Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Talking to a Wall

H ubby just got back from a trip he took with his brother "A" up to a small town in northern Saudi Arabia about 800 km away from Jeddah called Diba or Duba, or something like that. Trying to get information out of my husband - a man of very few words - is literally like, for lack of a better description, pulling teeth.

Me: So tell us about your trip, dear. What is Diba like?

Hubby: It's small.

Me: Well, describe it.

Hubby: It's like any small town.

Me: Wait! Wait! Too much description. Gee, I can't process all this information at once. Overload, overload! Well, what did you do while you were there?

Hubby: Nothing.

Me: So you went all the way up there for nothing?

Hubby: "A" had some business.

Me: What kind of business? Family? Real estate? Monkey?

Hubby: Just business.

Me: So what did you do when you weren't doing business?

Hubby: Not much. We were invited to eat at different people's homes.

Me: Whose homes?

Hubby: Family members.

Me: So you went to visit your brother "A's" oldest daughter Fatima?

Hubby: Yes.

Me: So it was her husband's family you met and ate with?

Hubby: Yes.

Me: What is her husband's name?

Hubby: It's not important.

Me: Does Fatima have kids?

Hubby: Yes.

Me: How many?

Hubby: It's not important.

Son: How come I've never met Fatima?

Me: I haven't either. She's Mohi's sister - they are "A's" oldest kids from his first marriage to that crazy woman Samia. What ever happened to her anyway?

Hubby: How should I know? I don't keep track of my brother's ex-wives.

Son: (sarcastically) I think she got killed in some freak lawn mowing accident. So how much did this trip cost you, Dad?

Hubby: Nothing.

Son: How can that be?

Hubby: God provides.

Me: Well, since "A" picked you up to take you to the airport, there was no gas expense or airport parking fees. Then you both flew standby on "A's" employee privileges, so no money was spent on airline tickets. "A's" son-in-law probably picked you up from the airport, so no car rental. You probably stayed for free at his daughter's home, so no hotel costs. You ate all your meals with different family members, so food was free.

Hubby: I love it!

Me: And you obviously didn't spend any money buying us any cheesy dust magnet souvenirs while you were there, so no money wasted there!

Hubby: What? Every time I go somewhere I'm supposed to bring you back something?

Son: Well, it would be nice to let us know that you at least thought of us while we were stuck here with no where to go and nothing to do for a couple of days.

Me: Now Adam, that's not true. Remember, we went to your orthodontist appointment while Dad was gone.

Son: Oh, right! We had to get up at 7am because the driver Dad arranged for us was supposed to pick us up at 7:30am, so we would be the first ones there, so we wouldn't have to wait. Except it didn't quite work out that way.

Hubby: No?

Me: No, we got downstairs at 7:20 and the driver didn't come until 8:15am. We had to call him three times before his wife finally answered the phone and said that he would be there in 5 minutes. Except it was another 20 minutes before he arrived. I don't think he would have shown up at all if we hadn't called. And all the while it was getting warmer and warmer and we were harassed by gnats and mosquitoes the whole time. We finally got to the orthodontist's at 8:30am and then the doctor didn't even arrive there until 9:15!

Hubby: Well, that's the way things are done here and you just have to accept it.

Me: I'll never get used to it and I'll never accept it. Grrrrrr...

Son: Yeah, we had loads of fun while you were gone, Dad. NOT!

HAPPY NEW YEAR to one and all from Saudi Arabia!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Celebrity Sighting and Cultural Clash

We rolled into Madinah just as the sun was setting. I immediately liked the place. For some reason I just felt comfortable there. I loved the drive there - the farther we got from Jeddah, the more mountainous the terrain became. Groves of date palms are abundant throughout the region. Madinah's weather was delightful, much cooler than Jeddah's winter. We had traveled up to Madinah with my husband's brother's family, and the following day we were expecting more branches of the family. The winding city roads led us to the energized downtown area where the enormous and beautiful Prophet's Mosque is nestled amid dozens of highrise hotels.

Adnan managed to squeeze the car into a small space next to his brother's car outside the hotel. The two brothers went inside to check in to the hotel while we (the women and children) waited in the cars. Adam and I got out to stretch our legs after the long drive and we stood between the two cars. I started snapping a few photos with my ever-present camera when suddenly my sister-in-law (SIL) "H" let out a little scream as she excitedly pointed to a handsome young man walking by, blubbering that he was a famous Egyptian movie star! He heard her little scream and turned around, waving and smiling at us. Thinking quickly, I asked him if I could take his picture with my son, and the attractive actor happily obliged. I pushed Adam over toward him and snapped the photo and then thanked him. He was most gracious, asked where we were from, and then turned away and he disappeared into the darkness. The funny thing is that neither Adam or I had a clue as to who this guy was. From H we learned that the mystery man's name is Ahmed Ezz, who started out as a model and from there broke into Egyptian movies. Adam was thrilled to learn all of this since he had not been paying attention and was miffed at why I had pushed him over to take a photo with a total stranger in the first place. Later we bluetoothed the photo to Adam's phone and H's phone, and you should have heard all the "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" as other female family members gazed upon the photo.

The hotel we stayed at was literally a few steps away from the Prophet's Mosque, so the location was great. However the hotel itself had seen better days. Since we were late in making our hotel reservations, this was the only one available. Honestly it was a bit disappointing. Now considered a "Hajji" hotel which is used to house large groups of religious pilgrims who come to the country for the Hajj, our "two bedroom suite" was actually furnished with a total of ten twin beds - six crowded into one room and four in the other. There was not room for much else in the units, as you can imagine. It was clean, but clearly it was past time for the carpeting to be replaced and the bathroom and kitchen could definitely use updating. The booked-to-capacity fourteen floor hotel had nine elevators which were totally full every time we wanted to get on. This was a major pain! But not only that, this was the first time in my life that I have ever seen segregated elevators. Yes, there were signs clearly marking certain elevators for "Men" only or "Women" only, and it was enforced! Luckily we didn't spend that much time in our hotel rooms and the rest of the family that arrived a day after we did were booked into a couple of neighboring top notch hotels, so we spent more time relaxing in their luxurious suites.

The first night we ate dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the fancier hotel restaurants, and it was lovely. They offered a magnificent self serve buffet with a wide variety of exquisite dishes. The Hajj attracts visitors from all over the world, people from different cultures with different customs, with one thing in common: Islam. Even so, the Saudi culture is a much more closed society than most countries, and other Muslims may not be entirely familiar with proper Saudi etiquette and customs. So there can be a bit of clashing of the cultures as I found out in that hotel restaurant that night.

Since I arrived here in Saudi Arabia a little more than a year ago, my husband has constantly reminded me that Saudi women do not speak to or even look at other men. Ok, but I am not Saudi and I never will be. He brings this up when we go into a shop and I naturally greet the clerk, or say "Thank You" or "Goodbye," in Arabic of course! To me, this is just part of my friendly American upbringing in being polite and acknowledging another person's assistance. Anyway, as we sat at our table enjoying our meal, the group of men at a neighboring table got up to leave. An older gentleman of the group stopped by our table, smiled, and said "Good Evening" to us in some type of European accent. Then, apparently having heard me speaking English, he directed a question to me, asking if I were British. So I replied that No, I'm American, and he asked from what part, etc. The man was only trying to be nice. But after he left, my husband made a little stink about how the man should not have spoken to me, that culturally this was very wrong of him, and that I shouldn't have answered him. I'm sorry, but I feel to ignore someone speaking to me is rude. This is a very Saudi thing, just like wearing the abaya. I wear the abaya and if I had my druthers, I would not. But we are here in Saudi Arabia where all women must, so I do. Now honestly, I am in my 50s and have been very comfortable speaking to people/men all my life, and to expect me to change this behavior at this stage of the game is just not something I can or will do.

I might add that during this trip to Madinah, no fewer than a dozen men - mostly sales clerks, and yes, even the lovely Ahmed Ezz! (that's him on the right) - asked me where I was from, or if I were Turkish or British. Luckily my husband wasn't around or did not hear. I do not mind being spoken to and I do not mind answering. It's what I have always done. Actually I was a little surprised and flattered by my husband's little display of jealousy, but he made a big deal out of it in front of his brother and the family too, and they agreed with him. Of course, remember that THEY are Saudis too. What do YOU think?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Road to Madinah

E arly December marked the time here in Saudi Arabia when millions of Muslims from around the world came to perform what is called the annual Hajj - a requirement of the faith stipulating that all able bodied Muslims must visit the holy city of Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Since most of the pilgrims arrive via airplane nowadays and Jeddah is the largest and closest airport to Makkah, most of the pilgrims travel into and out of Jeddah during the Hajj time. Because of this influx of people, many Jeddans have taken to leaving the city themselves during this time. Many of them go to Madinah, which is about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) north of Jeddah.

Madinah is also a holy city for the Islamic faith. It is home to the beautiful Prophet's Mosque, where Mohammed's tomb is located. This would be my first trip outside of the Jeddah area since my arrival in the country over a year ago. We caravanned with my husband's brother and his family for the drive up to Madinah. The trip should have taken less than four hours, but ended up taking about six hours. My jolly brother-in-law (BIL) decided to pull off at almost every exit for various wants and needs, like coffee or snacks or restrooms. My dramatic hubby feigned impatience, acting as though he was at the end of his rope, and it all became quite a hilarious joke and a much more memorable trip than if we had just driven straight through.

Not far outside of Jeddah, the terrain began to change. It became much more hilly, then rocky and mountainous with more vegetation than the Jeddah area. I'm no expert, but along the way, there appeared to be large deposits of untapped ores and minerals in the rich looking earth, which ranged in color from red to almost black in some places. The further we got, the more beautiful and interesting the mountains became, with layer after layer of mountain ranges becoming lighter and lighter off in the distance. It reminded me of how the gorgeous and graceful San Juan Islands loom in the hazy mist off the coast of Washington State, for those of you who are familiar with that lovely part of America. We also began to notice an enormous amount of traffic going the opposite direction - bus after bus, car after car, most of them probably headed from Madinah to Makkah. At one of the police checkpoints, vehicles seemed to be backed up for miles. Luckily there was not much traffic going our direction, so it was smooth sailing for us.

About halfway there, we saw several cars pulled off on the side of the road. BIL, who was leading our tiny caravan, pulled over and we followed suit. Much to my surprise and delight, there on the large area off the road were a couple of dozen wild baboons, which I found out are native to this habitat. This was the first of two families of Hamadryas baboons that we saw during the trip. I also learned that baboons live in large family groups called clans consisting of one male or father and several adult female mates and their kids. Some harems can have as many as ten female wives to the one lone male leader, considerably more than the four wives Islam allows for Muslim men!

The male of the group that I managed to get a few photos of was a magnificent looking creature. Males have longer fur which can appear to have been crimped with a crimping iron, a result of the painstakingly loving attention and grooming by the female mates. Their fur is mainly a silvery color but can look almost white to dark brown in certain places on the body. The male is also the largest member of the clan, weighing up to 45 pounds. The females are smaller at around 25 pounds, with shorter hair which is a usually a drab brown color. Both males and females are quite distinctive with their bright pink hairless padded rumps. Baboons' faces resemble a very long drawn out doggie face. They are mostly vegetarians, but they also eat insects and sometimes meat. The only native primate on the Arabian peninsula aside from humans, the baboon was considered as somewhat sacred by the ancient Egyptians, featured in the drawings on temple walls and even mummified in tombs.

I also read that earlier this year back in April, because of severe drought conditions these wild baboons attacked nearby homes and farms in search of food and water. They have been known to attack humans and are considered quite dangerous with their powerful jaws and teeth and strength. Indeed all the cars that were stopped there on the side of the road kept their windows rolled up and no one dared to step out of their cars.

Baboons weren't the only native animals we saw that day. Even though I have seen camels here before herded together at various spots just outside of Jeddah, I still got excited when I saw many loose camels along the way. I even spotted a rare white camel. There were also many herds of sheep and goats dotting the hills, as well as numerous birds. And I was equally excited when we were treated to the second family of baboons we spied later on, who seemingly lived in some abandoned ramshackle hovels.

Another thing that struck me on this drive was the sheer number of mosques we passed along the way. I know that in Jeddah, there seems to be mosques every few blocks in every direction. But out in the middle of nowhere, it felt that even in extremely remote and sparsely populated areas, mosques stood every couple of miles or so. Some were very minimalist, with a floor, walls, a roof, and of course a minaret, and just bare openings without actual doors or windows affixed. Even very small villages seemed to have numerous mosques within their boundaries. When Muslims are traveling, they can delay saying their prayers until they arrive at their destination, but with mosques conveniently located every few miles, delaying prayer times is not really necessary.

When we finally reached Madinah, the sun was starting to go down and I felt immediately at home there. Stay tuned for my next post about the time we spent in the holy city of Madinah.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Old Jeddah's Bab Makkah Souk

Jeddah, like many cities around the world, has a really interesting mix of ultra-modern and absolutely ancient. Less than a century ago, Jeddah was a completely walled in small city, boarded up at night to keep its residents safe from outsiders. Its location was significant because of its close proximity to the holy city Makkah, the caravan routes, and its position on the Red Sea.

There were four gates - North, East, South and West - where people could enter or leave the city. The walls have long since come down and Jeddah has grown to an important sprawling commercial metropolis. The famous gates have been replicated in various places around town as a nod to the city's history, and one of the gates is located in Old Jeddah, which is also called Al-Balad. To read a bit more about this area and to see more photos, take a look at the last post I did on Old Jeddah and the Al-Balad district.

In the oldest part of the city is, of course, its oldest surviving souk, which is called Bab Makkah. In Arabic, this means "door to Mecca" or "gateway to Mecca." I have been to Bab Makkah several times, mostly in the daytime. My brother-in-law (BIL) loves to point out the old house he and my husband grew up in, the old schools they attended which are in disrepair but still functioning, and the graveyard where their dad is buried - which is inaccessible because it is surrounded by the souks (shops or markets). I try to imagine how it must have been back then when we didn't have all of today's modern conveniences and wonder how I would have managed. But then again, I grew up in an adobe house without air conditioning in the heat of Arizona, so I'm thinking I probably would have survived in this desert too! Somehow we must adapt...

Narrow streets that are barely wide enough for a single car to drive through are lined with colorful shop after colorful shop, offering everything imaginable under the sun. If one wants to go when it is not crowded, the least busy time to go is in the morning during the week during Ramadan, the month out of the year when Muslims do not eat or drink anything at all during the daylight hours. My BIL and my hubby enjoy going down to Bab Makkah during Ramadan to get certain traditional supplies in bulk for various branches of the family, like olive oil, cheeses, and tahini, claiming that the prices are considerably cheaper there. Since it is a long drive down to Bab Makkah - about 45 minutes in good traffic or more than an hour in busy traffic - the rest of the year they usually opt to get these supplies at shops a bit closer to home.

The grocery souks here are so small and crowded that the customers actually have to stand at a counter outside the shop to place their orders and cannot enter the well stocked and crowded shops. Every vendor specializes in only certain products that they sell. One vendor sells only dates, another one sells only nuts or olives, and still others have only meats, or spices or shoes. And the businesses here thrive! There are no taxes and no continual fees for business licenses or occupancy or health inspections to be paid, so small businesses here actually have a much better chance of surviving. And what's more, since the business owners are not nickeled and dimed to death by the government, they don't gouge the customers and the prices they charge are very reasonable and they still manage to make a profit.

Recently we visited Bab Makkah for the first time at night - and not during the weekend - and let me tell you, this place was hopping! Throngs of people bustled about like busy little ants, shopping, working, eating, laughing. Most women were dressed from head to toe in black, although I did see a few African women wearing their colorful native dress. Most of the men were dressed either in the traditional Saudi long white loose-fitting dress, called a thobe, or in the two piece Pakistani traditional dress which consists of very loose long pants topped by a matching big loose shirt that extends down to the knees. The smell of incense permeated the evening air. Bumper to bumper vehicles moving at a snail's pace tried to worm their way through the narrowly tight and overly-crowded streets. It was nearly midnight on a school night and the buzz of activity didn't appear as though it would be letting up any time soon.

Bab Makkah is a place where you negotiate the price with the vendor - you never, ever pay the first price you are quoted. My husband is a natural at haggling over the price with the vendors, but not me. Where I grew up, the prices were marked and that was the price you paid, although right across the border was Mexico, where haggling was commonplace - but unfortunately for me, I still never got the hang of it!

We stopped at a meat vendor's little shop - just to look - and I was astounded by the sight of animals parts I had never even seen offered for sale before - animal parts like hooves, and testicles, and hearts, and kidneys - all sitting out in the warm open air and not refrigerated. We have never purchased any of the meat here, but it is interesting to look at these meats that I haven't had much prior experience with! The presentation is so totally different than the supermarkets back home in America that I am used to. These organ meats are not covered with plastic wrap or kept on ice and just sit in a large plastic bowl out on a table, flies buzzing around freely. My hubby says that when you cook the meats you cook out any bacteria or other germs that might have been present anyway... uh, okay...

On another trip down to Bab Makkah, I was lucky enough to snap a photo of a fellow walking through the marketplace, carrying a huge piece of meat, which he was delivering to one of the meat vendors. He held onto it with his bare hands (no plastic gloves), had it slung over his shoulder and down his back, laying right on his shirt! You just don't see stuff like this where I'm from and I find it fascinating. Hmmm ... I wondered what he smelled liked by the end of his work day ... pity the poor wife who does his laundry!

At one of the spice and incense souks, my BIL purchased two Islamic burial kits - one for a man and the other one for a woman - to donate to a mosque. Each kit consisted of a large box containing everything needed for a proper Islamic burial. Included in the kit were several large pieces of white cloth for shrouding the body, strips of tie cloths, a particular soap for washing the body, a distinct body scrub, some special herbs and spices, disposable gloves, incense, and lots of cotton balls for stuffing into the body's cavities. Islam is very specific about the procedures to follow when someone dies. Muslims are buried as soon as possible and are usually buried in just the shroud - no coffins, and no tombstones.

Also at the spice vendors, huge blocks of various spicy incense are then broken up by hammer into smaller chunks. You can imagine the pleasant scents that emanate from the spice shops! These shops are also loaded with hair products like henna, herbal remedies, and perfumes and oils, stacked from floor to ceiling.

Another vendor's booth has a hanging display of strung dates which look like the old time weiners that used to hang in the butcher shop. Others offer knockoffs of jewelry, perfumes and purses, while down the block you can get all the latest in cell phones or other electronic products. Handmade carts are laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, or socks and underwear, or leather belts.

I enjoy going down to Bab Makkah Souk - it's always an interesting and fascinating time - but I have learned one thing. I'll never go there again during Ramadan in the middle of the day. I almost passed out from a combination of the brutal heat and the fasting! I honestly don't know how the other women there do it - having to wear the black abaya and not being able to at least drink water. Well, come to think of it - I don't know how the men can do it either!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Old Jeddah and the Al-Balad District

The city of Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, exceeded in population only by the capital city of Riyadh. Because Riyadh is inland and Jeddah sits right on the beautiful Red Sea, Jeddah is considered to be the commerce center of the country.

Jeddah, like many cities around the world, has a really interesting mix of ultra-modern and absolutely ancient. An hour's drive from Mecca, Islam's holiest city, Jeddah is also an important gateway for travelers heading to Mecca for the Hajj, the pilgrimage that able-bodied Muslims are required to make at least once during their lives.

Jeddah's beginnings go all the way back to 2500 years ago when it was a sleepy fishing village. Things changed in 647 AD when the ruling caliph realized that because of its close proximity to the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Madinah, Jeddah made the perfect port for Muslims making the Hajj.

Less than a century ago, Jeddah was a completely walled in small city and was boarded up at night to keep its residents safe from outsiders. Its location was significant because of its close proximity to the holy city Mecca, the caravan routes, and its position on the Red Sea. There were four gates - north, east, south and west - where people could enter or leave the city. The walls have long since come down and Jeddah has grown to an important sprawling commercial metropolis. The famous gates have been replicated in various places around town as a nod to the city's history, and one of the gates is located in historic Old Jeddah, which is called Al-Balad.

Many of the buildings in Al-Balad, which means "the town," are centuries old and, surprisingly, are built of coral. Some are crumbling in disrepair and could be called ruins. Despite this, most of these buildings are still inhabited or used for business. The architecture is distinctly traditional Middle Eastern style, with the use of horizontal embedded wood beams, those unique wooden window coverings, airy balconies, and carved doors.

 The window coverings are designed for privacy, but also allow for good air circulation. The designs on the window coverings are intricate and beautiful. Since this area of Jeddah was built long before automobiles were invented, many of the streets are so narrow that one car can barely squeak through. Making these streets feel even more claustrophobic is the fact that they are lined with buildings that are three or more stories high.

Interspersed between some of the ancient buildings are new glass and steel structures housing upscale shops offering the latest fashions from Paris or Milan, or large world renowned businesses, side by side with street vendors hawking fresh produce or shoes and the popular open air markets, called souks.

Al-Balad has been called a shopper's paradise, where one can find everything from beautiful traditional handmade crafts to the latest in electronics, or from exquisite gold and silver jewelry to popular aromatic oils and spices. Different souks are scattered around in every direction, many within walking distance.

An interesting legend that lends mystery and wonder to this area is the belief that Eve herself is buried in an unusually shaped tomb in the Ummana Hawa Cemetery, in the Al-Balad area of Old Jeddah. When Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise, Eve settled in Jeddah while Adam lived in Mecca and then other parts of the world. Miraculously this grave site has survived all these thousands of years and is a must-see stop for many religious pilgrims. Of course the actual facts are all up for debate since the Bible is the only evidence that Eve ever existed. It would be interesting after all this time to see what actually lies within the tomb.

In spite of its ancient decaying structures, Old Jeddah and Al-Balad continue to prosper, showcasing the diversity, the history, and the spirit that make Jeddah the significant Middle Eastern city that it is today.