Monthly Archives: March 2015

Not Your Average Farm House

Ever wonder what it would be like to visit a Saudi businessman’s farm house? Me neither. Let me tell you a story…

In the middle of the dusty desert, there is an oasis. As you and your companions voyage to this place of respite, you know something will be there to quench your thirst, rest your achy bones, and fill your empty belly, but you expect nothing more than a break from the elements. You travel down a dirt road several miles from the highway, past Bedouins, past camels, past unexplainable piles of used tires. Your eyes are weary of old sights and are eager to see something new. There are only so many shades of tan and brown that can color a landscape before it becomes a vision of God’s lazy expression. As you approach the large gates, men in white thobes and red headdresses open the doors and wave you through.

Suddenly the picture changes.

Generous green trees form a kind of tunnel overhead and shade your path. They lead you for a while along with large carousel horses posed intermittently and in varying stances. Some are lying down, regal and relaxed, some bucking, leaping, and dancing. Occasionally a mother and foal watch as you pass by. Then with the kind of attention seeking for which they are known, bright faced yellow sunflowers spring out here and there to say “look at me!” Well look at you.

At the end of the road, large marble houses with Arabic calligraphy scrawled on the walls meet you around the corner. You crane your neck to try and comprehend this wonderland. Luxury off road vehicles sit to the side waiting for their moment of glory in the wild.

A man with dark eyes and a black robe greets you at the door with confidence and benevolence. He ushers you inside where he plans to shower you with attention and hospitality until the day is done. One room after the next is as large and ostentatious as a five star hotel lobby. Lush rugs, pillows, couches, displays of cascading fresh fruits, baskets of chips and cookies and candies, fresh pastries, and attendants bringing Arabic coffee, cappuccinos, and tea. In the corner, two cooks work with a wood fire oven, pulling out fresh pizzas and calzones. You are invited to relax and enjoy the home.

He notices you have children, out come fifteen nannies – three for each child. A pillow fight ensues amongst them. You wonder how this place could be real.

An incomplete tour of the home reveals three GIANT sitting rooms each the size of a gymnasium; a large banquet hall; a guest quarters with fifteen hotel rooms, common room, and bar; an entertainment room complete with a stage, dancing floor, dining tables and chairs, and balcony seating to overlook it all; another guest quarters with multiple floors and innumerable suites; fifty single wide trailer homes from the Gulf war, most in original condition; and finally an indoor wave pool with a 3D ceiling of birds, dolphins, shellfish, and a vintage disco ball “like the one from Saturday Night Fever.”

And since this is a farm house – duh – your host wants to show you his farm. Your group piles into the waiting SUVs and caravans into the desert to view the greenhouses, shooting range, another home where people are gathered playing cards, camels, and ostriches, and to go digging in the desert for faga, a Saudi truffle.

Upon returning from the excursion, your host has arranged for lunch. He leads you into the banquet hall where at least ten chefs from around the world are preparing their regional cuisine: Middle Eastern, French, Italian, American, Chinese, Japanese. With so much to choose from, you try to eat it all but there is no way. Asparagus soup, smoked salmon, peking duck, shrimp tempura, chicken in mushroom cream sauce, roast beef, beef tenderloin with blue cheese, warm bread. They bring over the fresh faga cooked with rice and lamb. You eat until you can’t eat anymore – and then you head for dessert. Chocolate mousse, oum ali with rose water, tiramisu, crème brulee, éclairs, cream puffs, carrot cake, chocolate bomb cakes with Chantilly cream, a designated chef for making fresh crepes, and fresh from the oven orange and chocolate soufflés with vanilla ice cream. It is the most extravagant meal and you don’t want to leave. You attempt to grow a second stomach so you can go back for more.

Some of your companions have to move on and continue their journey back to the desert. Your group is more reluctant to say goodbye. The host senses the hesitation and eagerly exploits it by offering you hookah in the garden while the sun sets and a fire dance after it gets dark. Neither disappoints.

Finally it is time to be on your way, you have delayed your departure long enough. You decline invitations to stay in the hotel rooms because, alas, your journey cannot wait any longer. They load down your van with gifts of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and bell peppers. Your host hands you a box of miswak to chew on as you leave, something to savor the glow. And as you wave goodbye, fireworks explode in the sky, following you as you head down that tree-lined horse-guided path back to the entrance.

Laughing hysterically, you wonder what was this place? And as you continue on further into the desert you think maybe it was a mirage…

Nope. You have pictures. 🙂

 

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Half Moon Bay

A few weeks ago we were invited to the yacht club at Half Moon Bay. My acquaintance took us out for a ride on his sailboat. It was a tranquil experience floating across the bay letting the wind catch the sails. It was sunny and clear. I caught a glimpse of a jelly fish lingering at the surface of the water and our captain told me that the bay attracts thousands of them in the summertime. So many that they layer one on top of each other and bounce against the boat.

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The yacht club beach is private so women don’t have to cover up, although modest dress is still encouraged. David and I played bocce ball and snacked on watermelon and eggplant salad. Late in the afternoon we watched a pod of dolphins play in the bay, they lingered for an hour surfacing close to the shore and even jumping a few times.

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Just before sunset, we grabbed a nice table on the restaurant porch to enjoy the sun as it settled over the horizon. For appetizer there was Arabic bread, hummus, and olives, and for dinner I chose my local favorite hammour. It is buttery and flaky with a very delicate fish flavor.

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Pink, red, orange, and yellow colored the sky and just as the base of the sun touched the water we timed its descent. The bright disc sunk quickly and less than three minutes later it was gone behind the Gulf. And a perfect beach day was done.

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Culture Shock

Readjustment to life in a new culture is full of mental and emotional fluctuations that require frequent reality checks. For some, living as an expat in Saudi Arabia is as difficult as surviving its arid deserts in the middle of summer with no air conditioning or conveniences of modern technology. Of course, the heat is an adjustment, but thankfully we don’t live in tents or ride camels to get to work, therefore much of the struggle is related to government regulations, local attitudes, and cloistered surroundings. For many Western expats this means giving up alcohol, pork, and driving (if you’re a woman), learning to appreciate residential/ work compound activities and events, paying attention to security warnings, and accepting the fact that there will be few opportunities to engage on a friendly level with local Saudis – I, for one, am disappointed with this aspect. It’s the restrictions that pose the biggest shock and hardship. While Saudi culture is unique and very interesting, it doesn’t make for easy living if you have been accustomed to certain rights and treatment. To be sure, there is a significant amount of discrimination and prejudice governing this populous and it can be a challenging transition for those who do not share these ideologies.

Last August, just as we were gearing up to leave DC and move to SA, I took a class called, “The Realities of Foreign Service Life.” In it we discussed the idea of “culture shock” and how it can hit people at different times in their overseas journeys. They gave us a chart outlining the rollercoaster effect that’s likely to occur – if not to you, then to someone in your family. I tucked the chart away after the class and didn’t think about it until recently when it occurred to me that my newfound feelings of frustration and irritation were probably symptoms of culture shock.

A quick Google search will offer many variations on the ups and downs, this happens to be the chart they gave us in class.

A quick Google search will offer many variations on the ups and downs, this happens to be the chart they gave us in class.

At this point in time, almost six months in SA, the graph would put us on the downhill slope of the valley just about to hit the rocks below. Of course this is a general estimation maybe suggested by various psychology studies and is not to be taken too seriously, but it does have me questioning where it is that I really sit on the rollercoaster. Am I on the uphill, downhill, or sitting in the valley? Is the worst yet to come? I admit that recently my energy levels have decreased, I am less motivated to engage with the community, and I miss my freedom to drive and be spontaneous. There is an element of confinement that women in particular have to learn to cope with, but it is conceivably the biggest struggle for most since Saudi culture is very closed and regulated. The routine of going to work and then back to the housing compound every day is not healthy. Unless I get out and explore at least every other week, I begin to feel trapped. I keep my eyes out for possible excursions and sign up when they are convenient. David has found his coping mechanism amongst the routine and stresses to be weekly Jiu Jitsu practices. I learned in my class that this kind of stress management is called “plugging in.” The idea that you are doing something for yourself that makes you feel connected to the new environment.

Joining a new culture doesn’t necessarily mean moving overseas, culture shock can occur when moving from rural to urban life, when going to college, even when joining a new profession or club – any kind of transition to a new environment can throw a person into an existential crisis and state of chaos. The experience is not unique to any particular gender, race, or age (although it’s probably safe to say that teenagers and young adults are the most susceptible due to high school, college, and workplace transitions) – it can affect anyone, and I’ve witnessed it to be quite prevalent here. Mature men and women struggling with cultural differences, loneliness, homesickness, etc. and they are unhappy and unsettled. Maybe it’s annoyances at people, at the job, at the routine, at the customs or laws – whatever the causes – a build-up of environmental stresses will bury even the most resilient. This is the phase of “mental isolation” where people retreat within themselves and don’t engage openly or outwardly with others. Once the mind has been set that there is nothing to be gained, no one to understand, and nowhere to go from the present, it’s impossible to recover. Maybe it’s due to the cloistered atmosphere in SA, but many don’t seem to break from this period.

It is easy to see that everyone on some level is dealing with culture shock – even if they’ve been here for several years. One lady who has been here nearly three years once said to me that she was “tired of being kept in closets.” Before we went to Oman we were beginning to feel the pressure. With no break from work for five months, monotonous routines, and simmering feelings regarding wearing the abaya and riding as a passenger in the backseat, it was definitely time to get away and do something different. These breaks are absolutely essential to mental health and I can see why it has been recommended that people get away and leave the country every three months to reset.

Other aspects of Saudi culture that we’ve had to learn to cope with relate to the marginalization that we are expected to endure and tolerate since as diplomats (and I suppose invited guests) we are of course supposed to be diplomatic (or pleasant company). In Saudi culture there is a racial hierarchy and unless you are Saudi or white, you will receive lukewarm acknowledgment and respect. This was made apparent when David attempted to join a new Judo club and local children waiting outside the community center heckled him and tried to shoo him away. The manager also quoted him an exorbitant rate in order to use the facilities. As for gender biases, women are joining the workforce and seeking higher education (many I see going to the U.S. on student visas), but I still feel there is a lot of traditionalism at stake. A lot of women are very conservative and choose not to show their faces in public, sensitive to the gaze of men, even going so far as to cover their hands with gloves. In my sporadic conversations, one Arab man said women are “ministers of the home.” Of course there are progressive thinkers, the ones seeking more equality, but they tend to be understated. As I’ve mentioned before, the law preventing women from driving does not apply inside the compound walls and Saudi women in particular take advantage of this opportunity. A couple weeks ago, a couple young Saudi women drove me and a work colleague around their farm, they lamented that they were hoping the laws would change last year, but now with the new leadership they don’t think it will happen anytime soon. A lot of hope for change comes with an attitude of inshallah – “God willing” – rather than with social activism since it is quickly quieted by the government.

Finally, a note on security warnings. I have not gone to work for the last four days due to heightened security concerns mission-wide. It is a strange circumstance to find myself living in a region where terror threats are a daily concern, but it doesn’t feel completely foreign since the U.S. has long been a target of terrorists. In all reality, SA is a safe country to live. It’s my understanding from people who have lived here for five years or more that these security warnings from the embassy and consulates are rather routine, there has always been some group or another threatening Western expats. The warnings are something to pay attention to and a good reminder to stay alert of our surroundings at all times, noting any bizarre behavior while also preparing ourselves in case of an emergency. However, this time around, the security warnings have a slightly different feel to them – the pulse of the community is on standby. Coincidentally, the weather has been dark and gloomy these past four days, with gentle sprinklings here and there, like the clouds are waiting for the lingering threat to subside before parting. We are waiting and hoping for a peaceful return to business as usual.

Here are some pics from a recent camping trip in the desert:

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Muscat, Oman

After five months in Saudi Arabia it was time for a break, so we took a long weekend and headed to a highly touted tourist destination in the region, the Sultanate of Oman. The flight from Manama (Bahrain) was only ninety minutes and it gave us a fascinating view of the country by air. As we descended, the varied terrain changed from rugged mountains to flat desert within seconds. Oman hugs Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UAE with a long coastal border of the Indian Ocean. Geographically, the land has more to offer than just desert landscape and the Omani people not only have a Bedouin history, but that of agriculture and fishing. With such a diverse ecosystem, the country attracts many European tourists as the weather during the winter is warm – even *hot* – and there are plenty of outdoor activities: cycling, hiking, kayaking, jet skiing, swimming, diving, off-roading. We were told that there is amazing snorkeling as well, but didn’t have enough time to travel to these areas.

Omani people are very friendly and hospitable owing to their diverse cultural backgrounds and the hard work it took to develop their nation. Before 1970, the Imam (elected) ruled the interior lands while the sultan (royal title inherited by family) ruled the coastal regions. There were no hospitals, no cars, no electricity, and only three schools throughout the whole country. A war finally brought unity and Sultan Qaboos has since reigned for forty-five years. To modernize the country, the sultan brought back all Omani nationals who had previously left seeking work and education in developed countries to build a workforce and help develop an economy, infrastructure, and to continue educating locals. These Omanis brought with them new languages and cultural backgrounds thus creating a country respective of all cultures and religious practices, even boasting a designated stop on our Big Bus tour for “Churches and Temples.”

With Sultan Qaboos.

With Sultan Qaboos.

The sultan was educated in the UK and keeps a high standard of regulations for the country. Architecture must maintain a traditional Arabic flair, and buildings can be no higher than eight stories (to encourage urban spread moving out rather than up) and must be either cream or white in color. These restrictions were very noticeable to us since in Dhahran there is no architectural uniformity and many buildings are either falling apart, half completed, or covered in sand. In comparison, Muscat has beautifully developed and maintained infrastructure with roads, street lights, and signs (and safe drivers!!!), landscaping throughout the city, clean streets and shopping centers, with no trash anywhere. It is hard to believe that Oman is considered one of the poorest Arab nations with few oil reserves and Saudi Arabia is the richest when both respective governments contrast so greatly in their support and maintenance of developing their large cities.

Parliament building.

Parliament building.

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Three forts climbing the mountain.

Three forts climbing the mountain.

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We were greatly appreciative of the tourism that Oman promotes since it allowed us to see and experience a remarkable Arab culture with curiosity and excitement. We felt relaxed to wander, explore, and ask questions that we are timid to do here in SA. There is a candidness and sense of pride that Omani people appear to take in sharing their culture and traditions with foreigners. In particular, I found that visiting the Grand Mosque was the most rewarding experience of the trip. The mosque is open to nonmuslims during visitors’ hours and we were welcomed onto the grounds and into the prayer rooms to observe, take pictures, and ask attendants any questions we might dream up while walking around. After touring the grounds, we were invited into a room called the Islamic Cultural Center where we were greeted with Arabic coffee and dates. Again, we were encouraged to ask questions and our very gracious hosts responded openly and honestly without prejudice.

The Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque.

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Arabic calligraphy lines the arches.

Arabic calligraphy lines the arches.

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At 4,200 sq. meters, this is the second largest Persian rug in the world, the first is in Abu Dhabi. It took 600 Iranian women to weave, 200 women to come to Oman and put 58 pieces together, and 12 chartered planes to transport.

At 4,200 sq. meters, this is the second largest Persian rug in the world, the first is in Abu Dhabi. It took 600 Iranian women to weave, 200 women to come to Oman and put 58 pieces together, and 12 chartered planes to transport.

Ablution room.

Ablution room.

Inside the women's prayer room.

Inside the women’s prayer room.

It should be noted that historically, Oman was a popular stop for merchants along the trade route to India and China and thus developed quite a significant market. According to my Lonely Planet travel book, Southern Oman was the center of the frankincense trade as far back as 5000BC. We learned that before oil was discovered, frankincense was the hot trading commodity. There is still evidence of its popularity when walking through the souqs; small shops sell the dried sap and the traditional burners, and display its smoky aroma by burning a few grams to draw customers over. Walking through the souq is a fun experience, but don’t expect to haggle much or at least walk away with a good deal. I left with too many scarves and a couple of bowls that are most likely not worth what I paid for them. Surprisingly, I don’t regret that nearly as much as I regret walking away from some beautifully scented perfumes that they create by mixing oils. By the time I decided I really liked a certain flavor, we had meandered too far and for too long, and upon return the vendor had closed up for prayer time. Khalas.

Frankincense vendor.

Frankincense vendor.

Learning to tie a scarf at the souq.

Learning to tie a scarf at the souq.

Frankincense burner.

Frankincense burner.

I am glad that we didn’t get to see all of Oman on this trip because I would sure love to experience it again. Inshallah.

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Eating falafal, hummus, and shawarma, and drinking mango lassi.

Eating falafal, hummus, and shawarma, and drinking mango lassi.

Mutrah Fort.

Mutrah Fort.

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View from our room.

View from our room.

Would you like some coffee?

Would you like some coffee?