Category Archives: Middle East

Final Thoughts on Saudi Arabia

With more than five months of Saudi Arabia in our rearview mirror, we still feel remnants of our time there all around us. We see faces that look familiar, hear voices that remind us of friends past, and taste resemblances in our food that is not as good but transports us back to local flavors that gave us comfort and joy. We still reminisce about life back there and talk about people who had an impact on us. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend that as quickly as it began, it ended.

I recently saw a picture from one of the first two weeks of our arrival, and I look younger, naive, excited. The past two years did not disappoint.

Maybe it’s because we enjoyed our time so much in Saudi that we signed up for a third year in the Middle East with Baghdad. Sure there were some hard times, but they weren’t enough to make us lose perspective of the day-to-day satisfaction of accomplishing our goal of living overseas and then taking advantage of the travel opportunities.

People want to know what it was like to live in Saudi Arabia and I always tell them that I loved it. They ask about things that they’ve seen on tv about the culture, and most of it is true, but none of it really made as much of a difference in our life there as the people we met.

The most difficult part of Saudi Arabia wasn’t with regard to the local culture. It was with the people who couldn’t hold up to the pressures at work and on the compound. These are the people who are miserable and want everyone else around them to be miserable. Transplant them out of a country that has many restrictions on entertainment, self-expression, mobility, activities, and for a few months of the year, good weather, and place them in paradise, and they will still be the ones to complain about something. Sure I complained. About said limitations listed above and other things. But I also stayed active and tried my best to make friends and have true cultural experiences that I could take home with me. My happiest memories came from opening myself up for opportunities to happen.

Of course, being a “yes person” also meant that I opened myself up to what David and I call “moochers” and after being burned several times, learned when and whom to say no. Make no mistake, being a moocher is quite possibly the worst offense. I can handle the complainers, however, the moochers are no friends of mine. You know the people. The ones who only call you when they need you. Yep, they are rampant in the expat community. Beware.

Aside from the complainers and moochers, Saudi Arabia was one of the best things that we could have done. Learning about a new culture firsthand is the beginning of compassion. The closure of a gap. It’s what makes us not so much as different, but the same. What was hard about life was also what made it special – the people.

Most of all, I miss the friends that I made. The ladies with whom I lunched, joked, and explored. They were willing to take chances at making life better, a lesson I learned almost ten years ago which changed my attitude and gave me hope. Maybe it’s because of the desolate and barren landscape, the loss of freedom, and the tendency to feel isolated that we continued to reach out to one another to look for the amiable hand that was reaching back. It was the shared feeling between all of us that we were in it together

I know Baghdad will be similar, although amplified, and we feel that Saudi was preparing us for this greater challenge.

Just as the California desert calls me home, the Middle East desert calls me back to continue the adventure.

 

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Ramadan

Let me begin by admitting my naïveté and say that I had never heard of Ramadan before moving to Saudi Arabia. Much of the Islamic culture is new to me and I am enjoying learning about it and experiencing it firsthand. I won’t try to explain the religious significance of Ramadan – you can Wikipedia it – but I will share my understandings after a month of observing it.

Ramadan began on June 18 and ended on July 17 this year, beginning and ending with a crescent moon. During this time, Muslims fast during the daylight hours, which depending on the time of year (it’s not always during summer) and location in the world (near or far from the equator) Muslims can be fasting for most of the day. Here in Saudi, Muslims fasted between 3:30AM and 6:30PM, eating and drinking only during the evenings. This is a month of deprivation and spirituality, some praying through the night between meals. Their fast is broken at sundown with a date followed by Iftar – a large meal – shared with family and friends. These can be big gatherings with elaborate spreads and are often a time of charity feeding those who are less fortunate. I am told that food is always in overabundance during Ramadan. Later in the evening is Suhoor, a smaller meal of snacks which can also be shared. Since Muslims are up through most of the night, in SA they tend to sleep through most of the day even working a reduced number of hours.

Decorations for Ramadan.

Decorations for Ramadan.

Oud player at Iftar.

Oud player at Iftar.

Some traditions that we were privileged to participate in are unique to the Eastern Province only. We were invited to enjoy a Geerga’an which marks the fifteenth day of Ramadan and is a kind of celebration by the locals. It is mostly for the children who traditionally receive candy and nuts, but many of the adults participate with dancing and eating as well. One notable aspect of the occasion is that women will dance in horse costumes and bang on drums…I’m not sure how this originated. We had a wonderfully sweaty time in the tent with everyone dancing and watching the kids have fun. As you can see from my pictures, the girls wear colorful dresses. Women also wear colorful and elaborate dresses called Jalabiyas during Ramadan, but only at home in private. I bought three for myself. 🙂

At the Geerga'an.

At the Geerga’an.

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In my Jalabiya.

In my Jalabiya, it was made in Kuwait.

Ramadan concludes with Eid, families and friends call upon each other and enjoy dates, chocolates, and cups of Arabic coffee. We paid our respects to our Saudi contacts and enjoyed wishing them “Eid Mubarak,” many will now travel during the rest of summer before school begins at the end of August. For us, we are just happy to go to restaurants again during the day.

Dates and fancy chocolates.

Fresh dates and fancy chocolates.

During Eid calls, it is customary to sit on couches that line the perimeter of the room.

During Eid calls, it is customary to sit on couches that line the perimeter of the room.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

Our primary purpose for this trip was not tourism, but rather a Jiu-Jitsu tournament sparked by David’s new found hobby. With this as our distraction, we didn’t see as much of Abu Dhabi as we maybe should have despite taking a tour bus around the city proper. We saw a couple sights the first two days and then spent our final day preparing for the long anticipated Jiu-Jitsu match.

My perspective might be a bit skewed now since I’ve been living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is no longer new to me, so much of what we saw in Abu Dhabi was like an extension of SA except for the fact that I didn’t have to wear an Abaya in public and alcohol is allowed. The things that draw tourists like souqs, camel rides in the desert, luxury hotels, and warm weather are all the norm for us now. Ha! It’s so strange to say!

The first day we took a Big Bus tour around the city to get a feel of what there was to see and do in Abu Dhabi. We did the same bus tour in Muscat and had a wonderful experience, but unfortunately it was a disappointment this time around. It was quite apparent from our bus tour that much of Abu Dhabi is still under heavy construction and development with few sights save for clusters of high-rise buildings, construction zones, flat desert, some mangroves, and the Gulf coastline (which is beautiful in its own right, of course). We missed the glamorous Emirates Palace which is actually a five star hotel that accommodates gawkers to look around the lobby and such. The Big Bus drove us by, but there was no stop in the immediate area to hop off so it would have required a separate taxi trip.

Abu Dhabi also boasts Ferrari World which is an amusement park with the world’s fastest roller coaster. It piqued David’s interest, but if you know anything about me it’s that I can live without terrifying death drops and heart stopping speed. My thrills are a little more simple. So we skipped that. Sorry David.

The main two attractions we felt worth exploring were the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque) and the Falcon Hospital.

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Crescent moon over the Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque is an absolutely magnificent sight, with eighty domes, white marble, gold-plated crystal chandeliers, and the largest Persian rug in the world (took two years to make and 2000 craftsmen). It was named after the first president of the United Arab Emirates the late Sheikh Zayed who was also the ruler of Abu Dhabi. There are seven Emirates each with its own respective ruler (Sheikh) and a federal government led by one of the sheikhs (President). We enjoyed walking around the mosque on our own, but it does operate two tour groups a day. As you can see from my pictures, the mosque is magical day and night.

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Persian rug close-up - largest in the world.

Persian rug close-up – largest in the world.

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The Falcon Hospital is such a unique site, it services over 11,000 local pet falcons a year with boarding, annual check-ups, surgeries, routine grooming, and feather repairs and treatment of other injuries. We were able to take a two hour tour of the facilities: museum, clinic, operating rooms, and aviary, as well as visit with the birds and even watch the veterinarian perform a routine check-up on one of the “patients.” They are remarkably heavy so it was interesting to learn that before breeders took over the falcon market, Bedouins would trap the birds as they migrated from mountainous regions like Germany and Pakistan to Africa and then tie them to their arms to perch twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for two weeks in order to tame the creatures. The Bedouins would then use them to hunt meat like gazelles and large roadrunners (houbara).

Falcon Hospital.

Falcon Hospital.

Hooded falcons, cool, calm, and collected.

Hooded falcons, cool, calm, and collected.

Just asleep, ready for her routine check-up and pedicure.

Just asleep, ready for her routine check-up and pedicure.

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In the wild they have three seasons: hunting (fall to winter), mating (spring), and molting (summer). The vet can actually tell the age of a falcon by the color of its feathers since every year they change a shade after the molting season. Wild falcons can live over twenty years while domesticated falcons live between fifteen and eighteen years.

Extra feathers collected during the molting season so veterinarians can fix broken wings.

Extra feathers collected during the molting season so veterinarians can fix broken wings.

Hooded falcon.

Hooded falcon.

Eating a chicken leg.

Eating a chicken leg.

There are three types of falcons that are most common, Peregrine (smallest and fastest), Saker (most persistent), and Gyr (largest and strongest). It should be noted that the female is the coveted sex since she is always much larger than the male.

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This one was flapping in my face.

This one was flapping in my face.

Arabs love their falcons and now use them for sport only since many are no longer nomads. Hunting is illegal so they fly to countries where falconry is still prevalent. Locally, they participate in competitions that test speed and measure beauty. It was funny to learn that when falcons travel they have their own falcon passport, and on select airlines owners can purchase a plane ticket and the falcon can ride in the cabin in its own seat! They are very much a part of the family. Wish we could do that for our dog!

Mm hmm.

Mm hmm.

Finally, the main purpose of our trip: the Jiu-Jitsu World Professional Championship 2015! Yes, that’s correct, World Professional Championship. The background story on this is that five months ago David decided he needed a hobby. Moving overseas and learning a new job and coping with different personalities in the workplace was proving stressful and he wanted an outlet. He found a local Jiu-Jitsu team and decided to take it up, practicing once or twice a week. This hobby soon turned into a second career as, at the encouragement of his teammates, he decided to sign up for a tournament in April. Well, between December and April, many things happened. The team disbanded in February and David was left to train mostly on his own with online instruction, a few colleagues, and a couple teammates from the old Jiu-Jitsu team, and we found out that it was the WORLD PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP tournament for which he was somehow allowed to sign up. During this time I voiced my opinion that going out three times a week after work to train until after eight o’clock was not kind on the wife who could not drive herself anywhere and was stuck watching the dog all afternoon and evening, not to mention doing all the chores and cooking, not to mention living overseas to support her husband, not to mention the weekends which were somehow being sucked away by Jiu-Jitsu…

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With all these variables, David made the best he could out of the challenges and persevered with the training in order to be competition ready. He converted fat to muscle, learned many different techniques, began going to Judo once a week where he could have the instruction of a coach and the support of a team and also where he earned his yellow belt. You would think this was the story of Rocky. Well, almost.

Once at the tournament I was so nervous for David, especially when I saw all these beefy guys from all over the world walking around the venue. David found out he would be fighting a Colombian named Isidro and the whole thing became real. Luckily he made weigh-in at 85kg after a whole day fasting and I could tell he was relieved to be a step closer but starting to get anxious. We feasted on pasta the night before the match and then suddenly, after months of training and hard work and all the struggles and balancing acts he had to perform, the day was upon us. I say “us” because I was just as much committed to him accomplishing this goal as he was. I ignored my nerves until we departed at the arena – he went to the warm-up area behind stage and I went to the stands. An hour-and-a-half behind schedule, he and his opponent finally made it out onto the mats for the fight.

The arena. Do you see the sheikhs hanging on the wall?

The arena. Do you see the sheikhs hanging on the wall?

VIP section.

VIP section.

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By this point, I was a stress ball. During my several hours in the stands waiting around, I came to realize that half the stadium was composed of Colombians. And every time a Colombian was out there fighting, the crowd would erupt with cheers and horns and chants. The athletes at this competition were the cream of the top of their country who had competed in many tournaments to be finally selected to move on to this championship. David had never competed and had only just started this as a hobby. (By the way, Abu Dhabi has branded itself as the Jiu-Jitsu capital of the world.) Oy vay.

The ridiculousness was real.

Abu Dhabi was presenting medals to the winners that were as big as salad plates! I mean. This was a big deal for many people! It was being televised!

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After a few beginner mistakes, the match finally was underway and I could not have been more proud. The Colombian was a beast and the crowd was going wild, but David hung in there until the end. He gave up a few points, but he DIDN’T submit (aka “tapout”). It was the longest five minutes of my life. The Colombians helped to count down the last ten seconds cinqoquatrotresdosuno…and it was finally done! There was so much relief! David had the biggest smile on his face, he had accomplished so much.

With a few bruises and cuts, he left with a couple souvenir shirts, some pictures, and the experience which still has him glowing and smiling when he talks about it.

C'est fini!

C’est fini!

Celebratory Shisha under the crescent moon.

Celebratory Shisha under the crescent moon.

As we left the tournament behind, he began talking about a rematch next year…oh joy. 😛

Abu Dhabi was an overall fun trip since it gave us a quiet escape and nice retreat from work. I continue to enjoy the Middle East discovering the neighboring countries to SA and unique cultures. There is still so much more to explore!

View from our room.

View from our room.

Mangroves.

Mangroves.

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Traditional Dhow in the Gulf.

Traditional Dhow in the Gulf.

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These guys.

These guys.

By the pool. No, that's not me.

By the pool. No, that’s not me.