Saturday, March 15, 2008

Meet the Cousins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Hello susie!

    I stumbled upon your blog today and have enjoyed reading your entries so far!
    Keep up the great posts!:)

  2. Hi Susie,
    It seems that you have a very wonderful Arabian family who has totally accepted you. You are fortunate!
    Linda K

  3. Hi Miss Muslimah -
    Thanks so much for your encouragement. Glad you are enjoying my blog!

    Hi Linda -
    I am VERY fortunate - it makes all the difference in the world having this large family that has embraced me and my son. My whole life whenever I traveled anywhere, my impressions of a place mainly hinged on the people themselves and how I was treated while I was there. I feel so lucky!

  4. I am enjoying reading your blog.
    Your family sounds wonderful.
    What amazes me is the hours-
    Dinner at 12:30 am.
    Are the hours hard to get used to- as to the fact(as you well know)- back here is US- dinner is 6:00pm
    straight up?
    Keep writing!

  5. Hi Lisa!
    Eating at 12:30am or 3am (dinner time at one event I attended!) is not what people normally do every day. Only when there are special events/parties/weddings do people eat in the middle of the night like that. Oh - and during Ramadan too, but they fast all day then.
    Great to hear from you - glad you are enjoying the blog!

  6. Susie,

    The reason why people tend to give things to people is to avoid getting "the eye". It is felt that even whilst not on purpose that someone who admires something of someone's might "give them the eye" and cause bad things to happen.

    I have learned to pretty much not admire anything whilst in an Arab's house because they will give it to you.

    Once again your pictures are spectacular. There are a fair amount of blogs out there from Western women in Saudi, but none have the pictures you do and most do not get as detailed.

    Family circles are small and word gets around pretty quick, especially something as novel as a family member married to a Westerner.

    I have met very little of my wife's family in Saudi, yet they all know about us, have seen all of our wedding pictures, and passed around pictures of our boys.

    It can be nice being the center of attention.

    Speaking of perfumes, have you yet have the PLEASURE of smelling a scented oil called "Oud". Literally it means "wood" but it is an oil that comes from a particular tree and it is VERY expensive. A small container the size of your thumb can cost hundreds of dollars.

    It is a very heavy, woodsy type scent that is very popular all over the Gulf.

    If you havent smelled it you should. Ask your hubby about it. I have fallen in love with the stuff and we get the oils and colognes and perfumes based with it whenever we can.

    The wood itself is often used as incense and burned before guest come. Women will often walk around a gathering with it burning and those present will fan the smoke towards themselves trying to get the wonderful smell to infuse their hair, clothes and body.

    Below is a link to the Aramco story about it. Read it and if you havent smelled the oil and the incense please wont forget it.

    It is said that the scent of Oud is one of the closest ways one can get to smelling Paradise.

  7. What a lovely post again; even just reading it one can feel the warmth!

  8. Aafke - Thanks for your nice comment! I'm so glad you enjoyed this chapter.

    AbuSinan - Wow! I had no idea after all these years that they were giving me things I complimented them on because they were afraid I would give them the evil eye! Oh no! I guess I won't let this knowledge take away from my belief that they are still incredibly generous people, no matter what their reasons!
    Thanks for the nice compliments about my photos - take them, they're yours! (ha ha)
    I doubt that hubby will buy me any "Oud" if it's that expensive, but I will look for it and see if I can take a free whiff - thanks for the tip.

  9. Hi Susie,

    Another amazing chapter..
    It's a good thing you are a late night owl. I have always been early to bed and early to rise. I am hungry!! The details you write makes one feel like they are seeing, feeling and tasting just what you are. A great writer you are.
    Bye for now

  10. Gee, Janna, thanks for the sweet compliments!

  11. That was a beautiful post. The best thing about arabia is the close knitted families. Imagine in USA people usually only get together like this for Christmas or THanksgiving but I've found about once a month or every 40 days they get together like this somehow in Arabia. It's a joy to sit with such a large number of people and eat such delicious food. Thanks for your wonderful blogs and I enjoy every one of them dearly.
    Thanks you Abu Sinan~Sayf for the info abut the evil eye. Yes many poeple Do give up their wonderful things out of fear of the eye but others just do it for generosity THANKS for the link about 'UD I read it and was very informed and will look twice at the perfumeries at the mall and maybe try to get them to let me check out their expensive samples of 'UD.
    I also love the pictures you get masha'Allah they are awesome. It's nice they aren't offended and treat your phtography with amusment. That was kind of you to make them all jewelry. Savor the new perfume! :)

  12. Susie, I really enjoy reading about your life over there. A dear friend sent me your blog, her husband was a former classmate of yours. Keep up the good work. Linda

  13. To AMW and Linda -
    Thanks so much for your commments. You both made my day!

  14. Suzie - the Oud mentioned by AbuSinan - you can get it at different prices! So, don't give up on the hub getting you some. And, if he's feeling most generous, ask him to just get a very small amount of it - a little goes a long, long way!

    I make the incense he mentioned too - and it's made with 30-40 different tola's of the oud oil when I make a big batch of it up.

  15. To L -
    Thanks! I'll ask my SIL about it. She would know I'm sure.
    How do you make incense? Is it difficult?

  16. 'The best thing about arabia is the close knitted families'

    And, some might say this is the worst thing.

    I think you might be surprised to know that there are American families that get together like this (only with less formality) every Sunday for brunch after church.

  17. Susie,

    I didn’t mean to take away from the generosity of the people in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general. I don’t think there are a people who are more generous to guests, that is for sure!

    The Oud there in Saudi tends to be a fair amount cheaper than it is here in the USA.

  18. To the Queen - I must say that the closeness of family here is one of the things that I am enjoying the most. In the US, I didn't have that. My family is spread out all over the US - I do have 2 brothers that live in the same area, and they frequently get together, but the magnitude of the sheer numbers of close relatives here is nothing like I could ever imagine back in the states. I only have 4 first cousins back in the states!

  19. To AbuSinan - Not to worry - Yes, the Arabs are extremely generous and you did not detract from that at all!

  20. Susie, From your stories I'm quite sure you were given your gifts out of generosity and love :)

    As your family finds it funny you take so many pictures, you could tell them that people all over the world get a glimpse of Saudi Arabia this way, and are enjoying it very much!
    I've fallen in love with your family too by now.

    I would also love to hear how to make your own incense!
    I do make my own mixtures on occasion: I blend different kinds of incense, and perheaps herbs, and a few drops of essential oils.

  21. Susie, I was responding to American Muslima's comment that said:
    'Imagine in USA people usually only get together like this for Christmas or THanksgiving but I've found about once a month or every 40 days they get together like this somehow in Arabia.'

    I just wanted to point out that that statement was incorrect. The one thing that you can't do in the U.S. is make a blanket statement like that about families. There are so very many kinds of families here. While yours might be small and spread out, mine is very large and gets together regularly. I'm glad you are enjoying your family life now.

  22. To L OMAN -
    If you're still out there, please let us know how to make incense! Inquiring minds want to know!

    To Aafke -
    Most in my husband's family know that I am sharing the photos with my curious friends & family back home in the US. I have promised to protect the women's privacy, showed them how I pixillate out the faces, and they are ok with it. Some have even taken a look at my blog.
    I loved your remark: "I've fallen in love with your family too by now." That warmed my heart!

  23. To the Queen -
    You are so lucky to have a large family so close to you that you can arrange for frequent get togethers! That was one of the most difficult things for me about living in Florida for 15 years. No family nearby. You are blessed.

  24. Hi Susie! Congratulations on yr blog: rarely I've found one so interesting! (I voted it!) I like to know different places & cultures and I liked yr posts. Good luck and enjoy yr life there.

  25. Each of your posts brings a huge smile to my face. Your careful, thorough details help me recall and relive my own wonderful experiences in the Kingdom. Your blog serves so many purposes to so many people! I look forward to many months, if not years, of reading it.

  26. To Barbara and Marahm -
    Wow! I am humbled. Thank you for your lovely comments. I am speechless!

  27. As far as I know, the oud is usually worn by men. And as someone said, there are cheap ones and very expensive ones... you need someone who knows what he's doing, to get your money's worth. (I say that as one who has sat for many hours as her husband tried different ones in the shops in Dubai that sell bukhour and oud, lol.)

  28. Hi Ann -
    I asked my husband about oud and told him I wanted him to take me to a place where I could check it out. So he said that we have several little bottles of it right in our bathroom. They were there when I first arrived months ago, so I'm not sure who bought them. I had smelled them and I didn't like them at all. Very potent stuff! It's good to know there are many scents out there and hopefully I'll find some that I like.

  29. Susie, if you don't like Oudh or Bakhoor, try some of the flower oils. I believe they are "essential" oils. Jasmine and Rose seem to be the most common. I still have several vials I brought from KSA ten years ago. They are still potent and still pure!

  30. Yes, the oud is strong... not at all light or sweet-smelling. The men often rub a little in their beard or clothes before they go to the mosque, or spray perfume, and this is recommended in Islam (for the men). You've probably noticed that people like nice scents; they often spray perfume in the room and even keep it in the car to keep it smelling nice.

    (See What is the relation of scent to Islam?)

  31. Thanks, Marahm and Ann -
    I will try to smell some of the floral scents. Two friends back in the states had asked me to bring back scented oils for them and this must be what they are talking about!

  32. Wow, what an amazing blog! I could spend days reading this.

  33. To Cozysister -
    What a lovely compliment! I am so pleased you like my blog. Thanks so much!