to Mecca and only a one hour drive away by car, Jeddah benefits economically from the millions of pilgrims who make this trip each year. Jeddah’s airport is also the largest in the whole region as well, with a special terminal just for Haj pilgrims. Because of this tremendous influx of visitors from all over the world, Jeddah is thought to be a little more progressive, cosmopolitan and informal than the capital city of Riyadh, which gets far fewer outside visitors. Riyadh lies smack dab in the middle of the country, a tad isolated from the rest of the world, and is surrounded by mostly nothing but desert for many miles.

Modern day Jeddah boasts the world’s largest outdoor open air art gallery, with hundreds of sculptures and other works of art sprouting up mostly all along the Corniche and in the center of many of the city’s roundabouts located at major intersections. For your viewing pleasure, I have posted an online photo album featuring many of these beautiful, interesting, sometimes whimsical, sometimes weird sculptures at the following link:
Sculptures of Jeddah
Jeddah is a city with an interesting mix of the ancient and the thoroughly modern and has a charm all its own. It is a melting pot of sorts, a unique place to live with inhabitants from all over the world. Jeddah is steeped in tradition and rich in culture yet leads the way in welcoming and accepting the outside world. I look forward to discovering more of this fascinating place and sharing my findings with you.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mother in Law

Back in 1950, my husband’s mother Tata was married at age 12 and gave birth to my husband when she was only 13. Adnan’s dad was 21 or 22 when they married. At the time of her marriage, she had attained a 4th grade education. This was not unusual for that era in Arabia, but hopefully it doesn’t happen (much) in this day and age, except possibly among the remaining Bedouin tribes.

(Girls in the Kingdom now achieve at least a high school education. Some are married off then, and others continue their educations and obtain higher degrees at universities or even go on to get their PhDs. Even so, most still do not work outside the home.)

One day when Tata and I were sitting in her living room, she told me in her limited English a little about her experience.

“Me eleffen oh twelf years get married,” she said in her cute thick accent. “Mama and Baba kuh-razy! Me too young. Me baby!”

“Baby Adnan come after one year. Then baby, baby, baby after.”

Well before her 20th birthday, she had four kids.

She did not know her husband when they married. She was still playing with dolls. She told me that even though she had an older unmarried teenaged sister, Adnan's father wanted only Tata as his wife. It was, of course, an arranged marriage. But over the years she grew to deeply love her husband, who was a kind and good man. Adnan is the spitting image of his dad, who passed away right before we met 30 years ago. This, coupled with the fact that he is her first born, makes Adnan very special to Tata.

But Tata herself is very special. This woman with only a 4th grade education, who was married as a child of 12, raised four children who all graduated from college. (My husband has his PhD and his sister married a highly successful man who has his PhD as well.) This "uneducated" woman owns property, has managed her affairs by herself for the last 30 years, has a live in maid, loves to cook and learn, and has a great sense of humor. She is as generous as she is stubborn and strong. Even though my Arabic is very limited and her knowledge of English is not extensive, somehow we manage to communicate most of the time. She and I each try to teach each other new words and phrases. We enjoy each other's company and always laugh together.

Tata has an antique Singer sewing machine that she got shortly after her marriage. It is beautiful - well worn, but has been lovingly taken care of over the years, and it runs like a dream. It doesn’t even have a zigzag stitch, just a straight stitch and reverse. It is black with gold lettering and designs on it. The machine is heavy – it must weigh 25 pounds. I had to prove my sewing skills to her the first time I asked to use it, but now she lets me borrow it any time I need it.

My now-hairy 15 year old son Adam had been bugging us for months to get him an electric shaver. The other day, my husband came home with an old Philips electric shaver in a slightly tattered box, for Adam. The shaver itself is like new and works perfectly. I asked Adnan where it came from, as I haven’t seen any second hand stores around here. I don’t think they exist.

“It belonged to my father. Can you believe Mother has kept it all these years?” he said.

I caught my breath as tears came to my eyes and my throat tightened. I am and always will be a sentimental fool. This gesture, this kindness, this generosity! Surely this shaver was more than just an electrical appliance to her. The fact that she gave it to MY son and not one of her other grandsons spoke volumes to me and touched me in a way I cannot express. Nothing she could have done could have made me feel more accepted as a part of this family.

I always jokingly told people back in the states all those years that I was lucky I had no in-law problems because mine were on the other side of the world. Now that I have made the journey and am living right across the hall from my mother in law, I know what I have been missing.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Middle Aged Husband Has Become A Party Animal!

When we first met some 30 years ago as university students in Arizona, my husband and I were in our mid-20s and quickly fell head over heels in love. Of course our lives revolved around our many friends and socializing, staying up late and having lots of fun. We entertained quite a bit, hosting frequent get togethers in our home ranging from smaller groups of friends to huge blow out parties. Our social calendar was constantly filled with other events as well, like the Taste of Tucson, the 4th Avenue Street Fair, rock concerts, camping, and traveling around the countryside. We also used to go to the neighborhood clubs to play pool, or dance, even though later on he confided to me that he just pretended to enjoy dancing in an effort to “hook” me! He was so much fun to be with and could definitely be the life of the party.

As we grew older and our student days were over, the reality of "working for a living" set in. We still hosted parties in our home and led active social lives, but not to the extent of when we were college students. My husband has always required a good night’s sleep, while I can get by on a few short hours. It’s not unusual for him to get 9-10 hours of sleep or more each night, with me surviving on only 4-5 hours just fine. If he doesn’t get at least 8 hours of sleep, watch out! – what a grump!

Once he hit 40, my hubby became less socially inclined, somewhat of an old “Fuddy Duddy.” I used to have to prod him to agree to go to an event with me or to get together with friends. He would have just as soon stayed at home to sleep than to go out. When we had dinner guests, I can remember a couple of occasions where he just excused himself and went to bed when he felt our guests had been there long enough! He has never enjoyed movies - there are no movie theaters here in Arabia, so people are not exposed to the joys of the whole movie theater experience from an early age, like in America. Lucky for me, my son developed a love for movies like me, so he and I would frequently go to the movies while my husband stayed home to nap. Going to the movies is one of the things we miss the most about the States.

I would often go out with my girlfriends for Girls Nite Out of dinners, or the movies, and even on some out of town excursions. I would constantly encourage my hubby to go out with his small circle of friends, but it was a very rare occasion if he ever did. He seemed to lose interest in having fun and enjoying himself. His priorities had changed and he felt saddled with responsibilities at home and at work and he was pooped.

Since we moved back to his homeland, the man has become a PARTY ANIMAL!!! Now, I use the term “Party Animal” here, but partying here is a totally different concept than in the States. For one thing, there is no alcohol involved, plus there is no co-mingling of the opposite sex. There are always family get togethers here, many times lasting until the wee hours of the morning and now, miraculously, my husband has no problem attending or staying up late. He also now goes out at least 2 or 3 nights every week to spend time with his brother (who recently retired) and his friends at a café, where they play cards, eat, smoke hookahs, tell jokes and have fun. There have been many weddings that he has managed to attend as well – it was like pulling teeth to get him to accompany me to weddings back in the states! Some nights he doesn’t get home until after 3am. Now, he calls all of this activity "networking" or "conducting business."

Since only men are in attendance, I am not bothered by any of this at all. I am happy that he seems to have been “reborn” and rejuvenated by being back in his element, renewing old friendships, and spending time with his brother. Just the other day we were driving along, and somehow I asked about brothels in Arabia. My husband insisted that there are none, since it is "haram" (forbidden) and it would be too risky to operate one in the Kingdom. He then went on to say that if there were any, he didnt' know about them. So I joked with him that it was a relief since he has been keeping such late hours ! It is just surprising that this is the same man who in the previous years would have none of staying up late or having fun.

My old Fuddy Duddy has become a Party Animal once again!