Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Zam Zam Well

The holy city of Mecca is the home to the famous Zam Zam water well. This well, in fact, is the reason for Mecca’s existence. The legend of the Zam Zam Well’s existence is really quite interesting. There are several versions of the story about the discovery of the Zam Zam Well. One version goes that centuries ago, around 2000 BC, the Prophet Ibrahim took his family to the area where Mecca stands today to leave them there. When his wife Hajira asked Ibrahim why he was leaving them there in this desert with no water, he told her that he had been instructed by God to do so. His wife was then fine with the decision and believed that God would provide for the family. One of her sons eventually got so thirsty, he began digging with his foot into the sandy soil. Suddenly water appeared in the hole and this source of water is called the Zam Zam Well.

Another version of the story varies a bit by telling that Hajira was seeking water for her infant who was dying of thirst and that she ran between the two hills of Marwah and Safa seven times in the sweltering heat in search of water. At this point God sent down the angel Gabriel. Gabriel dug a hole in the dry and dusty earth and suddenly there was water spewing forth from the ground. There are other little variations on the story as well. The name Zam Zam originates from the Arabic phrase “Zome Zome,” which means “stop flowing.” This is reportedly what Hajira kept repeating once the spring water began flowing and she was trying to contain it.

The discovery of this well brought people who then settled in the desolate area which was named Mecca. The Zam Zam Well is located just a few meters from the Kaaba, which is the place that all Muslims face five times daily when they pray. According to some legends, the well has never once gone dry to this day. However others believe that the well disappeared for a while because the controlling tribe of Mecca, the Jurham, had sinned grievously and that they had filled in the well with dirt out of spite when their tribe was driven out of Mecca. Muslim tradition says that Mohammed’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, later dreamed where the well was located, and he consequently rediscovered it.

The site of the well has undergone several transformations over the ensuing years, from being surrounded by stones to being covered with domes of tile, teak and marble. The mosque built to house the Kaaba throughout its history has been damaged by fire, restored, and remodeled. In the early 1900s, the most comprehensive restoration occurred under the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, when the Zam Zam housing was moved a bit further away to prevent possible damage when millions of pilgrims perform the ritual of circling around the Kaaba. Zam Zam water is available for free to those who visit the Holy Mosque in Mecca and is pumped in to the eastern reaches of the mosque in separate locations for both men and women pilgrims.

The story about Hajira and how the Zam Zam Well originated is remembered by all Muslims during their pilgrimmage to Mecca. Men run between the two hills of Safa and Marwah seven times just as Hajira did. Women walk the distance seven times. When they are done, they then drink from the Zam Zam Well.

The Prophet Mohammed alleged that the Zam Zam water had healing effects. It has also been reported that the Prophet used to carry the water with him, sprinkling it over the sick and having them drink it. This is why many Muslims believe that the water is miraculous and “divinely blessed.” It is said that Zam Zam water satisfies both hunger as well as thirst in addition to having medicinal value in curing illness. Indeed, some people claim to have been cured of illness after drinking Zam Zam water. I read reports that say scientists have conducted tests on Zam Zam water which have concluded that there is an overabundance of many minerals in the water such as fluoride, magnesium, calcium, iodide, sulphate and nitrate contents, which makes it more nutritive and provides healing effects such as reducing heartburn and quenching thirst. Many Muslims claim that Zam Zam water has no taste at all, but it definitely does have a taste to me. My favorite drink on earth is cool water. But personally, I don’t care for the taste of the Zam Zam water. Since it has a higher content of natural minerals in it, I think this is what gives it its flavor and has an aftertaste for me.

Millions of Muslim visitors from around the world visit Mecca each year during the Hajj. All Muslims, if they are able to, are required to make this pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime. Because of the world’s growing Muslim population and the ease of air travel, the Hajj continues to grow in size every year. Since one ritual that is followed by all pilgrims during the Hajj is to wash (ablution) before prayers and to drink later from the Zam Zam Well, plus the fact that many pilgrims like to take home water from the well to give to their relatives and friends, concern has arisen over whether the well can continue to supply enough water to meet the growing demand. There is now a Zam Zam Studies and Research Center in charge of keeping the water sanitized and abundant. Also, the Saudi government has prohibited Zam Zam from being exported and sold outside the country. Consequently, because there is such a zealous commericial demand for the water, fake Zam Zam has been distributed and sold in many countries.

The Zam Zam Well is a constant source of precious water in this arid desert holy city of Mecca. The water is also sold outside the mosque and distributed to the far reaches of the Kingdom. Most homes in the KSA are not without their supply of Zam Zam water.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Paradise Found

My son had the last week off from school. During this time, we had the pleasure of meeting two American women, MM and KY, who are both married to Saudis and have lived here in Arabia for well over 20 years.

How did I get to meet these two lovely women, you ask? We were “virtually” introduced by a fellow blogger, American Bedu (Thank You, AB!), who lives in Riyadh. Even though MM and KY do not blog themselves, they regularly read Middle Eastern blogs and leave comments on them. There is an immense blogging community over here in the Middle East, as well as all over the world, that I hadn’t paid any attention to until we made the decision to move here last year. Blogging has opened up a whole new world to me that I never even realized existed! I am so pleased at the number of cyber friendships I have forged with these fantastic people who all have their own stories to tell. We read each others’ blogs, leave comments on them, share in joys, tragedies, problems, link to each others’ blogs on our blogs, and lend support and share knowledge with one another. It is a welcoming warm community of which I am proud to be a part. This is indeed what the “World Wide Web” is all about!

Anyway, back to the story at hand. We agreed to meet at a local café for breakfast. I was so excited to meet these two ladies that I could hardly sleep the night before! Up to this point, I had only met one other American woman in the entire six months I have been here. MM is a tall statuesque blonde with a quick wit and a no-nonsense approach. She met her husband back in 1975 when she was 19. As I listened to her talk about how she and her husband met and fell in love, I drew many similarities between her story and my own. MM and her husband raised their two children, who are now grown, back and forth between the US and Arabia. KY is a beautiful woman who has a gentle nature and an easy going personality. She met her Saudi husband when she was only 17 in 1979. KY and her husband have three sons, two of whom are now in college in the US. She has a part-time job that affords her a lot of flexibility with her schedule.

MM and KY have been here long enough to know the ropes. They are both comfortable speaking Arabic (Yay! There is hope for me yet!). From them I learned that there are several women’s groups and various local institutions like the Historical Society that women are allowed to join, which was really exciting news for me. There are groups for Saudi wives and British wives that meet monthly, as well as religious study groups, book clubs and cultural groups. Many of the women transplants obviously lead very rewarding and fulfilling lives over here. KY had to leave then to go to work and MM had a salon appointment to get her hair and nails done – she was attending a fashion show later on that evening!

A few days later, MM invited me to go to the beach – actually a private beach club just outside of town. There are several exclusive private beach clubs where foreigners can join and have the freedom to enjoy the outdoors without being bogged down with the strict rules of the culture outside its walls. Since it was Spring Break, I asked if it would be all right if my son tagged along and she said of course but that he would not be able to sit with us at the beach. As we drove out to the place, I recognized the route. It was the same road we take to get my SIL’s country home. The beach club turned out to be in the very same vicinity. It has an unmarked entrance with a guard gate. MM and her husband have been members of this club for several years. When her kids were younger, they had a two bedroom unit, but they downsized to a shower unit, like an efficiency apartment, once her kids were grown. The units are leased on an annual basis. Women can chuck their abayas here and wear modest bathing suits and shorts and relax under the glorious sun without fear of being harassed by the religious police.

This place is gorgeous. The grounds are lush, beautifully landscaped and well maintained. The private beach is secluded with privacy walls standing on peninsulas built up on either side, jutting out into the immense Red Sea. When we arrived in the late morning of this mid-week day, we were the only ones there. We had the entire beach to ourselves. MM told me that if this were a weekend, the place would be packed to the gills. There were hundreds of lounge chairs lined up facing the sea, bright teal blue, green and white beach umbrellas, and wooden slatted walkways over the perfectly combed golden sand. Crabs swiftly jaunted along the beach and the blue sea was a spectacular backdrop for our day of fun. Abundant flowers in shades of lavender, yellow, orange and pink were everywhere along with palm trees, banana trees, bushes and cascading greenery. On one end of the beach was an area where one could obtain small boats, surf boards, boogie boards, life vests and other equipment.

It was literally paradise. My son and I were in awe. We put our beach gear down and while MM and KY settled in to grab a little sun, Adam and I went off to explore the lovely grounds. We proceeded along the slatted path away from the beach, up some wide stairs toward the tucked away villas surrounding the attractive pool area. As we approached, I entered a huge round neatly trimmed hedge area which housed and hid four open air showers. The brilliant turquoise blue pool bottom was speckled with patterns of vivid tiles, which appeared like swimming schools of little brightly multicolored fish. In the center of the enormous curvy shaped pool was a massive rock island with a swim up bar area complete with built in tiled stools for guests to sit on. A rock bridge linked the pool deck to the island and curved above the pool allowing swimmers to swim under it. The sparkling pool was empty and inviting, so my son jumped right in and joyously had the whole pool all to himself, as I happily snapped pictures. After a while we returned to the beach to join our new friends. After another hour or so, a couple showed up and parked themselves at a spot a comfortable distance away from us.

Shortly thereafter, the four of us decided to take a dip in the azure sea. The clear water was a tad chilly and took a bit of gentle persistence in the easy bouncing waves to get used to it. We then heard voices and giggles and looked up. My son was incredulous as a group of young teenage girls with two adult chaperons made their way to the beach. Startled, he whirled around to face me, red faced, and whispered under his breath excitedly, “I don’t believe it! Those girls are from my school!” Unbelievably this gaggle of giggling girls was all from his school and was in his class no less! Adam was shy and embarrassed and kept his back to the girls. Two girls entered the water and we eventually found ourselves within earshot. I finally broke the ice and said hello, and with that Adam turned around to face the girls.

They were surprised and seemed genuinely pleased when they realized who he was. “Adam!” they happily exclaimed, “What are you doing here?” From that point on, they all chatted from a safe distance and laughed. When some of the girls went over and got into an inflatable boat with oars, Adam followed suit and got his own boat. The adults all watched as the kids enjoyed themselves trying to paddle the boats back and forth across the water – they weren’t very good at it!

For Adam, this place was indeed paradise and the day was heaven. He had a fantastic time relishing the boat, the waves, the sun and the sand, and being able to see some friends away from the confines of school. Needless to say, this day was the highlight of his Spring Break!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pajama Party

The other night, my sister-in-law “H” invited me to go with her to her sister’s home for her niece’s 15th birthday. The theme was a pajama party - not a sleep over party - where all the guests were asked to wear their favorite PJs. We were the first to arrive, so we could help out with last minute details. Outside the lovely villa, I saw multicolored balloons wafting in the gentle wind above the gate of the soaring stone wall. The inside was decorated with vibrant multihued banners, metallic garlands, oodles of balloons, and several large multicolored disco lights and other types of party lighting with colored shooting laser lights. Furniture was cleared to the walls of the large living room so there was a big dance floor in the middle. One wall was lined with tables offering various beverages and snacks which were presented in attractive colossal shell shaped serving bowls. All the special lighting, music, smoke machine, and decorations were rented from a party place, which is a common thing to do.

Here in Arabia, when you invite someone over, you don’t usually say a particular time, like 8pm. Instead you would tell them to come after a certain prayer time. For example, “Come after Isha” means the party will start after the evening prayer, the last prayer of the day. As the guests began arriving, I was amused at the variety of cute sleepwear – cartoon characters like Betty Boop, Snoopy, Garfield, and Pink Panther, hearts and flowers, stripes and polka dots. The guests were comprised of Birthday Girl’s friends from school, cousins ranging in age from 2 to 25, plus the mothers of those attending and other relatives including many aunts and such. All told, there must have been approximately 75 guests. Except for about five young boys under the age of 8, all the guests were female. Many of the attendees also brought along their maids, of which there had to be at least a dozen or more.

A variety of dance music played – Middle Eastern, rap, Spanish, and Rock ‘n Roll. It was a nice modern mix chosen by Birthday Girl herself. So as the loud music played, the girls and women danced, the lights flashed, and my SIL “H” turned out to be the Life of the Party! “H” wore Elsie the Cow PJs in white with black spots all over, a pink bandana, and a single pink curler in her hair atop her forehead. She looked adorable. During the course of the evening, “H” entertained everyone with her wild and exaggerated dance moves, while stuffing balloons into her PJS in her chest area and her behind. She was totally hilarious and had people literally rolling on the floor with her. Some of the youngest guests were wide-eyed and probably a little shocked at her outrageous behavior, but entertained none the less.

While the younger girls danced the night away, the grown up ladies moved their own party into another living room of the home. Servants brought around trays of salty snacks, chocolates, and cookies, and the most beautiful brightly colored juice drinks in crystal glasses with gold rims. Some women preferred to smoke plain old cigarettes over the four hookahs (which is called “Hubbly Bubbly”) placed around the room as the jovial bunch of ladies sat back enjoying themselves, chatting, laughing, puffing away, and smiling. “H” told me that the Hubbly Bubbly makes them feel happy, and evidently, this was certainly true! I never saw a happier bunch!

They made me feel very welcome as ladies in each corner of the room invited me over to try to get to know me and ask me questions. One woman sucking on the Hubbly Bubbly called me over, wrapped her arm around me and loudly announced to everyone else that I was HER friend now and she wasn’t going to share me. Another lady made me feel especially good when she told me, “Halas (that’s it) – you are one of us!” I don’t think she realized how good her words made me feel. Some of us switched back and forth between dancing on the dance floor and smoking in the Hookah Lounge. And when I told a woman about my age how beautiful her 20 year old daughter was, she immediately called her daughter over to dance with me, like she was giving me a gift. It was a sweet gesture, awkward, and wonderful, and heartwarming, all at the same time.

About midnight, the food was served buffet style in the large dining room. There was enough food to feed a small army. It was, like every other function I have attended since I have been here, an amazingly delicious and delectable feast. Food for the event had been specially prepared by the maids, plus some special platters had been ordered from Chili’s Restaurant. After the guests were done eating, the maids were allowed in to serve themselves, and there was still plenty of food leftover even after they were done! The dancing and smoking and laughing continued until it was time to sing “Happy Birthday” and cut the cake at about 1am. By 1:30am the guests began to leave, as the little ones were getting pretty worn out at this point. When I got home, I told my husband that “H’s” family really knows how to party! It was indeed a riotous and memorable evening, one for the books.

UPDATE: Feb. 2009 - I have removed three photos that I originally published with this post. Even though my husband saw the photos back when I had posted this story months ago and told me that there was nothing wrong with them, it seems that someone in his family has told him today that they were inappropriate, so I have removed the photos.