Saturday, November 22, 2008

Like a Sister

M y sister-in-law H is really good about including me in her plans. Spunky H is married to one of Adnan's brothers. She drags me along to most of her activities, like weddings, her family's get togethers, shopping, and other outings. And I must admit I am always eager to go with her because I always have such a good time. I have met most of the women in her extended family, and I find them to be warm, gracious, and oftentimes hilarious. H is very generous with me, constantly bestowing gifts on me and my son Adam.

H comes from an extremely large, wealthy, and well known family here in Jeddah. Her prolific grandfather, the patriarch of the family, had a total of nineteen wives! Not all at once, of course, but as Islam allows, four wives at any one given time. I don't remember the exact count of the number of children he had, but, as you can imagine, it was in the hundreds.

I was astonished one day when H showed me an actual leather bound published book that featured all the male members of the family. Page after page of the various branches of the family as was determined by each of the wives. Page after page of the male offspring of this man, and the offspring of the offspring, each with a photo and a little bio. It was written in Arabic and H explained little tidbits to me as we paged through the book. She knew some of the branches of the family, but not all. Suffice it to say, her actual family count numbers in the thousands.

Recently I accompanied H to a casual family women-only gathering at one of her aunt's homes. It was a beautiful walled villa that housed her aunt on the first floor, and two of her daughters and their families on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Just inside the large foyer, off to one side, there was an elevator. There is always a large mirror and a powder room at the entryway. A table under the mirror is equipped with mints, perfume, a brush, toothpicks, and other useful things of this nature.
In all there were probably about twenty-five women there all together. Many of the ladies there were H's aunts, cousins, or in-laws. At gatherings of this type, the women sit and talk in a large family room. As a new arrival enters the room, she starts to her right and proceeds to greet each woman who is already there by grasping her hands and kissing her cheeks several times while inquiring as to her well being.
The dress for events such as this I would describe as elegantly casual, with the older women usually opting for the traditional long dresses and the younger women wearing more trendy and sexy numbers. Most of the women wear makeup and jewelry too. They were a lively group. More than once the whole room erupted in waves of laughter.

During the hour or so before dinner was served, the hostesses kept coming around with small elegant cups of gahwa (the traditional "coffee"), a variety of juices, and an assortment of baklava, chocolates, and cookies. There was quite a feast in store for the guests, including a yummy seafood dish in a garlic sauce, chicken, stuffed grape leaves, kebabs, sambuseks (stuffed meat pastries), tabouleh, an amazing rice dish, hummus, and a pasta dish in bechamel sauce, and for dessert, rice pudding, flan, and cake.

While we sat there enjoying the evening, I thought I would try to pay H a discreet compliment by telling her that I thought she looked a lot like her beautiful aunt with black hair who was wearing the pretty turquoise blue dress and sat across the room from us. I almost fell off my chair when to my surprise, I heard H say to me under her breath, "I hate her - pick another one!"

One thing I like about hanging out with H is that I never know what to expect from her...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Weekend Getaway on the Red Sea

L ast month we took a lovely weekend getaway out of town for my birthday, for three days and two nights, in a beautiful resort on the Red Sea north of Jeddah in an area called Obhur. (Weekends here in Saudi Arabia fall on Thursday and Friday). Our villa had one king bedroom, two other bedrooms with two twin beds in each, and included three baths, a full kitchen, dining room and a living room, plus a large patio area. It was nicely appointed and quite comfortable for our party, which included our little family of three and my hubby's brother and his wife H and their pre-schooler son Moe.

The first evening, my sister-in-law H's family came for dinner. There were about 60 people who came altogether, no kidding! H has six siblings who came, plus all the spouses and children, plus their maids, plus a cousin also showed up with her family. Her family is a bit more progressive than some, so men and women were not segregated - YAY! The women mostly wore skirts or pant sets in bright colors like lime, fuschia, turquoise, or purple with coordinated head scarves. The dinner was catered and consisted of four huge platters of chicken, beef and lamb kebabs on a large bed of rice and pita. Yummy!

Outside in the parking lot, a couple of men had set up a large barbeque on a eight foot long hand-turned rotisseries. On the lengthy rods hung two lambs and several chickens. The two men sat sweating in the sweltering night air, rotating the spits over the glowing coal for four hours. This feast was specially ordered by some guests at the resort for the evening.

Many of us went out for a stroll after the meal into the warm and humid evening air. The grounds of this place are beautiful, with bouganvillea of many colors, lit up palm trees, swimming pools including a separate and isolated pool for women only, an amusement area for kids, a sandy beach, outdoor cafes and gift shops, and a huge dock which housed dozens of incredible yachts.

One of H's brothers brought his decent sized touring boat and he offered to take us all for a midnight boat ride around the Obhur area. There were so many of us who wanted to go that he had to take two separate groups. The first group was pretty much all women and the second group consisted of the younger people. A few of the women in my group even removed their head scarves on the boat ride to enjoy the wind blowing through their hair! Everyone was smiling and laughing and really enjoying themselves.

Adam opted out of the boat ride in favor of playing pool with two other teenage boys in our group - at the clubhouse where women are not allowed. The clubhouse also offered ping pong, cards, pinball machines, and computer games.

The second day at the resort was relaxing and lazy. We walked around a bit but the heat was stifling, so mostly we just lounged around. While we were out on the dock, a large stingray swam right below where we were! Unfortunately I couldn't whip my camera out in time to snap a picture of it! But I got plenty of other photos of the beautiful lush grounds, the shimmering turquoise water, the abundant boats, and the playful jet skiers.

On the third day, more family came again for a luncheon of a fresh catch of fish. After lunch, most of the women and the children walked down to the sandy beach and the beckoning azure Red Sea. The kids relished swimming and building sand castles, while the women mostly sat in the shade on beach chairs, some of them occasionally venturing into the sea to wade up to their knees.

Signs were posted which forbade women from swimming in swimsuits.

Complying with this rule, I did see two women in the water - one was dressed in her black abaya and head scarf, and the other one wore a long sleeved, long legged loose spandex suit topped with a loose knee length top cover. Other women sat on the beach in their abayas, while men freely roamed the beach and ventured into the sea wearing only swim trunks.

By late afternoon it was time for us to head back to reality.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Update: Family in Crisis

S everal months ago, I wrote about the family that I tutor. The mother of the family had left the home - she and her husband were apparently having some marital problems. The five daughters were obviously upset as their world was turned upside down and the tasks of running the household and managing the family's needs fell on the shoulders of the second oldest daughter M (the oldest daughter is deaf).

When summer came, I temporarily suspended my duties of tutoring while I traveled to the states. It had been four long months since I had seen them. Schools here in Saudi Arabia had an unusually long summer break due to Ramadan. Arrangements were made between my husband and the family's father for me to resume my tutoring duties shortly after school started back up after Ramadan was over.

I had worried about the girls and their parents all summer and wondered if the couple had been able to resolve their problems, if the mother had returned to the home. When I arrived at the house, the four oldesr girls ran to me, showering me with hugs and kisses and smiles. The youngest, Little J, who is four years old, was shy at first, but within ten minutes she was sitting on my lap kissing me.

When the excitement settled down and after I heard their stories about what they had been doing for the last four months, M and I moved into the study. The first question out of my mouth was, "Is your mother back?" "Yes!" M replied. "Things are good now, much better!" I didn't get to see the mother for a few days - she takes classes several times a week - and she too seemed very happy to see me and seemed happy in general.

I don't know what the problems were that the couple was having, but whatever they were, hopefully the worst is behind them and the family will now be happy and thrive in today's complicated world. I am thrilled that this family in crisis is now a family recovered.