Monthly Archives: October 2014

Sunset Beach

Recently, a group of us (about thirty) were invited to be guests of a Saudi family at their private beach house. Some of our hosts have been successful businessmen who live a comfortable and affluent lifestyle (not uncommon for Saudis) with multiple homes, nice cars, and for this family, even a private yacht.

While Saudis are very private and reserved in public, they have a giving nature once (or if) you manage to bridge the cultural divide and gain their respect and trust. They are complex and dynamic: suspicious of strangers and segregated by family or single sections when in public, but warm and inviting and relaxed in dress and manner in their private compounds.

By nature, Saudis are hospitable people. Coming from a Bedouin society where they heavily relied on the charity of others in the harsh desert landscape, they view it as a kind of guardianship and obligation to be good hosts to visitors. I’ve read that Islam offers a certain protection to anyone on Muslim land, and Saudi Arabia is the “cradle of Islam.”

It was my first opportunity to really experience Saudi hospitality, and I have to say, I hope I have many more opportunities!

The family began the day by taking us on their yacht and touring the coast of the Persian Gulf. We saw many private beach houses and resorts, which provide Saudis the privacy to be in the water as they wish without worrying about the Muttawa (religious police). They served us a lunch of sandwiches and snacks, and encouraged us to comfortably relax inside the cabin or outside on the three different decks wherever we wanted.

View from the beach and our yacht for the day.

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These boys were relatives of our host who “escorted” and entertained us with a jet ski show during the course of our boating trip.

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This was the fishing boat that they shared with us as well for the fishermen in the group.

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Letting the wind catch my hair.

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After a couple hours, we headed back to the beach house. Saudi Arabia is composed of private compounds that take the shape of either private houses or private neighborhoods. Behind the high walls, Saudis have the freedom to dress as they like and women can even drive cars. This family’s beach house is similar to a vacation home, they come here once or twice a month to relax and play in the water. The compound is similar to that of a country club, with a nice spa and health club, pool, recreation rooms, restaurants, etc. The Saudis who own houses there drive Ferrari/Maserati/McLaren. They are certainly drinking from the oil wells – so to speak.

Beach and beach house.

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Tubing – I relived my “younger” years.

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Once at the beach house, we were free to use their rooms to change into our bathing suits and then head out to the sand and water. They brought water “toys” for us to play with: jet skis and a recreational boat for tubing.

After a long day in the sun, they served us the biggest display of Middle Eastern food: lamb, fish, chicken, rice, potatoes, vegetables, sauces, appetizers, cakes. Unfortunately, I still do not know the names of the different dishes, but I hope to enjoy such a feast again sometime to learn.

My favorite part of the day, was when a couple of the women of the family joined us. One was the sister-in-law to our host and the other was his daughter. They did not choose to unrobe, but their faces were at least exposed. Both were welcoming and sociable, cheerful to talk with us about their lives. I got to speak with the daughter who is 15 and still in school. She was very friendly and even offered to take a few of us around on the club car to tour the compound. That was actually a funny experience. After we all piled in, she drove us past all the facilities explaining each one while at the same time telling us that driving the club car was her favorite thing to do. I tell you, we circled the compound at least five times. I kept waving at the same guard over and over laughing to myself as we sped along as fast as that little golf cart would go.

When we finally arrived back at the beach house, everyone was already piling in the car to leave for home. I hope one day women are able to drive themselves around town in Saudi Arabia, it would be a huge step for them.

But what a day! There seems to be nothing like Saudi hospitality. This family not only offered up their water toys and opened up their home to us, they also gave us their time, which was truly special. It is not a common occurrence to share in that part of their culture since many of the time my interactions with them are limited to run-ins while shopping and they are not as friendly. As I said before, Saudis are quite suspicious of people unless they are close friends and it takes a while to build that trust.

They don’t call it Sunset Beach for just any reason.

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Photography in Saudi Arabia

I haven’t been taking many pictures since arriving in Dhahran which is weird for me. After getting an iPhone a couple years ago, I have been able to easily and quickly snap photos wherever I go. In Saudi, life is different. This private culture is not just closed off from the rest of the world, it is also closed off from itself. Pictures are not allowed in stores and I’ve been told that women, in particular, do not like pictures. Interesting since you can’t see anything but their eyes.

Coming from the U.S. where everyone is constantly taking photographs and posting them publicly for all the world to see, like, and share, it is hard for me use discretion. We’ve gotten used to cameras all around us recording our every move that they are an afterthought until we realize that people are probably watching us pick a wedgie in the elevator. One time, David and I were sitting on a planter eating dinner in New York City when I turned around to see a woman walking by with her camera a couple feet from my face videotaping the tulips in the planter behind me. With my mouth full of food, I gave her an annoyed look which I then shared with David, but did and said nothing else. She continued her movie of the tulips undisturbed while other people realized she had no regard for personal space or privacy and jumped out of her way. I felt violated for about five minutes and ranted a little about how rude people in the city were, but let it go pretty quickly. I now recall it with humor wondering if I am somewhere on the internet making a hideous face in front of a planter of tulips.

I understand the desire to not want a stranger taking your picture and also the security risks behind taking and posting pictures of certain buildings, etc. But why the sensitivity of taking pictures inside a supermarket? While Saudis are very conservative with public expression (both in dress and manner), they seem to have a wild side behind closed doors. I realized this after coming across numerous lingerie sections and stores. There are the skimpiest, flashiest, wildest ensembles and they are completely on display for everyone to see. I wanted to take a few pictures of interesting attire that I found to prove this bizarre dichotomy (lime green bra and panties marked with “Gangnam Style” Korean singer Psy’s face, anyone? How about velvet leopard print or lace with pearls? Anyone?), but there are large signs everywhere prohibiting photography!

David and I went down to Al Corniche (Arabic for “beach”) yesterday, and I felt so on guard about snapping any pictures. Saudi families were out on the grass with picnics overlooking the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf the Saudis would claim) and I wanted to capture the landscape. Despite the relaxed atmosphere, women were completely robed and covered, even when wading out into the water with the children. But since we were the only Westerners there and no one else was taking pictures, I had to be sensitive to their cultural privacy and could only discretely take them from a distance.

I am a visual person and rely on images to help tell a story. Even though the landscape is rather monochrome, there is a lot to see here and I hope to capture and share it. I assume that in time I will find courage to test the water a little more and take pictures until someone yells at me otherwise. Until then, dear readers, please excuse the sparse pictorial depictions of life in Saudi.

A couple of very distant photos of families down at the Corniche. Can you see the families picnicking under the trees and the women in the water?

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This is a very tall structure in the middle of the Gulf which I’m told is a restaurant. It is apparently finished but is waiting to open for a prince on his birthday in five years …or something like that. I wish I knew what it was called.


Shopping in Dhahran

After almost three weeks now in Saudi Arabia, I am beginning to notice things that leave me with mixed emotions of frustration and curiosity. While shopping means business to Saudis and they don’t want to drive away a customer, I have had some noteworthy experiences and lessons learned.

I traveled with a group of women to pick up my Abaya last week expecting it to be ready with the agreed upon alterations. I had asked for the sleeves to be shortened, the length at the bottom to be raised slightly so I wouldn’t trip while walking, and instead of snaps going all the way down the robe, to have a zipper from my waist to mid-calf. Traditional Abayas go over the head, so when you take them off, it feels like you are undressing which can be weird if you are out with other people – not to mention what it will do to your hair! The snaps are a better option so you can take it off like a coat, but they open up when you are walking. I wanted to take it one step further and incorporate a zipper in order to remove the possibility of revealing any leg while also giving me the convenience of easily removing it. EVERYTHING was “possible” the clerk assured me. Come back in a week he said.

When we arrived at the store, I found the same clerk who took my measurements and sold me the Abaya standing behind the counter. I showed him my receipt and asked him if it was finished and he at once began telling me how the zipper was not possible. It appeared that nothing had been changed. The Abaya was still too long, still too baggy, and the snaps were all still intact with no zipper in sight. One of the ladies with me is mom of four whom he preferred to talk to over me. He kept justifying to her that the Abaya was perfect the way it was with no alterations while I increasingly got more frustrated that he would not even look at me – the paying customer! Finally I told him I was done and I would take the Abaya as is, I was not about to wait another week to come back with nothing done to it – again. I paid him the previously agreed upon amount minus the cost of the zipper, although now I wish I had paid him even less since he never even touched it to fit my specifications.

When we were back in the car on our way again, I was fuming. Angry that he had originally assured me that “everything is possible” stringing me along for all the measurements and such and waiting more than a week to find out that he had no intention of ever doing anything to the Abaya. Furious that he would not talk to me. And then mad with a feeling that I had been cheated. Grrr. Later I realized that never gave me the Hijab (head covering) which was included in the price. Double grrr.

A sweet mom along for the ride with a couple of her daughters explained to me that maybe at the time he felt “everything is possible” because he did not want to disappoint me or lose a customer and that he would try to accommodate my requests. She also figured that he was only talking to her since she was older.

I knew before coming here that I would have difficulties in this country being a woman, and I still feel that I have made some kind of peace with the fact since this is only temporary and the opportunities far outweigh the struggles, but I’m coming to find that it is hard to swallow disregard no matter how much I’ve tried to mentally prepare myself. Back in the U.S., if you are friendly and respectful, it is more often than not that your consideration and effort is reciprocated. Here, when I am out shopping, few return a smile or want to answer my questions (with the exception of most third country nationals who are Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan and are very kind). I have heard that eye contact in some situations may be seen as aggressive, but I don’t know when and where it wouldn’t be appropriate yet.

Other notes on shopping:

While most brands and products are available to find here, expect to pay a premium on anything imported. Cereal is $5 a box, a small thing of sour cream is $6, and Cool Whip is $4. I bought shampoo and conditioner from a beauty store that came to $64. Those same products are half the price on Amazon. Thankfully, Amazon and Walmart ship to APO addresses, so I’ll be using them as much as I can. (I know, I know. Walmart, you ask? Don’t you hate Walmart, Sara? Yes. I’m dealing with it.)

I’ve learned that if I’m looking for some specialty item, I might have to go to a few different grocery stores before I find it. The next lesson I learned is that when I see it – buy it! Retailers do not stock any imported items with regularity. Saying that, all their produce is imported, so it is not very fresh and not very predictable. I walked around and around the produce section looking for tomatoes on my last grocery run and never found them. I even attempted to ask the produce clerk if he had any and he ignored me at first and then said “no.” I tried to pass it off as a language thing rather than a sexist thing.

I like buying dairy, eggs, bread, and chicken here. They come at very cheap prices. A huge tub of yogurt and thirty large eggs are sold for around $3.50. A loaf of bread is $1 and a package of chicken is about $4. I’m guessing the animal products are all organic and without hormones because chicken here is about 1/3 the size back home.

Luckily, to supplement our desire for brands and foods that we recognize, we have access to a commissary in Riyadh where we can purchase most of our American grocery items at comparable U.S. prices. Unfortunately, there is no schedule at the moment for us to count on ordering from the commissary weekly or even monthly. I was able to make a big order last week to stock our kitchen, but do not know when I’ll be able to do that again. Hopefully before Thanksgiving at least so I can buy a turkey.

One more thing that I’ve had to get used to: store hours. Saudis don’t come out until night, so many stores (save the grocery stores) open late in the day. The stores in the mall seem to keep to their own individual schedules, some are open during the day and all of them are open late at night. Store hours are not posted on the windows. Agh.

Aside: Plumerias grow abundantly here although I’ve only seen the white with yellow center variation. To bring some cheer to my otherwise sad garden, I bought one a couple weeks ago and it is doing well. See here:


Eid Holiday

Today we celebrated Eid al-Adha with the Saudis. Through a coordinated event, several Saudi families invited a group of us from work into their individual homes to drink, eat, enjoy incense, and share in conversation. This is an Eid holiday tradition for Saudis that happens twice a year. Eid is an Islamic holiday, but I am told that Saudis are one of the few Muslim countries that mark the day by going from house-to-house. One Saudi said it was similar to our Halloween in that they door hop and receive treats in the process. Yes…and no…. Friends and families go around to each others’ homes to pay their respects and enjoy breakfast or lunch or snacks and sweets in elaborate fashion. The whole affair can begin as early as six in the morning and continue until mid-afternoon. We started at eight o’clock and went to five different homes where we were received by the men of the family (women were noticeably unseen) until close to three in the afternoon. Moving along the receiving line we would shake their hands wishing them “Eid Mubarak.”

These homes looked like the Beverly Hills of Saudi Arabia. With high walls and gates protecting their privacy, the Saudi businessmen have large compound houses with arched windows and doors and marble from floor to ceiling. Rugs cover most of the floor surface area and elaborate chandeliers hang in the center of the rooms. There’s a palatial Middle Eastern style to the architecture and decorations. One of the families had a giant tent about the size of a small gymnasium which they renovated to include modern luxuries (marbled flooring, A/C, a flat screen TV airing the Hajj) – the homeowner said it was a nod to their traditionally nomadic lifestyle.

The tent:

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The seating rooms into which we were invited were situated as long rectangles with couches and chairs along the perimeter accompanied by small tables set with crystal dishes and silver platters of chocolates, dates, and nuts. Servers would bring around trays of coffee, hot sweet tea, cookies, and baklava. Suffice it to say, we were overwhelmed by their generosity and felt like royalty with the lavish surroundings and indulgences. At times I felt a little out of place too, but I tried to ignore those feelings and enjoy the unique opportunity.

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It was my first time interacting with local Saudis on a conversational basis and I am not quite prepared to make any conclusions on the subject except to say that some Saudi men were interested in talking to me while some were not in the least bit inclined to even shake my hand or look at me. I had a very in-depth conversation with one man who explained to me that some families in Saudi have sensitivities and want men and women segregated while others enjoy mixing. He said that forty or fifty years ago, life was different – “better” – in Saudi Arabia. Women would walk outside without a Hijab or covering their faces and even drove. He couldn’t quite explain why the shift towards extreme conservatism, but related it to recent events in Iraq and Syria, noting that much of it is political.

The second to last home that we visited served us a beautiful buffet lunch. We had goat, veal, fish, chicken, hummus, tabbouleh, grape leaves, and rice. For dessert there was fruit tart, date pastries, cheese, nuts, fresh fruit, a soft pastry soaked in rose water, and a kind of pancake with soft cheese and honey. For drink, we had apple cider, tropical juice (maybe mango?), and lemonade with mint. Saudis are big on juices since they are a dry nation.

Yes, we were essentially eating and drinking all day. Cue the chipmunk face.

The Eid holiday continues through the rest of the week so we have off from work. I’m looking forward to catching up on sleep and my writing, and doing a little sightseeing in Dhahran. We still do not have internet. Productivity has stalled.

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