Saturday, May 31, 2008

Carpet Cleaner

R  ight next door to this medium sized neighborhood supermarket that we frequent sits a roomy open lot with 8 foot high lofty walls all the way around it, except for a sizable opening in the front where the massive gate is. From the top of the steps of the supermarket, I could peer over the sturdy wall and see dozens of carpets in different colors, styles and shapes hanging over long rods and baking in the toasty sun.
When I first noticed the lot, my first thought was that it was a carpet sales market. However since there is no roof of any kind, I quickly dismissed that idea. Rain is very scarce, well, practically nonexistent here in Jeddah, but the settling dust and the exposure to the bright sun day after day would destroy new carpets sitting out in the elements like that.

My husband told me that the place was actually a carpet cleaner, and I was intrigued. So one day after our shopping was done at the little supermarket, my son and I walked over so I could hopefully take some photos.

Now I must admit I have never before been inside a carpet cleaners in the states to observe the actual operation of such an establishment, so I am not at all familiar with the process. But I thought it would be interesting to see how it was done here in Arabia.

We walked in looking for someone I could ask about taking some pictures. Amidst all the carpets was a little shack of an office toward the back of lot. A man tumbled out and approached us, speaking in Arabic. I asked if it was okay if I took a few photos. He didn't speak English, so I held up my camera and acted out like I was taking pictures as I made little clucking sounds with my tongue, and then I said, "Okay?" He was miffed because I'm sure he's never had a crazy person like me come in to take photos of the place, but he skeptically gestured that it would be all right.

Adam and I ambled through the lot as I snapped away. We saw a guy spraying with a water hose who was scrubbing and rinsing the carpets. In another area, there were dripping carpets that he had just finished cleaning.

We turned around to head back to the entrance and noticed that about six other men had come out of the tiny office to watch what we were doing. One of them stepped forward and said something in Arabic that we didn't understand. I guessed that he was in charge. So I went through the same spiel with this guy, doing my clucking noises and acting out the picture taking again. I smiled and said "Thank you" in Arabic.

And then Adam and I just resumed our stroll toward the gate as I snapped a few more photos, and the stunned carpet men just stood there with their mouths open.

I wished I could have asked about how much it costs to have a carpet cleaned in this manner, how long it takes to dry, what type of shampoo or cleansers they use, or whether they treat all carpets the same regardless of the materials they are made of like wool, or synthetic, or whatever, but I couldn't. I felt I should just hurry up and get out of there before the guy in charge thought he better throw his weight around!

At least I got my photos.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Al Qalzam Fish Restaurant

O ne evening we drove out of the city a short distance to have dinner at a popular fish restaurant called Al Qalzam.   Adnan’s whole family was invited to come, which in itself was unusual because mostly they all gather at one of the homes instead of a public restaurant.  But Adnan’s mom wanted to treat everyone to this fabulous fish dinner, so we piled into the car and off we went.

Restaurants here in Saudi Arabia usually have two distinct entrances and seating areas - one for families only and the other for single men only.  Even fast food places like Burger King are set up this way.  Usually there are clear signs directing customers to the proper entrance.

Many restaurants also provide additional privacy for families, such as individual dining rooms, screens, alcoves, or curtains.  The reason for this of course is because there is to be no mixing socially of the sexes, hence the separate entrances and seating areas.

Al Qalzam is not your typical Saudi restaurant, by any means. In fact, I had never seen one like it in my life.
It occupies several acres of land. As we drove in through the grand arched entrance, there was an outdoor family entertainment area, including a ferris wheel and various kiddie rides. This amusement area was surrounded on either side by neat rows of secluded individual dining ramadas and dining tents.

There was not one big building with tables where various groups of diners could eat like your typical restaurant.  Instead there were narrow roadways throughout and the whole place reminded me of a large trailer park, except instead of trailers, there were the ramadas and tents.

There must have been more than 100 units in all.  Individual dining areas stood neatly row after row, each one secluded from the others’ view, each one extremely private and each having its own parking space/s.  The restaurant's kitchen was off at the far end lining the perimeter of the property and it was huge, consisting of several large buildings.  Our group had a reservation for Tent #10. We drove down one roadway to the end, turned left, and #10 was just ahead.
We parked along the narrow roadway next to our rented tents. Most of the family had already arrived.
As I entered the opening, I saw that there was a large private outdoor patio area surrounded by tall hedges, but since the weather was warm, we didn’t make use of it.  There were benches and a large rolled up carpet here on the patio. I’m sure during the cooler months, it would just be lovely sitting out under the stars.

Our area actually consisted of two enormous air conditioned tents, complete with plush red carpeting with blue and gold squiggles on it.  The comfortable floor cushions were in the same color scheme in a bold wavy patterned design. all the way around the perimeter inside the tents, plus a satellite TV.  There were also 2 large tables with short legs for dining.  The inside lining of the tent was fashioned from a heavy bold Bedouin striped fabric in red, black, white, and gray.  Electric lanterns hung down from the ceiling of the tent, and florescent lighting hidden in the top walls of the tents provided additional indirect lighting.  In between the two tents was a large clean private restroom, with a toilet and a sink.
I’m guessing that each tent could comfortably seat about 25 people.  We all took up occupancy first in the tent to the right where we relaxed on the floor cushions, drank Arabic coffee (gahwa), and snacked, waiting until the rest of the family arrived.  Several of us decided to play cards down on the thick cushy carpet.
Once everyone else arrived, the pre-ordered feast was promptly delivered to our tent by a small battalion of waiters.  The meal consisted of at least 8 foil covered platters which were placed onto the low tables.
We all plopped down on the clean and comfortable carpeting, taking our places around the tables to enjoy the feast.  The meal consisted of at least three different kinds of fish, prepared different ways. There was fantastic grilled parrot fish, meaty baked grouper in a tomato sauce, and another yummy fish that was deep fried.   All told, there must have been at least eleven or twelve large whole fish served to our group.  Plus two kinds of rice, salad, hummus, pita bread, and a variety of sauces. There was plenty of food for everyone, so much so that we were all able to take home leftovers too.

After we finished the meal, we gathered up our belongings and adjourned to the other tent for after dinner tea and dessert of fresh fruits and baklava, while restaurant employees discreetly cleaned out the first tent we had occupied.  Some of us played more cards, others talked and a few of the full-bellied family members were content to just watch TV.
I was told that on weekend nights, the Al Qalzam Fisherie is packed with families and reservations are a must.  We went there on a weeknight, and although it wasn't packed to the gills, there was still a fair amount of patrons there.   This restaurant certainly does a booming business.  Wish I owned the place…

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Prayer Time

I   am by no means an expert on Islam, but I try my best to convey my impressions and to be accurate and not promote any misinformation. However if I do, please accept my invitation to clarify or make corrections in my comments section.
 Prayer in Arabic is called “salah,” which translates to supplication. According to Islam, Muslims are required to pray five times every day. Prayer times are very specific, and each prayer has a name. The very first prayer of the day is called Fajr. The call to prayer sounds at about 4:45am for this prayer, although when I first arrived here back in October, it was about an hour later. The prayer times change by minutes every day, changing to earlier in the day and later in the evening in the summer months when the days are longer. The second prayer of the day, called Duhur, now comes at about 1pm, although it was at about noon when I first got here. The third prayer time of Asr is about 4pm (used to be at 3:30pm). The fourth prayer is known as Maghrib and is at about 7pm (which used to be at 6pm), and the last prayer of the day, called Isha, comes now at about 8:30pm (previously at 7:30pm). The prayers vary in length according to how many “rakaahs,” or recitations of a unit of prayer, are required for that particular prayer time. Positions change during prayer from standing, to bending over at the waist, back to standing, then down to the floor on your knees touching your head to the floor - this is why prayer rugs are used - and kneeling on the floor sitting on your feet. These positions are repeated until the prayer is completed by turning the head to the right and then to the left.

Speaking of prayer rugs, they come in all colors and many sizes. My son has one that is a really plush leopard print. Some women try to match the color of their prayer rug with the color of their sharshaf, the loose fitting total body covering that is worn at home when praying. I have even seen prayer rugs with built in compasses on them so you know which way Mecca is, since that is the direction you must face when you pray.

When the call to prayer sounds, the devotees must prepare for prayer by performing the cleansing ritual of ablution, called “wudhu.” In a previous post, I described a bit about how this is done, about the calls to prayer, and some other information. Here is the link to that prior post:   Islam and Me...When in Rome

From what I understand, women who are on their periods or who have given birth and are still bleeding are not allowed to participate in prayer. Someone told me that the reason for this is because women are considered unclean during these times. When men and women pray together, as at home, a man must lead the prayer, and women must be behind the men. People who are physically unable to perform the movements of the prayers are allowed to sit during prayer. When a person has had sex, a complete bath, called “ghusl,” is required, instead of just performing wudhu. My husband gave me a 16 page instruction booklet that deals with, among other things, the prayers, cleansing, prayer positions, things that are allowed and things that are disliked during prayer, purification for prayer and impurities, when wudhu and ghusl are required and what things invalidate them, and bathroom etiquette. Let me stress how complete and specific these instructions are. In the future, I intend to post sections of this very interesting booklet.

Prayer time takes a little getting used to here in Saudi Arabia. All businesses must close for prayers. This means that all businesses open and close several times a day. It also means that shoppers are either kicked out of shops or at some places they are locked inside when it’s prayer time. Once we were in a large supermarket when prayers were called and we were locked inside the store for about half an hour. Many businesses open in the morning and then close from about 12-3 or 1-4 depending on what time of year it is, and then open and close again and again for the last two prayers of the day. Most businesses stay open pretty late, until at least midnight or so, due to the limited open times during the day. Another reason is because of the extreme heat here during the day which can be quite uncomfortable, and since the weather is more pleasant in the evenings, many people prefer to do their business or shopping then.
Foreign workers who are not close enough to go to a mosque for prayers gather on the sidewalks outside businesses, lay down carpets and prayer rugs, and pray together as a group. I have seen groups on the sidewalks as large as forty to fifty men, and of course smaller prayer groups of just a few men. My husband hates being out of the house during prayer times so I have had a difficult time trying to get photos of these sidewalk prayers, as we are usually home then anyway, but if we’re not, we are speeding by on our way home. I love seeing the men praying on the sidewalks, by the way. I admire their devotion. I can only imagine what people in America would think if they saw men praying on the sidewalks there.

Some mosques are located in the middle of busy business areas where there is not much parking available. It is not unusual to see cars double and triple parked in the streets around the block near the mosques. I have been told that this is perfectly fine and no one can complain because these men are at the mosque praying. Usually only men go to the mosques to pray on a daily basis. Women generally pray at home, even on the holy day which is Friday.

Every shopping mall I have been to so far is equipped with separate fully carpeted prayer room facilities for men and women, located near the restrooms so they can wash up first. Literally every store in the mall closes when it’s prayer time, so every day hundreds of shoppers are left to roam the corridors of the mall until the shops open back up about a half hour later.

A couple of times we were in a restaurant when it was prayer time. The waiters scurried around making sure we were comfortable and had our drinks, and then they were gone for half an hour. After prayer time they picked right back up where they left off, continuing with our service.

I remember back in Florida, whenever Adam had a sporting event or a school function that we should have attended to show support for our son, my husband would refuse to go if the event coincided with a prayer time, which was often the case. It used to be upsetting to me because my reasoning is that God would understand why he would have to pray later since he was supporting his son by being there for him. This argument never held water with my husband, and it was always a sore spot between us. I always resented having to attend these functions alone.

Here, it seems like if we are out during the day to try to get things done, we are always in a rush to finish before the next prayer time. No wonder the traffic is so horrendous here with everybody zipping around to beat the clock. I must admit I don't find shopping here nearly as enjoyable as I used to in the states. It is inconvenient and stressful and many times you have to go back several times to try to find what you are looking for because you simply run out of time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Family in Crisis

E ducation for women in Saudi Arabia has gained tremendous importance over the past three decades or so. Prior to that, many women quit school to marry in their teens and raise their families. A girl’s education used to be limited to those areas specifically tied to religion, educating the female in Islamic ways so she could become the perfect housewife and mother, and if she desired, to prepare herself for a career in the very limited areas of teaching, nursing or medicine, careers which “suited her nature.”
While Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, English is extensively spoken and is the required foreign language taught in schools. Saudis have placed great importance on learning the English language, since it is used not only in technical textbooks but also in business, the military, and other careers. English is taught from elementary school on up.

Consequently, one of the jobs that native English speaking women like myself here in Arabia are in demand for now is to tutor in English. I am currently tutoring for two families, three days a week for a couple hours each session. One of the families I have been tutoring for a few months now is headed by a wealthy gold and diamonds dealer that my husband has known for over 20 years. The mother manages their large home and takes college classes at a local women’s college. The family has a total of five daughters, but I only work with the middle three, who are 18, 15, and 12. I’ll call them Miriam, Laila, and Jasmin. All the girls have thick black wavy hair, like their mother, and large pretty brown eyes. The oldest daughter Shaza, who is 20 and deaf, goes to a special school. She always greets me with a smile and hugs and kisses, as all of the girls do. The rest of the family signs with her and I can see that they love her very much. The youngest daughter Janna, at two years of age, is quite the character and rules the roost. She is a force to be reckoned with. Most of the time she tries to dominate my time and attention before one of the maids whisks her away. Locked French doors then keep the little one out of our way, but many times she will bang on the doors and cry to be let in. Janna is already quite the clothes horse, frequently changing her outfit twice or three times during my two hour stay in their home.

Their driver picks me up each time and takes me back home for the twenty minute drive to their home. Well, actually, it could be one of the three drivers that the family employs. I believe the drivers are from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Only one of them speaks English, but he has a very thick accent so I don’t always understand what he is saying. He is actually a retired military man who gets a pension and has a wife back home and two college aged sons attending college. The reason he took this job driving in Saudi Arabia is to pay for his sons schooling. A three inch scar is visible across his right cheek, and I wonder how he got it but I haven’t worked up the nerve to ask him about it yet. He sees his family only once a year. Sometimes we don’t speak much, but other times we talk about politics or religion or how crazy the drivers are here in Arabia. During one drive he asked me if I liked music, so then he surprised me by putting on his “special” cassette tape. Let me tell you, it was just a tad surreal being driven along the crowded streets of Jeddah by a Bangladeshi driver with Joan Baez singing in the background! I couldn’t help smiling.

When we arrive at the villa, the caretaker opens up a gate for me. Inside the gate is a huge tiled in courtyard. A freestanding basketball hoop stands at one end. There are three covered parking spots for family vehicles. So far I have counted at least eight vehicles owned by the family. There are four large SUVs, including a Range Rover, a Toyota Fortuner, and a big GMC, all of which are no more than two years old, plus an older model SUV. The fleet also includes at least two late model luxury sedans and two minivans. The family employs at least 6 full time live-in workers, including the three drivers and the caretaker, plus at least two maids. I haven’t seen the entire house, but it is rather large.
I enter through a side door. Just inside is a large two story foyer with a big flight of stairs leading to the main part of the home. Most homes here have all tile or marble floors, and most bathrooms and many kitchens have tiled walls too. There is also a kitchen downstairs where a couple of maids usually are. Upstairs is a large landing where I can hang up my abaya and leave my shoes. There are also more stairs which lead to another level, but I have never been up there. The landing leads to a very large family room with a big screen TV and a comfortable U-shaped seating area comprised of plush and cushy red couches and pillows. A large red Persian carpet is in the middle of the room. A huge dining table and chairs is off on the far side of the room. There are two more living rooms off of the family room, with a bath in between. A door on the other side of the family room leads to the parents’ bedroom. And a hallway as you first enter from the landing leads to several more bedrooms, baths, and a second smaller kitchen.

One night this week when I arrived, Miriam and Laila were on the phone in another room, so I sat and talked with Jasmin for a while. Miriam and Laila came in after a while and they were both visibly upset. They sat down on the couch and both of them started crying. I asked what was wrong, what happened? They hesitated to talk to me, but the tears kept flowing. Immediately I thought that someone had died … but when I heard what had happened, it almost seemed worse than that. Finally Miriam spoke up and simply said, “Our mother is gone.” I hugged the girls as they continued to sob. “What do you mean, she’s gone?” I asked. Miriam spoke again. “She left. She moved out.” My heart sank. Soon Jasmin and even the strong-willed little two year old were crying. I let them talk as I tried to console them.

I learned that their parents were cousins. But not only that, their dad’s sister is also married to their mom’s brother, so the problems this couple is having creates a big crisis for the whole family. Dad is always working, travels a lot on business, and makes an excellent income for the family, but he’s hardly ever there at the house with his own family. Indeed in the few months that I have been going to their home, not once had Dad ever been there.

Miriam at 18 has been designated by her dad to step up to the plate and fill in during Mom’s absence. She studies full-time at a girls college and is trying hard to improve her English skills so she can enroll in a university. Her dream is to become an architect. She’s upset with her dad and one of the first things she said was, “I hate all men!” Miriam feels she is unequipped to handle managing the home, caring for her sisters and her dad, and maintaining her schoolwork. I refrained from asking any questions and just let the girls talk and cry, while I tried to reassure them that things would somehow work out. I did not discover the reasons for their parents troubles, but I did find out that it does NOT involve anything like the dad taking on a second wife. Whew! The girls kept saying that they can’t live or manage without their mom, and the baby Janna especially misses her.

Shaza is the only sister who did not cry. She was aware of what was going on and she saw her sisters crying. Miriam told me that Shaza is so strong and rarely cries. She was reading the Quran while the girls cried and talked. Of all the girls, I think Shaza looks most like her mom. Eventually the tears stopped and they managed some smiles.
 Since I was supposed to go there again the very next evening, I decided to do something fun with them that I had been promising. I brought with me all my beading supplies to have the girls make jewelry. I had already taken off my abaya and head scarf and carted my beading supplies into one of the living rooms, when in walked the man of the house. I hadn’t realized that he was at home, so he saw my hair! Good heavens! Scandalous. I was actually surprised at myself for feeling a bit self conscious about my hair being exposed. But even though I felt a little uncomfortable, I tried to act as normal as possible. It didn’t fluster him at all. He told me that he had stayed home all day because his wife was away visiting her sister. I pretended as though nothing were out of the ordinary. He asked me if I remembered meeting him back in Arizona two decades ago, and he asked about my husband and son. Another thing that he said was that his wife and his daughters were very happy with me coming over and tutoring them and that he was very pleased about it. The man then excused himself, saying that it was time for him to leave and get to work.

The girls had a wonderful time that evening. There were no tears. They each made at least three bracelets, including one that they each made for their mom too. I made a bracelet for two year old Janna out of pink beads and hearts. The mischievious little one managed to empty out several bags of beads all over the carpet before she was carried away kicking and screaming and then kept in solitary confinement by one of the maids. The young sisters were so proud of their creations. We giggled and joked around and the mood was a far cry (no pun intended) from the emotionally charged evening the day prior. We didn’t really discuss their mother, except for me asking them to tell her hello when they speak to her.

With the divorce rate a staggering 40 per cent here in Jeddah, I do sincerely wish that this couple with five lovely daughters can resolve their issues and work things out. That is my fervent hope.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Hi Family and Friends -

I just found out that I have been nominated as a Best of Blogs finalist in the Travel/Leisure category! Thanks to those of you who nominated me!!!

The Best of Blogs Awards bring recognition to smaller blogs like mine.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to vote for my blog.
I was unable to see when the voting ends, but the sooner you can do it, the better! Winners will be announced on June 2.

Here's how to place your vote for Susie's Big Adventure:

Click on this link:

You will see my blog listed there, 4th one down.

Just click on the spot in front of my Blog - it will add a check mark.

Then click on the VOTE button at the bottom of the blue box.

You can vote once a day !!!

Thank you for your vote!

Don’t forget to come back every day and vote for your favorite blogs!

That's all there is to it. I appreciate your support!!!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Documentary: Working Women in Saudi Arabia

OK - I am trying something new this time! I have actually put a video on my post for you to watch! I have to warn you though - it is LONG! At a little over one hour in length, it is well worth watching if you are at all interested in learning more about modern women in Saudi Arabia. I first viewed this film several months ago and just recently viewed it again, and this time, I thought many of you would be extremely interested in seeing it.

The maker of this film is Bregtje van der Haak, a journalist and documentary filmmaker from the Netherlands, who traveled to Saudi Arabia for two weeks in hopes of interviewing working women there. One major problem that she encountered, however, was that only 5 per cent of Saudi women actually work outside the home, and most of those would decline to be photographed or interviewed for her project. Van der Haak managed to produce an eye opening, fascinating, in-depth documentary about the slow progress being made in this strict Islamic country.

I'd like to give you a brief idea about some of the highlights and subject matter featured in the film, in hopes that you will feel excited about it and that watching it will be an hour of your time well spent:

* Suzan Zawawi, one of the very few working women journalists in the Kingdom, is filmed at length, offering insight and even giving a tour of her home, while describing some of the challenges she faces in her world dominated by men. Suzan is a young mother, well spoken, and optimistic about increasing women's roles in Saudi society.

* There is really interesting footage taken inside a factory that employs women in a separate work area from men.

* Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, the 5th richest man in the world and a champion for women's rights, employs unveiled, uncovered Saudi women in his modern skyscraper palace in Riyadh. He believes that women are severely under-utilized in the Saudi work force.

* Top Saudi female gynecologist, Dr. Zeinab, appears in a segment where she uses IVF in hopes of impregnating a young wife who has infertility problems. In a society where the average family has five children per family and men are allowed to have more than one wife, infertility can be a horrifying dilemma.

* Watch scenes from a TV station where unveiled female newsreaders have increased viewership by over 15 per cent.

* Saudi Arabia's first female airplane pilot, Hazadi Hindi, had to learn to fly in Jordan, since women are prohibited from studying this and other fields in Arabia. So now she can fly airplanes in Saudi Arabia, however, ironically, she still cannot drive a car in her country.

* It took photographer Madeha Al-Ajroosh more than twenty years to be able to open her own photography business in Saudi Arabia. A major obstacle was that women were not allowed into the government Ministries, so she could not get her paperwork and licensing done.

* Another interesting segment with Prince Bin Talal shows him at his outdoor desert camp where he receives thousands of requests for assistance from Saudi citizens.

I urge and encourage you to watch this film, but remember, it is over one hour long, so watch it when you have the time. I promise you that you will not regret it. You can watch it right here by clicking on the triangle in the middle of the screen below, or if you prefer to watch it on a full screen, click on the title to this segment above ("Documentary: Working Women in Saudi Arabia") and it will take you to the You-Tube site, where you can turn it into full screen by clicking on the rectangle within the rectangle just below the video clip on the right.

If THAT doesn't work, here is the link - you can just copy and paste:

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ex-Pat Women in Jeddah

The expatriate women’s population here in Jeddah is comprised of a lively group of remarkable, energetic, and talented ladies from all over the world. Some have come here to work, some have accompanied their husbands who came here to work, and some are the wives of Saudis. Many have become Muslims, while others have not. These women have stepped up to take an active role in the community and the welfare of its people as well as people around the globe.
This past week I attended a charity craft bazaar sponsored mostly by expat women to benefit the people of Malawi. The event was held late in the afternoon and into the evening at a lovely villa which is being rented by a group of expat female artists. My husband drove me there, and hanging around outside was a large group of men – drivers for all the women who were inside the gates of the walled villa, where only women were allowed. Outside the gates, I recognized MM’s driver, who cordially asked me if I would take her a bag filled with chilled water bottles. He immediately went over to my husband in the car to introduce himself and shake hands, since his speaking to me is not really “kosher.”
Once inside the walls of the villa, I saw tables set up all along the walls of the courtyard and inside the villa there was even more. Fortunately the weather was pleasant, not too hot, with a gentle breeze. Offerings of clothing, such as one of a kind abayas, hats, and skirts, plus jewelry, sports accessories, and all sorts of arts and crafts, from paintings to quilts to photography to wall hangings, were everywhere. Upstairs was a little cafe area where ladies could sit and chat and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and indulge in yummy homemade treats. My friend MM’s raffle table ("Everybody wins!") was filled with a large variety of donated items like perfumes and gift certificates and smaller prizes like balls and whistles. All of her prizes were numbered. She charged 10 Riyals for a matching number pick, and every person walked away with something. All the money she took in, she donated to the cause.
The British woman at the next table has been in the kingdom for 28 years. EQ met her husband, a pilot for Saudia Airlines, when she became a Saudia flight attendant. She taught Physical Education in a local school for several years and now is a personal trainer. EQ, along with a group of her friends, was instrumental in accomplishing their vision of establishing the very first children’s library in Jeddah in 2005. It is open 6 days a week and relies on corporate sponsorship, donations and volunteers. The library boasts a collection of over 9000 carefully selected books in both English and Arabic, and even some in French and Spanish, and twice daily held story times guarantee enjoyment for the kids. There are big plans to hopefully open several more children’s libraries throughout the kingdom. I’m just so impressed that these women took these steps to improve the quality of life for the children of Jeddah, but it saddens me that there was no public children’s library at all before that.
I was so excited to meet several artists at the bazaar who rent the villa space, and I hope to return there in the near future to see how the place works. One artist is from Miami and has been here for more than 10 years. She produces amazing wall hangings of photos and collages printed on fabric and then beaded. AA told me that she doesn’t cover her hair, is still Catholic, and that she loves her life here. She has household help and a driver and she is very happy and fulfilled living in Saudi Arabia. Her art business is thriving. Much of her work is done with interior designers.
There are other women here who have organized a couple of informational online groups for expats, where questions can be asked and answered, news articles and other helpful information are shared, or where women can just vent to let off some steam over issues that are bothersome.
One woman, TR, who runs an online group, is a young mother who was widowed and must remain in the kingdom because of her children. She works, is raising her kids alone, and runs a children’s playgroup. I am amazed by her spirit and her ability to make the most out of her situation.
Another ex-pat woman who has been here for about 25 years is a successful photographer and recently held an open house at her studio to show off her work. This woman actually has known my SIL Baheeja for almost 30 years when they met in the States as university students. Her thriving business includes wedding photography and portraits plus commercial.

After spending my first six months here in the caring embrace of my husband’s family and not really meeting any other American women, I feel like I have now spread my wings and a new chapter in this adventure is emerging.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an historic groundbreaking event here in Jeddah. In all likelihood, it was the first of its kind – a play called “Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia,” written, directed, and performed live by “MS,” a woman professor at a local girls’ school, Effat College. Of course only women were allowed to attend, and women also ran the whole show, including lights, sound, stage, tickets, advertising, filming, etc. I was invited to go by my two new American friends (from the lovely beach). Effat College is all the way down in south Jeddah, on the road to Mecca. It must be a good hour plus drive from where I live, but to be able to attend such an innovative and revolutionary function in this country was well worth the drive.

The play was billed as "a fun light-hearted play that touches on a variation of topics concerning women in Saudi Arabia. This performance addresses many of the questions made about Saudi women. It is both informative and entertaining and will provide a live portrait of Saudi Arabia, never before depicted."

Because traffic was so heavy (it was the equivalent of a busy Saturday night in the states), we actually arrived about 10 minutes late for the 8:45pm show. But luckily for us, the show started late (as many functions here do!) and we had time to get to our seats and chat for a few minutes. I turned around and introduced myself to the two women seated directly behind me. One woman was Danish, married to a Saudi and living here in Arabia for over 40 years! The other woman was British and has lived here for about 30 years. I found these women extremely charming, intriguing, and fascinating – I cannot imagine coming to a foreign land such as this as a young bride in the 1960s, before the internet, before AC was readily available, and all those other modern day conveniences we now take for granted.

The audience consisted of mostly Western expatriate women and a spattering of young Saudi women, mostly students of the professor from the college. It was not a sold out show but a nice intimate crowd of at least 150 extremely excited and enthusiastic women, who quieted down immediately as the curtain opened. There stood the broadly smiling, elegant, impressive, and exotic looking professor, alone in the middle of the warmly decorated stage. She wore jeans topped with a plain white collared blouse over which hung a long open purple robe which was trimmed with printed accents, plus a matching scarf covering her hair and a matching long loose tie around her neck. She is quite a striking woman with large doe-like eyes, an animated on stage presence, depth of soul and impish comedic wit.

She began her performance by declaring that she had fallen in love in Saudi Arabia! The play dealt with women’s lives and loves in Saudi Arabia. The performer was born in Mecca to Saudi parents, but was raised in California, and later returned to live her life in Arabia. Somewhere along the line, she married and divorced. The elegantly furnished stage was divided into three distinct sections. Center Stage housed a lovely modern comfy living room warmed with many candles and throws. Stage Left bore a traditional relaxed living room complete with seating on floor cushions and a hookah pipe. And Stage Right was the bedroom of a young modern day Saudi woman who is doomed and duped in a relationship with a deceitful Saudi man.

Sidebar - POLYGYNY IN ISLAM: Even though Islam allows a man four wives, most Arabian women, if faced with this situation, are not too happy about it. Unfortunately, usually finances or her children affect a woman’s ability to dissolve her marriage if she is that unhappy about it. Many people don’t realize the reasons for a man being allowed to take multiple wives according to Islam. First of all, if a man has more than one wife, each wife must be treated and provided for the same. Clearly the understanding in Islam is that it is permitted to help solve social and domestic problems. For reasons such as homosexuality, women’s longevity, wars and work accidents where more men die than women, Islam allows polygyny because there are more adult women in the world than men. If a woman is widowed and left with children to raise, Islam sees a man taking the widow as his wife and providing for her and her children as an honorable action. Also if a man’s wife is unable to bear children, a man would be allowed to take a second wife. These are the main reasons for why Islam allows men up to four wives. Unfortunately, most Muslim men who DO take on a second wife do not do it for any of these reasons. For all outward appearances, it seems that they take a new younger purely for sex.

Back to the play: MS relayed the stories of three of her girlfriends in different life circumstances. The first story dealt with Miriam, a woman who is faced with a husband who decides to take a second wife. When the husband gave Miriam the typical line of bull about how it was his ”social responsibility,” she tells him, “So what’s wrong with launching a clean-up campaign down on the Corniche?” The divorce rate in Jeddah now stands at a whopping 40 per cent. Miriam finagles an invitation to a wedding where the new second wife will be and wants MS to go and get the whole inside scoop on the new wife. MS describes the typical Saudi wedding (much like I did in a prior post), where the music is played so loud that there is no way you can talk to the person sitting next to you, so her mission to uncover all the dirt on the new wife fails. At one point, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes begins to play in the auditorium and MS comes down from the stage and engages three audience members to join her in dance while the rest of the crowd claps to the beat, singing along and enjoying the music. Miriam’s story ends with her staying in the marriage, but in name only, and demanding 10 million riyals from her husband plus the house in her name - and getting it!

The second friend’s story is about how women have to cope with not be able to drive and the various problems it presents. MS goes into a hilarious dialogue, mostly in English with splashes of Arabic tossed in, about how the rest of the world has this idea that women here are chauffeured around in limos by drivers in the official looking tidy visor cap and the uniform suit. Wrong! Her friend’s driver has a borderline-toxic body odor problem, and she tried to give him all kinds of hints, going so far as to present him with a can of spray deodorant, which he thought was air freshener for the car! She can’t put up with his disagreeable scent any longer and fires him and then sets about trying to hire a new driver, making it clear to the applicants that they must shower every day, wear deodorant, and smell good.

The third friend’s tale dealt with another controversial Islamic topic concerning women called Misyaar. Basically this is a temporary marriage allowed in Islam whereby a man can screw around without guilt, with a woman who gets none of the normal advantages of marriage, like being provided for financially or with housing, and such, and, for all outward appearances, is simply used for sex. The man may bestow gifts on her for a while, and then usually abandons her once he tires of her. All this is, as far as I’m concerned, is a way for a Muslim man to basically have an affair, free of any responsibility toward the woman. Needless to say, MS’s friend winds up deeply hurt in the end.

And MS? What about her “falling in love in Saudi Arabia?” Turns out she fell in love with tennis, but has faced great obstacles being allowed to play freely here since she is a woman. Although there are private courts where she can play, she was told by the staff at a local hotel on the Corniche where she had been playing that she would no longer be allowed to play there anymore!

The evening was delightful and cause for hope in the respect that women in Saudi Arabia are making some progress, by producing a show such as this, little by little.