Love Knows No Boundaries

I have been out of the kingdom for over a year now and have not written a blog entry since leaving, although many people have urged me repeatedly to write about how I felt returning to the U.S. At first, of course, I was ecstatic to see and spend time with family and friends, but I quickly returned to old routines and honestly didn’t feel inspiration enough to write. Perhaps the faster pace of life in the U.S. made it difficult. However, deep down, I knew they were right and I felt a tad guilty for not having done so previously. Still, writing now continues to be difficult and I probably would not be doing so except for an email that I recently received from one of my Saudi students whom I have kept in contact with.
There is no doubt that the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi made it more difficult for me living there. It is true that as I now look down at my tanned legs in shorts or think about the sweet glass of red wine I enjoyed at a public outdoor café recently, I am indeed thankful for these small freedoms I can enjoy again. However, when I look back at my year in the kingdom, it is not the restrictions, or other difficulties, that I really remember. It is the few special people whom I connected with. Some of those people were Saudi and others were foreign teachers from all parts of the world who will always have a place in my heart. Beyond that, I have this awesome feeling that I did something that had a positive effect on someone a half a world away who was not of my blood, culture, language, or religion. I enjoy a confirmation that love truly has no boundaries and can cross all borders. Keeping her anonymous, I would like to share the email that inspired me to write again.

Dear teacher Janine
I miss u so much and I hope u doing fine.
For me everything is going fine my English language getting better and better that because of you.
I just wanna thank u so much for what u did to me you really inspired me to be who im today
You’re not only my teacher you’re like my second mom. I really love u so much and I missed u so much.
You were such a great friend and teacher for me. I’ll never forget you.
I just wanna let u know that my studying is going okay and I’ll finish university after 3 years then I’ll be training at hospital for 6 months after that im going to America and I hope that I can meet u and meet ur family
It’s summer vacation now. So im with all my family in south of saudi arabi in my hometown. It’s gonna be an amazing vacation coz my sis will give birth a new babe soon and its a girl. So we are really so exciting.
Anyway I just wanna let u know that I love you so much and I wish u all the best in ur life. I hope we can skype soon.
Love u so much ❤ ❤
Don't forget do tell me about. everything going on in ur life when got my Emails
With love
Ur student

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 11,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 18 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Colors of Men

I had been thinking of home a lot lately. Perhaps that was because I missed Thanksgiving with my family. It’s a pit you have to be careful not to fall into here, or life here can seem unbearable. I was also thinking about how I missed the Autumn leaves changing color and how beautiful those leaves looked on a windy day. Most things here are the same sandy brown color. So, not wanting to fall into that pit, I called a friend and asked her to go shopping.
Shopping is jokingly known in the West as a cure-all for most women who are having a down day and want to forget their troubles, and interestingly, shopping is a common past time of many Saudi women. I wonder if there is any connection there? Well shopping worked for me, but not in the way you might think. First, while shopping, I noticed how most of the shops were selling sweaters, gloves and winter coats and it reminded me again of home. I thought “people back home are never going to believe me when I tell them about what I am seeing for sale here in the stores.” But later, as I sat drinking coffee and watching the men walk past me on their way to the prayer room, I noticed something. I took notice of what the men were wearing. Very few of them were wearing the stark white thobes that had been common in the Spring and Summer. Most now were wearing dark brown or even black and it was much rarer to see a white one. I realized in the last few weeks I had seen even more of the, not white, but off-white lighter brown thobes and just hadn’t noticed the subtle change. Now, it is more common to see the darker colors. The men have adjusted their thobes to the season. Strangely, although I still longed to see my family, I felt better. I had not really missed the changing colors of Fall, just because I was in Saudi Arabia, I just hadn’t known where to look.

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A Saudi Women’s Wedding

The parts of Saudi culture that you might read about, but never see pictures of, are the weddings and they are worth describing. I spent eight months in Riyadh hoping to be invited to one, and when I finally did get invited by a former student, I was sent to Jordan to renew my visa, and because of delays couldn’t attend. I was so disappointed. However, since being in Sakaka only two months, I have already been invited and attended two weddings. The second one was last night and is still fresh on my mind.
The weddings are more similar to what Americans would think of as a reception because the marriage contract papers have been signed and it is already official, but just has not been consummated. The marriage contract, in itself, is interesting and I think should be mentioned. My understanding of it is, that the bride and groom both agree to what they want and or expect from their partner in the marriage, and then these terms are written down on paper to be signed. For example, a woman can say that she wants to be able to work, or that she does not want her husband to take a second wife as long as she can bear him children, and if he agrees to her terms, they can go ahead with the marriage. So, the weddings are a large and public celebration of this contract. They are also a public display of beauty, not only for the bride, but for everyone.
The weddings in Saudi are usually held in a hall large enough to hold the multitudes of people who attend and there are a few of these halls around town. This particular hall was not much to look at from the street. It had white lights strung from the dusty white building across the flat dirt parking lot to poles on the other side. The lot was already packed with cars when we arrived. Without asking, our driver, the son of an American teacher married to a Saudi, drove us in his 4X4 around to the back of the building looking for the women’s entrance. Men and women are kept strictly separate even at the weddings. At the back of the building, there was a man holding a stick by a big metal door and he was locking it after a few black draped women had disappeared inside. “Uh, oh, “our driver said, “He’s going to lock you in tonight.” We didn’t reply to his comment, but just looked out the window for a few moments. As we were watching, a couple of boys, perhaps around age nine, ran up and he shooed them away with his stick. Another driver pulled up between us and the door and we waited for him to leave before we got out. I don’t know what took him so long but our driver said he might have been waiting to get a look at us. Finally, holding our abayas and gowns up far enough so as to not get them dusty, but low enough not to show too much leg, we walked past the man who was now sitting on a metal chair, up to the heavy metal door, pushed it open and entered. I never heard him lock it behind us, but by that time I was busy taking it all in.
The metal door opened up to a sort of a courtyard space and there were a few benches to the side with women sitting down fully covered talking. We greeted them with “Peace be upon you” in Arabic and kept walking into the hall. I was expecting a person to search us for cameras because that is what they had done at my first wedding, but no one did at this one. Perhaps we were not approached about cameras because we hadn’t brought our purses in. I just know that pictures are not allowed at weddings except for the family who is allowed to take pictures of the bride to capture her moment of glory. Around another turn, there was an extremely large mirror across one whole wall and I figured that this is where we were supposed to take off our abayas and make sure we were presentable before entering. While I was still checking myself out in the mirror, my friend peaked into the hall and informed me in her black California accent, “They are all still wearing their abayas and niqabs in there.” “Really?” I said as I too peaked around the corner “Uh, oh, there must be MEN in there. Quick, put your abaya back on!” I hadn’t been expecting any men as no men ever showed up at the first wedding. We quickly covered again and entered the large room. This large room had an impressive colored chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the middle. Below it, there was a raised runway leading to a stage. On both sides of the runway there were many round tables covered with table clothes and each table surrounded by six or eight women sitting on cloth-covered decorated chairs. The room was full. Each table had a twisted center piece with fresh roses at the top, a coffee carafe, cups, bottles of water and a variety of sweets and chocolates. Along the length of one wall, there were couches whereFilipino maids were sitting rocking the young babies on their laps. At the far end, there was a large stage decorated in red and white and had several lighted parasols as decoration, and two huge loudspeakers. Standing around the stage, were many women all covered with abayas and niqabs. Sitting regally, in the middle of the stage under the parasols and surrounded by the women in black, was a beautiful young women dressed in her elegant stark-white “princess-styled” wedding dress. Your eyes were immediately drawn to her white dress in the sea of black. Her face had stage make-up and her long black hair was in a very large bun on her head topped with a silver tiara. She looked stunning. Also standing up on stage facing her were the only two men in the room. They wore dark brown thobes with the typical red and white head scarf, and looked no different than they might have if you had seen them on the street. No one greeted us and we quietly entered the room and sat down on the long couches with the maids to watch. We hadn’t sat long when the two men turned to leave, walked down the raised runway, away from the stage down the middle of the room to the back door. I saw one fondly rub the head of one of the children as he left. He looked happy and he took the last step off the runway with a sort of leap. I was so filled with wonder taking everything in , that I can’t remember if the music was playing at that point, or if it started shortly afterwards, but soon, heads were unwrapped and abayas removed and women were dancing to loud music in front of the bride on stage. Most of the dancing was tribal with certain steps and one hand raised accompanied with a slight jerking of the opposite shoulder as they they went back and forth across the stage in front of her. A few of them would dance together in groups and lines. The bride never really smiled but just sat with her head held high, looking like a beautiful queen, and watched. I surveyed the women in the room. Many were looking at us and they would turn their heads quickly as I looked back. There were a variety of beautiful gown designs in the room, many sequined, finished off with high heels and makeup. Some of the heels raised the heights of the girls by about six or seven inches. Their hair was beautifully styled. Some, especially the younger girls, wore shorter dresses and others, usually the much older women kept their heads covered. A few women I saw had henna designs on their hands and I saw one lady with a floral tattoo on her back. I wondered if it was temporary, because permanent ones are frowned upon. This same lady looked like she also bleached her skin white which is fairly common. Before too long, the bride stood up, and the dancers parted for her to leave. She very slowly and regally walked down the runway, and left to wait in another room for her husband’s family to pick her up.
After she left, a student came over to where we sat on the coach and invited us to her table where we met her mother and sisters and were offered to sit and drink Arabic coffee (Kahwa) and sweets. From there, we watched as the dancing on stage got a bit more interesting. A few women on stage started whipping their long black hair around by swinging their heads from side to side. There were now about thirty women on stage, many dancing, but a group of them also standing in a semi-circle behind the dancers facing the audience. I felt like they were in a fashion model line-up display which they truly might have been. I have been told that weddings are one way mothers find future wives for their sons. They are an event where women can publicly display their beauty, and hopefully catch a good husband. I also enjoyed watching the young children trying to get on stage where they were not allowed and a lady guard brandishing her stick stopping them. I saw one very young cute boy and girl holding hands make it past her onto the stage and then they were escorted off. She never really used the stick, but the threat of it usually stopped most of them. The very young ones were soon happy enough running or dancing together on the runway, the little girls imitating the women on stage quite well.
After the coffee and sweets, we were asked if we wanted to go eat (as if we hadn’t been eating already), so we were escorted across the hall to another large room. This room’s floors were covered in large Persian rugs. In rows, on the rugs, were many large aluminum silver serving trays that were about three feet across and raised on a pedestal to a comfortable height above the floor. The trays were filled with “Kapsa” which is a traditional and favored Saudi dish. Kapsa usually consists of rice cooked with spices, fruit and nuts and some sort of meat. Weddings usually have the more expensive lamb or camel. The first wedding I attended had camel kapsa which I was told is more expensive, but last night it was lamb and it too was delicious. The pieces of lamb or camel, that sit in the center of the bed of rice, are large (maybe twenty inches across) and still on the bone. We sat in our long gowns on the carpets around the kapsa and scooped up rice, or sections of meat, with our hands. The kapsa was delicious and I like this dish very much. There were also sodas and water around the base of these serving trays for us to drink. Each of these large trays of food is used by multiple groups so when we were done, another group would have sat at our place. That gives you an idea of how much food is on these trays and not everyone eats at once. Afterwards, we went into another room filled with sinks and mirrors to wash up and pretty ourselves before entering the dancing room again. As we reentered the dance room, we passed a table with baskets containing packets of musk scented towels and gum and perfume and we were handed some. The dancing had not stopped during our meal, and I could feel the pulse of the Arabic beat move through my body as we entered. We sat back down at our table now strewn with abandoned abayas, sweets and coffee, and our small Arabic coffee cups were refilled. A lady came by from across the room and asked if I would go up on stage with her to dance so I did. The music was so loud up on stage that I thought to myself that I might lose my hearing because of it. Once up there, I looked around and tried to emulate the other ladies dancing. A fairly old woman wearing a head scarf came up and intervened between myself and my partner and started dancing with me so I tried to copy her. Then she put her hand up to her mouth and started trilling high and loud. I imitated her. I think she liked it because when the music finished, she gave me a big hug. My partner and I walked back to her table and she introduced to me to her mother and aunts and nieces. It was fun, but dancing on stage once was enough for me. Later, on stage, a few women started tying their head scarves around their hips and the dances got more seductive. A few were really good with the quick hip twitches of belly dancing. Soon, instead of going to the crowded stage, women started dancing with each other near their tables. Our table host offered us samosas, and then later a server brought small cups of mint tea. About eleven thirty our driver called to say that he was outside for pick-up, I looked around and saw that the crowd was starting to thin out. I have heard that some weddings can go on until the wee hours of the morning, but we had arranged for our pick-up and so we put on our abayas, said our “Masalamas”, and left the remaining women to their dancing. It was a memorable Thanksgiving Day for me in Saudi Arabia.

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Going Native with a Niqab

I have been walking around our new neighborhood every day after school with a friend, just to stay in shape because we don’t get much exercise otherwise. My friend religiously covers her face with a Niqab (face veil), but I, although never having thought of myself as particularly rebellious, usually wear just a head scarf and leave my face exposed. I find the cloth over my mouth to be a bit stifling and secretly worry that the extra carbon dioxide I am breathing in, because of it, isn’t good for my body. I admit that, without it, I stick out like a beacon with my white face, and acknowledge that I do receive beeps and occasional Arabic “cat calls” from men in passing cars because they are not use to seeing a woman’s face uncovered. But, I have become accustomed to ignoring the calling men, and soon forgot them.
Last week, while we were walking to the vegetable market, which is about a twenty minute walk from our hotel, a sporty white car with blackened windows kept stopping up ahead of my friend and I so that we were forced to walk pass it. After about two uneventful times of walking past this car, the two young men inside got braver and started saying something to us in Arabic trying to solicit our attention. Each time this happened, we would just continue to walk and talk to each other and pretend that we didn’t hear them. After the fourth or fifth time that this happened, they threw out a bright white piece of paper neatly folded as they passed. Although we never picked it up as it tumbled across the pavement in the wind, I am pretty sure that it had one of their telephone numbers written on the paper because I am told that this is one way men secretly make contact with women here in Saudi Arabia. As you can imagine, phones (especially iPhones) are a huge business here. We continued to ignore the men in the car each time we were forced to pass, admittedly giggling at the absurdity of it, and finally arrived safely at the fruit market. We spent some time in the safe confines of the market picking out produce and when we were finished, we checked the street for the now familiar white car. Not seeing it, and figuring we were safe, we started to walk home. However, the white car soon appeared again repeating the pass and park routine. My friend and I were beginning to worry because they just wouldn’t leave us alone and wondered what to do next. The men seemed to get bolder each time. Wanting to escape their advances, we ducked into a random housewares’ store along the way. Once inside, I pointed out to my friend that they had parked directly outside the door so that we would have to pass them when we exited the store. Well, eventually we had to leave the store, and as we passed them, they once again, beckoned to us in Arabic, so my friend said loudly back to them in her British accent “No Arabic, we speak only English” to which the passenger surprisingly yelled out in a heavy accent “I speak English, I love you!” We started walking faster after that verbal exchange, both of us hoping the men wouldn’t follow us the entire way home, figure out where we lived, and continue to bother us there. When you are in a foreign country, inept at the language and unsure of where or how to get help on the street, you can get scared a bit more quickly than when on home territory, especially when men are this persistent and are following you home. It is especially worrisome to a woman, considering Saudi culture and the total separation of the sexes here. Understandably, my friend and I started to walk even faster and I started pulling my head scarf over my face, both of us now totally quiet each time we had to pass them. I think the men in the car began to get the idea and could tell that we were getting a bit scared because, surprisingly, they passed a final time as they yelled out the window “I am sorry, but I love you!” and drove off. We didn’t see them again, and now, in the safety of my room, I am thinking that you can’t really blame a man for trying.
Later, on a subsequent walk, we entered a carpet store wanting to look at rugs and check out the prices of Turkish carpets. The salesman inside, who surprisingly spoke English, told me nicely that I really should have my face covered because Saudi men here would not respect me if I didn’t. He said that this didn’t include him, because he was from Afghanistan, but that it would make a difference to the Saudi men here in Sakaka. He told me this in such a caring and concerned way that I took what he said to heart. I decided that, although it is not the law and I have never had a run in with the authorities, I would start wearing my niqab every day and see if I noticed a difference in people’s reactions and attitudes.
The reaction of the female students at school was immediate and very noticeable. There were multiple squeals of surprise and comments of “Very nice!” accompanied with a thumbs up sign as I passed students, waiting for their rides near the outer gate of the school. Later, one of my students after class asked me why I had started wearing the niqab and I told her about my experience with the carpet salesman. She asked me if I knew why they covered their faces and I told her that I didn’t, wanting to hear what she had to say. She said in her fairly good, but accented English, “It’s for safety. It will keep you safe especially if a man sees you and thinks you are very beautiful.” I replied “I don’t know about being beautiful, but I do want to be safe”. I admit that, since wearing my niqab, I have noticed a reduced amount of beeps and calls from passing cars on our walks. Another student also asked me if I knew why women kept their faces covered. When I prompted, her answer was a bit different. She said “Wearing it lets men know that you are expensive, not cheap; the only people that are rich enough to see you are your father and your husband.” I don’t know if I have been here too long, but both answers made sense to me. I can’t say that wearing a niqab has given me more self-worth, but it has added anonymity, and although stifling, the niqab has helped me to feel a bit safer here.
Like I said, although I have only recently started wearing my niqab, I personally have never had a “run-in” with the Muttawah (volunteer religious police) or the Hay’ah (official religious police) for having my face uncovered. However, yesterday my friend and I had an interesting experience with the authorities, and this happened even though we were both fully covered including our niqabs! It was early evening when we went for a walk. As we were walking, a large official white Suburban, followed behind by a police car, stopped. I assume that they were from the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, although I was too startled to really check out the emblem on their vehicles. They slowed down as they approached us, and the police car turned on its flashing lights. Then, the gentleman on the passenger side of the suburban, who was wearing a Saudi head scarf, leaned out the window, said something authoritatively to us in Arabic and then they both drove away. We stopped dead in our tracks, exchanged surprised glances unaware of why they had stopped and what had been so important to make them stop. I looked down quickly at my own body to make sure that I was properly covered. For a moment, I remembered childhood dreams of going to school and finding out I had forgotten to put on my clothes. I also had to hold the drape on my niqab to see properly because when you lean forward, it tends to block your view. With relief, I saw that I was okay. Then, I looked at my friend still trying to figure out what they had said to us and why. I noticed that one of my friend’s abaya snaps near her breast had become unsnapped and you could see a long sliver of her bright yellow shirt that she wore underneath. Now, I admit that I don’t speak Arabic so I can’t be absolutely sure that is what he said to us, but I seriously think he was commenting on the exposure of her yellow shirt. Honestly though, because I don’t speak the language, I have to admit the possibility that he may have been commenting on how happy he was to see that I had recently started wearing a niqab, but I don’t think so, because he wasn’t smiling or giving me the “thumbs up”. I really won’t ever know for sure, but it got our attention and made us pause and think about how important it is to the people here that women cover and remain safe and virtuous here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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Travels in the Eastern Province

We had an Eid Al Adha National holiday so I took a fourteen hour bus ride across the expansive deserts of Saudi Arabia to the Eastern Province with my roommate. I wanted to visit the Arabian Sea which is the body of water more commonly known to Americans as the Persian Gulf. It was an interesting trip. There are places in Saudi where a woman cannot check into a hotel without a man which makes traveling sometimes challenging. Thankfully, friends were kind enough to offer us a place to stay. Enjoy the photos!

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Why You Come This Country? I Love You!

All of the English teachers at our University had been invited to a wedding, so a friend and I were both shopping for a dress to wear to this occasion. My friend had already bought a dress earlier, but after trying it on, had wanted to exchange it for another size. (An interesting note I’d like to point out, is that you can usually never try on clothes inside any of the stores here in Saudi Arabia because mostly men work in them. Typically, you have to purchase your item and then go to a women’s dressing area, which is usually located near the bathrooms and women’s prayer room, to try it on.) My friend had already tried on her dress and had decided to exchange it for another size, but I was still browsing in the store next to these upstairs dressing rooms. We had just heard the late afternoon call to prayer, and my friend was anxious to get downstairs to her store so she could return her dress, before it closed for prayer. I told her to go ahead without me because I had wanted to finish looking in the shop where I was, and that I would meet up with her later when the store closed, but didn’t specify an exact meeting place. So, she left and went downstairs. When I finished looking, I headed downstairs to catch up with her, but when I arrived, she wasn’t there and the store was already closed. So I decided that I would go sit down in the open area near the entrance to the mall where there is some seating, and where a lot of ladies sit while the men go to pray, and wait to see if she showed up there. While I waited, a fairly large Saudi woman, pushing a metal shopping cart filled to the brim with recent purchases, came up to me. She had two adult women at her side, one of which was her Filipino maid, and two children. The older child, a girl about eleven or twelve, stayed near her mother while the other younger boy held hands with the maid. As this large Saudi woman, with her entourage, came up to me, she leaned over so I could hear her words above the prayer which was now on the loud-speaker, and said rather harshly through her veil “Where you from?” Her boldness and tone caught me a little off guard, and I hesitated before answering “America”. I looked into her eyes, which were the only part of her face showing trying to determine if she was being confrontational but I couldn’t tell, although I was pretty sure she wasn’t smiling. She continued harshly “Why you come this country?” My thoughts were spinning at this point as I’m thinking “Oh, oh, possible 911 in progress”. So I stammered apologetically “To teach.” I still can’t read any expression in her eyes and I’m wondering if she is going to tell me to go back where I came from. or just to get out of her country. Then her daughter, who is young enough not to have her face covered, smiles because she understands, and says out loud in accented English “She teacher!” and I think she repeats the equivalent of this in Arabic to everyone . Then, after a brief moment, her mother says to me “Saudi, not good, too much clothes!” This time I can see the smile in her eyes. I laugh out loud because I am not only relieved to be avoiding an uncomfortable incident, but because I also realize that she is just trying to be friendly and only complaining about the heat and the fact that we have to wear our abayas. I smile back and put my hand on her arm as I say “No, Saudi is good!” She laughs, nods her head and continues towards the door behind me. Not more than twenty seconds later, her young daughter returns, stands in front of me, smiles, and blurts out affectionately “I love you.” I smile back and thank her, still a bit stunned at her return and at her verbal display of affection for me, an “almost” complete stranger. Since coming to Sakaka, I have had multiple strangers, mostly women, verbally say “I love you.” In fact, this has happened more times here than anywhere else I have traveled in my entire life including Hawaii which is known as being the “Aloha” state. Now, I do realize that there are evil people everywhere, and the media would especially like you to believe that many of them are in the Middle East, but I can tell you from personal experience, that there are also a number of people willing to say “I love you” to another human being, even a complete stranger, especially in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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National Day Celebration

Large Cake with Saudi Flag at National Day Celebration

Today, at the University, we had a “party” that celebrated both National Day and the beginning of the new school year, although National Day was officially last week, and we have been having classes for the last month. I was told about the party from another English teacher I passed as I was returning from teaching a class. She told me where it was and said that she was on her way there now and that I should go too. As I put my books away, I also told a brand new teacher from California, who now sits at the desk next to mine, about it and we decided to go there together. When we arrived and sheepishly poked our heads into the large dark room, not knowing if we were in the right place, I saw that there were rows and rows of chairs filled with students and a large stage at the opposite end. The edge of this low, green floored stage was surrounded with a white silk dust skirt. Behind this green and white stage was a back drop draped with a matching white curtain and a large green bow wrapped across it like a present. On that backdrop, I saw various rotating pictures being projected on it, and although these pictures were hard to see because of the folds in the material, I remember seeing the green Saudi flag, pictures of several generations of “Saud” kings, and a saying (in English) which mentioned something about God keeping our country from evil doers and oppressors. There was also another fairly large professional looking sign on the far right hand side of the stage, closer to the audience, with King Abdullah’s picture and a history of Saudi Arabia in English below it. On the opposite side of the stage, there was a wooden podium which held a microphone. I still wasn’t sure if we were in the right place because there were so many students here, but a somewhat familiar-looking lady waved us in and directed us to some empty seats next to the stage. We took our seats there, and as I looked around, I noticed that only faculty and other administrators were sitting around the stage and that all the students were in the seats behind us. As we sat, ladies holding baskets decorated in green and white periodically walked in front of our seats and passed out goodies to the teachers and administrators which included several different flags and other small gifts brandishing either the King’s picture or Saudi’s country flag. Shortly after, these same ladies again returned and handed each of us a beautiful ceramic coffee cup, small enough to cup in your hand, which they promptly filled with the special yellowish Arabic coffee, that I have come to love. As we sat drinking our coffee, a young lady wearing green and white, in sync with the National colors, walked on stage and starting speaking very loudly in Arabic over the loud speaker. The microphone squealed so loudly that everyone had to cover their ears. I don’t know what she said because she only spoke in Arabic, but I noticed that the students cheered very loudly when she finished. More ladies with baskets walked passed offering us decoratively wrapped chocolates and other honey pastries for us to eat with our coffee. As we sipped our coffee and nibbled our sweets, a tall lady got up and recited verses from the Quran in a beautiful melodic voice that sounded similar to the men’s voices that I have heard coming from the mosques, but of course, feminine. The verses were followed by another lady who got up and spoke in accented English. She talked about how we were all important because we were helping the future development of the country and its people. I really liked what she said, not only because I could understand it, but because it made me feel that what I am doing here is important. Later, this same lady sat next to me and I was grateful because she would whisper interpretations of what was happening on stage to me so that I could follow what was happening. She let me know that the next speaker was asking trivia questions about the history of Saudi Arabia to everyone. People in the audience who called out the correct answer to a question were rewarded with wrapped prizes. The new American teacher next to me actually got a prize because an Arabic teacher sitting on her other side interpreted the question for her, and she called out the answer, which she had seen printed on the poster that was on the stage right in front of us! After the trivia, there was a bright student, whom I’ve talked to several times before, that recited a classical Arabic poem followed by a poem of her own composition. I didn’t understand her words, but I thought she gave a great delivery because of her changing voice intonations, her hand gestures and just the heartfelt way the poem was voiced. She received an extra loud applause from the audience when she finished. Her poetry was followed by several students, who got up and sang a song, also in Arabic, which I was told had something to do with the history of Al Jouf. Each of the students on stage took a turn singing a different part of the song and then they would join in together for the chorus. As they sang, the audience started rhythmically clapping along. The basket ladies returned, this time with baskets filled with bottles of water and small bread rolls which were stuffed with soft cheese. A big beautiful cake with the green Saudi flag was also brought in and set on a low table near the stage. I mentioned to the Arabic speaking teacher sitting next to me that I would love to have a picture of it and so she told me that she would go and ask if I might be able to take one. She came back and said that it was okay. I was grateful because cameras are not usually allowed on campus. The lady who had been handing out gifts and coffee came back again, this time holding a beautiful very large silver incense burner that had smoke from fragrant Oud rising from it. As she came around to each of us, we were allowed to waft the scented smoke over our hair and face. It smelled religious and mystical and I think that I will always think of Saudi when I smell it. As I admired the silver incense holder, I thought about how all of the incense burners that I have seen in Saudi have the same shape, which is slightly similar to an hour-glass, but squared off. Interestingly, I have even seen large replicas of these burners in malls, and around town. An Arab teacher leaned over to the new English teacher and told her that some Oud can cost as much as seventy thousand riyals (this amount is equivalent to about $18,000 U.S. dollars, so I don’t know if she heard her correctly or if the correct amount might have been lost in translation). The party culminated with an open invitation for anyone to come up on stage and say something good about their country over the microphone in celebration of National Day. A few ladies got up and said some things in Arabic then our English supervisor, an Arabic speaking teacher from Jordan, got up and started doing a “Saudi” dance (she later told me that she had learned how to do it just the weekend before). She motioned for some other English teachers to get up and join her, and a couple more did, so I decided to get up and join them as well. The students loved the teachers getting up on stage and they were cheering and clapping loud. It was so much fun. I loved the music and the dancing and the celebration. I had thought Sakaka to be a more conservative place because the women cover their faces more often here, but I was pleasantly surprised by the singing and the dancing. Singing and dancing had been prohibited at the other University I worked at in Riyadh. Although I am experiencing transportation and other challenges here in Sakaka, I must say that I am enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere that this school in the North of Saudi Arabia has to offer.

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A Peak Into the Women of Sakaka

The girls in my class often ask me what I had thought of Saudi before coming and how those thoughts compare to what I think of Saudi now. I honestly tell them that, before coming, I thought that the women would be a bit more repressed, unhappy and not as beautiful as they are. I tell them that I didn’t think that they would be as warm, kind, welcoming, and happy (easy to laugh) as I have experienced. I also tell them that I only have views of the women, because I have not met many Saudi men (which is true) and they laugh because they know it to be true in this society where men and women are strictly kept separate until marriage. The women (myself included) are definitely restricted here compared to what most of the rest of the world is used to, but because these girls have been brought up in this misogynistic society, they know no different and accept it as normal. Of course, I have students from each end of the spectrum, those girls from wealthy families who have travelled abroad, and have tasted a bit more freedom, and those who have never left Saudi and know little of the outside world. The wealthier, more knowledgeable ones, love to test the waters and I have to be careful in class. I have one girl who is a bit more outspoken, wears designer Ray-Ban glasses, and sits in the front row. Earlier in the week, she stood up while we were practicing introductions through role playing, and saucily said “Hi, my name is Noura, I am from America and I live with my boyfriend.” I know that this is not true and would NEVER, EVER be allowed here, but I laugh with her because she and her friend are laughing so hard that they are bent over, have their hands covering their mouths, and it is contagious. I know that they are on the edge of teenage rebellion and it is not in my nature to reprimand a dreamer, so I laugh as I tell her that she has a good imagination, that she said that in English very well, and move on to the next student.
I was talking to another student yesterday, who struggles with her English, but wants to practice, so she will stay and visit with me, or at the end of class, walk me to my office while carrying my bag. She told me that her father has (or has had) three wives. He divorced the last one who now lives in Syria with her daughter. She explains that in Islam, men are allowed to have up to four wives, but only four, as long as they can treat each wife equally. This means that if he provides a nice house for one than he has to have an equally nice house for the other. I had another student tell me that this is why her father only has one wife. This other student’s father is a History teacher and doesn’t make enough money to have more than one wife. I guess teachers are paid the same all over the world. My bag carrying student also tells me that she likes to play with fire. She proudly showed me a picture of herself, on her phone, depressing the knob on an aerosol spray can, which had been lit, and so was shooting fire (similar to what I have seen teenagers dangerously have fun with in the States). I can tell that the girls here in Saudi, like most teenagers, love to think that they are doing something different and dangerous. They may be from a restricted society, but they are still normal teenagers.
In our large teacher’s office at the University, there is a mixture of both English and Arab teachers together. When you enter the office each morning, it is normal to take your time and personally shake the hand and/or kiss everyone on the cheek and say either “Good Morning, how are you?”, or more often “As-Salamu Alaykum” which means peace be upon you. I have discovered that Saudi women tend to kiss only one cheek whereas Egyptians (and I think Jordanians) kiss on both sides of the cheek. It took me months to figure this little cultural anomaly out. It also appears that the number of times you kiss is determined by how happy you are to see the person, or how well you know the person, but usually not more than three or four times. By the way, men also do this. Last week, I saw a car accident. No one was hurt and the men got out of their smashed cars, met each other, shook hands and kissed each other on the cheek. I don’t think you would ever see this in Western culture.
There is one Chemistry teacher, in our office, who is also from Sakaka, and she tells me (as most women here do) that she loves America and that she dreams of going there. She is just thirty, divorced and has a five year old daughter. One of the first things she asked me when I met her, was if I had any children. After answering, I got the usual empathetically voiced reply, “No Sons?” As you can imagine, sons are very highly regarded here. If a wife gives a man no sons, he will want to take another wife. Then, this Chemistry teacher told me, laughingly, but I know somewhat seriously, that she had hoped that I had had sons so she could marry one of them. Then she teasingly asked me to please adopt her, so she can go with me, back to America. I told her that I would love to adopt her, but that I couldn’t because my husband would like her too much because she is so beautiful, because she is. She loved my reply and my compliment. So I settled and told her that I have some handsome nephews that are unmarried, and, of course, she wants me to tell them about her. This is a normal way of finding a husband here. There are no meetings, no pictures, just arrangements and introductions made through word of mouth. However (sorry boys), she tells me that if one of my nephews and her are to be married then they will have to convert to Islam. I tell her that I think that would be a big problem. In Islam, a man is allowed to marry a Christian a Jew or even an unreligious woman. I am told that this is because women have a soft heart and can be easily swayed by a husband as she grows to love him and bears his children. Also, since the man is the head of the household, there is no problem because the children (especially the boys) will be brought up Islamic. However, an Islamic woman is only allowed to marry an Islamic man.
I wanted to get to know some of the other women that I see everyday at the University, so during some of my free time, I went out to the large metal gates, where we enter and leave the University each day, to get to know the security women who guard them. Of course, I was invited to sit and drink Saudi Arabic coffee with them. Arabic coffee definitely has a unique taste and, I am told by other Arab teachers, that this type of coffee is only made in Saudi and nowhere else in the Middle East. Only one of the security ladies spoke enough English for me to understand her. She told me that she and her husband were divorced. This was conveyed through pointing at herself and then saying husband, then putting her fingers together and quickly separating them while making a “whiiisht” sound with her voice. It was enough for me to understand. She asked me if I drove by saying “You drive?” and miming two hands on the steering wheel. I told her that I drove, but in America. Then she told me that she also drove which is something that is not allowed for women here, but I have learned that many do it in the desert where no one else is the wiser. She conveyed this to me by proudly pointing to herself and saying “I drive desert” and then miming her hands on the wheel and her foot pressing hard on the gas pedal. Between our conversations, as I sat and drank coffee, I watched her, as she checked late arriving student’s bags for illicit cameras. I found it interesting that many students had camera phones that went unnoticed by her. She would pick their phones out of their bags, look at them and say “Camera” with an Arabic accent, to which they would reply “La” which means no. I am not convinced that she really didn’t know that what she held in her hand was a camera or not, or if she were just going through the motions. I do know that I have seen many cameras on campus. As a side note, I have interestingly discovered that some people have someone called a “Wasta”. This is a name given to a person in a high office, or someone with clout, such as a prince or close to a prince, who can get things done for you. Wastas come in handy, when you need to get things overlooked or allowed in certain cases. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is definitely a society built around relationships. It’s all about who you know or who you are related to.
Yesterday, there were some girls who approached me and said that they had been in the PYP program last year. One told me that the other one was getting married later this month. The engaged girl proudly showed me her engagement ring. I said “Congratulations!” and asked her if she were happy. She said she was, and seemed to be very proud that she was getting married, and really excited. Later, she was on the phone, and her friend was giddy as she told me that she was talking to “him” on the phone as she pointed to her ring finger. Her friend said “He tell her he love her” and giggled like no one was supposed to know. I turned and watched this student as she spoke on the phone. Her long black hair concealed the phone at her ear and she kept running her hands through it in an excited but nervous jester as she got to know her future husband. She seemed excited and happy for the future. I asked another student if she also wanted to get married and she said she didn’t like to talk about it. I asked her why, and she said that it embarrassed her talking about it. So I didn’t ask any more questions.
I realize that, although most of my students say that they want to be doctors, most of them will realistically become wives and mothers. A few lucky ones might be able to have both, a career and a family, but only if this is what they choose and their husbands support it. I had the young engaged women later ask me if she could take my picture. Now, on my first day at this University, I allowed a couple of students to take my picture, but was later cautioned that if the picture got on Facebook and knowledge of this got back to the Dean, that I might get into trouble. So, yesterday, I apologetically told her “No”. She pleaded for me to let her and she said that she would only show the picture to her mother, and when she had children to them. I almost cracked when she mentioned showing the picture to her children. Who doesn’t want to be remembered for generations as being an important part of someone’s life? Sadly, I declined the offer, and told her that she will just have to tell them about me. It is little memories like this that make me feel nostalgic as I approach the ending of my contract. As I look back, I hope that I have made a positive impact and left a good impression on the young and beautiful women of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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Sakaka

The country of Jordan was wonderful especially because I got to visit Petra and the Dead Sea! I have now returned to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Within a day of arriving back, I got an email with a ticket attached sending me to work in Al Jouf province. Al Jouf is located close to the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi borders, although it is closest to Jordan. So, two days later, I was flying on the domestic Saudi Arabian airline which has its own cultural peculiarities compared to what Americans are use to. The flight was fully booked and there was supposed to be an elderly man sitting next to me, but of course, he would not sit next to me because I am a woman. He talked to the stewardess and after a bit of people shuffling, I had a large elderly Saudi lady sitting next to me. She was fully covered except for her hands and eyes and she did not talk to me during the whole flight. However, she was kind enough to put some sugar on my tray table, without my asking, when I had tea. This was my second domestic flight on Saudi Arabian airlines (the last one being to Madain Saleh), and I have to mention that, before every flight, they have a prayer broadcast over the intercom system. They mention in Arabic and English that Mohammed would always say this prayer before he travelled and so they do the same. The actual prayer is in Arabic, and with no translation I do not know what the prayer actually says, but it sounds beautiful coming over the loud speaker. Other than the shuffling and the prayer, the flight was otherwise fairly normal. It was a short hour and a half flight and, for most of it, all I could see were miles and miles of the Nafud Desert. Upon landing, as we taxied across the tarmac, I noticed that there were actually airplane hangars and other buildings built into the low undulating hills of the desert that I had not noticed until we landed because their roofs were made of sand which camouflaged them into their surroundings. However, when I arrived at the terminal, I saw that it was a normal upright smallish commercial building. Luckily, because there are no taxis here, I was met at the airport by a man who drove me in our company work van to the small city of Sakaka where I am now living. For accommodations, I was fortunate to be put into a brand new building for the time being. However, I am told that I will need to move soon because women are not allowed to be living in the same hotel building with unmarried men, especially because the building does not have separate doors for each gender to enter. I am hoping that the company will take their time to move me because this single furnished one bedroom apartment on the third floor has a brand new fridge and 40 inch HD LCD T.V. complete with 700 channels. The women’s preparatory year building, at the University of Al Jouf where I work, is smaller than King Saud University, and at present, I am the only white skinned person, and the only blond, and the only American teaching there. I have an inkling of what a celebrity must feel like because of the girl’s reaction when I tell them that I am from America. I have found, throughout my whole time in Saudi, that America has a good reputation among the Saudi people. It is interesting to note that if I say I am from the United States to these girls, they have no idea where I am from, but if I say I am from America, they light up and say, in their broken English, how much they love America and want to go there someday. The girls are very sweet, and for the most part, more respectful than the ones in Riyadh. At times they seem naively immature, and it is not uncommon to have a few of them say “I love you, Teacher” during every class. I have to say that, at first, this made me feel a bit uncomfortable and I did not quite know how to respond so I would just smile and say “thank-you”. Now, I just smile and say “Thank you, I love you, too” back to them. I am still getting a feel for the town which is quite a bit more conservative than Riyadh. Last night, I was awoken at two in the morning by gunshots outside on the street which went on for quite a while. It woke me up, and I went to the window, to look out (I know I am not supposed to do this, but my curiosity got the best of me). I really didn’t see anything out of the ordinary out on the street, so I went back to sleep. The next morning, I jokingly said to some of the other lady teachers that this could be a disadvantage of living in the men’s building,” Perhaps one of the male teachers pissed off a young male Saudi student, because you don’t have to worry about anything like that with the girls.” This morning I heard about the new Islamic video that is making headlines all around the world because of the heated protests it is inspiring and I hope that what I heard has nothing to do with that because one student did ask me about it so I know that they are aware of it. I think the next few days might be interesting here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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