Ramadan Redeemed My Saudi Experience

I was so ready to leave Saudi Arabia. It hadn’t been the best of experiences and certain events threatened to taint the overall adventure of living in the Middle East. In fact, when we landed in Los Angeles after our 14-hour flight from Jeddah, I purposefully left my abaya piled in one of the seats on the plane.

The redeeming component of our Saudi Experience was the fact that we ended our time in Jeddah during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. Ramadan permeated every aspect of the day. Students and staff, along with the entire country, were fasting from sunrise to sunset for the entire month. School started late. All discussions centered around Ramadan and topics of self-control, devotion, and compassion for those less fortunate. Students clearly loved the time with family and the night time feasting. Businesses and activity opened at 9 p.m. and the entire city was a hustle and bustle all night. One could go shopping at 2 a.m. if one wanted. It was a crazy time but Ramadan became special to me through a dear friend, “F”.  On three separate occasions, we fasted together and then shared the Iftar meal together.

On the first occasion, my family and I went with “F” to a typical western restaurant, the Cheesecake factory to have dinner. It was “F”’s first time eating out during Ramadan and it was our first time sharing the Iftar meal, the meal to break the daily fast, with others. During Ramadan, no food is served before Iftar in any homes or restaurants in Saudi Arabia. The doors of the Cheesecake factory opened at 6:00 p.m. and people were seated and able to select their menu options. Then, at 6:50 p,m, dates and water, the traditional items eaten when breaking fast,  were brought to the tables. At 7:02 p.m. as everyone in the restaurant (which was now at full capacity) partook of dates and water, the meals are delivered en masse to the tables. The room was full of couples, families, and friends sharing in the ‘same’ meal and celebrating the blessings of life together.

Our Iftar Feast

Our Iftar Feast

On another evening, “F” and I partook of Iftar at a Turkish restaurant. There, the meal was set at one price and the same feast was served to all who were in the restaurant. Again, at 7:00 p.m. dates and water were on the table. After the dates and water, “F” slipped away, along with several others,  for the Maghrib prayer. While she was gone, the food kept filling up our table. And upon her return, we had a true feast before us. We spent the evening sharing our gratitude for friendship and the many wonderful things that had happened to each of us during our time in Saudi Arabia.

“F” also invited me to join her and her family for Iftar one night. This proved to be a journey of a lifetime.

We met at 6:00 p.m. as it was necessary for us to arrive well before the Iftar time to ensure our taxi driver could make it back to his home in time to enjoy the Iftar meal with his family. He dropped us off at the corner of a dusty dirt road intersection. White-clad men and black-shrouded women filled the streets, often pausing to stare at me, an obvious foreigner in these parts.

Despite my friend’s assurances that I was a welcomed guest, I still felt nervous that I might be imposing and I simply was not sure what to expect. We made our way up the stairs to the apartment where we were very warmly received. I slipped the sandals from my feet and entered the room reserved for guests. Upon my entrance, the men and boys scattered and I didn’t see another one for the rest of the evening, as it is not appropriate for men and women who aren’t closely related to mix. The room was brightly colored and the furniture big and comfortable. I met the sisters first. One was engaged in a pre-arranged marriage and works in the hotel business. Another just spent a year teaching in Malaysia and speaks excellent English. And one that studied business, she’s full of laughter, smiles, and curiosity. Two younger ones also appear. And they are all radiant and beautiful. The matriarch, a mother of 14 children, is warm and magnanimous. There is the talk of the upcoming wedding. They tell me the future husband has visited their home twice: once to meet the sister and a second time to arrange the marriage. I ask what would have happened if he had decided he’d rather marry one of the other sisters. They break out in laughter, “Oh, he hasn’t seen any of the rest of us. We’re protected.” He is related to the husband of the oldest sister. They live in London with their children. After the marriage, sister number 2 will also move to London and begin a new life there. And, the marriages will continue to be arranged from oldest to youngest.

Then, the table is pushed to the edge of the room and plastic spread out over the rich Arabian carpet. Food fills space and aromas entice the appetite. We settle down on the floor around the food and continue our discussion and enjoy the meal together. It’s clear that it’s important to them that I try everything. Though they eat without plates or utensils they push a plate towards me, recognizing my potential unfamiliarity with their ways. Each bite is a pleasure. When we are finished, those who didn’t cook clear away the food. When I ask about how the labor is divided they go into great detail about the fact that so-and-so is menstruating so she can’t fast so therefore she cooks. They talk very openly about this aspect of being a woman in their culture and how awful it is to later make up the lost fasting days when Ramadan is over and no one around them is fasting.

This was taken in the mosque after the prayer. I respect my friend's extreme sense of privacy and include no pictures of her or her family.

This was taken in the mosque after the prayer. I respect my friend's extreme sense of privacy and include no pictures of her or her family.

We then prepare to go to the Mosque. The mother adjusts my hijab and pins me up. I look like a nun, and even “F” laughs in agreement. We walk to the Mosque together. As we approach the building the younger girls run ahead in excitement. We go upstairs to the women’s section where women are already lined up in preparation to pray. Niqabs are removed and their faces are radiant with anticipation. They all stare at me. We line up together and begin our praying. I try to follow along and find the rhythm of the standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostration. After each round my friend places her hands on my shoulder exclaiming, “Ma’ sh allah”, you made it! You did it!” My ankles are hurting and I am finding it difficult to find a comfortable position - all those around me notice and offer up suggestions of other ways to kneel. A woman turns and asks my friend where I’m from and whether I’m converting to Islam. There is obvious curiosity regarding this strange foreigner in their midst. By the end of the prayer my friend is glowing with joy. Both joy in her own prayer and joy in my presence. As we leave the Mosque, her ‘sister’ asks, “What did you feel as you prayed?” I’m careful but honest with my words as I do not want to offend, “I was comparing to what I know.” she presses further, “But did you feel anything special? Did you have any certain feelings?” Perhaps she is saddened by my response, “I am a scientist so I like to think about things and observe before forming opinions or focusing on feelings” but accepts my honest reply without showing disappointment and without visible judgment. She genuinely and warmly smiles as we make our way back to their home.

Desert is brought out and discussion continues. At one point I ask one of the sister’s her age and she laughs and avoids a direct answer. She also informs me that discussing age is such an intimate topic. I chuckle a bit too and tell her that, in my culture, speaking of menstruation is also an intimate topic. To this incomprehensible thought she bursts out in boisterous laughter and genuinely baffled, asks, ‘but how is that even intimate?’

Towards midnight I’m feeling tired and wonder when we’ll go home at which point my friend says, “We still have to do our henna!” I can’t believe it but we start the process at about 12:40 a.m. and the joyous one begins to plan a design with the input of her sisters which she largely ignores. She goes to work with ease and the perfectionism of a true artist.  I instantly love her work. She handles my arms and legs with gentleness and love. Though it’s late I thoroughly enjoy the company of these women and their conversation. The lack of men has an interesting contribution. There is a level of relaxation and intimacy that couldn’t be there with men in the room. I don’t get home until 2:30 in the morning (and still have to get up at 7:00 for work!) but my heart is touched and warmed by my Iftar feast with these remarkable women.

The strangest thing for me in my return to the U.S. the week after this experience was the total lack of awareness of Ramadan in the daily routines. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s not like I was aware of this significant Muslim time before living in the Middle East.  Suddenly I realized that even though I was so eager to leave my abaya on the plane, there were aspects that I missed!

My henna. I loved it and was happy it stayed with me for a couple of months

My henna. I loved it and was happy it stayed with me for a couple of months

It seems so far away. The heat and sunshine I can recollect. But the essence of the country remains distant. The fading henna was a reminder that it was all real. And my WhatsApp correspondence with “F” signifies our continuing friendship. A friendship that, unlike the henna on my hands and feet, will not fade. As with all locations, what makes an experience meaningful is the relationships formed. In addition to friendships with Westerners and those from the far East, Arab and Muslim friends made our time in Saudi a warm and enriching experience.

Christmas without Presents

“We chose to cry on Christmas morning” - that’s how my 15-year old described our decision to forego Christmas Presents this year.

But it isn’t what you might think. Earlier in the month I had asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he replied, “Well, I really have everything I need.” And he couldn’t produce a list. He then expressed how excited he was to see his siblings that were planning to travel to the Kingdom to visit us.

We spent the month of December doing random acts of service, mostly taking cookies or treats to people. Our son offered free baby-sitting to the teachers at our school. The week of Christmas, the day after the scheduled arrival of our college-aged children, we gathered with friends for a celebration of the birth of Christ by reading from the scriptures and singing songs and eating Christmas cookies by candle-light. Love and light filled the room.

As we faced the countdown before Christmas day, it became apparent that none of us needed or really wanted anything that could be placed under the Christmas tree. The college-aged kids have a few needs but, seriously, how fun is it to get jumper cables for Christmas, much less drag them in luggage from Saudi Arabia back to the USA? Truthfully, through out the college years our college-aged kiddos benefit from receiving items as they come up: extra bedsheets, a hot water kettle, an electric toothbrush, help with expenses. Those things don’t need to go under the tree nor should they wait until Christmas rolls around.

So, we decided to have an exchange of personal thoughts/appreciation/memories of each other instead of a gift exchange.  We left it open as to the content and the format. In between afternoons at the pool and family games, we worked throughout the week on our “Sharings”. Then we dedicated some time right before Christmas where we all concentrated our efforts on our work. I had no idea what to expect.

We gathered on Christmas morning for our breakfast of crepes. There was an unexpected air of anticipation. “So when are we going to share?” came the first excited question. Everyone couldn’t wait to give his/her “gift” - it was like we all had presents hidden in our pockets. After breakfast everyone bounced to the living room as though there was a stack of gifts waiting to be opened!

Youngest went first. That meant we all shared our thoughts on him. Then, we all shared our thoughts on the next youngest. And that’s when the tears began to flow as “the baby” expressed appreciation for his older sister and then an older brother and couldn’t understand why he was “so choked up”.  The older brother became choked up and remarked, “Now that doesn’t happen very often!”. And on it went as each person shared insights in the forms of poetry, rap songs (complete with music on garage band), stories, and free writing. Lots of hugging and gratitude followed. Personally, I was touched by the sincerity offered up by everyone on my behalf. Daring to speak for the others, I think they felt as I did regarding all the words shared about each one of them.

Our Home-made tree made from pallets and bed slats found in a gutted building on our compound.

Our Home-made tree made from pallets and bed slats found in a gutted building on our compound.

We then went diving together as a family and enjoyed God’s beautiful creation of life beneath the surface of the sea. While discussing the sights, we realized we were hungry. Someone expressed a desire for a burger so, since we’re in Saudi Arabia, where Christmas is not part of life here, we went out for burgers! No slaving in the kitchen for me. Our simple pleasure continued as we ‘built’ our burgers, sharing preferences and imagining combinations. Later, upon returning to the glow of our homemade tree, we sampled my homemade Christmas cookies and continued enjoying each other’s company into the evening. 

A beautiful Christmas without Presents is possible.

Diving as a family ending up being a wonderful way to spend Christmas Afternoon together.

Diving as a family ending up being a wonderful way to spend Christmas Afternoon together.

Are We Safe in Saudi Arabia?

My 13-year old son said of our summertime in the States, “It kind-of annoyed me how almost everyone asked me if I ‘felt safe’ in Saudi Arabia.” It’s true, that was the number one question (or varieties of it) that we fielded this past summer. Upon our return to Saudi Arabia we took a trip to Taif where I was faced head-on with whether I truly feel safe:

Mingling at the Souk

We join the throngs of Saudi men and women working their way from the parking lot towards the Souk (marketplace) area. As I step up onto the curb and enter the Souk, it is apparent to me how out of place we were. The admonishing words of caution from our school echo into my mind of “avoiding large crowds” and “being aware of our surroundings”.

We have inadvertently placed ourselves as American expats in the middle of a large crowd of Saudi Arabians. There are no other non-Arabian faces in the crowd. Plus, my daughter and I are the only women whose heads are uncovered. The blond hair of the five members of our group seems to be a beacon that attracts a spotlight on us accompanied by a loudspeaker blaring, “Foreigners!”  I momentarily question our choice to come here and wonder if I’ve put my children in danger. No one else in my party is even remotely concerned and we press forward.

One of the festival activities.

The parade

A gathering of people line the street that runs through the Souk, apparently waiting for the horses and camels that momentarily race in front of the crowd, hooves pounding the earth and kicking up dust on the way. We push our way to the edge for a better view. There are other competitions including horses jumping over flaming obstacles. Then, a procession of men dressed as merchants and travelers of old, horses decorated with bright colors carrying anciently clad riders, and a loaded camel caravan parade in front of us. Someone explains that this is a festival tradition to display how tradesmen traveled anciently. As we all peer at the spectacle on the road, many are also peering at us, the spectacle at the side-lines. Some begin to talk with us and ask us where we are from. They enthusiastically tell us of a brother, sister, aunt, uncle or cousin that lives in the U.S.A. From California to New York, their relatives are happy there.

The camel caravan.

We move deeper into the Souk past small shops and we find what we are initially looking for: some local food for dinner. Each person who passes us looks with interest. Some attempt discreet photos or videos of us with their phones. When we turn to look at them they whip their phones around into the air, pretending to record something other than us. Our meal in hand, we find a seat next to other Saudi families enjoying picnics together. As people continue to photograph us we begin to wave and smile at them, letting them know it’s OK with us. It startles a few but it emboldens others. Soon requests for selfies are being made. Then, children are pushed towards us or pressed into our laps for additional photos. The children are confused at our appearance. Some are even frightened.  Is it our lack of covering? Is it our blue eyes? Is it our straight blond hair? In any case, they soon realize that we aren’t a threat and begin to enjoy this spontaneous photo session with strangers.

Here she is after removing the niqab.

A young woman requests a photo without her niqab (she is in the clip on the left before removing it). I wonder why she wants to remove it for the photo and what gives her the personal freedom to do so (because I know of examples where women are very uncomfortable with the thought of removing it in public). Later, as we are saying good-bye, she asks me, “Do you like my culture?” It’s impossible to mask my hesitance as a thousand thoughts race through my mind regarding the rules imposed upon women and the laws surrounding the interaction between men and women, the laws preventing non-Muslims to certain areas, and the laws prohibiting pork and alcohol. Many questions are bursting within me nearly bubbling out. Instead I reply, “We really like it here. We like living here.” She smiles and presses me further, “But do you have a problem with my culture?” She knows my reply masks something but I insist, “No, I do not have a problem with your culture.” She smiles and bows slightly as she shifts away into the crowd of shrouded women.

As we exit one of the exposition buildings, another woman’s voice calls to us, “Did you see the art?” I search the eyes peeking out from behind the niqabs and I see a set of familiar eyes from the camel races. Her eyes sparkle with warmth and friendliness as she continues, “Did you see the art?” “What art?” we reply because no, in fact, we saw no art. I didn’t even know there was art in Saudi Arabia. She eagerly beckons us to follow her. We pass by the furniture exhibits to a small enclosure off to the side and sure enough, as we enter, there are paintings hanging from the make-shift walls. Our guide introduces us to the artist of some of the paintings. The creativity, beauty and depth of these works touch us. I wish I had taken some photos. Our Saudi Arabian guide is clearly proud of this exhibit and makes sure we see all of the paintings.

Evening has descended upon us. We are heading back to our car.

We meander with the crowds, heading in the direction of our car. People continue to smile and wave and take pictures. As I slip into the back seat of our car behind the protection of our tinted windows, I remove my abaya and look out at the crowds of families moving to and from the Souk. My son turns to me and notes, “This country is nothing like what American media wants you to think”.

We bask in the delicious memories of an enjoyed evening with the people of our host country.  Our Saudi Arabian friends were with their families, as we were. Side by side we were entertained by the races, we enjoyed delicious foods and we meandered through the crowds taking in the sights. We took interest in each other and had genuine exchanges of good will.

Did I feel safe and welcomed? Absolutely. In fact, I have never felt unsafe in Saudi Arabia. I have, however, felt unsafe in downtown Chicago, New York, or even Las Cruces, New Mexico.

I am reminded of the glorious conclusion I’ve heard my Muslim and Christian students reach following a discussion on their religions and family traditions, “So, we’re just the same.” Before casting judgment on any region or group of people in this world, I challenge you to find a way to get to know who they really are. Chances are, you’ll realize that we really are all just the same. We are human beings trying to make sense of this world, etch out a happy existence, and keep our families safe.


The Resounding Summons to Supplication

My husband and I locked inside the grocery store during prayer time. Being silly about it.

“We’ll get into the store and get our vegetables weighed before the prayer,” informs our guide, DS. The welcoming committee member from the school is taking us grocery shopping for the first time in Jeddah. Sure enough, just as the store employee finishes off weighing our produce the loudspeaker echoes the call for prayer. Our produce man weighs the final bag of cucumbers, sets them on the counter for us and then turns and walks away. Soon it's clear to me that there isn’t a single worker to be seen. They’ve all gone to prayer,” DS explains. The cash registers are silent and a queue of customers is patiently waiting for the return of the check-out attendant. The roll-up doors have been pulled down preventing the exit of any shoppers. We’re essentially trapped inside the store. However, we continue our shopping and arrive at the registers just as check-out resumes. DS further explains that we’ll become accustomed to checking the prayer schedule before planning any outings.

It’s true, the prayer schedule is a determining factor in scheduling our day. We must always consider whether to arrive just before prayer in order to race to the produce section and get all the vegetables weighed before prayer or to wait until just after the prayer. Or do we go in-between and risk getting stuck at the counter just as prayers begin and then settle into a ½ hour of aisle cruising? Once in the store this call to prayer has become a signal to either get out of the store quickly or settle into another ½ of shopping.

The call to prayer can be heard at every location in the city as mosques resound the summons for all Muslims to prayer six times a day. You can’t escape it. The sounds seep into your home and blare at you on the street. While the sounds may diminish as you walk away from the mosque, other calls will greet you from another mosque. The call to prayer literally penetrates every corner of the city six times a day. I'll admit, I'm glad I don't live next door to a mosque, as the resounding interruptions would be vexatious to me.

Some men will make their way to a mosque while others will pull out their carpets and drop to their knees right on the concrete, offering up their oblations despite the flow of pedestrians.

The mosque inside our compound.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was mid-way through my morning run the call for prayer reverberated through the empty street. I was headed in the direction of the Mosque that is situated on our compound and the call for prayer became increasingly louder. I don’t know if it was my meditative state of being 3.5 miles into a 7 mile run but I found the melodic call beautiful on that dark morning. It rang loud and clear inviting men to prayer. As I turned into the parking lot of the Mosque, I was surprised to see that not only was the lot packed with standing cars but there was a steady stream of young and older men arriving by foot.  I was touched, especially by the sight of a myriad of young men approximately 18-24 years of age heading toward the mosque.

It didn’t seem like any one was forcing them to get out of bed and proceed to the Mosque at 5:20 in the morning to pray. Maybe there is social pressure for some but I would venture to say that many are going out of duty to their faith, in an effort to be favorable people.

Can we not all learn something from this dedication?

What if we all chunked our day into 2-3 hour segments and worked on being a better person in that time? What if all of us, regardless of beliefs, selected a personal mantra, value or quality to focus on in that time slot? What if we really tried to act in accordance with the chosen trait? I would start with seeking to have true patience in my heart for unmotivated students. Or working on expressing gratitude for my husband and all he does to work towards teamwork in our marriage.

What if all of humankind divided the day into six parts and each segment was dedicated to a higher purpose? Imagine how much better our world would be.


Bouncing Back from Disappointment

A few days before classes were to resume I began to feel an impending dread and doom. I could not imagine how I could possibly be prepared to set foot in the school again and to face my colleagues or my students.

Living outside of one’s home country for professional reasons has its challenges, separation from family being a major one.  We were assured that we could bring children into Saudi Arabia to visit us for holidays and thus made plans for two of our children to come. However, it ended up being a futile plan. From the beginning of November we were strung along with empty promises of “2-3 days” processing time of the visas. Delay after delay occurred between the approval in KSA and the actual stamp from the embassy in Washington D.C. Night after night of late calls with Washington D.C. and the airlines accompanied with raised hopes then dashed hopes was exhausting.  As a result, holiday replenishment never occurred and returning to work seemed unbearable. Additionally, though exercise remained on my daily schedule, I fell into the endless bins of cookies I had baked for my children and munched on chips and other unhealthy snacks, easily gaining 4 kilograms (9 pounds) in a short period of time.

Furthermore, the moment of realization and acceptance that we would definitely not be visiting with our children instantly overwhelmed me with a feeling of pointlessness and senselessness. No job and no amount of money was worth being kept from family. Exhausted from the many sleepless nights and emotional drain, I slept for an entire day. New Year’s Eve left me absolutely unable to attend a previously planned party. I couldn’t face any aspect of my now meaningless employment as it now no longer held any value to me having kept me from those I love.

However, I had to figure out how to carry on without being bitter or angry with the country, the culture, or my school.

Out and about in Old Jeddah

Each day was structured with an excursion of some sort with my family and a couple of hours of work time. Thus, I was enabled to force myself to catch up on grading and prepping for the first week of classes, a painful but worthwhile endeavor. Additionally, the avoidance of social media and an increased commitment to exercise, eating better, reading novels, and setting aside writing time contributed to taking care of myself through this emotional time. I still wasn’t sure if I was recovered enough to actually return to work.

The dreaded moment arrived: the first day of post-holiday school. At 6:15 a.m. the bus was boarded. Then the walk to my classroom completed. So far so good.

The first set of students wandered in with jubilant greetings and well-wishing for a “Happy New Year.” It’s not so bad and yes, even feels O.K. We’re productive. There are positive vibes. The second and third classes of the day continue in the same manner. That night I continue to avoid all social media and make sure to complete a run, work on a writing piece, and read my novel, as well as go to bed early.

The second day of classes is equally positive with the other half of my students. During one class, however, I feel suddenly sentimental when thoughts of my children that were supposed to be here enter my mind. And despite exerting all of my will power and self-control, I get a little choked up. I continue walking my students through the “Research Plan” for their Science Fair projects. But someone spontaneously asks, “Are you O.K.?” Apparently I can’t hide it. This has never happened to me before. Another student runs to the front and embraces me in a big hug, “Are you OK?” They are genuinely concerned and it touches me. I’m so worried that uncontrolled sobbing will consume me if I give in even a little to the brimming tears.  But thankfully not a single tear spills from the rims of my eyes and I’m able to carry on. But the emotion is there, ever at the surface. The day ends without incident.  As before, the evening includes a run, some writing, reading of my novel, almost no media, and an early retirement to bed.

Things should be better soon, right?

Indeed, day three is significantly better. Only a couple of times do my eyes brim with tears when closer colleagues ask how my Christmas vacation was. With students I am 100% myself again. In fact, I’m actually feeling happy at several times during the day. Still avoiding social media, I go on a swim, do some writing, and read in my novel. We spend a couple of hours with friends.

And day four, I feel normal again. No tears. It just feels good all day. So, it seems recovery is occurring. In the evening my run is still completed, along with a bit of writing and, of course, my reading.

A full 4 weeks have transpired since returning to school after disappointment. My days begin with my morning exercise, Skype calls with family, getting to school early, leaving school on time. Each evening includes taking time to prepare healthy meals and our family dinner. The routine then includes some reading and writing and more Skype calls with family. Usually bedtime occurs between 20:00 and 20:30 so that my body will rise early without an alarm clock. And I feel great. I have no bitter feelings about what happened over Christmas and I enjoy the people I am surrounded with.

My thoughts on feeling better after disappointment? It's so simple, really: take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, stimulate your brain, and be in touch with your emotional needs. And, with time, you will feel better.