Wednesday, April 28, 2010

If I Could Eat Anything ...

As you know, my husband recently had open heart surgery, and before we left the hospital, the doctor told him that for one month or so, he could eat anything he wants. After that, my husband and I will both go on a heart healthy diet, but for now, the doctor wants him to eat anything he desires, just to build back up his strength. So just imagine if you were given the go ahead to eat whatever you wanted, what would you eat? Well, my list would definitely contain dark chocolate, mashed potatoes, crab, steak, cheesecake, cashews, Crispy Creme Donuts, coconut creme pie, and Cheetos! Hmmm ... seems like an awful lot of those foods start with the letter "C" ... wonder what that means? Anyway, what would you have on your list?

Adnan has always been a healthy eater and doesn't crave sweets the way I do. And since the surgery, he hasn’t had much of an appetite, but the one decadent thing that he requested was a special dish here made with animal fat called “foul wu semn” (beans with animal fat). We enjoy eating the “poor man’s breakfast” here in Saudi Arabia, which consists of a regional bean dish called foul (pronounced fool) and wonderful flatbread which is called tameez. It’s very filling and quite tasty.

Every morning these tiny shops that pretty much only make and sell foul and tameez are bustling with male customers, most of them hard laborers starting their day. Oftentimes there is a crowd five men deep. This breakfast which will easily serve 3-4 people costs a total of 3 riyals, which is about US 75 cents. I had always waited in the car whenever Adnan got this for us for breakfast, but recently I went in to take a look at one of the little shops that sells foul and tameez.

The foul is generally accompanied with extra sauce (similar to salsa) to spice it up to your liking. Other spices are also added. Adnan usually likes to add olive oil as well. The foul is slow cooked in a huge round balloon shaped metal pot which is tilted over a charcoal burner.

Because the opening is so small and the pot is so big, a special spoon with an extremely long handle is required to stir the beans and extract them. The specially melted animal fat (I believe it is from goat) is a rich clear golden yellow color and is added to the foul to enhance the flavor.

Depending on which country the tameez maker is from, the flatbread can vary in size, consistency, and flavor. Most tameez that I have seen is at least the size of a large pizza in diameter.

Some are sprinkled with blackened sesame seeds, some have lines made with a spoked wheel running across them, and others are thicker and almost rubbery, but in a good way.

The tameez is baked in a huge tiled igloo-shaped oven and special long instruments are needed to flip and retrieve the tameez when it’s done. You can also order tameez which is filled with cheese.

Foul and tameez is one of the fabulous ethnic foods available in KSA that I have come to love.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Time for Women to Drive in Saudi Arabia

My husband is restricted from driving now since his triple bypass surgery three weeks ago. My son does not have his drivers license. And women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Our family does not employ a full-time driver as many families must do here. So we have two cars just sitting outside that our family cannot use now. Today Adnan and I needed to go grocery shopping while Adam was at school for a special band rehearsal. There is a beautiful humongous supermarket about one mile from where we live. So I got dressed and then put on my stifling black abaya over what I was wearing and wrapped my head up in a suffocating scarf and we headed out the door. The plan was to walk down to the corner to see if we could hail a taxi. This corner is in the middle of a residential section, so it’s not a major thoroughfare. We would need to walk several blocks in either direction to get to a bigger street where cabs might come along more frequently, but Adnan is not capable of walking that far because of his condition. And besides, it’s 36 C degrees (97 F) outside, and wearing what I’ve got on, I want to spend as little time as possible and keep physical exertion to a minimum out in the heat.

Twenty minutes we waited on that corner - No taxicab in sight. We tried waving down a few vehicles to take us just those few blocks over to a more busy road, but no one stopped. So Adnan suggested that we walk back the other way to the next closest street in the other direction from our house. Okay. By this point my ears are steaming so much that sweat is clogging up in my ear canal, but I’m worried about Adnan. I know he is in pain and he still tires easily. Halfway down the block there is a tiny begala (market) along our street where we stopped to get two bottles of cold water. We come out of the market just in time to see a cab driving by on the street we were headed to. We get to the corner - and wait. Another fifteen minutes and still no cab. My water bottle is already empty. Sweat is dripping down my spine and my clothes are damp. The hair on the back of my neck is sopping wet. Adnan tries to flag down a few cars, but they just ignore him and drive by. Finally we yell at another car and he stops. Once he learns about our plight, he agrees to take us in his car for the few blocks to the main road. Less than a minute after we get out of his car, a taxi comes along and we are on our way to the supermarket. I know that my cheeks are bright red from the heat by this point. So much for ever hoping to blend into this society...

I get my shopping list out and we begin gathering items. Adnan is hurting, and grouchy, and keeps telling me to hurry up. It took us so long to get to the store that now we have another problem – the store will close soon for prayers. So I’m trying to race through the store with my crabby, slow-paced, aching, and exhausted husband tagging along behind. I forgo several items on my list just to speed things up. We get checked out and head outside where there are two cabs sitting out in front of the store. We are loading the groceries into the trunk when I hear the call to prayer beginning. Whew!

There is nothing in Islam that would restrict a woman from driving. In fact, from what I have read, there is actually no law in Saudi Arabia restricting women from driving or from getting a drivers license. I have driven for 40 years in the states and I have an excellent driving record. If there was ever a perfect example for why women should be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, what happened to us today is it. I told Adnan that next time we need to go to the store, I will drive us with him sitting right there next to me in the front passenger seat. But my husband is afraid that HE will be thrown in jail if he “allows” me to drive here. It disappoints me that he is not supportive of the movement for women driving in KSA. He rode in the car with me at the wheel in the states for decades without any problem. But here, he seems to live in fear.

So why CAN'T women drive here in Saudi Arabia? No one seems to have a problem with little boys behind the wheel here. Or with reckless youth endangering everyone in their path. Last month I wrote about an organized attempt by Saudi women in 1990 to take to the streets to get the right to drive here, but still 20 years later, nothing has changed. And all the lame excuses men give for keeping women out of the driver's seat are feeble, make no sense at all, and are based on control and fear.

Women driving in KSA is a very hot topic right now. People are talking about it. Newspapers and bloggers are abuzz about it. For the first time since I arrived here, I am hopeful that it could happen. Eman over at SaudiWoman has recently published two excellent posts on the subject. Please check them out: Women Driving Cars…How Do We Start Its Implementation? and The Turning Point. Even BoingBoing has a recent post called: Wajeha Al Huwaider, a woman, driving in Saudi Arabia. And here's another good blog post by Free Spirit called The Sin of Driving. Here's another related news story in Arab News.

The time is at hand. Women should be given the right to drive in this country now.

If you are on Facebook, please join this cause: Yes 2 Women Driving In Saudi Arabia!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hospital Visitors

isiting the sick is a very important obligation that the Saudi culture follows and it is dictated by Islam. Not only is it good for the sick person in that it lifts his spirits, but it is also a virtuous act which will be rewarded for the Muslim person who visits someone who is sick. There are even guidelines in Islam about not staying too long, about visiting an unrelated person of the opposite sex, and specific prayers (du’a) that are said for the sick individual.

I hadn’t really had much exposure to this aspect of Islam until my husband spent ten days in the hospital recently and had open heart surgery. He had a steady stream of visitors during most of his time in the hospital. Usually family and friends started coming in the early afternoon, and sometimes the last visitor of the day came late, leaving when visiting hours ended at 11pm. I thought it was interesting that during Ramadan, the hospital visiting hours are changed to ending at 3 am (see photo below). I learned that my function was to act as hostess for the visitors, offering them small cups of the traditional Arabic coffee called Gahwa (here’s a simple but delicious recipe for Gahwa), which my sisters-in-law thoughtfully and thankfully brought to me every day in thermal pots, as well as dates or chocolates, which guests brought with them in abundance. The Gahwa is mainly cardamom with very little coffee in it - I still haven’t acquired a taste for it.

I managed not to cry at all the whole time Adnan was in the hospital – I felt that he needed me to be strong and positive, and I was! I have heard many times since moving here that Saudi women have a reputation for being very dramatic and emotional. Now I’m not saying that they are, just that I have heard it often enough. So I thought it was rather amusing when I was saying goodbye to Adnan right before they wheeled him into the operating room that a small group of women employees turned around to watch me, as if to see whether I was going to break down or not.

Adnan initially didn’t want his own mother even knowing about his surgery because she, for one, IS quite emotional, but it reached a point where that was just not practical. So she was finally told that he was having more than just tests and procedures done. She came to the hospital to see him a few days after the operation once he was out of ICU - and she cried the whole time, which I could see was tough for Adnan. But the funny thing is that when she was leaving, she got after me about what I was wearing – one of Adnan’s long loose shapeless thobes with elbow length sleeves and a huge billowing colorful scarf over my head (properly covering my hair) that hung loosely down past my wrists. But when I served coffee, she could see part of my forearms from underneath so she didn’t think I was dressed properly. She thought I should have worn a long sleeved dress, but I told her that I would be way too hot dressed that way and that I was comfortable in what I had on. She knows how I complain about being hot all the time. But she said, “Not hot.” It struck me as funny because here she was crying her eyes out because her son had just had heart surgery, but she was still worried that a man might have seen my sexy middle-aged forearms! I know she means well and it is actually a compliment that she cares. She is just from a different time and a different place…

The third day Adnan spent in the hospital, which was also the day before his surgery, was a Friday – the holy day in Islam when it is customary for men to go to the mosque to attend the Jumu’ah prayers, comparable to Christians attending church services on Sundays. After the prayers ended, men well-wishers dressed in their crisp white thobes and flowing headgear began appearing bearing huge floral arrangements (one was almost as tall as me!), plants, chocolates, or cologne and I finally abandoned my hostessing duties because there must have been 12-15 men in the room all at once. Many of them I had never seen before even though some were my husband's cousins - but because of the way the society restricts interaction between unrelated men and women, I had never had any opportunity to meet most of them before. I went out for a walk down in the beautiful park adjacent to the hospital, but it was a bit warm, so I wandered around the hospital for a bit before returning to the room.

Each day, except for the three days Adnan spent in ICU where limited visiting hours were strictly enforced, visiting guests streamed in and out of the room, some calling before coming, others showing up unannounced. When a couple of his previously-unknown-to-me cousins came calling, they were SOOOO incredibly handsome that I almost spilled the coffee on them! And after almost every visitor left, Adnan would tell me that the friend or family member who just left had offered to foot the entire hospital bill, and he would remark, “This system is so much better than insurance.” All in all, the total bill for everything came to about $18,500 US – for an angiogram, triple bypass open heart surgery, ten days in the hospital including three days in ICU, our meals, doctors’ charges, medications, etc. I have no idea what the same might cost in the States, but I’m pretty sure it would be considerably more.

Adnan continues to improve a little bit every day. He’s still in some pain, has good days and bad days, and is a tad impatient to feel better sooner, but overall he’s doing very well. The doctors are pleased with his progress and the long incision down his chest looks good. We still have a way to go, and both Adnan and I are looking ahead to the day when this will all be behind us. Many Thanks to all of you who sent your well wishes and prayers – I could see that Adnan was quite touched as I read them to him. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Triple Bypass

When I wrote my last post about the doctor who made a tasteless joke about my husband taking a second wife in my presence, little did I know what would happen in our lives in the coming days. When Adnan complained to me that he had been having difficulty breathing at the slightest physical exertion, like climbing a flight of stairs, I insisted that he go in to a doctor to have it checked out. The news wasn’t good. We got two opinions, both of whom recommended an angiogram. This came as quite a surprise to both my husband and me - Adnan has always been very health conscious about eating and isn't overweight.

Adnan applied for approval to have the procedure done at a government hospital, where it would have been done for free. We personally don’t have health insurance here (like many people here), but there are government hospitals that offer free quality care as well as private pay hospitals. But after about a week, Adnan finally decided to go in and paid to see a heart specialist, who was so concerned at what he saw that he insisted that Adnan be at the hospital the following morning for an angiogram and a likely angioplasty.

The doctor wanted to put in 4 stents, however the blockages were so extensive that he was unable to complete the procedure and couldn’t even put in the first stent in the largest vein. Adnan was kept in the hospital for observation until open heart surgery – a triple bypass - could be performed a few days later. The operation was successful.

I spent the entire ten days at the hospital in his room on the surgical floor, even while he spent three days down in ICU after his operation. If it hadn’t been for the circumstances, I would have felt like we were staying in a lovely hotel. I have never felt more comfortable in a hospital before, but of course, I wasn’t a patient either. There was a small fold out couch that opened up into a very comfortable single bed that I slept on. As my husband’s guest, I was also provided with three nourishing and delicious meals a day.

The room we stayed in is called an Executive Suite. It’s made to accommodate two patients, but there was just one hospital bed and where the second patient bed would have been was a large comfortable sitting area. When you first enter the room, there was also a smaller separate sitting area, where visiting women could sit when there were other men visiting. Our son was also able to stay with us for part of the time, although it wasn’t really that comfortable to sleep in either of the sitting areas, unless you were maybe the size of a little person like in the Wizard of Oz. There were two large windows that looked out over a beautiful park which many people utilize towards late afternoon.

International Medical Center (IMC), an affiliate of the world renowned Cleveland Clinic, was many years in the making from the idea for its original conception back in 1993, through its design and construction until its opening in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in late 2005. IMC is a gorgeous 300-bed facility, utilizing different shades of marble in its main lobby and other common areas and highlights distinct Middle Eastern and Islamic design elements throughout the entire building, inside and out. The building was designed by famed local architect Dr. Sami Angawi, one of the most well known Islamic architects in the region and whose unique modern but traditional home I have had the pleasure of visiting.

There was a beautifully landscaped inner courtyard, as well as an enormous park adjacent to the facility, where people by the dozens gathered at dusk to just sit and enjoy the spring air or to walk the track around its perimeter. At one end of the park was a field of palm trees with paths and benches interspersed among the trees, and at the other end was a large open grassy area where children played or families picnicked. It was a wonderful layout and we had a fantastic view of it from our fifth floor room. It was really nice to see so many people enjoying the outdoors here because in the part of Jeddah where we live, there’s nothing like it and I just don’t get to see people outside at leisure that much.

My husband’s doctors were top notch and professional and were from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan – I had complete faith in their expertise and recommendations, and I knew Adnan was in the best and most capable hands. The staff, comprised of about 80% Filipino and the rest mostly from Middle Eastern countries, was amazingly helpful and genuinely concerned in making our stay there as pleasant and comfortable as possible - from the nurses to the kitchen staff to the cleaning crew to the guards.

I got the feeling that my husband and I were somewhat of a unique and curious attraction during our stay, since I was not Saudi; but I cannot say enough nice things about the hospital and its wonderful staff for making our entire experience while we were there a pleasant one. I am truly grateful for their kindness and professionalism in creating such a nurturing environment for its patients.

Adnan and I have been home now for three days and already I can see a little progress and less pain for him every day. He's also starting to get back his sense of humor a bit too, which is a great sign. I hope to share more about some of my particular experiences, impressions and adventures I had at IMC – so stay tuned.