Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mmmm Good! The Flavors of Arabia

Admittedly, I am not a great cook. My husband, on the other hand, is a fantastic cook and has done most of our family’s cooking over the years. He enjoys it tremendously, and unlike me, can whip up a gourmet meal in minutes, without once looking at a recipe. He has a natural gift for cooking. However, the subject of cooking is one that I get the feeling I would rather avoid here in the Kingdom because cooking is definitely considered a woman’s job here. I can tell by the sideways glances and stunned looks I get when I say that my husband does most of the cooking in our house that maybe I should keep this little bit of information to myself around here. I have always said that I would enjoy cooking so much more if there was no heat involved! My body runs hot to start with (I have extra natural insulation!), and in a hot kitchen, I am just not comfortable. I do roast our Thanksgiving turkey, make good mashed potatoes and a mean lasagna, and am also pretty good at cookies and desserts. But most things where I have to stand over a hot stove, forget it! I will play the role of dishwasher and assistant chef to my husband in the kitchen the rest of the time.

We can make or get most American foods here. For breakfast we can have typical American fare of eggs (but no bacon or sausage - pork is forbidden here, for ancient religious reasons), coffee, fruit juices, French toast (Adam's favorite), pancakes, or cereal with fruit. But traditionally, breakfast for the Arabs here is much different. My favorite choice is the "Foul" (pronounced fool) which is a deliciously flavored fava bean dish. It's a vegetarian dish that is so flavorful, it tastes like it has meat in it. It can be made with onion, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salsa type ingredients. Many mornings after Adnan and I drop Adam off at school, we will often stop by one of the many little shops where you can buy foul, along with fresh local hot-from-the-oven tasty breads called "Tameez." For about $1 US, we get enough foul and tameez to easily feed four people breakfast. I wait in the car while Adnan walks up to get it. Usually there are at least a dozen other men customers, dressed in their traditional garb, to get their breakfasts too. The tameez is large and flat, like pizza, and varies in its appearance and flavors (seeds, spices) depending on where the guy who makes it is from, like maybe Yemen or Afganistan. You tear little pieces off and dip it in the foul. It is delicious and very filling!

Another of Adnan's favorite breakfasts consists of feta cheese with olive oil and olives, eaten with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and pita bread. I always eat something else when he has this for breakfast since I am not a big fan of olives. Lunch can be a turkey sandwich or a chicken salad, or leftovers. A favorite Middle Eastern lunch or dinner is “Shawarma,” a rolled up pita sandwich with shaved meat (usually lamb or chicken), lettuce, tomatoe, cucumber, maybe pickle, and tahini sauce. Here in Arabia, they throw a few french fries in the sandwich before rolling it up. If you have ever had a gyro sandwich, you could look at shawarma as its Middle Eastern version.

Another favorite Middle Eastern lunch or dinner item is another sandwich, called “Falafel.” Think of falafel as the vegetarian version of shawarma. Instead of shaved meat, the main ingredient is a fried ball or patty made up of ground fava beans, chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, and spices. The mixture is formed into balls about the size of a hockey puck and deep fried until it forms a golden brown crust. The inside remains green (from the parsley). Adnan likes to halve a pita bread, insert 2-3 smooshed falafels, and adds tomatoe, cucumber, lettuce, and the tahini sauce. The idea is similar to the veggie burger or the Boca burger, but falafel has been around for centuries.

Rice is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet. It is often flavored with a variety of spices or meat drippings, and usually served with chicken, lamb, or fish. Adnan’s mom experiments quite a bit with many local vegetables and other plants that I have never heard of before, as well as parts of animals that I have never eaten before. Most of it I will at least try and many times I am pleasantly surprised that I actually like it. She also likes to fry a lot of food, while over the years, Adnan has gotten away from frying.

One of my very favorite foods here is a fried eggplant dish. The eggplant is cut into slices about ¾" thick and cooked in a frying pan in some oil. The eggplant is served under a spicy ground beef mixture which is then topped with a minty yogurt sauce. The combination of these textures and flavors, to me, is unbelievably delicious.

Here is a list of some more well known Middle Eastern dishes:

Shish Kabab - very popular here, marinated beef, chicken, or lamb being the preferred meats of choice, on the skewer with onion, peppers, tomato, etc. Served in a pita or with rice.

Hummus – a luscious dip made of crushed chick peas (garbanzo beans), lemon juice, garlic, and tahini (crushed sesame seed paste). Served with pita bread, it's tasty, healthy and easy - it can be made in a blender. Another similar dish is called Baba Ghanoush, which is made the same way as hummus, except with eggplant instead of the chick peas.

Stuffed Grape Leaves – Rolled into little cigar shaped cylinders, these can be stuffed with just rice, or a rice and spiced ground beef mixture. Some people don’t like the grape leaves themselves, which often require an acquired taste.

Tabouleh – A deliciously textured and colorful finely chopped salad having as its main ingredients parsley, onion, tomato, lemon, mint, and its most distinctive ingredient: bulgur. It’s great on its own, or stuffed into pita along with falafel or hummus.

Kapsa – A flavored rice and chicken (or lamb) casserole type dish.

Sambusek – Triangular shaped spiced ground beef pie wrapped in eggroll type dough. These are a specialty of my husband's - they are incredible!

The food here is fantastic. It’s very tasty. The fact that my husband does most of the cooking and is such a great cook makes it even better!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Visitors From the Past - Remembering 9/11

One day Adnan informed me that we would be having visitors that evening. Two old friends that we knew while we were attending school at the University of Arizona in Tucson now lived nearby and were coming by for a visit. I dressed conservatively - full length dress with long sleeves, and of course, my hair covered - even though both visitors knew me back in hot Arizona when I wore shorts most days and never covered my hair. Before they arrived, I reminded myself that I could not give them hugs when I saw them - NOT appropriate any more!

The first to arrive was Abdul-Ghani. He now lives in Mecca and is a very successful building contractor. In fact, he told us that he had built the beautiful Jeddah Orchid Hotel, not too far from where we live, which we have driven by many times and admired. Abdul-Ghani told us that he has 6 children and that just in the last year he took on a second wife who is now expecting. I was truly curious about this, so I siezed the opportunity and began to query him about the subject. Apparently he decided to take a 2nd wife because after so many years of marriage to wife #1 plus six kids, he felt that his first wife didn’t have enough time for him. She is totally devoted to the children - she even homeschools them - and he was feeling neglected.

I thought this admission on his part was pretty ironic in and of itself. Many men in this society have either divorced their wives or taken on other wives because they were childless or wanted more children. This was the first time I had heard "too busy with too many kids" given as the reason. And that the new wife is already pregnant miffs me. Go figure!

Since his business has made him a very wealthy man, Abdul-Ghani could afford to support two families. That is one of the requirements for having more than one wife – that they be treated equally and are provided for the same. Abdul-Ghani also told us that at first he had kept his second marriage a secret from his first wife and family. It took him six months before he could bring himself to tell her about it. He confided that, as he expected, she wasn’t too happy about it and initially didn't take the news very well. (I can only imagine.) There were so many more questions I wanted to ask him, but I didn't want to overstep my bounds and cause him to feel uncomfortable, so I restrained myself. I appreciated his candor about the subject and was pleased that he didn’t shy away from answering the questions I did ask.

At this point, our other guest arrived. Adnan A – yes, another Adnan – had spent a considerably longer time studying in Tucson than Abdul-Ghani did. Whenever Adnan A was around, fun was guaranteed and there was always some lively or controversial discussions to be had. Adnan A had received his degree from the U of A and returned to Arabia. He got married and settled down to raise four kids. He is an administrator at a university here in Jeddah and now lives just a short drive away from us.

Now let me give you a little background information for those of you who may not know what happened to my husband and me personally in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in the mid 1980s, Adnan A’s younger brother Osman had signed up for the travel course that I taught for many years in Tucson, along with another friend of ours, Abdul-Rahman. Abdul-Rahman was quiet and reserved, but also warm and friendly once you got to know him. He was a member of our social circle in Arizona and was always included in our get-togethers when he was in town. Unlike all of our other Middle Eastern friends, Abdul-Rahman was not a student, but a businessman from a wealthy Saudi family. He frequently visited Tucson, mixing business with pleasure. Through Abdul-Rahman, we met his younger brother Hani when he came to Tucson to study English as a teen.

A few years after we moved to Florida, Abdul-Rahman called us from Arabia and asked us a favor: Would we be willing to take Hani in for a while and assist him in getting set up with a flight school here in the States? Without hesitation, we agreed. Abdul-Rahman had always been kind and generous with us and we were happy to do this for him. Hani arrived at our house in the Spring of 1996. He was about 24 at the time, very shy, quiet and religious. Hani stayed with us in our home for a month while I called around the country obtaining information packets from various flight schools. He spent his days going to the mosque, playing with our son Adam who was then three, or chatting with Adnan. Even though we had an excellent flight school in our area, Hani ultimately decided on a school in California. We tried to talk him out of it, explaining that we could be his "family" while he was here, but he was adamant about his decision. In the end, it was fortunate for us that we weren't able to persuade him to stay, since five years later, Hani allegedly commandeered the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

Our lives were turned upside down as a result. I had immediately contacted the FBI when I saw Hani's name on TV. My husband and I were interviewed immediately and extensively in our home that very day. But what was most distressing for us was how ill prepared we were for what happened next. Within mere hours of the FBI's announcement of the names of the nineteen men were who were responsible for 9/11, we were assaulted by the news media, deluged with phone calls and reporters at our door from morning until night for the next several weeks. Initially we declined to speak with any reporters at all. But despite this, we found that our names were appearing in newspapers in the US and around the world anyway, alluding to assumptions that weren't true, further distressing us. We were asked to appear on local news shows, as well as national shows, but we declined these requests as well.

Eventually I spoke with a handful of reporters and I did grant an interview to a German news magazine show, which promised me that the program would only be shown in Europe. Those few weeks following 9/11 were the worst of our lives. We were living a nightmare. I couldn't sleep for months and I was depressed. Even though I know there was nothing we could have done to prevent Hani from doing what he did, there were feelings of guilt, horror and betrayal that still haunt me to this day.

With Adnan A and Abdul-Ghani sitting in our living room, it didn't take long before the conversation turned to Hani and our experience with 9/11. Adnan A told us that he was still in contact with the Hanjour family, and as a matter of fact, he had just seen Abdul-Rahman only two weeks earlier. Adnan A asked us if we believed that Hani was one of the hijackers. It was a question that I was a little taken aback by. When 9/11 first happened, I did question whether the investigators had gotten it right. I honestly didn’t want to believe that Hani had been involved. I have done extensive reading and research on the subject over the years since. I guess I have come to the conclusion that all of the young Arab men that were blamed for 9/11 are, in fact, guilty.

It was comforting to know that Adnan A had wanted to call us after 9/11, to see how we were doing, but he didn’t want to cause any more trouble for us than we were already experiencing. Adnan A went on to tell us that he had seen me on TV - that German documentary! I knew he had indeed seen me because he remembered me saying that Hani didn’t brush his teeth when he stayed with us, which I had said in the interview.

Adnan and our visitors talked more about 9/11 between themselves in Arabic, so I don’t really know what was said. But it was clear to me that Adnan A and Abdul-Ghani felt as badly about 9/11 as we did. I could see it in their eyes, on their faces, and I could hear it in their voices. As it should be and always will be, the events of 9/11 are far too serious to be taken lightly or forgotten.

I was sad when our guests both had to leave late in the evening. Abdul-Ghani had an hour's drive ahead of him to get back to Mecca. It was good revisiting the past with them - the conversation had been relaxed and comfortable. We all agreed that we would get together again, and they both told me they wanted me to meet their families and go to their homes. It had been really exciting for me to see them after all the years that had passed (25 or so). I was so pleased that my Adnan - not generally a very sentimental guy - had managed to stay in touch with these guys after all this time, and I look forward to our next encounter.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Land of Contrasts & Contradictions

As a newcomer, I have observed that Saudi Arabia is a very interesting place - a land of stark contrasts and confusing contradictions.

For example, in an area of new and elegant walled villas in the city, the neighboring empty lot is, more often than not, filled with rubble and garbage. This doesn't seem to bother the residents because no one takes any steps to improve it. One can see sights like this all over Jeddah. My husband Adnan told me that when there is new construction, the debris is just hauled off the lot and dumped at the nearest empty lot. I wondered out loud about how unfair that is to the empty lot’s owner, but Adnan said that somehow, because everyone does this, it all evens out eventually. There are some of the most modern and amazing structures here that I have ever seen, and right next door might be a garbage and rubble-filled lot, or maybe a 500 year old crumbling and decaying building.

Or out in the country, there might a lavish walled villa in the middle of nowhere, and just a short walk away, people are living in tents in the desert. And even more interesting is that the tents may have TV antennas and cars parked outside. There is such an interesting - and sometimes odd - mix of the old and the new, the elegant and the decrepid, the haves and the have-nots.

There seems to be little in the way of planning and zoning or code enforcement. Parking lots - when you are lucky enough to go to a place that has them - have tight spaces, narrow lanes, and are very crowded. Parking here seems to be an after-thought. Cars are haphazardly parked wherever, and many times, cars are double or tripled parked, blocking traffic lanes. Every day I see cars driving the wrong way on one way streets or divided boulevards. The main reason for this happening is because there are so many one ways and divided streets with sometimes no way to make a u-turn or left turn for quite a distance, so everyone resorts to driving on the wrong side of the street.

The materials and designs used in construction are oftentimes obviously top of the line, elegant and intricately detailed, and rooms are decorated with gorgeous chandeliers and amazing ceilings that I have never seen the likes of anywhere. The outside walls of many buildings are completely tiled or are covered with beautiful stone or even marble. Even the sidewalks and entire courtyards are totally and beautifully tiled. However, the workmanship can be sloppy or unfinished. In our apartment, for example, I am still trying to get off splatters of paint, stain, grout, and "I-don’t-know-what-else" that are all over the floor tiles and baseboards. And there is this white paper that is glued all the way around a dark wood doorway molding that I am still trying to get off. Plus, I have had to take a razor to the wall tiles in the kitchen and all the bathrooms because the workmen didn’t clean off the grout properly as they were working.

Music is another subject that is really confusing in Arabia. But what makes it even more confusing is that music is a much disagreed upon subject here and this is because even Islamic scholars cannot agree among themselves. Consequently, some people in Arabia believe that music is “haram” or forbidden by Islam, and others feel that music is "halal" or allowed. There are confusing passages in the Koran that at one time seem to condemn music and then there are other passages that appear to condone it. Meanwhile, TV here has dozens of Middle Eastern music channels.

Even my husband confuses me about Islam's view of music. When we first met, Adnan absolutely loved music, collected many albums, could even name really obscure artists, and constantly listened to music. But now, he has made a 180 degree turnaround and even tries to discourage our 14 year old son's naturally inherited love of music, telling him that it is a waste of time. Adnan's mom and sister also both believe that music is haram (bad). One of our young adult neices even declined to attend a wedding because there was going to be music and dancing. It makes me wonder: why would there be music and dancing at a wedding anyway when it is supposed to be forbidden?

I have read that music is bad because certain types of music are sexy, alluring, or evil, among other things. Dancing is also considered inappropriate, yet the Middle East is where Belly Dancing originated. And still others believe that only certain musical instruments are acceptable. Many people here, like my husband, consider music as basically a waste of time. Yet verses from the Koran are always sung, and prayers are sung, and this is ok. To me, this is a form of music. To many Muslims, even beautiful classical music is bad. I can understand how they might consider rap music, heavy metal, or songs with vulgarity and wrong messages in them as bad...but beautiful classical music? I just cannot be convinced of this way of thinking. And I cannot help but feel badly for the people who have been convinced that all music is evil and wrong - because, being a lover of many kinds of music myself, I know what they are missing out on, and sadly, they don't.

Despite all of this, satellite TV here is loaded with dozens upon dozens of channels that are Middle Eastern music all the time. I am amused watching music videos of men singers dressed in their full traditional garb, swaying, winking, dancing, and moaning. And then, there's the heavily made up Middle Eastern women - who are supposed to be modest - making videos exposing their cleavage in snug fitting attire, batting their false eyelashes directly into the camera, tossing their hair and their hips around in very suggestive movements and overtones, wiggling and jiggling to the beat. Stores here are loaded with Middle Eastern music CDs and videos. If this type of stuff is plastered all over TV and in stores, then why do I and all the other women here have to wear the abaya out in public? I don't get this.

Here in Arabia, certain Western ideas have been readily embraced, while at the same time, they have fiercely held on to many traditional, and archaic, customs as well. They definitely pick and choose carefully what they wish to accept or reject. Technology and architecture are state of the art here. But Western influences, especially social and moral attitudes and behaviors, have been unquestionably rejected.

Another area of confusion for me is women wearing makeup. Women here are not supposed to attract the attention of other men, hence the abaya, the hair covering, etc. Yet out in public, many of the women, even those in veils, wear tons of eye makeup. Most women seen on TV here wear an obscene amount of makeup, so much so that many of them look plastic (think Tammy Faye!). I went to my first Saudi wedding (read all about it in a previous chapter) and most of the women wore lots of makeup. Adnan's mom Tata apparently told him to tell me to stop putting on makeup when we go out because I will attract too much attention from men and I should only wear makeup for other women, like at a wedding, or only for my husband. Proper women - good Muslim women - do not want to attract the attention of other men in public. I have noticed that men and women don’t really look at each other or make eye contact when they are out in public anyway. It is improper for a man to look at or speak to another man's wife. So, why then do so many women wear so much makeup if it is supposed to be unacceptable and other men aren't supposed to look at women anyway?

And, of course, there’s the clothing and hair covering thing that I also find contradictory. If the Koran says that both men and women should dress modestly, then why aren’t men required to cover up like the women? I even keep my hair covered whenever I am in the presence of any of my brothers-in-law, even though Adel saw my hair when he visited us in America, but now it’s not acceptable. I can remember seeing Moslem families at Disney World in Florida on a hot humid summer day, with the father comfortably dressed in a tank top and shorts, while the mother sweltered in her black abaya and headscarf. How is this even remotely fair or justifiable?

Most people here are extremely polite and courteous and mind their own business. But just get those men behind a wheel (remember women cannot drive here), and it is pure mayhem and aggression, constant horn honking, cutting other drivers off, and total disregard for normal driving rules. My husband tells me that women aren't allowed to drive here for several reasons. One reason is for their own safety. In the big cities here, driving is very stressful because of all the traffic, the lack of traffic enforcement (I haven't seen any tickets being given out, much less any drivers pulled over by the cops), and the fact that the drivers here do virtually anything they want with no regard for others. Another reason, Adnan says, is because the men drivers would find it too distracting to see women behind the wheel and it would cause more accidents. Another possible explanation is because women aren't really supposed to go places without their husbands, although this is not necessarily the way it really is here. In fact women aren't supposed to be in a vehicle without a male relative, yet taxi cabs do a flourishing business here because women aren't allowed to drive, and many families employ a full-time driver to take the lady of the house out wherever and whenever she wishes.

The people here in Arabia cherish their kids, but to date, I haven't ever seen one baby in a car seat (although I'm not saying that all parents here don't use them) or one child buckled up with a seat belt. Kids ride standing up, jumping around the car, hanging out the windows, or even driving on daddy's lap! Adnan says this is "freedom," even though it used to upset him if we saw something like that in the states. Of course adults don't buckle up here, hence they don't buckle up their kids. I feel like we may be the only people here who buckle up at all.

The Koran encourages Muslims to take care of and have respect for their bodies, and it forbids Muslims to indulge in things that are harmful to the body, like alcohol, illegal drugs, or smoking. But so many people smoke here, and from what I understand, there are people who do drugs here as well. To me, this is hypocritical by just picking and choosing what they want to follow from the Koran and discarding what they don't want to adhere to. Hmmm, I wonder how many of the religious police smoke?

And one last thing for now that I don't quite get: portraits of people (like family members) are not displayed at all around the home here. Soon after I got here, I was told by Tata not to hang any family portraits on the wall, and to not have them in frames on a table or displayed in any way. I could remember learning years ago from Adnan that Muslims do not wear likenesses of people or any creature that has eyes, like on a T-shirt or a hat. It is forbidden, partly having to do with idolotry and possibly having to do with "evil eyes" or such. Ok, I can understand that and accept it. But what I don't understand is: why is it ok then to have huge photos and likenesses of the King (and other high ranking members of the Royal Family) plastered everywhere, on buildings, inside buildings, on signs, on billboards, on advertisements, etc.? Isn't this some form of idolotry?

I could go on and on, but I think that's enough to ponder for now. It all just seems so confusing and contradictory. I just don't get it!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Camels & Tents

The drive out to Adnan's sister Baheeja’s country home north of Jeddah is mostly dry brown desert all along the way. It is only maybe a 30 minute car ride to get there taking the Madinah Highway. The Sierra Mountain range is visible off in the distance. There are walled villas sprinkled randomly here and there, but in general, the area is fairly remote and sparsely populated.

Several camel corrals or depots are located off the freeway. During one of our drives out there, Adnan delighted me by pulling off the road so I could take closer pictures of the camels. There must have been over 100 camels in each of the lots we saw, including many nursing baby camels. I was thrilled to be able to get out of the car and take pictures of these beasts. A rickety barbed wire fence contained the animals and several camel herders attended each lot. Adnan told me he thought the dark skinned camel herders were Sudanese.

The one-humped dromedary camel is native to Saudi Arabia. There are no two-humped camels here. The camels ranged in color from white to all shades of tan to dark brown. Adnan told me that the white camels are more rare and therefore are more expensive. These camels are available for purchase for their meat, or one can just purchase the fresh camel milk. A full grown camel costs between $750-1,000 US. Adam and I had previously seen camel meat for sale in the meat department of a supermarket. It looks like a very big lean pot roast, but with absolutely no fat. Adnan's mom has prepared dishes for us using camel meat. It's actually pretty good and tastes like lamb, which is the most preferred meat here in Arabia.

Many of the nursing mothers were equipped with a contraption made out of canvas – similar to a bra - to keep the babies from nursing constantly. The purpose of these bras is so that more camel milk is available for sale. Adnan asked one of the guys there to get us some milk, so we watched as three guys milked the camel right in front of us. They had to displace the bra-like contraption and tried to keep the persistent nursing baby away - with great difficulty -while they milked the mommy camel. Squirted into large stainless steel bowls, the milk was bright white and very frothy on top. At a makeshift worktable out in the open air, the milk was then transferred into a large plastic bag and sealed. We got about a gallon of fresh warm camel’s milk for 20 Saudi Riyals, which is about $5 US.

As we continued on our journey, just down the road we could see dozens of tents along the way. There were people actually living in these tents in the middle of the desert. Nowadays, there are not that many Bedouins - gypsies of the desert - actually living in the desert anymore. Many of them have settled in the cities. Seeing these tents struck me as funny because many of the tents had cars parked beside them.

When we arrived at Baheeja's villa about 10 minutes later, Adnan poured me a small shot glass of the still-warm camel's milk. It tasted very much like extremely rich cow's milk. It may be that I have been drinking skim milk for so long that the camel's milk seemed really rich to me. Adnan enjoyed some in his hot tea and Adnan's mom made some custard with it, and it was pretty darn good!
I know people have their own preconceived notions about Arabs living in tents and riding around on camels, and sure, it still exists in areas, but it is just not that common any more. Yes, there are historic older sections with ancient buildings, and there is a small percentage of Bedouins who do still live in tents and perhaps wander the desert. And you can see camel herders, and the men and women here dress traditionally, much the same as they have for centuries.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia is a very modern country with very new and very modern areas that are really quite lovely, and its people are more educated and more civilized than a lot of the rest of the world believes.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My 1st Saudi Wedding

I recently went to my first Saudi wedding. The biggest difference between Saudi weddings and American weddings is that men and women celebrate separately. In fact, the men's event can be scheduled on a totally different evening than the women's. So actually, for this wedding that I attended, there were two women's events. The first week on a Wednesday night - Wednesday in Arabia is like Friday in the States, since weekend days here are Thursday and Friday - there was a big party that was held a week before the actual wedding. You might think of this party as something like a bridal shower. It was held at the exquisite villa of the bride's family. The men's party that night was held at a nearby cafe. When I arrived at about 9pm, only a few women were there, but gradually more and more women kept arriving. I would estimate that eventually, by evening's end, there were at least 120 women in attendance.

The event was held in an enormous living room of the home. Beautiful couches and chairs had been set up all along three walls of the room, and there was enough seating for all the guests.

The bride had chosen brilliant turquoise blue and silver as her color scheme for the evening. In the center of the room, mirrors had been laid down on the floor with strings of tiny white Christmas lights over the mirror. Over this were layers of sheer turquoise netting. All around this area were huge shiny silver urns that reflected the lights and the blue turquoise color. The effect was that there was a pool of water in the middle of the room! Behind this area and along the wall, was a beautiful white couch - a throne, if you will - adorned with cushy turquoise blue pillows, where the bride would later sit and receive her well wishers. From the ceiling above the throne hung a flowing canopy of the turquoise blue netting with twinkling white lights. There were also beautiful floral arrangements on either side of her throne.

I munched on nuts and dates, and we were served buttermilk to drink. I was told it is traditional to serve buttermilk (not my favorite). A woman had been hired for the evening to apply henna tattoos to any guest who wanted it. I got my right hand done. I had never had it done before, so for those of you who haven't either, I will explain the process. The woman had the henna in a squeezable tube similar to a large tube of toothpaste. There was a small hole in the end of the tube where the henna came out. The henna itself looked like a deep brown gel. She applied the henna in floral designs onto my fingers and the top of my hand, doing it all freehand and taking about five minutes. I was very careful not to smear or rub it during the thirty minutes that it took for the henna to completely dry. While it was drying, my hand got freezing cold. I was told that the coldness is a normal reaction. When the henna was dry, I could just peel it off and the design remained, having stained my skin. The henna design lasted maybe three weeks or so.

Aside from the henna, nothing much really happened the first few hours, except small talk and meeting and greeting, until midnight, when the bride finally made her appearance. The Arabian music that had been playing on the stereo system was silenced, and then I heard drum beats, singing and chanting. Off toward the main entrance, I could see a band of about five African women, playing various drums and flutes and kazoos. Everyone began clapping along to the beat. Many of the guests began the trilling, called "ghatarif," which women in the Middle East do on happy occasions, where they make a a high pitch "ooooooh" sound while moving their tongues back and forth really fast. I can't do it right yet, but I'm working on it. It's a lot more ladylike than whistling, which I can do really well, but is better suited for a ballgame!

Then at the top of the stairs, I noticed that something was going on. The bride was up there, seated in a "hodujh" - one of those little curtained carriages that sits on top of a camel or elephant, or that slaves would hand carry Indian princesses in. The hodujh was made of shiny bright silver metal with intricate designs all over it. I remember seeing them in the movies and cartoons when I was little and thinking how totally exotic that would be to ride in one. The hodujh - with the bride in it - was being supported by four women dressed in matching Aladdin-style outfits - white blouses and white genie pants, turquoise bolero vests, and turquoise fez type hats on their heads with flowing turquoise netting. The crowd roared when the bride's procession almost fell several times as they slowly descended the stairs. All the while, they were swaying, chanting, dancing, singing, and trilling. Once they set the bride down safely, the troupe sang and danced for a while, while the musical group drummed and played along with them. It was enchanting, to say the least. These women were all hired for the event - they come in, decorate in the theme you have chosen, and put on a show. This particular wedding party I attended was a Moroccan theme.

When the bride dismounted the hodujh, she seemingly floated over to sit on her throne. It was a magical sight, with the throne area and the effect of a beautiful twinkling lake in the middle of the living room floor. The bride, about 22 years old or so, looked like a princess in a beautiful cream colored ball gown, her long black hair flowing down her back and shoulders in soft curls.

The dresses that the women guests wore were amazing. Everyone arrives wearing the black abayas (robes) and the black hijabs (head coverings), but underneath are these beautiful exquisite gowns and jewelry and heels. They get all dolled up with the clothes, the shoes, the hair, and the makeup, for other women to see them. One woman with long black hair was wearing a flowing white chiffon gown that had dozens of actual peacock feathers placed all over it. The younger women (teenagers) wore more trendy outfits - I was actually kinda surprised that their mothers allowed them out of the house wearing some of the figure hugging outfits I saw, with very short hemlines and plunging necklines.

The food wasn't served until after 1am. But it was a feast well worth the wait! There was shrimp, several chicken and beef dishes, shish kabob, and choices of different rice dishes, egg rolls, vegetables, hummus, salads, and more, plus amazing beautiful desserts. It was all served buffet style in a large dining room.

I was wondering when my abaya and hijab were taken from me as I arrived, how difficult it was going to be to find my things, since everyone wears black abayas and hijabs. The hostesses simply wrapped a strap of masking tape around both pieces belonging to me and wrote my name on it. It made it really easy to find. We left at about 2:30am and the party was still going strong.

All the women there were really nice to me. Many of them went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. So many people here speak some English that it has made it much easier for me socially than I had anticipated.

One week later was the actual "wedding." This time I arrived at the site at 11pm. I was one of the first guests to arrive. There are many really fancy places in Arabia that are specifically designed to rent out for weddings. Weddings here are the main reason for partying. This place reminded me of the Signature Grand in Davie, Florida, for those of you who are familiar with it. I entered the lobby, checked my abaya and hijab (I was given a claim check ticket this time), and then made my way to an enormous ballroom where the event was held. It was absolutely beautiful - the tables, chairs, the floral centerpieces, the staircase - a creamy white fantasy of perfection. At one end the stage was decorated with a huge white netting open tent decorated with flowers and lights and huge floral arrangements on either side, a cream colored couch with lots of pillows in the center of the stage and pink rose petals were strewn about the entire area.

Leading from the stage was a "catwalk," like for a fashion show, that extended out into the ballroom, dividing it into two sections. There were stairs at the end of the catwalk. The lady guests would climb the stairs and then dance up and down along the catwalk during the course of the evening. I imagined that some of the younger unmarried women dancing were actually trying to get noticed by all the mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins in attendance who were looking for a possible wife for their available bachelor sons, brothers, or nephews.

I actually sat at three different tables, flitting between different sets of relatives and new acquaintances. The DJ music was playing so loudly that the water in my glass was vibrating! It made it difficult to try to carry on conversations, but I was able to visit at length (during breaks in the music) with several really nice women who had lived in the U.S. for several years and spoke excellent English. Alcohol is forbidden in the country, so the beverages available were all kinds of fruit juices, soft drinks, or water. If I thought the dresses, makeup, shoes and hair were amazing at the more "casual" affair the week prior, I was literally blown away by the gowns, heels and jewels I saw at this event. I felt like I was at the Oscars, seeing one more stunningly beautiful dress after another.

Just before 3am, I noticed all the women getting up, retrieving their abayas and hijabs from the cloak room, and then returning to their seats covered up, so I did the same. My sister-in-law told me that "men were coming" so all the women had to cover up. Several minutes later, a group of about a dozen kids (relatives of the bride) performed a dance routine. Then the groom was presented on the balcony at the top of the staircase. He wore a white thobe with a peachy yellow colored robe over it and a white headdress. Following his introduction, the bride, escorted by her father, joined him on the balcony. The bride wore a creamy beige strapless gown, with tiers of lace and netting covering the fitted bodice down all the way down the full floor length skirt. Her father was dressed in a white thobe topped with a black robe that had gold trim, and the white headdress. While music played, all three of them threw rose petals down from up above, and then they threw a couple dozen single roses down to the female guests below, who were all trilling and clapping. I saw the bride's father gently kiss her on the forehead and then he hugged his new son-in-law. Next, the bride and groom slowly walked down the stairs, and then down the catwalk to their throne area on the stage.

As soon as the couple sat at their throne, at almost 4am, a neighboring ballroom was opened up and all the women guests flocked over to the amazing banquet of food that was set up there. Shortly after I finished eating, I was taken home by a driver. By the time I got home, it was almost 5am.

From what I understand, this is all very typical of Saudi weddings. I have asked several people why they start an affair such as this so late in the evening, lasting until the sun is almost up. No one has been able to give me any kind of an answer - it's just how they like to do it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Bedouin Jewelry

Within the first month after my arrival in Arabia, Adnan’s mom (Tata) and his sister Baheeja planned several get-togethers to introduce me (and I like to think - to show me off!) to various other women.

One night there was a small gathering for cousins. I wore a beautiful hot pink and orange traditional dress that Baheeja (Adnan's sister) gave me. Adnan’s mom had given me some gold jewelry so I wore that too – a necklace, 2 bracelets, and a ring. The women here in Arabia hug and kiss each others’ cheeks at least three times, sometimes up to eight or even ten times, when greeting or saying goodbye. So right off the bat, you are hugging and kissing someone you have never met before. I kinda like it! We spent the entire evening (5 whole hours) sitting on the floor in Tata’s dining room. Boy, did my hips and legs hurt the next day! The whole time I pretty much sat there smiling and listening to the other women talking in Arabic. I could understand few words here and there, but the majority of the conversation went right over my head. Baheeja would try to interpret a bit, trying to include me.

For dinner, each woman was served her own whole small delicious roasted chicken, with pita bread, hummus, and salad. If that weren't enough, there was enough pizza for each woman to have her own pizza too if she wished. There was WAY too much food. We ate on the floor in the middle of the room and then when we were done with the meal, we moved back to the cushions along the wall, which was a little bit more comfortable. I had to keep switching positions because I am just not that used to sitting on the floor anymore. I tried crossing my legs, stretching them out straight, one leg straight and the other bent, knees up and bent with my hands clasped in front of them - I tried everything to be more comfortable. I just don't know how they can sit on the floor here as much as they do. They have so many living rooms, yet they prefer sitting on the floor!

When Adnan’s cousin Amul got up to leave, I rose up also to bid her goodbye. Amul is a very elegant and refined woman of about 60 with jet black hair swept up in a bun. She was wearing a hot pink traditional dress accessorized by enormous silver Bedouin jewelry. Amul does not speak much English at all, but she had asked a few questions of me through Baheeja during the evening. I was starting to tell her how much I liked what she was wearing when suddenly she reached behind her neck to undo the clasp of the amazing solid silver necklace she was wearing and promptly hung it around my neck. This necklace must weigh several pounds. It is handmade by Bedouins, the gypsies of Arabia who wander the desert. The necklace has unbelievable detail and intricate designs, swirls, chains, loops, bells, and a gigantic dark brown stone – I don’t know what it is. Amul next removed her large hammered silver hoop earrings with dangles and bestowed them to me as well. Of course, I was overwhelmed and I thanked her and hugged and kissed her.

As we edged closer to the door, Amul slid off the two silver bracelets from her wrists and placed them in my hand. One of the bracelets is plain silver and the other one has stones in turquoise, coral and a white stone. It looks Southwestern or American Indian to me. After more hugging and thanks yous, she was out the door. But 30 seconds later the doorbell rang and it was Amul, handing over the two silver rings that had been adorning her fingers. Both rings have over sized red stones, maybe garnets. One ring has small silver bells dangling around the edges and the other is raised with amazing intricate detail around the whole base.

By this point, I was almost in shock. Amul had just taken off every piece of stunning jewelry she had worn that night and just took it all off and gave it all to me. Adnan’s sister Baheeja explained that Amul is very generous and her gesture means that she liked, she REALLY liked me! I was touched and humbled by her actions.

Another evening Tata invited over the other women who live in our building to introduce me to everyone. This time we sat in her main living room - on couches! - and we just had finger foods and sweets. I was just happy not to have to spend another five hour evening sitting on the floor! A couple of the younger ladies were quite stylish and trendy. One of the women had eight kids. She has a whole floor of our building just for her family. Another woman was older, maybe Tata's age, and I think she lived with one of her children and her family. Two of the others were thirty-something and had four kids each. I was able to participate in the conversation a bit more this time since a couple of them spoke pretty good English.

On yet another occasion, Baheeja held a soiree at her home and invited over some family members and some close friends of hers. The ladies all gathered in one of her large formal living rooms at the base of the staircase to the upstairs living quarters, and the men were in another living room off the foyer of her home. This way, the women can take off their coverings because no men would see them. It was funny because a few times during the evening, a male would have to go upstairs for something, and all the women had to duck and hide behind something when this would happen. This evening was much more casual and relaxed, and we women sat on the floor and I instructed them all in making earrings which they each took home with them. The women loved it. Many Saudi women are very crafty and artistic - it is encouraged. Also that night, I tried on this gold Bedouin jewelry that some brides there wear - Baheeja's daughter Bayyan wore it for her wedding. It consists of small gold coins and chains that covers the face, head, hands, and chest - almost like armor! It is quite heavy and uncomfortable - even Bayyan told me she wasn't comfortable the night she wore it - but it is traditional, so they wear it.

All the women I have met so far have been very cordial. And I really appreciate how Tata has gone out of her way to make me feel like I belong and that she is proud to have me in the family. So have Adnan's siblings and their spouses as well. For so many years I used to say how lucky I was that I had no in-law problems (unlike some of my friends) because mine were clear over on the other side of the world! Now, I am living in very close proximity to Adnan's family, and so far, it has been a pleasure. As they say over here: Alhamdulil-La! (Thanks be to God!)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

My 1st "Eid" in Arabia

Ramadan ended exactly one week after I arrived in Arabia. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and are allowed to eat at sundown. They can eat as much as they want until the next morning at sunrise. That's why most people here in Arabia stay up all night during Ramadan and go to bed at sunrise. This way they can avoid much of the feelings of hunger or thirst during the day, although feeling the hunger and thirst is one of the reasons for the fast in the first place. It is to make them think about less fortunate people who don't have enough to eat, so they become more sensitive and sympathetic to others' plights. My husband usually eats at sundown, then again maybe at midnight, and then another meal right before sunrise. The meal at sundown is called breakfast, because it is when the fast is broken. Traditionally, they start it off with a glass of buttermilk and some dates, then they pray, and then they eat their meal. Large families often get together during this time to share breakfast together.

The fasting is done for about thirty days. The time frame is all very scientific, based on the new moon. When Ramadan ends, there is a big three to four day celebration called Eid, where families all get together, much like the Christmas holidays. Gifts are given to children, special holiday dishes and treats are prepared.

The first morning of Eid, we all arose early and got dressed and left for the mosque at 6am. All mosques are positioned so that everyone praying inside will be facing toward Mecca. In Jeddah, this means that all mosques are built at an odd angle from all the surrounding buildings which are on streets that mainly run N-S or E-W. Mecca is southeast of Jeddah. Mosques here are easily identifiable by the domes and towering minarets, most of which are lit up with green lights, and a few with white lights. There are mosques every few blocks, in every neighborhood. Outside the mosque, there are dozens of small cubicles where you can leave your shoes. Shoes cannot be worn inside the mosque. Adnan’s sister Baheeja brought a large bag to put all of our shoes in so we wouldn’t have to waste time searching for them after the services. Because the Eid is a huge holiday and the attendance expected was enormous, the large main air conditioned sanctuary of the mosque is always reserved for only women and children, and the men’s designated area is outside the mosque in the open air. Inside the mosque there was no furniture at all, nary a place to sit except on the thick plush red carpet. We found a place halfway in but off to the side, where I could observe everything that went on with my curious eyes.

There were hundreds of women there for the service. All the women were all covered from head to toe in black of course, and most women wore veils covering their faces except for their eyes. At first glance, it appears that all the women are dressed the same, but upon closer examination, you can see that they are actually all dressed differently. Some black abayas have elegant rhinestone trim, others have tapestry ribbons, or colorful fabric appliqu├ęs or embroidery. Some have cut out designs, filled in with sheer fabric or satin or netting. There are stores all over that only sell abayas. I never knew a black robe could have so many different options!

The children were adorable. Little girls were all decked out in colorful outfits that reminded me of Easter. Many girls were dressed in vivid pastel colors, complete with matching hats, socks and shoes. I saw several sets of sisters dressed in matching outfits. A few girls looked like little brides wearing all lacy, frilly white ensembles. I was also struck by the girls’ thick wavy lustrous long dark locks. There were little boys inside with the women also, mostly under age 10 or so. Some were dressed like little sheiks in full traditional attire from head to toe. A few looked like miniature business tycoons, complete with sunglasses. They were all magnificent.

Before the services began, the children were running around and the women visited with one another. Some children distributed goodies brought in by their families to share. The mood was definitely jovial.

Out the windows I could see men dressed in white thobes and red and white or plain white headgear scurrying to get to the special men’s area outside, normally used as a parking lot. For this special occasion, there were hundreds of red carpets laid out for the men to pray on. Loud speakers placed all around enabled anyone within blocks to hear the service. Usually the men would be inside the large area where the women were, and the women would be in a smaller area inside, separate from the men.

Once the service began, everyone quieted down and assembled into neat rows facing Mecca for the prayers. The service lasted about one hour. Of course I didn't understand much because it was all in Arabic, but I was satisfied with the fascination of the whole experience. When it was over, all the women and children headed for the main door. It must have taken at least ten minutes just to get to the doorway to exit the building. Outside, there were dozens of loose shoes that were underfoot, being trampled and scattered about, separated from their mates, and some probably lost forever. The slow stampede of women was trying to make its way to the designated pick up area.

Imagine the men trying to find their wives and children among the hundreds of women all dressed in black, most of whom had their faces veiled. It was organized chaos, and I found the experience to be quite interesting and amusing at the same time.

The Eid Celebration consists of many family get-togethers involving lots of food and sweets. During this time we were invited into the homes of all of Adnan’s siblings

You know how in the states during the Christmas season, there are all these Christmas tree sale lots that pop up everywhere, and for the 4th of July, there are all these fireworks sale lots? Well, here for any holiday, there are all these "little lamb lots" that spring up everywhere. Hundreds of them! You go and pick out a little lamb, and you can have it slaughtered and even cooked for you. Most Muslims always get a lamb (or perhaps a goat or a sheep or even a cow!) and share it with the poor, or other friends and family. It is their way of giving thanks for their good fortunes.