Monthly Archives: November 2013

Rain, Rain (Don’t) Go Away

On Tuesday, November 19, I was sent home from school. Not because I had been a bad teacher, and not because I had been sent to the principal’s office for some other reason. I was sent home because it rained.
After the first hour of morning rain, everyone was sent home.
Being from the San Francisco Bay Area of late, where it typically rains from November to May, and from another region where it has historically poured cats and dogs in the summertime, rain isn’t always appreciated. If there is too little, we worried about drought. If there was too much, we worried about flooding and houses sliding off the hills, or into the ocean. Rain, if not always welcome, was and is a necessary (sometimes) evil. We cursed its presence, but feared its absence even more. We drove in it, begrudgingly walked in it, and lit fireplaces when the rain was combined with a little colder weather.
In Riyadh, it rains only a few days a year, so the rain is cause for celebration. When it rains, the people of Riyadh go out and play. Rain is the time to go camping, build a fire and drink hot Arabic coffee. It is time for a picnic on the roof under a thin canopy. It is time to rejoice in the good weather and time to drive in the many flooded streets. And the streets always flood because the city has no gutters or drain system.
It is time to go home from school.

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A car enjoying the rain.


Such a Short Visit …

After my short visit to the Bahrain International Airport, I went to check in for my flight back to Riyadh.  And, surprise, I had been upgraded from economy, my typical flight grade, to First Class!!  I did not question the clerk about this, but smiled, said “thank you” and almost ran to the Gate. 

I walked on the plane with my first class boarding pass, and quickly found my seat very near the front of the plane.  The seat was really roomy and comfortable, and I didn’t have to fight to get my somewhat long legs settled in front of me; rather, I slipped in smoothly and easily.  The passenger in front of me immediately reclined upon boarding, and much to my amazement, his seat came nowhere near my legs or knees.  I couldn’t believe it. 

Before we took off, the flight attendant offered us a variety of newspapers and magazines.  Then, we got water and freshly squeezed orange juice.  As we taxied for take-off, we were offered hot towels, dates, and Arabic coffee.

By the way, there are no pull down trays in front of you in first class, but a pull out tray in the arm of your chair, and that tray fully covers your lap, so the chances of dropping food onto your lap are greatly reduced. 

Did I mention that this flight was only for a little over one hour?

After ascending to cruise altitude, we were served a full meal, with real flatware, plates and glasses (cute 6 oz glasses, kind of IKEA style) and raspberry cheesecake.

I don’t think that the two flight attendants ever stopped moving through the short first class cabin the entire time we were in the air.

Again, I was one of two women on the entire plane, but who cares when you’re in first class? 

To Bahrain

I am at the quietest airport in the world. Riyadh is a city of more than four million, yet I have never seen a more quiet, calm and serene airport. All of the airports I’ve visited in the U.S. have always been crowded, chaotic and impossible to navigate. The Dallas-Fort Worth airport comes to mind as being one that is impossibly large, and maddeningly complicated. But the King Khaled Airport in Riyadh is just the opposite. Of course, I’ve only been to the international travel side; the domestic travel side looks much busier. I know that many people go to Jeddah and Dammam, particularly on the weekend, as each city has plentiful beaches, being on the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. They are both cities I would like to someday visit. Perhaps I will take off a couple of weekends and check them out.
Today, for reasons to do with my Visa (as always) I am leaving for Bahrain. I will be in Bahrain for only a few hours, and then back to Riyadh. Hopefully before sunset. Part of me wishes that I could be in Bahrain for at least one day, and part of me wants to wait until my daughter is here to explore the country.
As I clear immigration and board the plane, I am struck by the lack of female passengers. I am the only woman on the plane. I panicked. I don’t know why I panicked, but my heart started to race, and I almost ran off the plane. Instead, I took a deep breath, handed the flight attendant my boarding pass and sat in my window seat. I felt grateful that my employer had booked a window seat for me. There was no one in the middle seat, for which I was again grateful. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, two more women boarded the plane. Something inside me relaxed, and I took out my notebook to do some writing.
Of course, as is always the case with me, I tightened up and had crash fantasies as the plane took off. My life flashed before my eyes, and memories of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger in the Hudson River and Denzel Washington crash landing in Flight played like a slideshow in my mind. Fortunately, once the plane was at cruising altitude, I breathed a lot more easily and the threat of hyperventilating passed.
Why is it that every airline in the world feeds you except those in the United States? Even on this flight of less than an hour, we were given sandwiches, juice and water. The passengers didn’t have to pay for their baggage, and you could bring as many carry-ons as you could reasonably carry.
As we descended into Bahrain, I looked out of my window and saw white sand beaches, and several white sand islands holding skyscrapers on one and homes on another. The Persian Gulf water was a creamy blue and barely had any ripples. My crash fantasies replayed, albeit on a much smaller scale, when we were landing in Bahrain.
Once on the ground, I disembarked to yet another quiet, calm airport. I wondered if all airports in the Middle East were like that. Why no impossible crowds, crazy mazes, crying babies and cranky old people? Was I missing something? Was I in another zone?
No, as it turned out, I was simply at the Bahrain International Airport, where I would spend the next two hours, and after that I would board another plane for my return to Riyadh.

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A public phone at King Khaled Airport

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A visit to the Bahrain Dairy Queen
(Where I got a real hamburger)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to …

the phone store. I was with three other teachers that day, and all four of us needed something: a SIM card, internet access, something for our school-issued Nokia phones or sketchy internet access.

Earlier that day, three of us had tried to purchase SIM cards from the MOBILY phone store, but were turned away due to our low levels of testosterone. So, we decided to try the STC phone store near our compound. We waited outside of the compound for the school driver, and one of our favorite drivers, R., cheerfully picked us up and transported us to our destination. En route, R. warned us that it was almost prayer time.

Prayer time in Riyadh means a few things. This particular pause in time happens five times a day. I don’t count the first prayer time, because that time happens before dawn, usually between 4:30-5:00 a.m. I know this for sure. The call to prayer has jolted me awake more than once, particularly since I live one block from the neighborhood mosque.

When the call comes, everything, and I mean everything, shuts down. And everything stays shut down for 20-30 minutes. Many Muslims go to the mosque or a designated prayer room with a prayer rug to do their religious duty.

We arrived at the STC store just before prayer time, but they had already closed. Fortunately for us, the coffee shop next door had not. The four of us filed into the empty and very comfortable looking shop, and strolled up to the counter to order drinks. I ordered a strawberry smoothie, which looked very yummy. But, it tasted like strawberries – dipped twice – in sugar. So, I sipped it very, very slowly. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying their coffee drinks. The counter-person (a guy) then decided that he needed to pray, so he turned down the lights, left the shop, and locked us in. We sat in the semi-darkness and talked mostly about nothing. I complained about the sugary drink and, before we knew it, prayer time was over and shopkeeper was back.

His return gave me an opportunity to ask for some more ice in my drink. The drink desperately needed to be diluted. He agreed by nodding his head and then saying, “Okay, more ice, then go.” Excuse me? “More ice, then go, go.” I stood there like a deer in headlights, not sure that I had heard the word “go.” One of my companions whispered to me: “This is a men-only coffee shop.” Oh, okay. I finally got it. So with my newly iced drink, my companions and I gathered up our abayas and very quietly crept out of the shop.

At least he didn’t say “get out.” But I don’t think he knew the words “get out.” Lucky for us.

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The Strip Mall with THAT Coffee Shop

Culture Shock

I had read quite a bit about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia before I arrived, and almost all of it was negative.  I read about women being oppressed and having no rights, about the men who persisted in oppressing them, and about the fanatical Islam culture in which they live. Sometimes I would read about their romanticized Bedouin past, the beautiful women and princely men of that past, or how the Bedouin’s tribalistic, third world culture still persists – much to the detriment of the Saudi Arabian people.

I was warned that I would not be able to drive, that I should not marry a Saudi or I’d be trapped in the Kingdom forever, and that I would probably feel and be as oppressed as the Saudi Arabian women..

I began to mentally form a picture of an unhappy, unproductive, oppressed group of people who wandered aimlessly around lost in their archaic, outdated traditions.

When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at what I had not read.  From the moment I off-boarded the plane, the men were respectful, pleasant and polite.  When I met the women in my classes, they were like any other group of young women I’ve taught: eager to learn, curious about the world, and optimistically looking forward to a bright future.  My students also spoke warmly of their affectionate and intact families.

I also discovered that when I go shopping, I am given assistance immediately.  I exist. My nationality is unimportant.  My skin color is unimportant, and I am spoken to in Arabic.  When I respond in English, I am still treated respectfully and addressed as “Madame.”  No one looks as me suspiciously.  As I walk through the mall, no one acts as if they are afraid of me. On my job, my students, supervisors, and superiors assume that I am competent and qualified to do my job. I am asked to take on new projects.  I am respected.  I am human.  I am whole.

Sometimes a man will slyly and quietly flirt with me, but never aggressively.  His eyes cannot settle on my bust, my butt or my hair.  I am looked in the eyes – directly, curiously, honestly.  The smiles are genuine; the graciousness and good manners are plentiful.

Strange that I never read about these things, and wonderful is the complete feeling of freedom.

A Beautiful Gift from my student Maeshal

Saturday at the Sook

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Two other teachers and I decided to check out the Princess Sook on a Saturday morning.  We were pressed together in the back seat of Akiem’s taxi for well over 30 minutes, so I was very relieved when we finally arrived.

We entered a long, dusty road filled with bumper-to-bumper cars and people overflowing from the make- shift sidewalks.  And this was at 9:30 a.m.!  I tried to imagine what it would look like later in the day, and decided that it would be almost to move.  There were small mom and pop shops lined on one side of the street and selling almost everything, while open air vendors were pressed together on the other side; their wares spread out on quilts and blankets. 

And exactly what is a sook[1] ?  I could only compare it to a very, very large flea market.  The San Jose flea market pales in size comparison.  There are dozens of vendors yelling “Sister, sister, come look here.”  They are selling racks upon racks of used clothing.  I didn’t realize that a basic black abaya could have so many variations.  I bought two skirts, each for 5 SAR or about $1.50.  One of my companions bought two abayas trimmed in beautiful designs for about 10 SAR or $3.25.

We walked for what seemed like a very long time, through rows and rows of clothing that literally surrounded us.  When we stumbled back out into the sunlight, we saw all kinds of household furniture, lined up and color coordinated to entice buyers.

There were small barns filled with carpets and rugs, clusters of washers and dryers, groups of vacuum cleaners, rooms filled with dinette sets, and sometimes just plain old junk.  One vendor tried to sell me a used cushion for 10 SAR; outrageous!  But, it was then that I noticed a man I’d seen in the clothes section, the furniture section and everywhere that we had been!  I was sure that we were being followed, and I whispered as much to my two companions.  They both turned simultaneously to have a look at the man and, having been caught, he scurried off and disappeared into the crowd.  A short time later, Akiem and his taxi arrived to take us home.

The ride home was mostly uneventful and we walked through our doors sweaty, dusty and happy with our super sook finds.

[1] In fact, I learned that “sook” is the Arabic word for any large store or mall.


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One Vendor (the stalker is in the background)

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Traveling to the camel sook

The Women of Riyadh, Part 3

My musings about the women of Riyadh would not be complete without discussing the women with whom I live. 

The teachers are all cloistered in a compound, separate from the outside Saudi world.  The flats are in the same building, and 1-3 teachers occupy each three bedroom/2 bathroom flat.  We have an onsite female complex manager and the front gate is staffed by a security guard.  The gate is also usually locked to prevent stray, curious men from gaining access.

Because we can wander around the compound abaya-less, the only men allowed in are the maintenance men and the security guard.  The absence of testosterone is noticeable, albeit usually in a positive way.

Approximately 35 of us live together, work together, and mostly socialize together.  We ride together to and from work in a company bus.  This is very unlike the U.S. and probably most other work environments, where you get your choice of commuting methods, you pick and choose your after-work companions, and you almost never choose to live next door to them, not to mention in the same home.  Usually, the only time you have two co-workers living together is when a serious office romance develops.  And if a serious office romance develops here, the women run the risk of going to jail, or being executed for homosexuality.

Sometimes, the mix can be a perfect cocktail, other times it can be uncomfortable or even volatile.  You have white and black women from post-apartheid South African living together, Americans living with Brits, Muslims with Christians, vegans with omnivores, 22 year olds with 55 year olds, and almost every mix that you can imagine from English speaking countries all over the world.  Things usually work out, but not always.

I live with one woman from Scotland, and one from Missouri.   We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we have managed to compromise, agree to disagree or taken the attitude to live and let live.

The expat teachers must rely on each other in ways that we in the U.S. cannot imagine.  If you don’t have an iqama, or a residency card, you cannot cash a check.  So you must rely on another teacher with an iqama to take you to the bank, help get your check cashed, and help to wire the money to your U.S. bank.

You must also rely on other teachers to help you get around the city.  The veteran teachers know which taxi drivers are reliable and honest, which stores are nearby for grocery or clothes shopping, where to go for fresh vegetables and fruit, and how to generally navigate the very different Saudi culture. Of course, you can try on your own, armed with the very general information your employer gives you.  But how would you know that as a woman, you cannot sit in the front seat of a taxi unless you want to risk being arrested?  How would you know that when a shop says “Families Only” that means that only women and children are allowed in?

There is a shift from the good old American delusion of independence, to a more direct interdependence.  You well-being in Saudi Arabia definitely depends on it.

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A Neighborhood Store

The Women of Riyadh, Part 2

I walked into my new class and looked at all of the smiling faces, anxiously waiting for me to teach.  I introduced myself and had them introduce themselves.  After the formalities, I asked what they would like to discuss.

One student started by asking how I liked Riyadh.  I explained that I liked the peace and quiet of the city, having to never hear sirens, no blaring music at the malls, being treated with respect and … not having to drive.

I had just opened the proverbial can of worms.  The class erupted, and there were shouts of protest and incredulous responses.  How could I not want to drive?  I explained that I had been driving all of my adult life, and it was a relief to not do so.  These women, however, wanted to drive, and the sooner the better.  I could not believe that they were not enjoying the luxury of being driven; a luxury most American women would give their eyetooth to have.  How could it not be wonderful to have a driver? Someone to pick you up and drop you off at your whim?  Someone to help with your packages and navigate the snarling traffic?   Not all was as it seemed.

Because of the passionate response I received, I decided to divide the 10 students into groups.  One group was to argue the benefits of driving, and one group the downside of driving.

The group in favor of driving argued that the drivers were from other countries, and wanted to make a lot of money very quickly.  They frequently demanded short hours, long pay, and private living quarters.  If a private driver was not available, they would go to their father or brother, who were frequently too tired, too busy, or just too preoccupied to drive them.  The alternative?  Take a taxi, where you could be, at best, sexually harassed, or at worst, raped and left by the side of the road.  Not really an alternative.  So, you wait, and you wait until someone is available or willing to drive you. 

But what about those women with no husband, no brother, and few financial resources?  The bulk of their money, earned or left to them by a deceased husband, went to unscrupulous taxi drivers, or expensive private drivers. Kind of like the financial toll that daycare can sometimes make on women in the U.S. After paying for a driver, little is left for other essentials, and nothing is left for even minor luxuries.

To be able to drive themselves would be the simplest and most efficient solution for all involved.  Surprisingly, all of the women in the class had been taught to drive by their fathers. 

The group who argued against driving cited tradition, and the tradition is a cultural one.  They also argued that they were treated like queens by their men and respected by other men and women who hold tradition in high regard.  They also argued that they did not know how to change a tire or maintain a car, and what would happen to the niquab, hijab and abaya?  They would have to shed them, or shorten them and be exposed to the leering eyes of men.  For this group of believers, culture and tradition would come tumbling down. 

In the end, all of the women protested that there is nothing in the Quran to prevent them from driving.  They wanted the responsibility of having a car. They wanted the choices, the freedom, and the fun that comes with getting behind the wheel of a car.  And while my time may largely be over, for them, the time and the beginning is now.


Woman Driver

woman driver

The Women of Riyadh, Part 1

I eagerly began my new job, anxious to meet the women with whom I would be working. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have spent time in an all women’s institution, having gone to an undergraduate college for women. I enjoyed the experience, and was looking forward to once again being in an all female environment.

Men are absolutely not allowed onto the grounds of the women’s academy at all. There are male security guards posted near the entrance, and men drive through to pick up the women at the school. But there is a gate through which they may not ever enter.

Because the abaya is designed to keep away prying male eyes, once inside the school, the women may take off their scarves, veils and all outer covering. All of the women who work there, including and especially the teachers from the west, shed their outer layers the minute they are inside the school.

I am reminded of a scene from “Sex and the City 2” where the women of Abu Dhabi dramatically opened their abayas and designer clothing appeared underneath. This was probably one of the truisms of the movie. The women in the offices at the academy are dressed in designer clothing, carry Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Coach purses, and look as though the make-up has been applied by a professional make-up artist. The transformation is almost magical. The women let their long, thick hair hang freely, they wear brightly colored lipstick, eyeshadow and false eyelashes. Their pencil skirts hug their bodies, and their high heels click and they quickly walk down the corridors and into other offices. Their preferences are clearly individual ones and not dictated by anyone other than themselves.

An all women’s environment is a free zone for many of the academy workers. However, for the students it seems to be another story. They usually keep themselves snuggled in their abayas, but the head and face coverings come off. I suspect that many of them dash from home in their pajamas, or in clothing that’s less than desirable, so the abaya remains comfortably cloaking them.

When school is over, the entrance/exit door is lined with women hastily adjusting their niquabs and hijabs. It’s time to become anonymous once again.

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Comfortably Covered at a shopping mall