Monday, December 31, 2012

Arab News: Interview with Red Sea Mall Exec

The following interview is a reprint from an Arab News article published December 30, 2012, and discusses one of the most popular and well known malls in Jeddah, the Red Sea Mall.     
(Arab News) The city of Jeddah has dozens of big and small malls. And many more are mushrooming. A striking feature of the malls is the presence of major international and local retailers with their new or established brands. There are many global brands like H&M, Danube Supermarket, Adolfo Dominguez, Burberry, Ferrari, Paris Gallery that can all be found under one roof, according to Mohammad I.B. Alawi, CEO, Red Sea Markets Company, which operates Jeddah's prestigious Red Sea Mall.

"The Red Sea Mall, which boasts a number of such global and local brands, also comprises of cafes and other high-end facilities that can accommodate hundreds of cars with an immensely big parking area and witness the organization of many sporting as well as social events and promotions, all taking place simultaneously," Alawi told Khalil Hanware of Arab News in an exclusive interview.

Mohammad I.B. Alawi, CEO, Red Sea Markets Company (photo credit: Arab News)

Following is the text of the interview:

Red Sea Mall is one of the largest in Saudi Arabia. Please give some information about this mall?

Red Sea Mall is a mixed use property, which is different from Jeddah shopping malls. It is a retail property with a five-star hotel and a high-end offices' tower. Internationally it is not easy to run a mixed use property because it has different users and different approach in their service, and to combine them together in one unit is a costly affair. In Saudi Arabia, there are only three mixed use properties - Kingdom Tower and Faisaliah Tower, both in Riyadh, and Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. This usually needs a lot of international experience in design and in the alignment between retail and other services.
In 2011, the mall was acknowledged with many prestigious awards locally, regionally and also globally. It received the Red Sea Mall 13 million visitors' award. Other accolades include the Award of Excellence in Tourism from the Tourism and Antiquities of Arabia for the best marketing experience in the Kingdom, the award for Excellence in Retailing at the level of Asia Asian retail trade body, the Gold Award for Best marketing Campaign to stimulate sales in the Middle East and North Africa, and the nomination of the International Council of Shopping Centers for the VIVA Golden Award at the level of shopping malls in the world.

Who are the shareholders of the Red Sea Mall?

In 2004, the shareholders agreed together to go into this investment. It is a long-term investment and not a short- or medium-term one. Because if you are building a shopping mall, the usual average return on your investment is seven years but when you do a good mixed use property you could get back your returns in 10 years. The shareholders conducted a feasibility study and they contracted an international design firm from South Africa and with local consultants together they developed the whole master plan of the project. The work on the Red Sea Mall project started in early 2005 and we opened the mall in March 2008. It is 110,000 GLA (gross leasable area), GBA 250,000 plus Elaf, a five-star hotel, with 180 rooms and tower with seven floors.

Red Sea Mall

What is the occupancy rate? Is the mall fully occupied?

In 2008, when we opened the mall, there was a big challenge for us because of the global financial crisis. A lot of global and regional retailers, who committed to open stores, put on hold their expansion plans because they were not sure about the impact of the world financial crisis on Saudi Arabia. What we ended up doing is that we held one to one talks with retailers and succeeded in opening 75 percent of the mall in 2008. Since then, we are growing year after year and there is now 98 percent of occupancy in the mall.

The mall is a little bit away from the city. Does it affect its popularity?

Let us go with international practice. The Red Sea Mall is considered, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a super regional mall because of its size. Super regional malls anywhere in the world never built inside a city.
Jeddah's growth is toward the north. We are in the growth corridor and actually the quality of the corridor is good. So in early stages when you do planning, you do it on the basis of population growth. This mall is for 30, 40, 50 years and I think this mall is on the right corridor of population growth. The mall is in the northern suburb of Jeddah and it became part of the city with the expansion of Jeddah toward the north. With the strong anchor we have, it is like a magnet. Last year about 13 million visitors visited the mall and this year we expect the number to reach 15 million.

Red Sea Mall

Is the Red Sea food court popular among visitors?

It is true. We believe F&B (food and beverage) is an important component in mixed use property. Food Court is the place where visitors spend their time more. One of the dilemmas in shopping malls is to expand the average stay per visit. In the US, it (the average stay per visit) is 1.9 hours and in Dubai 2.6 hours. In this mall it is over 3.2 hours per visit. Shopping is one of the only social windows in this country where people sit, relax and enjoy their time. So food court is an important component of the mall. We are strong in the F&B concept in the country and we are expanding.

Are you planning similar malls in the rest of the cities in Saudi Arabia?

Our shareholders have lots of lands. Yes. We are studying plans but we have not taken any decision yet. You know building projects as big as Red Sea Mall are not easy. There are some restrictions also. To get financing for such big projects is also not easy. Ten years ago, if you had gone to the bank with such a project plan, you would have got financing, but now it is not easy. So building this size of project is not easy anymore. The Red Sea Mall project proved its name among the properties not only in Saudi Arabia but in the region. We have today a waiting list of retailers for 75,000 sq m space who want to be part of the mall. The waiting list is long, so if we want to build a new mall we can do that. At present the Red Sea Mall is the largest mall in Jeddah and with our future expansion we could be the largest mall in Saudi Arabia.

How do you gauge the performance of tenants?

From time to time, we are assessing and reassessing the performance of our tenants, and those with good names we retain and we don't renew the contracts of non-performing retailers, and we keep adding new international brands. New retail is dynamic, everyday there is a new retailer with a new brand with a new trend, some of them with proven record stay in the market while those who cannot sustain disappear. So this is our job. We have to follow up their performance all the time. We have implemented a contract sales report. We get quarterly sales report from our tenants to judge their performance. We put their reports in our data base and we evaluate their performance at the end of every year. If any tenant is not doing well then we say goodbye to them because it hurts our performance.

What was the total cost of building Red Sea Mall?

To build the mall, it cost the shareholders about SR 800 million without the land price. SEDCO Holding is the major shareholder and there are other Saudi businessmen involved in the Red Sea Mall project.

Red Sea Mall's Anaqeed Gift House

Do you maintain any customer profile, especially about their spending habit?

We do keep a customer profile during both high and low seasons. So we know sex-wise and income-wise, and we also know where they come from, which parts of Jeddah and which parts out of Jeddah. Last year, according to our study, families spent an average of SR 680 per visit. During high seasons like Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr the average exceeds SR 900. We keep doing. We have a very dedicated team and international consultants who conduct a lot of market studies. We also get sales reports from tenants, their average transactions and value.

How do malls such as Red Sea Mall contribute to Saudi economy?

Our total sales of the projects are almost between SR 1.5 billion to SR 1.8 billion a year. By improving our tenant numbers every year, we are heading between SR 2 billion and SR 2.5 billion in the next two to three years. So it is a large chunk of money in the market. We are the only shopping mall in the country with a busy calendar of marketing events all through the year, not only sales promotion but also social and community activities. This year, we are going to close with 70 events. We have to engage ourselves with the community so that whatever they spend they also must get some returns. In health matters, we are a favorite of the Ministry of Health in Jeddah.
Divisions of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth, the Ministry of Interior, the Governorate of Makkah and Jeddah, and the Municipality of Jeddah hold their major events in the mall regularly.

Red Sea Mall, lovely ceiling detail

What is the role of Red Sea Mall in CSR?

Three things we are doing in corporate social responsibility (CSR). First of all, one of our commitments is to the issue related to men and women in the society. There are certain times we keep the boys out because they tend to create problems. We are always focused on sorting out such problems. For the last 5 years, and especially in the last three years we have conducted a lot of programs to engage youths and make them come to the mall as is normal anywhere. Number two is charity. We do a lot of activities in charitable work sponsoring events every year, such as the Jeddah Marathon. Now we are demonstrating our responsibility by trying to engage female workers.
Today in our mall there are 60 stores run totally by women only. We think we will have 100 to 150 stores out of 400 stores by the end of 2014 run by Saudi females only. This is another responsibility of ours to the society. Women come, find jobs and are happy to earn their salaries and even spend some money in the mall or in the city. A lot of people are against this, and that is the challenge. But I think we are proving them wrong. Women are doing great. The kind of feedback we are getting from retailers is positive. I believe women are the best for retail jobs. They work with commitment. They have patience and they have their sacred touch. Now working women are a success story all over the country. Our company's commitment is to hire more women staff in customer service. By 2015, our huge customer service department will be handled entirely by women.

How many shops are there in the mall?

There are a total 450 stores in the mall plus we have 6 major anchors, the hotel and offices. We are working on expansion of the mall. We are studying to add 30,000 GLA. After the feasibility study we will obtain approval and then go ahead. There is a big demand. We have a 70,000 GLA waiting list. So we want to capitalize on this by expanding the mall.

Are Saudi males and females working in the mall?

Total employees in the mall are nearly 2,500, some 50 percent being Saudis. At least 300 female employees are working in the mall and the number is growing day by day.

Red Sea Mall, floor fountain

You were elected for the vice presidency post for the Middle East Council of Shopping Centers in 2004 and you are also a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers. What role do these councils play in the Middle East and internationally?

The Middle East Council of Shopping Centers is affiliated to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. They have about 12 regional offices around the world where their job is to improve the shopping industry's ethics and practice. I am a member of the board since 2000 in Dubai. In 2004, I was elected as the third president. In 2007, I was the first from the GCC elected as the president of the Dubai office. We try to promote and educate, and do a lot of training programs in Dubai and elsewhere in the region. We do a lot of events and conferences, seminars to promote ethics and best practices in shopping malls according to the international standards.

If you travel in the region, you would see no big difference between this region and Europe. Moreover, the market here is open to all retailers around the world. If you go to a shopping mall in Italy, you would find 60 percent of the brands are Italian and maybe 40 percent from other parts of the world. But if you come to Saudi Arabia, or in Dubai or in Bahrain, you will see brands from all over the world from East to West.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Inside the Saudi Kingdom - A BBC Documentary

This hour long documentary gives outsiders an interesting look into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its main subject is Prince Saud bin Abdul Mohsen, one of the ruling family members of the country and the nephew of the King, and also touches on tribal customs, cultural traditions, religious influence, the legal system based on Shariah law, and the status of Saudi women. It's well worth watching if you are interested in Saudi Arabia today.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Check it Out! Newsline Magazine Article on Bloggers

I am pleased to direct you to an article written by Naima Rashid in Newsline Magazine in which I am one of three western female bloggers who are married to men from Saudi Arabia.  The article is entitled "Exotic Paradox: Expats Blog in Saudi Arabia."

The first highlighted blogger is Carol Fleming, also known as American Bedu.  I am the second blogger, and the third one is Laylah who writes Blue Abaya.

Naima is an excellent writer with a vocabulary and flair for writing that I can only dream of.  She has also written about me before in an article for Jeddah Blog called "Susie Says," which also features some of my watercolor paintings.

The article on the website for Newsline Magazine may take a little while to come up - I don't know what the problem is, but I just wanted to warn you, just in case you have trouble accessing it. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

From Syria with Love - Athr Gallery Group Exhibition

Oil on canvas, by Abdullah Murad
I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening night of Athr Art Gallery's current exhibition called "From Syria with Love" by a group of outstanding Syrian artists. 
Oil on canvas, by Abdullah Murad
You can click on any photo for a larger view. 
The artists featured in this show are:  Abdullah Murad, Asaad Arabi, Fadi Yazigi, Farouk Kondakji, Ismail El Helou, Malva Omar Hamda, Mohammed Tlernat, and Mustafa Ali. 
Oil on canvas, by Ismail El Helou
As you can see, the artwork was quite varied.
Wood and bronze mirror, by Mustafa Ali
Many of these Syrian artists are well established and their works have been sought after, bought and housed by collectors around the world.  
Acrylic on canvas, by Asaad Arabi
Painter Asaad Arabi received his PhD in aesthetics from Sorbonne University. 
Acrylic on canvas, by Asaad Arabi

Acrylic on canvas, by Farouk Kondakji
A quote from artist Farouk Kondakji:  "My paintings are the only photographs that resemble me."
The young hip crowd attending the opening night festivities are enthusiastic and supportive of Jeddah's art scene.  
Acrylic on canvas, by Farouk Kondakji

Oil on canvas, by Malva Omar Hamdi
Artist Malva Omar Hamdi now resides in Vienna, Austria.
Mixed media, by Mohammed Tlemat
Modernist painter Mohammed Tlemat has lived in Egypt, Libya, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Mixed media on canvas, by Fadi Yazigi
To see the entire collection, please click here for Athr Gallery's website. 
Mixed media on flour bag, by Fadi Yazigi
The "From Syria with Love" exhibition is on display at Athr Gallery through January 10, 2013.  Athr Gallery is located at Serafi Mega Mall at the corner of Tahliah and Siteen in Jeddah. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

TIME Magazine's Person of the Year Runner Up: Malala Yousafzai

This past year I have become a huge fan of a young teenage girl from the Swat Vally in Pakistan - Malala Yousafzai.  I have written about her previously on this blog.  Malala made worldwide headlines in October when an unsuccessful attempt was made on her life by the Taliban.  She has become a symbol of hope and inspiration not just for Pakistani women, but for all women around the world. 

This article in TIME magazine, which honors Malala in the number 2 spot for the magazine's Person of the Year annual award, shows what a remarkable young lady she is, even as she recuperates from her injuries in a London hospital.  Hers is a story of quiet strength and unwavering determination. 

Congratulations to Malala on her deserved recognition.  President Obama was named TIME's Person of the Year.  Other honorees include:  Apple CEO Tim Cook,; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi; and particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fish Fry with a Friend

I haven't had any visitors from back home since I moved to Saudi Arabia five years ago - until this past week when an old friend from my hometown of Douglas, Arizona, came to Jeddah for business.  Mike Brady has been living in Riyadh this past year on a work assignment with his company.  Mike's sister Margaret was in my class in school. 
My husband suggested that we take Mike out for a very typical Jeddah style meal, so we took him to an open air fish restaurant with Bedouin style seating.  Since Jeddah lies on the coastline of the Red Sea, there are many fish eateries around the city.  Some have individual dining tents or private rooms for families.  Most restaurants have a separate dining area for single men who are not accompanied by female family members. 
First we went inside to hand select the fish we wanted from today's catch.  The restaurant staff then gutted and cleaned the fish and cooked it to order.  We ordered the fish to be deep fried. 
There was a nice undersea mural painted on the outside walls of the restaurant.  
While the fish was being prepared, we went to our seating area, which consisted of red carpets and cushions.  There were no tables and chairs at this restaurant, but most seating areas did have TVs where some guys watched a soccer game.
Since the restaurant wasn't that crowded, we occupied an area in the far corner in the men's section away from the other diners, and I sat with my back to them.  It was great catching up with Mike while we waited for the food to come. 

The fried fish was brought to us along with big platters of three different kinds of rice, sauces, lemons and hot green chili peppers.  My husband likes to take a bite of hot chili pepper with each mouthful of food as sweat drips  down his face.
The weather was great sitting outside eating under the stars halfway around the world from where Mike and I grew up.

Next time Mike comes, we're hoping to take him out snorkeling and fishing on the Red Sea.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Support of Saudi Women and Hardees

There is a saying that I hear all the time in Saudi Arabia as far as progress goes:   “One step forward and two steps back.”  So it comes as no surprise that a conservative Saudi cleric has made headlines with an outrageous tweet he posted this week regarding Saudi women in the workforce.  

Global hamburger chain Hardees, which has operated in Saudi Arabia since 1981, tiptoed into KSA’s modern age by becoming the first restaurant chain in the country to hire female waitresses in several of its Jeddah locations.  While many other Saudi residents and I applaud this move, Sheikh Ali Al Mutairi has called for a boycott of the fast-food chain and has voiced his own opinion via Twitter:  “At the beginning of her shift she’s a waitress. When her shift ends she becomes a prostitute. The more she’s around men the easier it becomes to get closer to her.”   

Basically, in Al Mutairi’s mind, all working women are whores.  

Not only is his statement insulting and degrading to women everywhere, he unfortunately perpetuates the notion that women are only looked upon as sexual objects in this society and that Saudi men are not expected to be able to control themselves at the sight of a shapeless veiled woman flipping burgers.  Although Al Mutairi has his fair share of ultra-conservative supporters (one tweet congratulated him for being  “a splinter in the throats of liberals”), the sheikh’s tweet has ignited outrage among many in Saudi Arabia who claim that his stance is offensive and treads in dangerous waters according to the teachings of Islam, by commonly labeling these women as prostitutes without having any proof. 

Saudi Arabia’s oil-driven economy has remained fairly strong amidst worldwide financial turmoil, but as prices have steadily risen these past few years, many families have felt the pinch.  A large chunk of Saudi Arabia’s work force consists of foreign workers, who are not only hired in practically every field of work there is, but also dominate those lower paid positions which are traditionally considered beneath Saudis, such as all hard labor jobs, restaurant workers, street sweepers and garbage collectors.  Even though the number of highly educated Saudi women exceeds that of Saudi men, the number of Saudi women who actually work outside the home remains dismally below that of men.  Added to that is the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are still prohibited from driving, and the country must import foreign male drivers to chauffeur around the half of the population crippled by this nonsensical and costly policy.  

When I first moved to Saudi Arabia in 2007, women were mainly allowed to work in only two fields:  education and medicine.   No women were allowed to work in sales, forcing women to purchase personally intimate items such as cosmetics, perfumes, bras, panties, and sexy lingerie from men.  In a society where there is strict gender segregation, and where women must wear loosely draped black outer cloaks and scarves covering their hair, and where many women even veil their faces, placing a Saudi woman in a situation where a salesman would suggest she needed a D-cup instead of a C was as ludicrous as it was humiliating.   A well-executed campaign by Saudi women against this preposterous policy caused a change in the law, and this past year saleswomen in cosmetics and lingerie shops have popped up in malls everywhere.  There was also a religious backlash when leading Saudi supermarket chain Hyper Panda hired female cashiers a couple of years ago, but that uproar has since died down and female workers have become a common sight in supermarkets.  

So in a place where social change is notoriously slow and even considered backward, there has been an undeniable and remarkable amount of progress for Saudi women in the five short years since I moved to Saudi Arabia, thanks to the leadership of the cautiously progressive champion of women’s rights King Abdullah.   

But calling female employees at Hardees Restaurants “prostitutes” illustrates the type of Saudi male and religious mentality that Saudi women are up against.  I read several news reports and blog posts about the Hardees tweet, and the comments were disheartening and horrifying to me.  This type of incident just opens up Saudi Arabia as a whole to ridicule by the rest of the world, making targets of hard-working Saudi women who just want to help support their families, and serving to reassure those who are anti-Muslim, anti-Saudi, or anti-Arab that they are justified in feeling the way they do. Why do these religious clerics continue to supply fodder/ammunition such as this to these haters?  Wouldn't there have been a more politically correct and appropriate way of stating his point of view without slandering these female employees as outright "prostitutes?"  Is it better/safer for women to beg in the streets here instead of holding down an honest job?

I’ve lived here in this country long enough to realize that Saudi Arabia could care less about what the rest of the world thinks of them and their ways.  But I also know that there are many in Saudi Arabia who want more for their wives, sisters and daughters and who are patient that change is slowly coming.  

We try not to eat that much fast-food any more, but I'm going to talk my hubby into taking me to Hardees for lunch or dinner soon, hopefully one where there is a female behind the counter to take my order. If you live in Saudi Arabia, please show your support for Hardees and for Saudi women by taking your family out for a meal at Hardees - and help ensure that Saudi Arabia continues to move forward instead of backwards.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Keeping Her on a Tight Leash

Recently there has been an interesting development pertaining to Saudi women's mobility hitting the news.  No, we're still not allowed to drive here and it doesn't look like we will be any time soon.  But first, let me give you a little background information to help explain the reasoning for this new policy. Saudi women have the legal status of children their entire lives. There is a designated male guardian who is legally responsible for each and every Saudi woman, no matter how old she is. From birth until she marries, the woman's legal guardian is her father. Upon marriage, her legal guardian becomes her husband. In cases where she no longer has a father or husband, the responsibility falls to another relative, such as her brother, uncle, or son.

"Mahram" is the Saudi term given for the woman's legal guardian. Without her mahram's permission and/or accompaniment, a Saudi woman may not continue her education, travel, work, receive medical attention, marry, or appear in court. Many Saudi women are very happy with this arrangement of not being responsible for major decisions in their lives and being taken care of. However, as you can imagine, this system opens the door for abuses of many Saudi women by unscrupulous and misguided male guardians.

Outsiders tend to interpret this guardianship system as Saudi women being nothing more than the property of men, which Saudis vehemently deny. Saudis argue that their women are treated with more respect and have more rights than their western counterparts, which I must admit is an argument that I don't see or understand.

So what is the new mobility issue that has been in the news here lately? Saudi Arabia has implemented a new tracking system for women and other dependents. Saudi men will now receive a text message when their wives, children, or even sponsored employees leave or enter the country in a program being called "Relax! We'll track your wife down!" Some have wondered why the government just doesn't go ahead and equip Saudi women with ankle bracelets similar to those worn by criminals, or better yet, why not just implant an electronic chip under the women's skin? Of course women cannot leave the country without her mahram's written consent, but one did slip through the cracks recently causing quite a scandal, so apparently this is what has prompted this new female monitoring and tracking system.

I might point out that phone companies in the US offer tracking services for family members' phones.  It is an optional tracking service offered for a fee that many parents use to keep tabs on their teenagers who are on their phone plan.  Of course, if the phone is turned off no tracking signal is emitted. Also a common practice in the states is to implant pets with electronic GPS chips for tracking in case the pet is lost. GPS technology has opened up a world of amazing, though sometimes scarey, possibilities.  But Saudi women are adults, not property or pets.

At any rate, Saudi women continue to feel the grip tightening and the thought of true freedom continues to be an elusive dream for many.  Saudi men continue to enjoy their own personal freedoms while exerting their control and retaining their dominance and power over the women of this country.

Are Saudi men really that insecure and distrustful, and do Saudi women really need to be monitored and controlled in these ways? 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sculpture Mysteries Solved

Art has always been a passion of mine, ever since I could pick up a crayon in my chubby little fingers when I was a toddler and turned a blank piece of white paper into an artistic masterpiece - in my eyes, anyway. I have always drawn, painted and created as long as I can remember. So when we moved to Jeddah in 2007, one of the reasons for my excitement was the wondrous assortment of public art in the form of sculptures adorning the city that I could hardly wait to feast my eyes upon.

"Alterations in Space" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
In the five years since I have been here, there are still some sculptures that I have not yet seen or photographed. Even so, I have taken thousands upon thousands of photos of these sculptures and have published many on my blogs and posted others in some online photo albums. One thing that I have found very frustrating, though, was the lack of information about many of the sculptures around the city. The only reliable source of reference has been a book called Jeddah: City of Art by Hani M. S. Farsi, however the book is now over 20 years old and contains only a fraction of Jeddah's amazing sculptures.

"Family" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
I wrote an article about the sculptures for Ethiopian Airlines new in-flight magazine "Selamta" earlier this year.  In the article I mentioned  The Jeddah Restoration Project, which has been going on now for almost a year - a process whereby many of the sculptures of Jeddah are being repaired, refurbished, and restored to their original glory. Over the decades many of the sculptures have been vandalized, graffitied, or have suffered the ill effects of Jeddah's heat and harsh climate as well as the elements of the salty sea air and dust in the atmosphere.

"Circle and Square" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Through my blog postings, I have been contacted by several relatives of the artists and craftsmen who have had a hand in creating some of Jeddah's sculptures. It has been a thrilling and rewarding aspect of blogging for me.

Dr. François Kovacs during production of his Jeddah sculpture "Circle and Square"
So it is my great pleasure to know that my photo blog was instrumental in solving some of the mysteries surrounding the origins of several of the sculptures of Jeddah. At least five sculptures that were listed as "Artist Unknown" can now be attributed to the work of talented Belgian artist  Dr. François Kovacs. The sculptor's son, Dr. Blaise Kovacs, wrote to me and identified one of my sculpture postings as having been made by his father. He also sent me the link to his father's website. Upon viewing the website, I immediately realized that it was likely that several more pieces of art in Jeddah should be credited to Dr. François Kovacs.

"Heart Cross Section" sculpture by Dr. François Kovacs - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
François I. KOVACS was born in Hungary in 1915.  At age 16, Kovacs began working as a sculptor of monuments alongside his brother Erno.  This was when he learned all the basics of sculpting.  As a young man he studied art (painting and drawing) as well as medicine, both fields of interest that he was passionate about.  In 1956 with the advent of the Hungarian Revolution, Kovacs fled from his homeland to Belgium, where he practiced medicine and lived out the rest of his life.  He also conducted insightful medical research which garnered him the respect of his peers.  The doctor devoted himself to his art in his spare time and made many trips to Italy so he could work with marble.   He managed to have successful careers in medicine as well as in art.   Kovacs died in Brussels in 2005.

Dr. François Kovacs during production of his sculpture "Heart Cross Section"

Thanks to Dr. Blaise Kovacs for the use of the photos of his father with the sculptures.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Saudi Man's Bisht

This article is from an Arab News article (Nov. 7, 2012) by Rima Al-Mukhtar which explains about the history and details of the flowing formal robe for special occasions worn over the long dress that Saudi men wear.  Traditionally made of wool, today's modern versions are also made of lightweight sheer voile.

"Traditional and Modern: The Saudi Man's Bisht" by RIMA AL-MUKHTAR
Reprint from Arab News article posted November 7. 2012

Bisht worn by King Faisal as he shakes hands with US President Richard Nixon in 1974.

A bisht is a traditional Arabian long cloak men wear over their thobes. This cloak is usually made of wool and ranges in color from white, beige, and cream to the darker shades of brown, grey and black. The word bisht is derived from the Persian — to go on one’s back.

Originally the bisht was worn in winter by Bedouins. Now it’s only worn for special occasions like weddings, festivals, graduations and Eid.

The bisht has been the choice of formal wear for politicians, religious scholars and high-ranking individuals in Arabian Gulf countries, Iraq and countries north of Saudi Arabia. This traditional flowing cloak is meant to distinguish those who wear it. People say no cloth can provide the distinction of a hand-tailored bisht. This is why the art of bisht tailoring is a skill handed down from generation to generation.

Continue Reading...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Schoolgirl's Odyssey - Witness - Al Jazeera English

Three weeks ago, 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was systematically hunted down like an animal and left for dead with two bullets lodged in her head and neck as she was returning home on her school bus.  Two of her classmates were also wounded in the attack.  The huntsman, a member of the Taliban, is still at large, thought to be hiding out in Afghanistan.  The reason Malala became an assassination target of the Taliban is because she spoke out against them in her desire to receive an education.  The Taliban has notoriously forbidden the education of females.

Malala has become an inspirational symbol around the world for women's rights and education, since at the age of 11 she began writing an online blog for the BBC about the challenges, turmoil, and threats of trying to get an education despite the fear of grave danger to herself.  The attempt on her life has further galvanized her iconic status for oppressed girls and women everywhere.  As she recuperates in a British hospital, Malala's doctors report that she is now stable and making progress, although she still has a long recovery process ahead.

The documentary below was originally filmed in 2009 and aired in 2010 on Al-Jazeera and follows Malala and her family in their journey as they live in a land of upheaval, violence, and oppression.  It is quite moving and eye opening.  It saddens me that in this modern day and age, females continue to be the objects of suppression by men who want to control them.

To read more about Malala and the grave situation in Pakistan:

As teen recovers from Taliban hit, Pakistanis demand answers

Pakistan official: Boys involved in Malala attack

Shot Pakistan girl Malala Yousafzai 'symbol of courage'



Friday, October 12, 2012

2012 Day of the Girl and a Young Hero

First of all, my apologies for not updating my blog very much at all lately. I've just been sad since my mom passed away in July and I have not been in the mood for writing. I am preparing to return to KSA soon and have enjoyed being in the midst of my family in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Today is the first international "Day of the Girl," a United Nations movement which "speaks out against gender bias and advocates for girls’ rights everywhere" - working hard around the world to eliminate such backward cultural norms like forced child marriages and banning education for girls.

Malala Yousafzai,14 year old Pakistani girl shot by Taliban

Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai is the recipient of Pakistan's first National Peace Prize, honored for her outspoken opposition to the prominent Taliban presence in her country. Three years ago, she began writing a blog for the BBC about living under the Taliban's control and her desire for an education for herself and all other girls of Pakistan. Her voice was instrumental in ousting the Taliban from the Swat Valley where she resides with her family.

On October 9, 2012, two gunmen stopped the girls' school bus Malala was riding home on after school. They demanded to know which of the girls was Malala and threatened to shoot all the girls on the bus if she did not reveal herself to them. She identified herself and was promptly shot twice, in the head and the neck. Two other girls on the bus were also wounded. The Taliban have claimed credit for the cowardly attack and have also vowed to kill Malala and her family if she survives.

In Pakistan, the attack has sparked outrage and has elevated Malala's status as a courageous hero and an iconic symbol for gender equality and education.

What I find most disturbing is that these thugs justify their actions under the guise of religion. Islam stresses the importance of education for both men and women. There is no religion on earth that would advocate shooting a little girl because she wants an education.

The video below is from MSNBC's October 10th broadcast of The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. The segment is his commentary about the shooting of Malala.

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For more reading about Malala and the Day of the Girl:
Malala and the First International Day of the Girl 
Preventing Child Brides Is Goal on UN Day of Girl Child
Dying to Learn

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

What's going on in the Middle East right now with the protests in at least 17 different countries makes me so sad.  I'm with John Lennon...


Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Emerging Mystery


When I first saw this image of a fully veiled Muslim woman in water, I was blown away by the beauty and sheer simplicity of it. I received permission from photographer Sebastian Farmborough, who took this stunning picture, to publish it on my blog, along with his explanation about the photo's background. Here, in his own words, is Sebastian Farmborough's story behind this photo...

"The image is based on one of my very first experiences in Saudi Arabia: With the naked beaches of Barcelona a not too distant memory... I headed down to the Arabian Gulf for a dip. There, I became mystified by something black and obscure out at sea. It looked like a huge jellyfish. Then, as it approached, I realised that it was in fact a woman.

It was such an intense experience that I just had to capture it for myself. However, it was not until a few years later in Dubai, when I had acquired the equipment and expertise necessary, that I was able to execute it. Anyone trying to take a picture like this in Saudi Arabia would run the risk of ending up in prison, so in the more liberal country of the UAE, I was able to realise it.

It actually took me a year to find the right lady. Yes, there are lots of women with beautiful eyes in the Emirates, but finding an open-minded enough one to do it, now that was a challenge!

The picture itself was taken at dawn on the Burj Al Arab beach. I chose that time, because I wanted extremely soft light to fall on her and the sun to reflect in her eyes. It was winter, so the sea was freezing and we were both deep into it. It was an incredible experience. The model and I had only met a couple of times prior to the shoot so we actually got to know each other as it went on, finishing with a nice hot chocolate on the beach afterwards.

The photo is entitled "An Emerging Mystery" and I feel as though it is extremely symbolic of Muslim women's increasing prominence in the world, despite a continued mystery. The Saudi veil is so often portrayed negatively in the West that I hope to counteract that somewhat and prevent the Western public from being mislead. Many Muslim women actually choose to wear it and I am more than happy to respect that.

The image marks the beginning of a project that I have been wanting to carry out for some time. All we ever hear about Saudi Arabia seems to be negative, where as having lived there for 3 years, I can assure you that the reality is quite different. In fact, there are many things that we westerns could actually learn from them. I really admired and enjoyed the strength of their friendships, the closeness of their families, their sense of humour, and how friendly and generous they are. With this and other images I would like to try and redress the balance a bit and produce a book reflecting the more magical aspects of the kingdom."