Monday, September 28, 2009

KAUST: King's Dream Becomes Reality



Saudi Arabia made international news this past week with the inauguration of KAUST - King Abdullah University for Sciences and Technology. A longtime dream of King Abullah's, KAUST's glitzy inaugural celebration was held on September 23rd - coinciding with Saudi National Day - in an academically star-studded ceremony attended by various dignitiaries, such as heads of state, Nobel prize winners, and world business icons. The unique university is located 50 miles north of Jeddah in the small fishing community called Thuwal on the Red Sea. Erected out of the desert sands from scratch in an astonishingly short time frame, KAUST went from dream to reality in less than three years.



The top notch facility has attracted the world's cream of the crop in every capacity from students to administrative and teaching positions. Students from fifty different countries have enrolled in KAUST, and from what I understand, all of the students are on full scholarships or fellowships. With the goal of research and advancing science, KAUST specialized fields include math and computers, science and engineering, bioscience and bioengineering, and resources, energy and the environment. Developing solar energy is one of the specific aims of KAUST, in hopes that solar power will, in the near future, handle much of the Kingdom's energy requirements, plus become an important export for Saudi Arabia, along the scale of oil itself.

The expansive KAUST grounds include a coral reef ecosystem which will be preserved as a marine sanctuary by the university, as well as housing for all administration, faculty and students, shopping, recreation, health services, dozens of parks, plus schooling for employees' children. KAUST also provides nifty transportation services including shuttles into Thuwal and Jeddah, golf carts and electric cars for sharing, and bike paths.

The building of this advanced degree research university has not been without controversy. The innovative institution is the first university level educational facility within Saudi Arabia to offer co-ed classes, a revolutionary idea in this sexually segregated Islamic society. But most of the grumblings have focused on the legendary poor quality of education within the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia's public school system has long been criticized for producing ill-prepared students unable to aspire to higher education or the job force, and instead choosing to rigorously emphasize religious indoctrination over the basics like math and science. Thanks to King Abdullah, the entire system is being revamped, from the curriculum to teaching methods to the quality of the teachers themselves.

John Burgess from Crossroads Arabia was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the spectacular inauguration and you can read his firsthand account of the festivities here.

Here are some other links pertaining to KAUST:

The official KAUST website

Saudi Aggie - a blog written by a KAUST student

Reuters news article about KAUST and the Saudi educational system

Arab News article titled "KAUST: King's Gift to the World"

Saudi King's University Slammed for Coed Classes

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Courage

"Courage is the discovery that you may not win, and trying when you know you can lose."
Tom Krause


I've been surprised at some of the emails and comments I've received over the past two years that call me "brave" or that say how "courageous" I am for moving here to Saudi Arabia. Surprised because I've never really considered myself particularly brave or courageous.

But when I read the quote at the top of this post, I began to look at the concept of bravery or courage differently. I have many friends back in the states who would never even consider making a move to a place like Saudi Arabia for any period of time, much less to come here indefinitely, sight unseen.

Living here is not easy for someone raised elsewhere, but it is not altogether miserable either. Crazy as it may sound, I moved here without ever having visited this country before. Sure there is loneliness and boredom and a glaring lack of things to do. It is definitely not for everyone, especially not for females from the West who have been raised in societies where women have equal rights, or where women have freedom of speech and where women can drive and are free to go wherever they want to go, and where she can dress the way she wants to. There are so many sacrifices I have had to make to be here, so many freedoms I used to take for granted in America that I don't have here. It's a totally different culture, a different way of life, different language, different customs, different religion, different attitudes, different foods - heck, just about everything about life here is different from what I had known all my life.

But I am not alone here. There are many other Western women who came here way before I did, who gave up their former lives as well, sacrificed plenty, all for the sake of love. Some of them have been living here for over four decades. Now THOSE women - THEY have courage! I really don't know how they did it. I still can't envision myself being here long term, but it's only been two years.

One thing that makes being here particularly difficult is that I have nothing here that reminds me of my past life, except some precious photos on the computer. But even those only go back as far as the day I finally went digital. The rest of my photos are in storage and I hope at some point to be able to scan them so I will have them too. Another thing that makes my life more lonely for me is my stateside family members' reluctance to get with the program of 21st century technology. We could see each other and speak through the computer on Skype for free every day if we wanted to, but my family members really haven't acquired the proper equipment to do this. So if I want to speak to them, I have to call them long distance. It's expensive and frustrating, when it could be free and easy. And then there's the apartment that we live in here - I don't feel as though it's mine because it's not. I had no input at all regarding it. My mother-in-law purchased it for us and kindly furnished it for us before we arrived, but it's not mine - not my taste, not my style. It's where I live, but it's not MY home.

Yes, I took a big chance moving here. I gave up everything that I thought identified ME and represented ME, a lifetime of possessions and memories and "things" that I had accumulated. I came here with two suitcases and that's it. It's almost as if my life's slate has been wiped clean, free of clutter, free of material things. And if I've learned anything at this point, I guess it's that "things" don't really identify me or say who I am.

The jury is still out on whether this place will ever feel like home to me, and if it never does, well, some will say that I have failed. Even South Florida took an awfully long time to grow on me. But at least I can say that I have tried - and we never know unless we try, do we? In the end, will I have given up everything - for nothing? Either way, I now know in my heart that it actually WAS a brave thing for me to do by moving here, and that I DO have courage. And I should be proud of myself for that. Proud that I am giving this place a chance, standing beside my husband, and keeping my family together - even if there's a chance that it may not work out in the end. And I can live with that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

UPDATE: CoolRed and the Gang

IT'S GOOD NEWS, FOLKS! Blogger CoolRed and her children are on their way to the United States, according to the blog Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis.



Thanks to the help of many generous donors during this Ramadan season, CoolRed raised the funds necessary to buy the airline tickets she and her family so desperately needed to be reunited with her other two children who are already in the US.

Her story is heartbreaking, but now she has reason to hope. Her children will have a fresh start and have their whole lives ahead of them. Hopefully they will heal from the pain caused by years of abuse at the hands of their own father.

It won't be easy and no doubt there will still be struggles and and maybe some setbacks, but they have each other and they have a future.

Thank you to all of my readers who were able to contribute to her cause and for your prayers and BEST WISHES to COOL RED AND HER CHILDREN!!!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Women Can't Drive Here, But Children Can!

I drove cars legally in the United States for 40 years before moving to Saudi Arabia. I got an "A" in my Driver's Ed class in high school (shout out to Coach Sharp!) and I have always passed my driver's tests on the first try. I have an excellent driving record. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, bans women from driving, although out in the sparsely populated areas, women are known to drive there. To my knowledge, it is the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive. The most common excuse given for why women are not allowed to drive here is that it's for their own safety and protection. Now this excuse of safety doesn't really refer to the dangers of having or causing accidents. What it actually refers to is the potential for women to have more freedom and to not be under the direct control of a man. The thinking is that a woman driver would have more of a chance to hook up with someone of the opposite sex if she wanted to, which is a big no-no in this country. The funny thing is that I have spoken to many Saudi women who drive outside this country, and they have all managed to avoid becoming sluts - which is what some Saudi men think of all women drivers elsewhere in the world. You can read a previous post I wrote about this subject not long ago.

Granted, the driving conditions here in Jeddah are horrendous. Just imagine all that testosterone gunning those engines in a land where only men are allowed behind the wheel! Traffic laws seem to be non-existent here, and if there ARE traffic laws, nobody follows them and no one visibly enforces them either.



But what really galls me is the fact that I - a responsible female driver with a proven track record of safety and skill and years of experience - am not allowed to drive here in Saudi Arabia, yet frequently I have seen children - specifically young boys - driving who are definitely not old enough to have a driver's license. I have tried to find out the legal driving age requirement here in Saudi Arabia, but that information is as elusive as the traffic laws. I've seen various accounts that range from 17 up to 25, and just about every age in between. All I do know is that many of the drivers I have seen here are nowhere close to approaching their 17th birthday, let alone 25.

One day I was crossing the street in a quiet residential section of town, and I was almost run over by a car driven by a boy who looked as though he couldn't have been a day over 10! These young boys drive, stretching and craning their necks in an effort to see over the steering wheel. Many of them have to sit on pillows. I don't know how they can possibly reach the gas pedal, or more importantly, the brake pedal! This is not something I see every day because I am not out and about every day, but it happens with enough frequency that I am not shocked any more when I see it - just angered that I am not allowed to drive here, yet these spoiled little brats CAN. As in many countries of the world, most boys here are raised to believe that they are superior to their sisters and are given special privileges just because they were born with a little extra appendage that girls don't have.

Even though the photos accompanying this post are of poor quality, hopefully you can see that there is a child - I'm guessing he's about eight years old - driving this big SUV on the busy streets of Jeddah AT NIGHT, during Ramadan, when traffic is especially heavy.

In the front passenger seat is a bearded grown man, probably his father, visible in the photo below.

It's hard to make out, but there are two other children in the back seat. None of the vehicle's occupants are wearing their seatbelts, of course. Most Saudis do not wear seatbelts as a rule, nor do they impress upon their children the importance of doing so.

I really resent the fact that I am not permitted to drive here in Saudi Arabia while young boys, who aren't even into double digits in age, can and do, without penalty or objection. I am NOT one of the many fortunate women here in this country who is provided with her own driver and vehicle. Consequently I am stuck at home much of the time with not much to do. My life has been reduced to accepting invitations only when my husband agrees to drive me, which he HATES to do, or when I'm lucky enough to be invited by one of my friends who can send her driver for me. My mobility here is severely restricted, and it is something I cannot get used to. To go from having my own car and the ability to drive where and when I wanted all my life to a country where I cannot is disheartening. Women who are caught driving in Saudi Arabia are usually hauled down to the police station, arrested, and can only be released to their male guardian (see corroborating news article).

To me this whole system makes no sense. Not allowing women to drive causes many hardships on a family, financial burdens if the family has to hire a driver, added stress on the man of the family to drive the women around, inconveniences for everyone, makes it difficult for women to get to and from work (so most women do not work here), and more. Women here in Saudi Arabia face many challenges and barriers created by the men which make it difficult for the women with desires for a more meaningful life to become more valued contributing members of this society. When men here say women cannot drive for their own protection, yet they turn around and permit little boys to get behind the wheel in busy traffic on the streets of Jeddah, putting everyone in their paths in harms way, there is no other word for it than "preposterous." The intended purpose behind not allowing women to drive here is totally flawed and unreasonable. It all boils down to a control issue, aimed at treating women like children and at keeping women at home.

For another related post about the problems created when women must hire drivers, please read a recent blog post over at Sand Gets in My Eyes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

If I Were a Man...


Today I am posting a powerful and poignant poem written by Mimi, a thoughtful young woman from Qatar. She lived in the UK for four years while pursuing her undergraduate studies. Her future looks very bright, although it would probably be much brighter if only she were afforded the opportunities and encouragement that young men in her country are offered. Despite the challenges women face in many countries in the Middle East, she has a very positive outlook and says, "This is my life, and society is not going to live it for me." I believe that she is an important voice that needs to be heard, and I'm sure she speaks for many modern young women in the Middle East. Mimi strives to be the best she can be and it is her mission in life to help others achieve their goals as well. She releases her stress and frustrations in her writings and is very perceptive about her surroundings and her situation. So now, without further delay, is a poem by Mimi called "If I Were a Man."

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If I Were a Man

If I were a man, I can fall in love and society would think it's adorable.
If I were a man, I can marry any girl from any race or religion.
If I were a man, society won't question me if I controlled my wife’s life, thoughts and dreams.
If I were a man and divorced my wife, society would pity me and rush to find me a new one to make me happy.
If I were a man, I can wear whatever I want, whenever I want.
If I were a man, I don’t need to have permission to travel, to go out, to study to work or to breathe.
If I were a man, I can go out with as many women as I want, before and after marriage.
If I were a man and I sinned, society would find excuses for my sins, and so I can sin even more.
If I were a man with a bad reputation, my society would say “young and foolish, he will grow up and get married tomorrow, let him have fun.”
If I were a man, I will have a bigger salary, just for being a man.
If I were a man who studied abroad, in my society I will be a genius.
If I were a man and made a mistake at work, society will blame it on the circumstances.
If I were a man, I am perfect in the eye of my society.
Nothing would be wrong with me
Except the size of my wallet.

But I am a woman.

I am a woman, and I must hide behind covers or I will be …
I am a woman, and my society believes I am a heartless creature that is forbidden to love.
I am a woman, and my honor is not related to my morals but to my membrane.
I am a woman, and I am an object of property, to my father, to my brother then to my husband.
I am a woman, and I must sacrifice my history, my dreams, because they are not my rights, but they are the rights of who ever owns my body.
I am a woman, and if I or my rights are raped, it is because of my seductive beauty and stupidity.
I am a woman, and I must work twice as hard to prove myself.
I am a woman, and if I erred at work it is because I am simply a woman.
I am a woman, and if I studied abroad I will be too exposed and not suitable for marriage.
I am a woman, and on my society I am a burden.
I am a woman, and for my society I am a mistake that should be corrected.
I am a woman, and I should be watched in case I commit a bigger scandal, a bigger mistake than my own existence.
***********************************************************
Please visit Mimiz Blog - you won't be disappointed, and you will gain insight into a typical Middle Eastern young woman's thoughts, hopes, and fears. And thank you, Mimi, for allowing me to share your poem.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Have Passed


I  can't pretend to speak for all the Saudis here in this country, but I can tell you what I have been told by the few Saudis I have spoken to about what happened on September 11th eight years ago. It is a sad day for them here too. They were horrified when it happened and even more so when it became known that most of the perpetrators were from Saudi Arabia. It frightens them to think that their own children could grow up and be capable of carrying out such hateful missions against innocent people. There are even moderate camps now for families to learn how to recognize and discourage radical ideas and behavior in their children. However, I have spoken to some Saudis who are convinced that the whole truth isn't out there - that the 9/11 findings were a conspiracy, that some of the alleged hijackers are still alive and were used as scapegoats. Yes, there are Saudis who are in denial about the 9/11 theories and believe that others were responsible and that the finger was pointed at Saudis as a US government cover-up or some such logic.


They may not always agree with American foreign policy, but they don't think that America was deserving of what happened on 9/11 either. The typical Saudi loves Americans and American culture. They love to travel to the US and enjoy doing things there that are not available here. Saudis love products that come from America, fashions, ideas, cars, television shows and movies, technology. Saudi women love Oprah! However, this love for American ways and products was one of the reasons why the small faction of radical fundamentalists feared these changes they saw in their own people and culture. They don't want change to come to Saudi Arabia. They want to keep women sheltered, barefoot and pregnant at home. And they always disguise their reasoning as religious somehow, and we all know how strong the religion is here.

I have always been treated very well here in Saudi Arabia. When we first arrived, my husband wasn't sure of the climate towards Americans - he had been gone for thirty years. He even went so far as to tell me that if I were asked where I was from, to say that I was Canadian, just to be safe. I did that a few times, and I just didn't feel right about it, and I told him so. So I started telling the truth. "I am American. Ana Amreeki," I would say in Arabic. And the Saudis would smile warmly and tell me how they've been to New York or California or Florida and what a wonderful time they had, and how beautiful they think America is, and that they want to go back again someday. Hubby saw the positive reactions from his fellow countrymen upon learning I am American and he was relieved.

This is my second year to spend 9/11 here in Saudi Arabia. The memories of what my family went through in Florida during the aftermath of 9/11 still haunt me and I'm sure always will. I must admit it feels a little wierd for me to be here amongst the very people who were accused and blamed for 9/11, but am I afraid? No. And as Ramadan rounds its final stretch here in the Magic Kingdom, the serene peace in the hearts of the countrymen here is palpable. I feel safe here. I feel welcome here. And I feel loved here.

To read a little more about what my family experienced after 9/11, please see my prior post that I wrote about it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Man on A Plane

When my son Adam and I recently returned from the states, we changed planes in Dubai. While we were sitting in the gate area waiting for our flight to Jeddah, we both noticed a rather comical-looking, chubby little man who was wearing the traditional Saudi white dress and the red and white checkered scarf. He had the scarf wrapped around his head in a turban style with a long tail down the back. The brown colored man had an unkempt bushy gray beard and the length of his thobe came to only mid-calf, instead of all the way down to his sandaled feet. We noticed him because he kept pacing briskly back and forth nervously in the gate area, and we could hear him mumbling to himself in Arabic.



Imagine our surprise when we boarded the plane and there he was - seated in our row! But not only that, he was actually seated in one of our assigned seats. Our boarding passes clearly indicated that we had the window seat and the one next to it. Apparently the man was supposed to be sitting in the aisle seat; however, as we found out, he really preferred the window seat, so he simply sat there. When we tried to tell him that he was in our seat, we discovered that his command of the English language was pretty much non-existent. Adam spoke up in Arabic to the strange little man. In a very thick accent and exaggerated hand gestures, our seat-mate explained, "I like window. It's ok! You sit, it's okay," pointing to the two empty seats next to him, one of which should rightfully have been his. As he spoke, I could see that his teeth were discolored and he was missing a couple of them. Instead of creating any further problems or hard feelings with our seat-mate, who seemed totally oblivious to the fact that we would have actually preferred our own assigned seats (imagine that!), my son and I reluctantly sat in the two empty seats, with my lifesaver son sitting in the middle. The airplane was packed full to the gills, otherwise we would have seriously considered moving to another row.

As the engines revved, the funny looking man - whose name we later learned was Mohammed - began to pray loudly in Arabic. He held tightly onto a set of prayer beads in his clenched fist. The volume of his chanting increasingly got louder and louder as the plane began to move forward faster and faster for takeoff. Looking around, I noticed that Adam and I weren't the only passengers on the plane who exchanged uneasy, puzzled glances. Experiencing this, with this man seated right next to us, was rather unsettling for my son and me. We were both relieved when the airplane finally left the ground and within a minute or so, the loud nervous chanting finally stopped.

During the flight, as Adam tried to watch the individual video screen in front of him, Mohammed told my son in Arabic that he shouldn't be watching movies or television shows, that such things were only for children and dogs. He asked Adam many personal questions, and Adam tried to answer him politely. But at least half a dozen times, Mohammed told Adam that he was going to hell because he liked music, and because Adam watched movies and TV, and other assorted things. Adam told me all this later when Mohammed dozed off to sleep, but when the food service came around a short time later, Mohammed woke up.

What happened next was totally unexpected. Adam ate as much as he wanted of the airline meal before him and sat back. Then Mohammed asked him in Arabic if he was finished eating. When my son said "Yes," Mohammed proceeded to lecture him about wasting food, again indicating that Adam would go to hell for committing this sin.

AND THEN, Mohammed actually rummaged though the uneaten and partially-eaten food on Adam's tray and took it for himself! I sat there in disbelief with my jaw dropped and my son's eyes got as wide as grapefruits. We couldn't believe what had just happened. I was expecting Mohammed's stubby little hand to reach across Adam to see what he could salvage off of MY tray! Fortunately for him, Mohammed refrained from doing so, because I was ready to slap him.

Sitting next to Mohammed on this flight was definitely an enlightening and surreal experience for us. Needless to say, Adam and I were both relieved when the plane landed - happily, without any loud praying - at our destination. We anxiously deplaned, shaking our heads in disbelief. Now I've had some wonderful experiences meeting terrific people on airplanes (shout outs to Bonnie and Ronnie!), but this has to be one of the the most distressing experiences I've ever had - if not THE most distressing one!

Have YOU ever had an unfortunate or uncomfortable experience with an unusual seatmate on an airplane?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Pork, the Other White Meat


E  ating pork is strictly forbidden in Islam, but were you aware that the Bible also advises against eating "the other white meat?" The Jewish faith's dietary laws also ban the consumption of pork. Heck, even Confucius recommended avoiding pork. Muslims adhere stringently to this command, however, many Christians do not. What's amazing when you stop to think about it is that these religious commands came centuries ago, long before science could actually substantiate the logical reasons behind such a command.


There are two Biblical passages that basically say the same thing about not consuming pork...


Leviticus 11:7-8
"And the swine, though he divided the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.
"Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you."



Deuteronomy 14:8
"And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is unclean unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcass."



Joel Osteen, the famous inspirational Christian preacher with a very large flock of followers, explains the scientific logic for why people should abstain from eating pork in a simple way that is very easy to understand in this interesting video:




If pork is this unhealthy for humans, then why hasn't the US government taken steps to ban it from the marketplace, like it has with many other products which were proven to cause cancer or other health problems? The answer is simple: Because the pork industry is a BIG business and the US government very often sides with big business over the welfare of the people, especially when the BIG bucks are involved.

Certainly the writers of the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran had no idea what science could prove thousands of years later about why it is so unhealthy for people to consume pork. Do YOU eat pork? After watching this video, will you STILL eat pork?

UPDATE: 5SEP09 - I know that people, including myself, have eaten pork for centuries. I personally think it's the best tasting meat of all as far as flavor goes. Eating pork is so strictly adhered to here in KSA that many people actually believe they will die if they eat it. When I saw the video, I thought it would make an interesting post. I am not a fan of Joel Osteen, but I know he is quite famous and has a large following. I am not trying to spread misinformation about how bad eating pork is for you and I do not have an agenda. I thought this would provoke an interesting discussion, and indeed it did. I really like what a couple of commenters said about how it's not really that important what we put INTO our mouths - it's more important what comes OUT of it.