Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Caution: This Blog Banned in Saudi Arabia

For people who live here in this country, the dreaded green and white screen saying "Dear User, Sorry the requested page is unavailable" is a familiar sight. Many web pages are blocked here by a branch of the government which surfs the internet and flags unsuitable websites, usually for either moral or religious reasons. So imagine my surprise when a couple of days ago, I was unable to access my own blog here in Saudi Arabia and instead saw that green and white page looking back at me.

So what does this mean? People in all other countries around the world can still see my blog without any problem. Only residents within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are blocked from viewing it. It also means that I cannot reply to any of the comments that readers post on my blog. I am able to make new posts and change various elements of my blog, but I cannot actually SEE the blog myself. So, instead of having the comments post to my blog automatically like I had it set up before, I have changed that option so that I receive all comments via email and I must individually approve each comment before they will appear on my blog. This is the only way I could figure out at this point how to maintain some control over this area since I can no longer delete comments after the fact. So please keep that in mind if you are writing any comments - it may take a while for your comments to post since there is a process they will go through now, and I may be asleep or out and about when you write a comment.

How do I feel about my site being blocked? Well, I actually have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, it is frustrating, discouraging, and makes me sad. I honestly feel that for the most part, my blog has presented many things about Saudi Arabia in a very positive light. I really feel that I have managed to change some people's prior misconceptions about the people of this country and its culture. My opinion is that with knowledge comes understanding, and that is what I have tried to do with my blogs. Too many people around the world just don't know what this mysterious place is really like and I have tried my best to give an accurate glimpse into real life here. Is this wrong?

On the other hand, maybe it is better for me that people here in KSA cannot read my blog any longer, although that thought saddens me greatly. My intention was never to write for the people here. I have always written for my family and friends back home, so they would know that I was safe and happy, and to try to show them in my excited wide-eyed way the wonders of this amazing land and its people. I really set out to break down those preconceived notions that the rest of the world has of this exotic and mysterious country and to put a more human face to the people here. I think I have achieved that, and I hope that my family and friends back home have learned a lot from what I have presented and have changed some of their negative opinions into positive ones.

I was delighted when I first moved here less than two years ago to discover that my friends and family were as interested to learn about Saudi Arabia as I was. Naively I didn't recognize that the whole world was too. Somewhere along the way, my audience grew and widened. There apparently is much more interest in this closed society than I had ever realized. My blog captured the attention of the Saudi Tourism Agency, the Saudi Gazette newspaper, and a few other publications in the region. When I wrote about censorship here in the Kingdom, Perez Hilton picked up my post on his blog and as a result I experienced a wild ride that week, when my blog got more hits in one single day alone than I usually get in an entire four month period! Unfortunately that post may be the reason for the blocking of my blog. I don’t really know. Maybe it’s because of my posts lately about women’s issues here in the Kingdom. It could be a number of things.

What I do know is that I am overwhelmed and touched by the outpouring of support that I have received from my readers, my friends, and my fellow bloggers, including a surprise email of support from a blogger I have the utmost respect for – Fouad Alfarhan. Fouad is a legend here in Saudi Arabia. Last year he endured four months in prison without ever being charged with anything. He was jailed for blogging, for speaking out on what he sees are problems here in his country, for voicing his opinions about how things could be better here. So thank you, Fouad – I am humbled.

Thanks also to Ahmed at Saudi Jeans blog, Michaelle at Adventurous Women blog, Nebz over at Isla de Nebz blog, Yoli at Musings, and any others who have highlighted my plight on their own blogs. My sincere appreciation goes out to you for your support.

Many of you have commented or written to me about a notable change in my writings the past few months, and you are right. I had an epiphany one day when I realized that maybe I was painting too rosy of a picture about life here. Maybe I was glossing over and ignoring the rough spots, the issues that Saudi Arabia would rather sweep under the rug and pretend don’t exist. This happened when two female readers from other countries decided to accept positions to work here in the Kingdom, partly based on my glowing reports about life here. I know that they didn’t base their decisions solely on what I had written, but it was then that it hit me that I was presenting a lopsided view of what it was really like here, and that’s why I started tackling some of the issues that had really started bothering me about living here. When their experiences turned out to be not what they had hoped for and they both returned home much sooner than they had planned, I recognized that I had a responsiblity to be more forthcoming and truthful and not to appear oblivious to major problems - as I see them - in this society.

I’ve tried to be diplomatic and constructive, but when there are opinions being expressed, there are bound to be disagreements with those who don’t feel the same way I do. But I had felt that I had been holding back for too long. I am not a negative person – I am quite optimistic – and my hope is that change will come to Saudi Arabia in these areas that I had focused on recently.

There should always be hope.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why Hubby Loves His Country

There are many things about life here in Saudi Arabia that are inconvenient, difficult to accomplish, and time consuming. But then on the other hand, there are other things that are so much easier to get done, as well as being much cheaper than in the states.

For example, the other morning my husband left to take my son to school, but he came back in much quicker than usual. Turns out he had a flat tire on his SUV, so he sent Adam to school in a cab. Hubby then called his Nephew to come and assist him in getting the flat fixed. Nephew arrived within 15 minutes, much to the pleasure of my Hubby. In the states, we never really had any family living close to us who would be able to show up like that at the drop of a hat. Together Hubby and Nephew dismounted the deflated tire and drove off to see about having it repaired.

In less than an hour, Hubby returned, smiling from ear to ear. He proceeded to tell me about the saga of the flat tire. Hubby told me that he and Nephew had taken the deflated tire to a nearby garage. Immediately the guy at the garage took the tire and began working on it, without discussing first what work would be involved and what the charges might be. So when the Gargage Guy was about half-way through, Hubby, ever the Joker, started giving Garage Guy a hard time, saying that he didn't have any money with him to pay for his services.

"No problem!" Garage Guy told him. So basically Garage Guy was saying he would do the job for free if Hubby had no money. After a bit more of friendly banter, Hubby pulled out his wallet and looked inside. "Oh!" Hubby said. "I've got five riyals (about $1.25 US). Is that enough?"

"That's fine!" declared Garage Guy. "Whatever you can afford," the agreeable Garage Guy offered. When Garage Guy was done fixing the flat tire, Hubby gave the man a 50 riyal bill (about $12.50 US). Garage Guy reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and counted out 45 riyals in change and handed it back to Hubby! Because Garage Guy was so good natured about everything, Hubby gave the change right back to him.

"This is why I love this country!" Hubby declared to me. "Would something like this happen in America? I don't think so. First, I'd have to take a number, then I'd have to wait maybe a couple of hours, and probably have to prepay the gouged up charges before any work would be done." Hubby got the tire back on his car and it's been just fine since.

Of course there are many reasons why my husband enjoys being back home in his country - this is just one example why.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Under the Sea Restaurant

I recently had the pleasure of enjoying dinner at the Under the Sea Restaurant in Jeddah.

I was part of a group of about 25 ex-pat wives and we were treated to a special buffet dinner which is available for groups only.

The Under the Sea Restaurant is aptly named. It is located on the Corniche which runs along the Red Sea and is in the below ground level of a commerical center.

Stairs in the main lobby lead down to the delightful and cozy family restaurant below.

Inside, there are 18 huge aquariums - some are fresh water and some are salt water - which are home to a large variety of colorful fish, an enormous sea turtle, and a moray eel.

In addition, another walk-over aquarium waterway runs underneath the glass floor which contains even more fish visible through the glass below.

All in all, the restaurant is home to about 500 live fish in all their aquariums.

Blue lighting intensifies the feeling of being under water.

The buffet spread was not only visually beautiful, but it tasted great as well.

There was a terrific salad bar with a variety of fresh produce, as well as gorgeous platters of hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and babaganoush.

Plenty of deliciously prepared fish and shrimp entrees and steamed crab were included in the buffet plus some Italian pasta dishes and rice.

And the stuffed crab on a shell was absolutely divine.

Special group buffets must be reserved three days in advance. Groups can range in size from 20 up to 50 people and are priced accordingly.

Here are the prices for the full buffet spread for groups: SR1800 for 20 people. SR2400 for 30 people. SR3000 for 40 people. SR3600 for 50 people.

This averages out to about SR72 - SR90 per person, which converts to about $18 - 22 US per person.

Not bad for a full all-you-can-eat seafood buffet!

Under the Sea offers a regular daytime menu from 9am - 4pm from which you can choose mostly lighter fare such as snacks, sandwiches, fresh juices and coffees.

From 4pm - 2am, the restaurant has a dinner menu and cafe service with selections ranging in price from SR20 - SR50.
A specialty of the restaurant is their tasty Cream of Seafood Soup, and another favorite is their seafood platter which is loaded with two types of shrimp, fish, calamari, rice and french fries.

Sheesha or Hookah water pipes are also available in a variety of flavors to enjoy after your meal.

Under the Sea has been in business in the Jeddah Commercial Center in the Al Hamra District right on the Corniche Road in Jeddah for nine years.

Owned and operated by Mr. Saleh Al-Samaan and his wife Sara, Under the Sea offers great tasting seafood for a great value.

If you are in Jeddah, try them out for a unique dining experience - you won't be disappointed.

For more great information on local Jeddah restaurants, w onderful resource is JeddahFood.com.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Saudi Woman's Voice Is Heard: "I'm Not Oppressed!"

I received a comment on the post I recently wrote entitled "Saudi Arabia Wastes Biggest Untapped Natural Resource: WOMEN." It was written by a modern working Saudi woman. She is a rare breed, since only 300,000 Saudi women actually work in the entire country. When you consider that the whole Saudi population is almost 26 million, she represents only 1% of all Saudis and just 2% of all Saudi women. However, I felt her response should be brought to the forefront, instead of buried deep in the comments section because she made valid points and expressed herself so articulately. I'm sure that many more Saudi women, working or not, agree with her. Her viewpoint may surprise you. I would like to give her the opportunity to let her voice be heard...

I   haven't read all these comments but I do have serious reservations with your post.

"Saudi women are either kept hidden at home or hidden in public beneath loose fitting black cloth, cloaking them from head to toe. They are invisible. They are unapproachable. They are inaccessible. And this is exactly the way the men here want it to be."

I am a woman. I cover. I veil. I have a respectable IT job. I am educated, and while I agree that life would be much better if I were allowed to drive, I fail to see how being beneath loose fitting black cloth can be equated as being invisible, unapproachable, and so on and so forth.

Where I work, we ARE segregated, but I am still one of the most important people in the IT department. I've been given all the facilities required for required communication, so I'm not "cut off" from the good old boys. My dad works at a government hospital. He too has female co-workers, architects and engineers.

It is beyond me why people assume that being "cloaked" is some kind of "oppression." I do it out of choice, not because any "men" wanted me to do it. I do it and I feel liberated, because when I progress, I am respected for my brains and personality. When your women make it to the top, how many of them have to fight the stereotypes that they didn't just make it through by their looks? They still struggle to be respected purely for their SKILLS. Look up the statistics yourself: the good-looking people get more jobs and higher salaries.

But when *I* get something, I get what I deserve. No judgment calls. No men to doubt how I got there.

And while some things in Saudi Arabia are indeed cultural and not Islamic, a lot of the veiling business IS Islamic, and again, that doesn't mean oppression. That Saudi Arabia only just appointed a female is a cultural thing. Otherwise Islam granted women the human rights that any useful citizen deserves. Way back, CENTURIES ago, before your white women could so much as dream of casting votes, Muslim women were running for government positions, and their voices were so powerful they directly influenced state decisions without even being part of it.

*** I must point out that nowadays Saudi women are forbidden from running for or holding any public office, and do not have the right to vote.

And as for why can't Saudi men stop looking at women as sex-objects... while I agree they should get some sense in their perverted heads and stop being the way they are, it's not as if women aren't considered sex objects anyway. Around 70% (if I remember correctly) of rapes in the world don't happen by random strangers - they're usually among people who've already known each other. And... (I think it was) 60% of people in the same office have been involved in extra-marital affairs. Where does this happen? Oh yes, of course - where the workplaces aren't segregated...

And just because a woman cannot be seen in the media doesn't mean she can't do anything worthwhile. I write. And when I do that, my objective is to get my opinions across, to have my ideas heard and valued. My objective is not that you see how I look while I do it. I'm not in the least hindered by a cloak, or by segregation. In fact - actual statistics again - girls who grow up in single-sex colleges are known to be more successful and more confident than girls who study at co-ed institutions.

Women being unseen, protected, loved and respected for their true selves, is not oppression. Women being judged everywhere they go, sized up and down and checked out and treated as objects, plastered on billboards for as long as they're young and beautiful and then forgotten like trash, being judged for superficial factors that don't even last and only respected by a very select few people for what they REALLY are, THAT is oppression of the worst kind.

If you want to talk about certain other legal rights in this country, like female business ownership... yeah, that might be a REAL issue you could cover.

*** Again I refer you to a recent article in the Arab News pertaining to the frustrating status of women business owners in Saudi Arabia.

I want to thank this working Saudi woman for speaking out and explaining her points of view on some issues that many Westerners perceive differently. While not all Saudi women may agree with her and may indeed feel oppressed, we must understand both sides of the coin and realize that not all issues here are clearly black or white.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

That Old Black Magic

M agic carpet rides. Open Sesame! Genies that appear in a puff of smoke to grant you three wishes when you rub the magic lamp. Abra Cadabra! These thoughts conjure up images of the exotic lands of Arabia. Despite all those childhood visions I had of the Middle East, one thing that initially caught me by surprise when I moved here to Saudi Arabia a year and a half ago was the presence of these little “chotchkes” hanging in almost every home I’ve been in that are used to ward off the evil spirits. I guess I had naively thought that an ultra-conservative and ultra-religious place like Saudi Arabia would not have a problem with the likes of Black Magic and Evil Eyes. But apparently it is a huge problem here, and many Muslims do believe in sorcerers and witches with special powers like the ability to cast spells.

So much so, in fact, that earlier this year, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police here) unveiled their extensive plan to counteract the practice of magic within the Kingdom. The plan includes ways to more easily identify those who do engage in magic, to recognize magic symbols and signs, and to oversee the practice of genuine divine healing. Those found guilty of practicing Black Magic have been sentenced severely in the past. Some have been beheaded, some lashed, and some have been given jail time and then deportation. Most practitioners of Black Magic are from other countries like Egypt, Pakistan, or Indonesia.

There are references to Black Magic and Evil Eyes in the Qúran, and advice on how to avoid it, as well as instructions on how to remedy it. So the fact that it is mentioned in the Qúran explains why so many Muslims here believe in it. It also explains why there are religious clerics who specialize in ridding people or places of evil spells.

One close friend who is a Saudi woman told me about an extremely unpleasant experience that her family went through. Hiba is the wife of Azam. It is his third marriage – his first two ended in divorce. Azam’s children from his previous wife would come over to Hiba’s home to visit with their dad. Then weird things started happening. Hiba felt like there was an ominous presence in her home. Azam began to have mysterious ailments that no doctors could explain. Hiba and Azam began to argue constantly. She began to hate being in her own home. There were unexplained nasty odors and Hiba feared for the safety of her husband and their toddler son. One day Hiba found a tiny object hidden in a vase that she recognized to be a symbol of Black Magic. She showed it to Azam, who immediately went to find a religious man who specializes in the removal of evil spirits. As soon as this man stepped into their home, he confirmed their worst fears. Their home was toxic with Black Magic. He set about searching their home, and all in all, he collected about a dozen hidden little items that were representative of Black Magic. There were little papers with weird writing and symbols on them that were tightly folded up. There were tiny items with wire wrapped snugly around them. There were small personal items that Hiba recognized as hers or Azam’s that had been altered or broken or enveloped in stinky herbs or concoctions with hair and such.

The spiritual specialist then began his cleansing rituals, reciting verses from the Qúran, lighting incense and candles, and whatever else he does. I don’t know how long it took, but by the time he was done and left their home, taking all the wicked little charms with him, the evil feelings that had been dominating their household for weeks were gone. Instantly Azam’s strange medical symptoms disappeared and his health was restored. Their arguments over every little thing stopped. And Hiba felt safe and warm in her own home once again. She and her husband have no doubt that his own children planted those items in their home at the behest of his ex-wife. In fact, Hiba believes that they even put toxic substances in Azam's food to make him sick. From what Hiba has told me, the ex-wife was the one who initiated the divorce proceedings against Azam. He had had enough of her weirdness over the years, gave her the divorce, and soon after married Hiba. The ex-wife then had a change of heart and wanted Azam back, but it was too late. So she decided to use his own children to deliver the Black Magic spells into their home in an effort to break up his marriage.

I have another true story of Black Magic to tell you regarding another family that I know, but I’ll save that for a later post. It’s even more frightening than Hiba’s experience.

My husband says he thinks it’s all a bunch of hogwash, but then again - he does have one of those little chotchkes to ward off the Evil Eye hanging from his rear-view mirror in his car …

To read more on this fascinating topic:

Sand Gets in My Eyes Post “Magic in the Magic Kingdom”

Saudi Religious Police Get Tough on Black Magic, article from Jan. 2009