Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Different Ramadan in the Time of CoronaVirus


This summer may be the very first summer I have ever spent in Saudi Arabia.  Since we moved to Jeddah in 2007, I have been fortunate enough to leave here during the brutally hot temperatures of summer.  I usually spend my summers in the beautiful cool Pacific Northwest in Washington State, where temperatures are generally in the 70s.  The older I get, the less tolerant of the heat I am.

I must say that I am not exactly thrilled at the prospect of being here in the severe heat, but as long as our air conditioning works, I'm sure I will be okay.  On the other hand, I certainly don't relish the thought of sitting on an airplane for almost 24 hours in close quarters, next to coughing and sneezing passengers who could potentially infect me with a deadly virus.

As it is, all flights have been indefinitely suspended here in Saudi Arabia, so my travel arrangements for early May have been changed to July, but at this point we cannot be sure if those plans will happen either.  Of course this would be the year when we made plans and bought our tickets in advance, while I generally wait until about a month before we travel to make our arrangements.

I must say that I am pleased with how seriously the Saudi government has taken this pandemic since the very beginning.  Before the first case was even confirmed here in Saudi Arabia, the government's first action was to halt all religious pilgrims coming into the country.  Because of the religious tourism to Mecca and Medina, two of the holy cities of Islam, the kingdom has had a great deal of experience with travelers from all over the world coming to the country and bringing disease with them. Some Muslims save and plan their entire lives for this once in a lifetime trip to these holy cities, a requirement of Islam. So when the plans have been made and paid for long in advance, and the time for their trip comes, the pilgrims travel here regardless, even if they are very sick and highly contagious.

In addition, the Saudi government has also imposed strict curfews, closed schools and businesses, and even the mosques.  Instead of the five daily calls to prayer instructing people to come to the mosque to pray, the calls now say that it's time for prayer, but pray at home.  This is an unprecedented measure in this ultra religious country.

Ramadan - the holy month when Muslims fast during the daylight hours - will be starting in just a couple days. Ramadan is a very social time for most Saudis, a time when families generally get together to break the day's fast and share meals together.  But this Ramadan will be markedly different.  I'm sure there will be some families that will still get together no matter what, but with the strict curfews in place, police checkpoints to enforce the curfews and residents staying in their districts, and a 10,000 SAR ($2500 US) fine for those disobeying the curfew, I'm guessing most people will not take the chance.

This will actually be my very first entire Ramadan I have spent here in this country.  I've been in Saudi Arabia for part of Ramadan before, but never for the entire time period.  For the most part, the elegant Iftar dinners at homes and restaurants will not happen this year.

Instead, maybe these strange times we are living in will actually make people even more thoughtful.  Maybe we will all make changes for the betterment of this world and the people in it, appreciate what we do have in life to be grateful for, and realize what things in life are really important.  Those are some of the reasons for Ramadan, after all. 

Wishing my Muslim friends and family a reflective and meaningful Ramadan.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

From Florida to Jeddah — Women on the Road

I just realized that I failed to post about an updated interview I did with "Women on the Road" back in March 2018. My original interview was done in about 2010. 

A lot has happened here in Saudi Arabia since I first moved here in 2007, and a lot has happened even since this updated interview 2 short years ago.  To me it's really interesting to realize all the changes that have occurred in just my short blip of time spent living here in Saudi Arabia.  I hope you find it interesting too and that you enjoy reading it!  Here it is - 

A former police officer and travel industry professional, Susie Khalil’s American life changed dramatically in 2007 when she followed her Saudi Arabian husband back to his homeland — where she has lived ever since. Her award-winning blog Susie’s Big Adventure (now Susie of Arabia) was once banned; it sheds some light on life in one of the world’s most closed countries. Around 2010 (give or take a year) Women on the Road interviewed Susie, but updated the interview in 2018. The original 2010 interview is at the bottom of this story.


EDITOR'S NOTE. Since the 2018 update, much has happened in Saudi Arabia: Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated; women have been allowed to drive and in some cases travel without a male guardian; Saudi Arabia now issues tourist visas and is letting foreigners visit. It’s impossible to know how powerful, positive or long-lasting any changes will be, but it is a backdrop against which to view Saudi Arabia.

Susie of Arabia: An Update (March 2018)
It’s been ten years now since I first set foot in Saudi Arabia. Hard to believe because I always said I could never see myself here long term, but somehow that has changed. I love my life in this country. I know it’s not what a lot of people want to hear because of what they believe about Saudi Arabia. But the truth is my husband is very good to me and I consider myself a very lucky woman.  My social life here in Jeddah is far more active and full than when I spend my summers back in the US. There are always things to do and I find myself just as fascinated with this country, its people, and its culture as when I first moved here. I feel very safe and I have wonderful friends from all over the world.

With all the changes that are rapidly happening in this country, this is a very exciting time to be here. Things have been slowly changing for several years, but now things really seem to be picking up speed. The younger generation has had the opportunity to grow up with modern technology, so they have been exposed to the outside world a lot more than previous generations.  They want change. They want more normal lives, like they see in other countries — and the Crown Prince MBS is trying to make that happen. I, and many others here, have great hope that he will succeed and that Saudi Arabia will emerge as the modern and moderate country it seems to want to be, once the dust settles in the next few years. The Crown Prince has the support of the younger generation — and the future of Saudi Arabia is in their hands.








Friday, March 29, 2019

Saudi Wedding Album

The gorgeous bride and her beautiful mom.  I love this photo!
This is a very special and a very long post.  There are more pictures in this post than I have ever published before in a single post.  I've shown photos from Saudi weddings before, but never like this.  I hope you will enjoy coming along with me step by step, inside a Saudi wedding that I attended on Valentine's Day (I know, right? How romantic!) here in Jeddah. 


Above is a photo of the decorated car the bride and groom would leave the reception in.  Some wedding cars I have seen in the past have been so completely covered in decoratations that I don't know how the driver could see out the windshield!  

Saudi weddings are notorious for starting very late at night and running until daybreak!  This wedding was held at a grand new hotel I had been dying to see - and I finally got my chance last month.  I was actually one of the first guests to arrive at about 10:30pm. But it gave me a chance to take photos of the splendid ballroom which oozed elegance and was embellished with gold accents and enormous floral arrangements.  



The atmosphere of the luxurious ballroom was swathed with dreamy violet lighting and embellished with moving sunray shapes projected up onto the walls.  There were so many sparkling crystal chandeliers up above on the ceiling that I lost count of how many there were!  I just loved the purple lighting and the shadows.  



The wedding hall was truly magical and almost surreal in its grandeur - it was definitely what fairy tales are made of. Simply a perfect way to start off a marriage.  



Each table was adorned with sweets and treats, dates and chocolates and other bite sized goodies.  We were offered our choice of fancy juice drinks with sugared rims.  FYI - Alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia.  Consequently, the large choice of different juice drinks is like no other place I have ever been.  


The sensational multi-layered wedding cake was decorated with beautiful fresh flowers in pinks, blues and purples.  It was on display in a corner of the stunning ballroom next to the stage.  



Saudi Arabia also has an amazing selection of regional sweet dates - I never knew there were so many varieties until I moved here! We certainly don't get such a wide selection of dates like this in the USA...

As more and more female guests arrived at the wedding over the next hour or so, soon the wedding hall was packed with hundreds of gorgeous women dressed to the nines, with their hair and makeup professionally done, in dazzling high heels and sparkly dangling earrings.  



This is the table of wedding guests that I sat with - friends of the mother of the bride, mostly expat women like myself who are married to Saudi men.  Typically traditional Saudi weddings are gender segregated.  Quite often the men's wedding event is held on a different night at a different venue.  Of course I've never been to a men's wedding in Saudi Arabia, but there are plenty of videos available online that show what goes on at one - lots of singing and sword dancing!


The singer for the evening - she had a lovely voice and sang in Arabic
Some Saudi women's weddings have music and dancing, and some don't, depending on what the bride's preference is.  Most weddings I have been to here in Saudi Arabia have a dance floor which is more like a long catwalk, where graceful women in flowing gowns, dripping in glittering jewels, glide and wiggle to the music up and down the runway.  Saudi women seem to have this very sensual way of moving - a talent I don't have... sigh. Weddings are a common venue in this culture to scout out a potential future bride for a relative - like one's brother, son, or nephew - who might be ready for marriage.  



This is the happy mother of the bride, Diana, with two of her beautiful granddaughters, who looked liked little princesses.  Diana is an American who lived in Saudi Arabia for 35 years and whose husband was Saudi.  So her daughter Areej, the bride, is half-Saudi and half-American.   



Shortly after midnight, the drama began when the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined up toward the balcony above - and the groom appeared!  He waved and smiled at the adoring females below for a short spell while music played.   And then, the beautiful bride made her appearance! Together the couple waved and threw handfuls of pink rose petals down from the balcony for several minutes. The crowd of women loved it! It was exciting!



Next, while carefully selected romantic Western music played, slowly the bride and groom descended down the staircase, making their grand entrance.  Prior to the groom's appearance on the balcony, many of the female guests had draped themselves with their scarves and abayas to cover up their hair and evening attire.  


Once the newlyweds made their way into the wedding hall well after midnight, they received well wishers from their perch on the beautifully decorated stage.  Fabulous floral arrangements are an important part of the stage decor where the couple sits, along with a large couch where guests can linger and visit with them for a bit.     



The happy couple shared their first dance together as man and wife while giant sparklers blazed and lit up the hall.  It was spectacular and romantic.  At this point the groom was the only man in a room with all those female guests, who all watched on, taking delight in the euphoria and jubilation enveloping the hall.  



I don't know exactly how many guests were in attendance in the enormous ballroom, but I'm guessing there were several hundred.  


Here's a closer shot of the stage where the bride and groom sat to receive guests.  And below is a photo of them cutting into their magnificent wedding cake together.   



They made a very handsome couple - she in her beautiful white gown and long flowing veil, and he in his traditional formal Saudi wedding clothing, including a striking gray "bisht" with gold trim and his white head covering called ghotra.  Some men choose to wear the red and white checkered shemagh typical of Saudi menswear - it's up to the man whatever his preference is - but I think the plain white scarf is a little more formal and dignified looking for a lavish occasion like a wedding.



After the female relatives congratulated the newlyweds on the stage, the male relatives of the families then made an appearance, filing into the hall as the female guests clapped and cheered.   



They all looked so splendid and classic in their formal wear.  Then the family members posed for traditional wedding photos all together.  



The bride also posed with her sister, who was part of the wedding party and the mother of the two beautiful little princesses I pictured before.  



Once the photos were all taken and the men departed the wedding hall, it was time to eat - and what a feast it was!  It was already about 2 am by this time... 


The banquet hall was just across from the wedding hall.  The larger dining tables seated up to ten and had purple napkins.  Mouth watering food stations were everywhere.  The colorful delectable presentations of food were pure art.  



As much as I would have liked to have tried a taste of everything, it would have been impossible.  Everything that I did taste though was absolutely delicious.  There were salads and dips, breads and pastries, all kinds of seafood, chicken and lamb dishes, a sushi bar, casseroles, an assortment of rice dishes, finger foods, fruits and vegetables and on and on.  It was amazing! Words simply cannot do it justice! 



The buffet was overwhelming and spectacular. I did sample some sushi - the curved hammered metal table it was displayed on was out of this world!



Table after table of more and more food.  It was so difficult deciding what to put on my plate, as it was already after 2 am, and I didn't really want to eat that much so late.  Decisions, decisions!



There were hot dishes, cold dishes, room temperature dishes - you name it!  What a selection!  It was magnificent.





Many traditional Saudi dishes were also served, and there was even a taco station.  Every dish was impeccably and artfully presented.



Carved melon sculptures were featured at several of the food displays.  They were truly works of art.  Here is an amazing momma eagle feeding her baby carved out of what appears to be canteloupe. 



And here is a carved watermelon made into a big vase with kabob sticks of various fruit arranged like a beautiful floral display.  Isn't it exquisite?



All kinds of meat kabobs, which were delicious - I love kabob!  It's a specialty of this part of the world, and boy, do they know how to do it right!  





Here's another amazing carved fruit sculpture centerpiece of a rooster accompanying sliced fruits, vegetables and cheeses.  




I have shown you but a fraction of the scrumptious food that was served, but I'm sure by now you have gotten a pretty good idea of how spectacular and overwhelming it was. It was indeed a feast!



Oh! And let's not forget the desserts.  There were several dessert tables loaded with scrumptious looking treats of cakes, pies, puddings, and elegant tidbits that I don't even know the names of.  This is just a small part of just one of the many dessert tables. I tried bites of 3 different desserts. Yum!



After dinner, the partying continued until the wee hours of the morning.  Some of the ladies departed the wedding after eating, but many of us remained for more hours of fun.  As smaller children gradually fell asleep on chairs, many of the remaining women danced the night away.  It was such a fun night! I didn't get home until after 5am!!!



A good time was had by all! I was happy that my friend Aisha talked me into getting out on the dance floor too.  I hadn't really danced in years.  Such a fun group of women!



Here's one final parting shot - the beautiful bride on the marble staircase. 

Many many thanks to Diana and her family for allowing me to post these photos of this very special occasion - a night to remember for all of us.  And thanks to you for coming along with me as I revisited this fantastic evening - I hope you enjoyed it!

Note - Times are changing in Saudi Arabia. The internet is responsible for a lot of those changes in attitudes. One area of great change is photography. When I first moved here 11 years ago, people, especially women, used to freak out when they saw me with my camera. Now society has become more comfortable around cameras. This post would have never been possible just a few short years ago.     

Monday, January 28, 2019

Madein Saleh - Stairway to Heaven


The tombs at Madein Saleh were carved by hand with crude tools into the gigantic sandstone rocks outside of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.  Some tombs were never completed, but those that were all have one design element in common - above the entry door into the tomb, were stairsteps which were to lead the occupant of the tomb to heaven.


Historically this whole area was in a strategic trade route location linking southern Arabia with important locations to the north, like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Jordan.  This region comprised the Nabataean Kingdom, running from south Arabia along the Red Sea all the way up through Jordan to Damascus, Syria.  The Nabataeans were nomadic Bedouins who became wealthy from levying taxes on the trade caravans that routed through their territory.



When compared with its sister site of Petra in Jordan, which was the Nabataean civilzation's capital city, Madein Saleh is unique in that it is considered more of a wealth of information and an archaeologist's dream, as it is virtually untouched and preserved.  Inscriptions were actually carved into the stone at the tombs of Madein Saleh, providing much more information than is available at Petra.  The inscriptions at Petra were apparently made out of wood, which long ago rotted and along with it valuable historical information.



Madein Saleh is home to more than 130 such tombs, many of the large rocky mountains housing several tombs on one rock.  Once the Nabataeans were taken over by the Roman Empire, cheaper and faster alternate transport using the Red Sea became the preferred method for trade shipments, as opposed to struggling with the harsh elements of the desert caravan conditions.  As desert trade dropped off, the once prosperous Nabataean civilzation suffered and dwindled.


Madein Saleh has been closed to the public in preparation for the development of the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia.  It will be interesting to see how tourism develops here when the site is expected to reopen in 2020.  I'm curious to see how the religious and cultural aspects of life in Saudi Arabia will be affected or bent in order to accommodate interested travelers from the outside world.



My friend Laura of the amazing blog Blue Abaya has written a fabulous comprehensive guide and history of Madain Saleh with lots of fantastic photos - CLICK HERE to access it.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the phenomenal Winter at Tantora Festival going on now through Feb. 23rd, with special weekend concerts and tours of the area, including access to Madein Saleh just for attendees of the event.  Tickets may still be available, and visas are apparently easy to obtain for those wishing to come from outside Saudi Arabia for this very special and unforgettable event.  Information and tickets are available at this site:  Winter at Tantora 











Monday, January 21, 2019

Winter at Tantora: A Magical Mystical Tour

Winter at Tantora is an incredible event like none other ever before here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Amidst the stark picturesque beauty of the city of Al Ula, an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Winter at Tantora Festival started on December 20th and will run through February 9th.  Each weekend concert over the eight weeks features a different theme high quality entertainment spectacular followed by a magnificent feast matching the theme of the evening.


The venue for the concerts is a brand new stunning concert hall named Maraya (Arabic for "mirror"), built among the unusual and ravishing natural landscape of Al Ula. Set amidst the gigantic sandstone rocky mountain formations and drifts of soft sand dunes, the beauty of Maraya lies in its simplicity.  The visible exterior surface of the structure is encased in large mirrored panels, which create a wondrous illusion reflecting its breathtaking setting.


The concert hall seats only 500 and the seats are comfortable and cushy white leather chairs. There are no bad seats in this theater, as the aisles between rows are extra wide, and the acoustics, audio and lighting technology are state of the art. To the right, left and in front of the stage, dramatic digital imagery is projected onto the walls and floor, creating a magical experience for the audience.  Behind the stage is an enormous window revealing the backdrop of huge sandstone rocks behind the building. The rocks are lit with colored lighting during the show. The overall experience is one of undeniable wonderment. 


I was fortunate to attend the truly magnificent performance of Lang Lang, a supremely talented and gifted world class concert pianist.  Seeing and hearing Lang Lang perform the amazing pieces he played was an incredibly moving experience.   It was as though the music was actually coming through him to the piano.  He is an animated performer, with tremendous depth and precision.  His concert was flawless perfection.

An additional ongoing fine art exhibition at Maraya during the Winter at Tantora Festival is a visual delight featuring the artwork of Van Gogh. It is a show in itself with his masterpieces projected onto the walls in the large gallery, engulfing the entire hall.  It's almost as if the paintings come to life with imagery and movement.
Van Gogh Exhibition at Maraya, Winter at Tantora - Model: @ParisVerra 
Among the other amazing talents still left to participate in the festival are: Um Kulthum (Jan. 25th); Andrea Bocelli (Feb. 1st); and Yanni (Feb. 8th).  If you are interested in attending any of these events or to learn more about Winter at Tantora, CLICK HERE For the Yanni event, you can get a 20% discount by using this code:  BlueAbaya7   Hurry!!! Availability is limited.

Packages are available for just the one day of the concert or for the whole weekend, including cool tent accommodations (with all the comforts of home!), a variety of inspiring tours, transportation, helicopter rides and hot air ballooning over the amazing landscape of Al Ula, and much much more.


Thanks to my awesome pal Laura / @BlueAbaya, we had an incredible time we will never forget. She knows more about places to visit in Saudi Arabia than anybody I know. You should check her out on Instagram and Twitter - @BlueAbaya, or on her blog Blue Abaya.  I'll be writing more about our adventures from this past weekend so stay tuned!

Laura has also written a fabulous comprehensive guide and history of Madain Saleh, the historical archaeological site outside of Al Ula, with lots of fantastic photos - CLICK HERE to access it.