Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 2)

Growing up in the 1960s among the brown rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area was cheery and carefree; lots of sunshine, infused with drives up Mount Diablo atop the backseat of my dad’s convertible MGB sports car, trips into San Francisco to stroll the lush gardens of Golden Gate Park, and four square at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac.  Halfway around the world in Jordan, Bishara, the youngest of six siblings, appreciated time spent with his devoted mother and cherished nephew, Haldoun, and an eclectic collection of family pets, despite pining for his father under contract in Saudi Arabia.  Peaceful days in rustic Mafraq, though, were interrupted by a terrifying hail of bombs that fell during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which found Bishara and his family huddled together in the middle of the bathroom convinced the end was near.  The warm embrace of his mother provided little comfort for nine year-old Bishara against the barrage of missiles targeting his country.

My own experience of war was through our black and white TV screen, observing the carnage of Vietnam’s battlefields as my parents watched the nightly news, and discerning only that something momentous and formidable was unfolding in a far-off land.  I knew, instinctively, I was shielded from this horror by distance and my ever watchful parents, and viewed the events more like an illusory scene from a play or movie trailer.

Bishara’s real, “life and death,” scare was followed by three brief years of relative calm during which he visited friends to watch wrestling on TV or scoured the nearby desert for edible mushrooms for the evening meal before the Palestinians (PLO) began clashing with the Jordanian government in 1970 in what came to be known as “Black September.”  Bishara’s school classes, along with those throughout Jordan, were cancelled for the month as demonstrations, shootings and general chaos ensued across the country resulting in thousands being killed over a one year period.  Bishara, not fully comprehending the ramifications of the situation, was both relieved over not having to go to school, but scared to his core over the possibility of his home being hit by rockets.  Although the effects of the Civil War were not as intense in Mafraq as in other Jordanian towns, Bishara’s family was under constant fear that the Jordanian army might invade their city, which was under Palestinian militia control.  As a result, Bishara and his family remained largely isolated in their home, playing cards, glued to the radio, and praying for a good outcome.  By the summer of July 1971, acrimony and bloodshed were superseded by the ouster of Palestinian combatants from Jordan to Lebanon, comparative peace, and the return of Bishara’s dear father.

Bishara’s most exciting days were Fridays when his father allowed him and his two older brothers to watch a cowboy movie at the town’s theatre every other week; the three brothers, merry with anticipation, walked a mile to the “male only” movie showings.  Cowboy flicks led to European and American movies of other genres, and to the notion that the world was larger than the confines of Mafraq, and a developing interest in probing other regions.  The quandary in Bishara’s young mind, however, was how he could leave his beloved mother behind.

My domain was widened when as a young teen my family moved from sunny, mellow California to a university town in the southeast, a sort of culture shock for me and my three siblings who had to transition from a more permissive and progressive environment to one permeated with palpable and staid southern hospitality and racial diversity.  Circumspect and reserved, the life shift required patience, grit, and a bit of hurt.  I remained, however, academic and a straight shooter; a girl with a small circle of friends, who envied the popular girls.  On weekends, I watched “American Bandstand,” and loved music, in general, a passion instilled in me by my dad who was hip and introduced me to The Beatles and Ravi Shankar in my younger days.  I savored the hours spent in my bedroom anticipating that special song coming over the airwaves, my tape recorder in hand, and finger hovering over the red record button.

At age 15, Bishara left a Christian middle school for Mafraq Secondary Boys’ School, a larger establishment comprised of nearly one hundred percent Muslim students.  Bishara, somewhat wary, wondered how he would get along with his new classmates.  A couple of months later, his uneasiness vanished, as Bishara relished participating in school sports, including basketball and soccer, with his new Muslim schoolmates, spawning strong attachments with his fellow athletes.  Several of his long-time friends wondered about Bishara’s behavior and questioned why he became sudden buddies with the Muslim kids.  Unaffected by this concern, Bishara knew he was simply expanding his “friend base.”  This revelation bolstered Bishara’s realization that he needed to study abroad after high school to advance his knowledge of the greater community outside of Mafraq.

While Bishara dreamed of expanding his horizons, I co-piloted a single engine plane at age 16 with my dad as pilot ferrying my sister, two brothers, and mother from our hometown in the southeast to California, Washington, and Montana.  I was humbled and gratified to reach the Guadalupe Pass at my calculated time as we sailed over Texas.  Otherwise, life was fairly predictable, and although the smaller moments produced the utmost satisfaction, a restlessness within implored me to connect to a deeper and wider reality.  This sense was magnified when Oma, my German grandmother, moved across the U.S. to be closer to her son and his family.  Oma’s travel stories brought the broader world into her quaint one-bedroom apartment only a couple of miles from our home.  My more treasured times as a high school senior involved leaving school early, walking the short distance to Oma’s apartment and having a homemade German meal while we watched “The Guiding Light” and talked of Oma’s European travels.

As Bishara neared grade 12, he could not wait to finish high school and move on.  But to what and to where?  Bishara felt it much harder to stay in Jordan, and the general region, than to pivot to the unknown.  His mother was his world and the only soul with whom Bishara’s could share his thoughts.  Bishara was happiest when he watched his mother iron his father’s clothes as he sat two feet away doing his homework, or when he silently slipped into his mother’s room during an afternoon nap, and listened to her snore as he pored over the books.  Who’s going to cook for you, and who are you going to watch cooking for you, Bishara’s mother would lament.  “My advice for you, son, is to remove these thoughts from your head.” She would convince Bishara for a day, but he soon had the feeling that his mother was talking from an emotional perspective only, and Bishara knew, in his gut, he must follow his inner voice.

This voice, and the Civil War in Lebanon, led Bishara to surreptitiously leave Lebanon, where he settled with his family following high school, for Western Europe, via Syria, at age 18.  Bishara eventually journeyed to the United States where he was drawn to a college education and a young woman originally from the Bay Area, who he ultimately married.  And she, wanting to fulfill her own fantasies of experiencing faraway cultures, persuaded him to leave a comfortable suburban life in the U.S. and travel back to the intriguing and beguiling world of the Arab Gulf. . . .

scan0006

scan0002

Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 1)

While my husband, Bishara, and I share many of the same tenets in life, such as “be good to yourself and your fellow man,” we grew up half a world apart under widely differing circumstances.  My life began mid-century near coastal California in John Steinbeck territory – Salinas, California, while Bishara, a native of Lebanon, was introduced to the world by a midwife at his family home in Mafraq, Jordan, in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe.

As a young family, we moved several times within the San Francisco Bay Area in the span of 12 years, from Salinas to San Jose, Berkeley, Lafayette, and, ultimately, Walnut Creek.  My childhood was spent dashing through sprinklers, romping with neighbor friends and cousins, skiing in Lake Tahoe, and dancing to The Beatles and “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  Annual summer trips to my mom’s indigenous Browning, Montana on Blackfeet Indian tribal land punctuated with blurs of color, buckskin and eagle feathers at Pow Wow ceremonies, as well as treks into adjacent Glacier National Park, became a regular and memorable event.  My first memory at two years old is of my family on the outskirts of tiny Browning maneuvering across railroad tracks to enter the home of my aunt (mom’s elder, and treasured, sister), and feeling both mystified and enchanted to be in the company of my three older cousins.

A world away, Bishara’s older sister, Wedad, 18 years his senior, was getting married and Bishara at four years-old noticed his mother and sister crying while Wedad stood at the alter in a beautiful white lace gown.  A somewhat baffling response in the eyes of a young boy.  Bishara, the youngest of six children, and, as such, often the recipient of sibling drubbings, was sensitive, soulful, and, by his own account, a nerd.  Often left behind by his older siblings on weekends, Bishara felt comfort and fulfillment in the company of his mother, the twosome frequently spending time together in the back courtyard of their stone home beneath the olive and berry trees, chattering away about everything while Bishara peeled mandarin oranges for his kindhearted mother.

Although sweet, shy, and reflective, as the eldest of four children, I took a certain satisfaction in playfully trouncing my three siblings, on occasion, in my younger years.  A kind child who, nonetheless, wanted to establish her natural dominance in the family structure as the first born, I had an innate sense of justice and of not wanting to be taken advantage of by the outside world.  Another early memory reveals me as a five year-old walking the short distance between my grandmother’s modest home in Browning to my aunt’s house down the street, my parents shadowing me in their car.  Within minutes, stones hurtled down at me from the windows of a neighboring home.  Initially taken aback by this onslaught by mischievous kids, I impulsively collected rocks from the street and vigorously lobbed them back at my assailants, to my parents’ unspoken gratification.

Just as my first sibling, and only sister, arrived engulfed in my adoration and constant companionship, Bishara’s nephew, Khaldoun, was born to Wedad when Bishara was just five years-old.  Being relatively close in age and location with Khaldoun growing up in a Jordanian town approximately two hours away by car from Mafraq, Bishara played often with Khaldoun and developed a deep-seated brotherly affection for his first nephew.  Joy-filled visits from Khaldoun left Bishara feeling melancholy and disheartened when Wedad and Khaldoun left at the end of a weekend following days spent engaged in hide and seek, tag, and friendly wrestling.

At around 8 years-old, Bishara said goodbye to his father who was travelling from Mafraq to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to pursue a long-term employment opportunity; one of Bishara’s saddest days.  A world away my father was travelling home from a short stint in Japan as an Air Force reservist with a surprise gift for me – a two-wheel bike.  As Israeli warplanes bombarded Mafraq a year later during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Bishara and his family hid in a 16 square foot bathroom with Bishara convinced that his mother had corralled them into the tiny quarters, so they could die together in close proximity.  Meanwhile, one of my paramount concerns was learning to ride the bicycle from my Dad, and experiencing challenges  braking while navigating down a steep hill; I sustained a mere knot on my forehead as Dad lunged in front of my bike to minimize the impact of crashing into bike racks at the bottom of the incline.

Bikes and pets are prominent features of American life, and for a short time as a child, we had a German Shepard that would regularly jump our backyard fence, follow me to school and steal the kids’ lunches, or hurdle over other fences and end up in someone’s pool.  While this pooch was ultimately rehoused, Bishara had a menagerie of pets while growing up, unusual in the Arab region, including a monkey, dog, chickens, deer, rabbits, and ducks, all kept in the back courtyard.  As a younger child, Bishara indulged in playing with the rabbits, which were raised along with the chickens, and ducks for later consumption, a fact that now produces misgivings in Bishara.  The monkey, Saada, arrived from Saudi Arabia in a truck, a gift from Bishara’s father to the family, and became a close companion to Bishara.  Bishara taught the monkey how to peel bananas, play catch, and even considered marriage to this attentive and shrewd primate.

Besides appreciating the company of his troupe of animals, Bishara played “cowboys” with neighborhood playmates, index fingers or sticks serving as guns; rolled atop, or inside, truck tires down neighborhood streets; and on the weekend attacked kids from rival blocks with stones.  Bishara was skilled at this latter pursuit, being a good aim, and a daring collaborator by zig-zagging between incoming rocks when assailing his opponents.

Summer visits to Ein Eible in Bishara’s native Lebanon to see his relatives were particularly happy days.  Bishara spent time with his grandfather, and once a week borrowed his donkey to go to the family farm and fields to pick figs and grapes, which Bishara brought home in baskets.  Bishara also took walks through the town with his brothers or alone, expressly admiring the beautiful young town girls.  The special times in my life also included occasions spent with extended family, in particular, British and Montana cousins, and my German grandmother, Oma, my father’s mother who eventually became a full-time resident of a nearby California city.  In the summertime, my siblings and I spent many a weekend at Oma’s apartment complex with an interior courtyard containing a pool, palm trees, and amiable neighbors.  Oma had a beautiful accent, wonderful spirit, and was colorful in dress and outlook.  Outfitted in a red flowered bathing suit and gold fringed bathing cap, Oma danced with my siblings and me, in turn, in the shallow end of her apartment pool.  And pool dancing was always followed by sweet iced coffee with milk and ice cream on top, served poolside.  Oma taught me the love of life and travel.

An emphasis on diversity and the broader world were not only apparent in my grandmother’s worldview and everyday life, but in the actions of my father.  I was most excited, when as an elementary school student, my Dad organized having a Kenyan man from Berkeley’s International Student Center come and speak to my class.  Attired in traditional garb, the young Kenyan man gave a fascinating and eye-opening presentation on life in Kenya.

In our prepubescent years, Bishara and I both felt our own budding romances.  At around age 10, Bruce, a classmate, regularly selected me as a square dancing partner in PE, a secret thrill, as this was the first time I was noticed by a boy.  This freckle-faced chap had the gumption to present me with a ring before our relocation from one Bay Area town to another.  In my young mind, I was mightily impressed with the courage and straightforwardness of this boy.  Bishara’s introduction to “puppy love” was quite different.  Living in a more restrictive society where genders were often separated, Bishara and his friends were reduced to jotting down love notes on bits of paper, which were crumpled and hurled at their particular love interest.  Bishara was in serious trouble when someone complained about him and his buddies following a group of girls to school, with the boys ultimately being arrested and taken to the police department for interrogation.  The police officers ultimately took pity on the boys following the arrival of their parents.

Little did I know that 15 years later I would meet, and develop an intimate relationship with, a near-felon, nor did Bishara realize he would rendezvous with a western woman and the “American Dream.”

Pic of Michele

Pic of Bishara

Deserts of the East and West

My first view of the Arabian Desert emerged through the window of our plane as we approached the Riyadh airport.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, and I were travelling from Washington, DC with several small American firms exploring joint venture possibilities with Saudi companies.  My heart and mind were open to a life enriching adventure, the gleaming beige panorama holding the promise of a new, intriguing, chapter in our lives, away from what had become a chaotic, impersonal, and routine existence in Washington, DC.  The stretch of luminous sand transmuted, assimilating a smattering of cream colored concrete homes with flat roofs, and eventually looming glass-draped skyscrapers as we advanced to the landing strip.

scan0001

Arabian Desert

Having secured employment as the Management & Financial Reporting Supervisor at esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a 1,500 bed, 8,000 employee medical complex in the Kingdom’s capital, subsequent to months of missteps and travails, my first days in Riyadh were preoccupied with the tedious tasks of completing interminable paperwork and trotting back and forth to Family Medicine for requisite shots and medical tests.  My zeal for living in this unconventional locale waning under the weight of the bureaucratic challenge and palpable disinterest of my new boss, I oscillated between questioning if we had made the right move while finalizing hefty drifts of administrative forms, and reflections of a simpler, more definitive time in the U.S. among family and friends.

Wrestling with guilt surrounding my insistence the previous year over pursuing a life in the Arabian Peninsula, my mind wandered to recollections of Bishara drumming on his tablah and teaching our DC friends my nouveau form of belly dancing on weekends; “map-less” prolonged drives into the scenic countryside of West Virginia, pups cradled in my arms, heads popping out the car window; and tender Thanksgiving visits to family, aroma trails of baking turkey and stuffing floating through the house.  Reaching further back, my thoughts rested on childhood trips on California coastal highways and cross-country drives inaugurated with the stark deserts and canyon lands of the southwest.

Adolescent memories of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and Four Corners, while daubed with a sense of novelty, were somewhat muted due to the austerity and stillness of the landscape.  Years later, as a young adult, the harshness and desolation of America’s desert buttes and mesas acquired an ethereal quality; an appreciation for these exceptional formations, spawned over millions, and billions, of years, by nature’s slow yet relentless forces of rivers, wind, rain, sedimentation, and ice.  When visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and the Grand Canyon, joined together by the effects of weather, tectonic activity, and water to form the “Grand Staircase,” I connected to the earliest times of earth’s creation through the Vishnu Basement rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Claron Formation rock layer that shapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

dscf0964

Grand Canyon

dscf1181

Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

dscf1247

Zion Park

Halfway around the globe, the Arab Peninsula is girdled by its own geological design, the Arabian Desert, dominated largely by Rub’al-Khali (“Empty Quarter” located in southeast Saudi Arabia), the largest uninterrupted sand field in the world.  Although fortified by tectonic plates and sedimentation in its evolution, the desert and dunes of the Arab states are often aligned with a cultural sentiment, roaming sheepherders and tents, and, unfortunately, recently a more sinister perspective, rather than as a topographical curiosity.  Before arriving in the Arab Gulf in late 2000, I, along with many of my western family and friends, envisioned an abundance of camels, goats, sand, and Bedouins, not the glittering high-rise towers that litter downtown Riyadh and Doha, and other urban centers of the region.

Following intense workweeks fixated on financial reports at King Faisal Hospital, Wednesday afternoons were filled with anticipatory gratification at the prospect of piling into our green jeep the next morning, the weekend, our boom box loaded with popular Arabic music (Nancy Ajram and Said Murad), mixed mezzah contribution in the backseat, and pups positioned on my lap.  Heeding the instructions of a fellow expatriate, excursion director for the day, we and a convoy of several other cars met at the appointed location, conveyed our cursory greetings, and drove, single file, to an awaiting exploit in the quiescent desert.

One of our first destinations, “Edge of the World,” required a roughly two hour drive outside Riyadh, and was so named due to the precipitous drop following a continuous stony plateau etched with tread markings, Salt Bush,  and Bedouins tending to goats and sheep. Hiking on the escarpments of the crimson cliffs was followed by a picnic; quilted blankets, barbecue grills filled with sizzling shish kabob and complemented with tabouli, hommous, and brownies atop portable tables forming a convivial patchwork under the shade of a sweeping acacia tree.  An exquisite sunset rounded out the evening.  Skewed expectations and the singularity of the experience shared with other nascent residents buttressed the enchantment of the event.

scan0003

Road to “Edge of the World”

scan0004

Bedouin

scan0002

“Edge of the World” (Outside of Riyadh)

scan0007

Expatriate “Picnic-time”

Expeditions to nearby “Red Sands,” a broad expanse of rose desert rippled with dunes, provided an ample sand-surfing playground for children, pups, and adults alike, and “Hidden Valley,” bearing an uncanny resemblance to Monument Valley, site of several U.S. western movies, allowed for cave exploration, fossil finds, and belly dancing led by Bishara’s tablah playing under wide-fanned trees.  Bedouin hospitality, fortuitously, crept into one of our more auspicious trips to Hidden Valley.  After traversing craggy rock contours, and indulging in Kentucky Fried chicken and an amiable exchange between chummy expatriates, a haggard figure in a worn tunic and ghuttra approached – arms waving and incoherent words spilling.  Bishara, a Lebanese native, recognized the Bedouin dialect.  The man needed help with moving his pickup truck, which had stalled out some distance away in the desert.  Bishara and one of our friends followed the man to the disabled truck, aided in moving the truck to the man’s Bedouin tent village where the two interlopers incited a certain level of interest, and as a gesture of his gratitude, the man invited us all to a camel feast, which would require sacrificing prized and valuable livestock.  Although we had to forgo this magnanimous offering due to an early workday the following morning, the essence of Bedouin generosity had left its trace.

scan0006

“Red Sands”

scan0008

“Hidden Valley”

scan0009

Belly dancing in “Hidden Valley”

Sometimes daytime jaunts transformed into overnight camping trips.  A bagpipe sunset serenade by a fellow expat accompanied by simmering kafta, steak, and baked potatoes; late night debates around a fire pit; sleeping under the stars – pups at our feet; and early morning conversation over tea, coffee, and scrambled eggs à la Bishara.  A powerful fusion of amity, creature comforts, and tranquility.

scan0010

Breakfast in the desert.

Our most memorable Qatar desert escapade was through invitation by a Qatari family who graciously arranged for a day in the desert at their family farm.  A caravan of four cars, ours and three family cars with two drivers and four housemaids, ferried us the nearly two hours outside of Doha in a southerly direction.  An hour on the highway, and the balance of the journey on a makeshift sandy, stony roadway, and we arrived at a remote span of desert suffused with penned goats and sheep, an open tent designated for the men with a grill prominently displayed out front and a closed four-flapped tent for the women.  Additional family members arrived during a farm tour by my young friend, Sherifa; several brothers of the patriarch, as well as two sisters, and their families.  Following introductions, the matriarch guided me by the arm to the women’s tent where the housemaids had placed swaths of plastic sheets along the floor overlaid with colorful carpets and platters and trays of rice and lamb, hommous, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, macaroni, salad with tomato and onion.  As a guest, I was encouraged to eat first and well; I opted to dip into the communal dish of rice and lamb with my right hand, the traditional way.  Our meal was chased by a wild ride through the desert to the outdoor toilet, tunes streaming on a cell phone while women dangled out car windows singing and balanced precariously on running boards.  Khaleeji music coupled with reassuring dance lessons, and proffers of roasted chestnuts and corn concluded the nighttime revelry.

dscf5142

Men’s Tent (Qatar Farm)

dscf5189

Women’s Tent

dscf5185

Feast in women’s tent.

dscf5198

Roasted chestnuts and corn.

Desert visits have become spiritual undertakings for me: the canyons and mesas of the southwest U.S. filling me with wonder at the immense prospect of time, regeneration, and Earth’s beginnings; and the vast sand masses of the Gulf region providing replenishment through moments of fellowship, community, and self-discovery.

Wonders of Jordan: Wadi Rum

An abundance of fine red sand amid limestone ridges, the land of Lawrence of Arabia’s escapades during the Arab Revolt in the early 1900s, and filming location of the recently released, “The Martian” with Matt Damon, Wadi Rum is a luminous and celebrated desert plain in southern Jordan.

DSCF2600

Wadi Rum

Although a Lebanese native through bloodline, my husband, Bishara, was born and spent his formative years in north Jordan.  We share an enduring love for, and fascination with, Jordan, and have visited family and explored this historically rich country on many occasions.

One of our more inspiring trips to Jordan combined visits to Bishara’s family and childhood friends in conjunction with excursions to Jerash, Madaba (home to mosaic churches), Mount Nebo, Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum.  Our journey to Wadi Rum was our final sightseeing destination within Jordan before our flight home to the Arabian Gulf.  My imaginings of Wadi Rum included a vast sweeping desert landscape, desolate and beguiling, the stuff of epic movies with battles on horseback and political intrigue.

The reality was not so very different.  Following a captivating venture to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and a stopover in the Red Sea town of Aqaba on Jordan’s southern border where we enjoyed sheesha and Turkish coffee on the beach, Bishara and I reached Bait Ali Camp, an accommodation fashioned in the Bedouin style, in the Wadi Rum valley.

DSCF2562

Aqaba, Jordan

Drawn to the simplicity of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture, I appreciate the lack of frills, the humble, natural lifestyle, as well as the value placed on unbridled hospitality and generosity.  While in Petra, Bishara and I encountered the ever-present Bedouin, and while some were singularly zealous in selling their wares, the customary undercurrent of altruism, with offerings of tea brewed on aged portable stoves, was indisputable.  Or invitations to visit a nearby family home, as was the case when we met Rose, a 20-something Bedouin who magnanimously invited us to meet her family in nearby Umm Sayhoon village.  The family had virtually nothing, merely concrete walls and floors and not a stitch of furniture to call home, yet they insisted we join them in a feast of lamb and trimmings, which would have required the slaughter of one of their prized sheeps.  We declined, as we were both tired after a long day, and felt we could not appropriately repay this considerable gesture.  We did, however, receive cups of delicious fresh mint tea steeped in a kettle on a portable cooker on the floor.  I was perplexed when Rose’s mother whispered in her daughter’s ear, and Rose disappeared for a few moments into the adjoining room, only to reappear with timeworn Nabatean coins and a hand crafted beaded necklace, which Rose’s mother presented to Bishara and me.  Water welling in my eyes, my visceral reaction was to decline this unsparing expression of generosity.  Her arm outstretched defying my impulsive response, Rose’s mother gently pushed the gifts in our direction.  I could barely blurt out “thank you, shukran, habeeptie.”

Jordanian society operates from an organic essence, the people warm and friendly, the pace slow, and the day-to-day existence transparent and uncluttered with the “heaviness” of life experienced in more affluent and developed countries.  And because it is a relatively small nation, the social connections and affiliations are well-developed and oftentimes quite sturdy.  As we checked into the Bait Ali Camp, our accommodations in the heart of Wadi Rum, Bishara discovered by happenstance that the receptionist, manager of the establishment, was the friend of a Jordanian acquaintance from northern Jordan.  Social ties did not impede the common practice of “drumming up business” experienced at tourist locales throughout the region, especially for  ancillary services, as a youngish male hotel associate and the manager persistently pressed us to take the accommodation’s quad bikes to tour Wadi Rum the following day.  Matching the duos sense of determination, Bishara resolutely countered with our intention to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a guide from the nearby visitor’s center in the morning.  Thwarted, the manager made an offhanded remark to the younger man in Arabic.  Bishara leaned in and whispered that the manager informed his staff member he had tried to garner business for the younger man, but we would not budge.

As we drove to our room, following our check-in, the Bedouin lifestyle was palpable in the form of lodging with tents and grotto-like dwellings scattered about the premises.  Initially startled to be confronted with an exceedingly compact stone compartment with a simple wooden front door, I wondered how I would sleep that night.  The interior of our accommodation (“small chalet with fan”) was indubitably austere with twin beds atop wood platforms, one on each side of the room, and nary a couple feet in between.  A similarly meager, although clean and functional restroom, completed the space.

DSCF2565

Our Accommodation at Bait Ali Camp (Wadi Rum)

DSCF2566

Bait Ali Camp

After unpacking and freshening up, Bishara and I headed for the large circular tented dining area, which provided both indoor and outdoor seating.  While most patrons were seated outside the tent at wooden picnic tables presumably enjoying the crisp November evening temperatures, Bishara and I, desert dwellers of the sweltering Arabian Peninsula for quite some years, chose the indoor seating, which better suited our adapted core temperature.  Before being called to the buffet tables, I took advantage of the quiet time, and resumed reading Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a non-fiction account relating the shared cave-dwelling life (from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s) of New Zealander Marguerite and her Bedouin husband, Ali amidst the relics and rubble of Petra.  A bold voice announcing the buffet was open disrupted my musings surrounding Marguerite and her remarkable spirit and life, and found me and Bishara queuing up with other guests to partake in a lavish dinner of mezzah-type selections, including olive oil laden hommous, tabouli, fattoush, labneh, and mounds of chicken and rice.

Ambling back to our room after dinner, an attentive receptionist inquired if we would like to accompany him on a short trek to view the stars of the desert sky; we declined maintaining we were tuckered out after trudging through wondrous Petra the day before, although we were fairly certain the stroll would not be complimentary.  Arriving at our room, we asked for additional blankets and pillows to mitigate the raw nighttime air, as heaters were not part of this unpretentious domain, and in short order I was in a deep slumber swaddled in cozy quilted coverings.  We awoke to the morning light squinting through our curtained window, and I remarked to Bishara that I had the soundest most peaceful sleep I could remember.

Following an al fresco breakfast of babaganoush, hommous, olives, labneh, za’atar (thyme soaked in olive oil), magdoose (pickled eggplant), goat cheese, fried eggs, pita bread, and freshly brewed coffee in an Arab styled gazebo, we mounted the stairs alongside the reception building and a nearby sandstone dome, makeshift viewing points, to survey the Bait Ali Camp grounds and limitless maroon sand drifts and august granite forms.  We traversed the various majless layouts on the property, accepted cumin tea from the manager for Bishara’s slightly unsettled stomach, and received a request to join a sheesha and sweet mint tea respite at the Camp later in the afternoon, before departing for the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center.

DSCF2569

Grounds of Bait Ali Camp

DSCF2578

Majless (Bait Ali Camp)

DSCF2587

The area encompassing the Visitor’s Center flaunted a chaotic scene; Bedouins in street clothes or worn thobes and ghuttras haphazardly wrapped around heads, all scuttling about, competing to make the sale – to drive anticipative vacationers through the Wadi Rum basin.  We even encountered a shop owner claiming that her brother could drive us through the UNESCO protected area.

We serendipitously located the Visitor’s Center and ticket office, as we sought to avoid the clusters of solicitors.  Selecting the one hour tour, which could be extended to two, with a driver and four wheel drive vehicle, the slight man decked out in a fitted brown leisure suit stationed behind the ticket counter provided us with a map along with instructions on meeting our driver in the tiny town of Wadi Rum.  We began our Saharan expedition thankful we hired a closed truck, as many of the conveyances rambling along the maroon sands had open air backseats filled with patrons protected by facemasks.

Perched on metal bench seats opposite each other in the back of the truck, we sailed along the flaming coral sea of sand peppered with stately sandstone shapes before stopping at a Nabataean temple where our guide provided a brief synopsis on the origins and likely function of the sanctuary in ancient times.  We advanced along the boundless serene rose lake, tourists on camelback and brown Bedouin tents dabbing the horizon, until we reached spots with particularly exquisite panoramic vistas where we would stop, and ingest the precious scenery, sensing a singular connection with the creation of this incredible valley through the effects of rainwater and sand storms some 500 million years ago.  Further into the plain, we ascended soft sand dunes and solid granite abutments only to be greeted by more extraordinary settings, and were ceremoniously invited to traditional mint tea in a red carpeted Bedouin majless.

DSCF2589

Site of Nabataean Temple (Wadi Rum)

DSCF2602

DSCF2591

DSCF2593

DSCF2596

DSCF2598

DSCF2601

 

DSCF2594_r1

DSCF2592

DSCF2597

DSCF2599

“Tea time” in Wadi Rum Majless

We wished we had allotted more time for Wadi Rum, however, found it imperative to travel to northern Jordan to visit Bishara’s childhood friends and family before returning to the Arab Gulf.  Our four hour drive along the length of Jordan was filled with reflections of our awe-inspiring adventure in Wadi Rum and Bishara’s nostalgic recollections of his former life in Jordan, all accompanied to the music of Fares Karam.

The “Lebanese Look”

“Look at those tight pants, the eye makeup, and long curly hair!”  My husband, Bishara, could hardly contain himself as we walked along the wide and well-traveled corridor of the main wing of King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh.  “She must be Lebanese,” he continued.  Although decidedly less observant than my husband, I angled my eyes in the young woman’s direction and nodded my head, “Yes, she really does look Lebanese.”  Because I knew he just had to know, I mumbled under my breath, “Let’s go find out!”  We picked up our pace and were soon alongside the young woman, and her two companions.  “Hello,” I started, “we saw you walking with your friends and had the feeling you might be Lebanese.”  The woman idled towards me, looked me directly in the eyes, and with a hint of exasperation disclosed, “Yes, I’m Saudi on my father’s side, and Lebanese on my mother’s side.  How did you know?”

Haifa Wehbe (Singer & Model) – The “Lebanese Look” [Wikipedia]

Bishara’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly.  A native Lebanese, himself, Bishara definitely knew the “Lebanese look.”  However, this was a curious fusion of lineages; one side representing the traditional Arab world where women are required to wear abayes and headscarves, and the other characterized by a more contemporary lifestyle shaped by western influences.  Although the flying time between Riyadh and Beirut is only two and a half hours, the proximity of these two capital cities belies unusually disparate ways of life and customs.

My husband and I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as expatriates for several years (from 2000 to 2004), and while I was the one who felt compelled to explore this enigmatic land and was rewarded with a phenomenal and life-changing experience, it became apparent the Kingdom was the most conservative of the more traditional Gulf nations.  Although the unwritten dress code on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) grounds (where I worked as an Economist and Bishara as a Civil Engineer), and in the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located, and where we lived, was somewhat more relaxed for females due to the large numbers of western expatriates, Saudi women were expected to be arrayed in a black abaye, including a face covering, niqab, when in public.  Women, in general, were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, and limited to employment in three sectors – academia, hospitals, and banks.

Conversely, in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Beirut, women sport perfectly coiffed hair, fully made-up faces, and pricey nose jobs.  I was definitely taken aback on a visit to Lebanon in 1996, my first trip to the Middle East, when I saw an amalgam of women on the streets of Beirut with colorful headscarves or no headscarves, tight jeans, designer handbags and shoes, erect postures, and determined gaits.  Cafes overlooking the azure Mediterranean Sea were brimming with women, some with male companions and others in collections, many in oversized sunglasses sipping Turkish coffee, chattering, and people watching.  Sheesha, prevalent in Beirut seaside cafes, is often the diversion of choice on weekends and in the evenings, with women going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts on mustering the largest smoke rings.

File:Sabah - Al Mawed.jpg

Sahbah (Lebanese Singer & Actress)

And Lebanese women may be found in all sectors of employment, from the service sector and retail arena, to the armed forces.  There seem to be no limits for Lebanese women, who are nothing if not bold and direct.  In the early 2000s, Bishara and I were having breakfast in a sweet little café on the outskirts of Beirut, and I had special ordered my favorite – a western omelet, a little known breakfast selection in Bishara’s native country.  As I savored my omelet, I noticed a group of women at a nearby table shooting sideways glances at Bishara and me from time to time, not an uncommon occurrence, as Lebanese women tend to be a very curious lot with a tendency towards flirtation.  When the women, each immaculately dressed and dripping with confidence, paid their check and got up to leave, they sashayed right up to me and just inches away, peered unabashedly at my eggs soaked in bacon, onion, and green pepper as I moved my forkfuls from plate to mouth.  Although I had become conditioned to the audacious ways of Lebanese women having traveled with Bishara to his homeland on many occasions, I was startled by how very upfront and personal these women were being.  “Here would you like a taste,” just sort of slipped out, as I lifted my fork filled with omelet in their direction.  “Oh, no, thank you!” came the swift response, as the women scurried out of the restaurant on their Louboutin heels.

600full-mona-abou-hamze

Mona Abou Hamze – TV Presenter (Sammy Said, “Beauty”)

The confidence and fashion forward nature of Lebanese women is strongly influenced by the inundation of western Europeans into Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s for fun-filled holidays; mountain skiing in the winters, and summer days spent lazing by the Mediterranean Sea and shopping, with evenings spent partying at trendy nightclubs.  Before the civil war in the mid-70s, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East,” and Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

scan0002

Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon)

scan0003

Mountain View Outside of Beirut

scan0004

The Mediterranean

scan0007

Beirut

Lebanese women not only want to look their best, but often feel compelled to help others do the same.  On the trip Bishara and I took to Lebanon in 1996, after a prerequisite feast of grape leaves, molkhia, bamieh, kibbe, moutabel, and falafel, Bishara’s sisters and a couple of neighbor ladies were kind enough to offer to style my hair.  Having coarse and generally unmanageable hair, I jumped at the opportunity.  After washing my hair, I was seated in front of a mirror in one of the bedrooms in Bishara’s old family residence, and out came the hairdryers, hair straighteners, hairsprays, and mousse.  Like professional salon hairstylists, the women effortlessly dried, straightened, fluffed, moussed, and finished off their creation with a heavy mist of hair spray.

Since our plan for later that night was to have an evening out at an exclusive mountain-side restaurant outside of Beirut that featured belly dancing, my styling team decided my new look would not be complete without a heavy dose of eyeliner to create “Cleopatra eyes” with multi-colored eye shadows applied to achieve the ultimate effect.  I had never worn so much makeup in my life, but I had to draw the line when I heard whispers of plucking and shaping my eyebrows – I had always prided myself in maintaining a more “natural look.”  And, of course, my choice of attire was not immune from evaluation and enhancement.  The ladies chose the shortest skirt I had packed, a white flouncy blouse under a black jacket, and a sparkly black and gold scarf.  Like my eyebrows, I would not negotiate on the shoes – no spiked heels.

So, there I was in the middle of the mountainside restaurant, feeling out of place, completely outside my “comfort zone,” yet somehow satisfied (based on Bishara’s reaction) having affected “the Lebanese look.”

scan0005

The Feigned “Lebanese Look”

scan0006

The Real “Lebanese Look”

Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

I write this tribute in honor of my friend, Sherifa, a young woman who taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar.  My hope is that Sherifa’s voice and sentiments live on in the dreams of other young Qatari women.  This article recounts several interviews I had with Sherifa. 

Sherifa died in a tragic car accident on November 22, 2013 on the precarious, and sometimes perilous, streets of Doha.  She had turned 23 just a week prior to her car accident.  Sherifa, who received her law degree from Swansea University in Wales only months ago, had a dream to become one of the first female judges in Qatar.  This young rising star was the eldest of five children, and was cherished by family and friends.  Short in stature, Sherifa’s candid charm, infectious spirit, and commanding manner always filled a room.  Sherifa loved her Smart Phone, texting, and shopping at Doha’s malls for designer jeans, handbags, and shoes, yet regularly stood up for those less fortunate than herself.  I was frequently disconcerted when Sherifa routinely ordered for the entire table when my husband and I joined her and her family for dinner – a highly unusual action for a young woman in the Gulf region.  Sherifa’s forthright actions say not only a lot about her own nature, but the unique environment in which her parents raised her.  Sherifa, who defied all stereotypes, was bold and resolute, yet compassionate and a realist.

Sherifa

Sherifa

I first met Sherifa in February of 2009 when I was looking for female Qatari university students to interview for a series of articles focusing on the role of women in the Arabian Peninsula, the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of young Gulf Arab women, and concerns around balancing career/marriage/family in a changing region.  Five young women, three of whom attended Northwestern University-Qatar and one at Virginia Commonwealth-Qatar, graciously agreed to be interviewed, Sherifa (who attended Swansea) among them.  Immediately following our initial interview, Sherifa insisted I go to her home to meet her family and experience some “real Qatari hospitality.”  That very evening I found myself seated on a bright red overstuffed loveseat being served cardamom coffee and Arabic sweets on a silver platter by Sherifa herself in the luxurious sitting room of her home.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sherifa’s mother, father, as well as a younger sister and brother.  Later in the evening, my husband, Bishara, and I met Sherifa and her parents at Villagio (an upscale mall) for coffee, the beginning of a deepening friendship between Sherifa and her family, and Bishara and me.  We had an instant “cellular” connection.

After several interviews with Sherifa, it became apparent that her views and outlook reflected a deeply ingrained need to adhere to her traditional Gulf lifestyle, tinged with an attentiveness to the “creep of westernization” that had infiltrated her world holding open the possibility of new opportunities.  Around a year ago, Sherifa and her family most graciously invited me and Bishara to a day-long fete at their desert family farm, around an hour outside of Doha, which included a sumptuous traditional meal and a healthy dose of Gulf hospitality.  I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherifa during this occasion.  We started our session seated atop colorful cushions outside the women’s tent where chatter and Gulf music permeated the night air; in the distance laughter from Sherifa’s male relatives and my husband arose over the din of the crackling grill where lamb kabobs roasted.  Poised and leaning forward, casting the light from her phone over my interview notes, Sherifa divulged that she was “not comfortable” when asked if she was being encouraged to get married and settle down.  Sherifa went on to declare, “My family wants me to get married as soon as possible. I don’t know, I just feel that I like my freedom. I’m not even trying to meet any one.  And, I don’t know, I’m not going to say I agree 100% with arranged marriage. I know it is my culture and all, but I want to actually meet the person I’m going to marry before getting married.”  Sherifa’s family’s concerns were understandable in the more conservative Gulf region where an unmarried woman in her late 20s is considered an “old maid.”  How did Sherifa think she would meet that special person?  “I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe a workshop, or travelling. I thought maybe while studying, but I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not one of my biggest missions. My focus is about my education. And my education comes first.”

Sherifa revealed that attending Swansea University in Wales had been a life-changing time for her.  Taking a deep breath and crossing her legs across the cushion, Sherifa maintained, “When I first went to Swansea I was 18 years old. I learned how to be independent. I learned a lot of things. When I’m there at Swansea, I’m not going to say I’m alone, but you know, I need to take care of myself. I need to figure everything out myself. I can’t just go and cry and tell my Mom to help me. Because my life here (in Qatar), we are so spoiled. Everything is done for us by our household staff–maids, cooks, and drivers. We don’t have to think about anything; everything is just casual and everything is organized for us. When I went to the United Kingdom, it became a very different journey for me. I knew since I was a kid I wanted to study abroad. I had dreams about it.”

I inquired how Sherifa was treated as a young Arab woman in the UK.  She took a sip of her Turkish coffee and replied, “I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahoma as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, ‘Who’s she?’  ‘Where is she from?’  And they think that because we’re wearing a scarf, or because we’re Arabs, we come from a really restrictive place. I know a girl in the UK who cannot even smoke in front of me, because she thinks it’s disrespectful of me. I told her ‘You can smoke, I don’t mind.’  And even some people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. It’s their right to speak as they wish. You know, when I’m with my friends and we’re chilling, who cares. Like seriously, why are you putting boundaries?”

DSCF5142

Sherifa’s family farm in the desert. (Men’s Tent)

When asked about her plans for the future, Sherifa, surveying the desert horizon, responded, “A few months from now I’ll be graduating, hopefully by June.  So I’m thinking of working in the Ministry of Justice in Qatar, a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back in the afternoon and work at the company that sponsors me, since I need to work for them for the same number of years I’ve been away at university. They sponsored me for four years, so I need to work for them for four years.”

Given her impressive academic credentials and career aspirations, I wondered if eligible young men might be intimated by Sherifa.  Always the realist, Sherifa announced, “This has already happened, and I think this will happen in the future. I do want to marry a man who has an even stronger background than me, so he can lead the family, as I know that otherwise it would always be a problem.”

I knew Sherifa would also face expectations that she have children once married.  Large families are a staple in the Arabian Peninsula where it is not uncommon to have six or more children under one roof.  According to Sherifa, “People [in the Gulf] believe that children will bring more joy and happiness than getting married.”  What were Sherifa’s own personal thoughts on having a family, especially given her lofty ambitions?  Had she thought about how many children she would like to have?  Sherifa fixed her eyes on mine, and related, “It’s hard to say. I want to give them the best education they can have. I want them to live the best life they can have, so if I have money it’s okay. I’ll have to think about it financially. I’m a planner. I want to look at the future. In the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, no, I have to think about how I am going to feed them; am I going to be able to be there for them. They need not only financial support, they need emotional support, my support.  Time management is a big issue, and in my type of career it’s going to be a helluva lot of work. I’m going to be a lawyer, and if I want to have a lot of kids I want to know I’m going to have time to be there for them. Both at school, after school, even on the weekends and all, I need to plan everything. If it’s up to me, two to three children, max.”

DSCF5186

Feast at desert family farm.

Several years earlier when discussing children and marriage I asked Sherifa if she would need the permission of her father before she married.  Sherifa affirmed, “If I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Steadfast, Sherifa emphasized, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

When speaking of family, Sherifa often became animated.  “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life,” pronounced Sherifa.  “We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”  Families, immediate and extended, gather often in the Gulf States, and cousins are particularly close, meeting often on weekends at a family home where they might dance to Khaleeji music, watch movies, divulge secrets, or decide to go out to a mall.  Sherifa highlighted the value placed on family connections and Fridays, in particular, that are “like a holy day for us, when we get together to see our parents and other relatives.  Like we go to my grandfather’s house.  Sometimes we eat lunch there, and all the males in the family go to the Mosque together, and the females go to my grandfather’s house where my aunts prepare lunch together, and then we sit together and eat.”  Sherifa added that her family sits “on the floor, on the carpet, the traditional way,” eating from large communal trays.

I was curious if Sherifa had to wear an abaye (long black robe) during family gatherings.  Brushing a wisp of hair from her forehead, Sherifa explained, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins I have to cover around.  In my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, brother, [uncle], or your husband.”  In other words, the Shayla is only worn around men you could potentially marry.  Sherifa continued, “If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  You become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

How did Sherifa feel about the cause of women in Qatar?  Her hands folded on her lap, Sherifa responded,  “I feel that we used to be a bit restricted, but now I feel we have more freedom and rights, and individuals are realizing that if you want to do something for women, it’s easier now. We have the basic right for women to drive, which is not the case, for instance, in Saudi Arabia. I think we’ve changed a lot in Qatar. Even the way we think, about co-eduation. There are many more co-educational schools than in the past. Even my Dad, I believe, has changed in his outlook over time. The views of the older generation, like my grandfather, though, are much the same as in the past.  If I see my grandfather, and I sit with him, his mentality and the way he thinks about Qatar’s development is very different from my Dad’s view. I can’t really use my Dad as an example, though, because he went to the U.S. and, actually, has been around Western society and has, therefore, been influenced, I could say, a bit, which does make a difference.”

When asked about her grandfather, Sherifa disclosed, “He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya when my grandfather is around, because he thinks it’s ‘shame.’  I can’t just be like this (in a t-shirt, jeans, and jacket) like I am now in the desert. If I’m downtown in Doha and dressed like this it is like ‘shame’ on me.  So, yes, I think my grandfather wouldn’t approve of how I’m dressed right now. Even driving. I can’t just go to my grandfather and say, “Well, Granddad, I drive.”  He wouldn’t understand; he would be like ‘Why? I’ll go and get you a driver, your own personal chauffeur, you don’t have to drive,’ because he’s that old fashioned. He thinks women should be treated differently. Women shouldn’t do anything, women should be spoiled. A woman’s job is to be at home, that’s it. Like nowadays, women want to work. I, myself, want to be something. I might be a judge, I don’t know. Like 10 years from now, no one knows.”

So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down?  According to Sherifa, her black opals flaring, “No, it’s not about keeping women down. Even in our religion, we should respect women. Our Prophet respected women, and everything about women. Women have rights, it doesn’t mean we don’t have rights, but the idea is men should take care of us. We are not supposed to do anything on our part; we just need to be handling the house and children. That’s the woman’s job, that’s the mentality of the older generation.”

Sherifa persisted, “Yes, but nowadays our society knows that women need to work. Because society is different, now we need to help our husbands, like for the future. I don’t only want to support my husband emotionally; I also want to be there for him financially. So, it’s different. If I’m going to follow the same ‘old’ mentality, then I’m going to sit at home and leave my husband with all the debt and everything. No, I’m not that kind of person, I want to help him. Back in the ‘old days’ you didn’t even have the right to think about helping, because it was like the husband would think he’s less of a man if he accepted money from a woman, which is not the case now. Because the idea of equality has entered our society, people are trying to understand that we are equal, as men and women. It’s not like we’re 100% equal, because it’s not going to happen.  Logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.  So, the idea now is we’re just trying to actually make it all work. You see it’s different now; women have more rights, and men are more understanding.”

DSCF5189

Women’s tent.

What were Sherifa’s thoughts on how Arab countries outside Qatar and the Arabian Gulf differ in their thinking on women’s roles, as well as in culture and outlook?  My husband was from Lebanon, which is like being on a completely different planet than being in Qatar.  Readjusting her headscarf, Sherifa asserted, “Exactly. Lebanese have more freedom. Their culture is more open. Okay, we, in Qatar have freedom. Like you see, I have freedom and everything, but at the end of the day, our culture comes first. Like what we have, our traditions and everything, comes first. But you see, like downtown, I can’t be dressed like this, in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not the same here in Qatar; we still need to appreciate our traditions. In Lebanon, you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.”

I mentioned to Sherifa how much I appreciated the traditional Gulf hospitality her mother showed my husband and me when we visited Sherifa’s home.  I particularly enjoyed the custom of bringing female guests bakhour (incense) after a meal, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces.  Sherifa expounded, “Usually this is the way of saying you are welcome to our house, and that we have the pleasure to have you here. And sometimes if it’s getting too late and you want to say it’s getting too late, in a polite manner, so you just give your guests bakhour and it’s like a signal that was used in the old days.  We have a saying in Arabic that means when people give you perfume, it’s not that you have to leave, but that things are winding down, in a nice and polite way.”  When I imparted that Bishara and I were astounded by, and grateful for, the generosity we were shown when at her family’s desert farm, Sherifa smiled, her eyes flashing, “It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.”

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

Sherifa’s own compassion, and interest in improving the well-being of others, was remarkable for one so young.  When only 18 years-old, and a student at the Academic Bridge Program at Education City (Qatar Foundation), for instance, Sherifa worked closely with a human rights conference in which domestic abuse in Qatar, as well as poor migrant workers’ conditions were discussed, and potential solutions developed.  While serious-minded, though, Sherifa balanced her focus on improving community concerns, and an interest in regional and global issues, with a wonderful sense of humor.  During an interview, when I asked the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender for themselves, Sherifa, with her trademark toothy grin, blurted, “Of course, a man; I could marry four women.”

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Sherifa’s legacy lives on in the four other young women I interviewed alongside Sherifa, (including Fatma I., Mouza, Sarah, and Fatma A.), and others like them, as well as in Sherifa’s two younger sisters, all of whom are smart, courageous, forward-looking and undaunted.

#longreads

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

DSCF5998

Souk Al-Waqif

DSCF6000

DSCF5996

Lunch-time at the souk!

DSCF6004

DSCF5334

Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

DSCF5906

Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

DSCF5384

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

DSCF5456

Graduation at American School of Doha

DSCF6011

Common sight in Qatar!

DSCF4749

Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

DSCF5125

American Women’s Association Bazaar

DSCF3914

Ready for some belly dancing!

DSCF5930

We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

DSCF5923

Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

DSCF3556

We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

DSCF3997

 

A Heart Divided

The Middle East is a tinderbox – Syrians being massacred by chemical weapons, Egypt in continuous turmoil, Lebanon being torn open by old and new wounds, not to mention Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya enduring a chronic state of flux.  This is the Arab world my husband, Bishara, and I were returning to after an extended peaceful and restful summer vacation in the U.S.  Just five weeks earlier I had felt wistful about leaving Qatar for America; I would miss meandering along the alleyways of Souk Al-Waqif, walks along the Arabian Gulf, gatherings with Qatari and expatriate friends, and our two miniature poodle pups who would be staying behind with friends.  I was a happy and content expatriate living a full and comfortable life in the tiny nation-state of Qatar.

Doha's Skyline

Doha’s Skyline

The Pearl-Qatar (Man-Made Island)

The Pearl-Qatar (man-made island)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

Fast forward five weeks to the end of August, and we are about to board a plane in Washington, DC for our flight back to Qatar.  CNN is reporting on defiance of the curfew in Cairo and Syria’s warning against outside involvement in its conflict on a big screen TV as we sit in an airport restaurant sipping iced tea.  We reminisce about family and friends in America who had inquired about our future safety in Qatar.  “Are you guys going to be okay over there?”, “Isn’t it time you came back to the States?”, “You’ve been in the Middle East how long?”

The Middle East has experienced years, decades, centuries of conflict, but the new rounds of strife across the region were hitting close to home.  As we waited in the Washington Dulles airport gate area, I thought back to bike riding through the streets of the small island town off the Virginia coast, our home of eight years, the sea breezes and salt air fresh in our faces and playing havoc with my curly hair.  The many walks on the protected beaches, Bishara bodysurfing and frolicking in the ocean swells.  And the heartwarming time spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.  In Qatar, and the larger Gulf region, the incautious driving precludes relaxed weekend bike rides, and while “beaching it” or sitting poolside in the winter months is superb, sunbathing in the summer months is synonymous with being trapped in a sauna.  Our ties to the East, though, had Bishara bringing his tablah (Arabic drum) to the Blue Dog restaurant in Snow Hill, MD over the summer where he was hopeful that his drum beats just might synchronize with the World War II music and singing pulsating throughout the intimate surroundings.  To Bishara’s dismay, the opportunity never materialized.

From biking and bodysurfing along the eastern coast, our summer travels brought us to crisp, refreshing mountain air and a most special family reunion in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Bishara and I made it a point to go horseback riding with a bronco-riding cousin, our trek taking us alongside babbling streams and through mountain pastures filled with wildflowers.  As my cousin hopped off his horse to show us a wild anise-type root and explain its medicinal purpose, Bishara, again, brought us thousands of miles eastward, remarking that our horse ride reminded him of riding camels in southern Lebanon as a child with his grandfather in summers past.

As many good memories that we have of the Arab world, from Bishara’s sentimentality surrounding his childhood in Lebanon and Jordan to my blossoming from an introvert to a committed belly dancer and chatter at “women only” fetes in Arab friends’ homes, we have had our share of scares while in the Middle East region.  In 2004, we had to make a quick exit from Saudi Arabia due to bombings of western expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which ultimately prompted our move to Qatar.  And then there are the horrific stories of abuse, and other atrocities, that appear in newspapers and other media, like the recent 8 year-old Yemeni child-bride who tragically died on her wedding night.

When friends and family ask how we can live in an area where this sort of thing happens, I am often left feeling some level of unease, even embarrassment, and at a loss for words.  At these times, I find myself going back to conversations I have had with Bishara and my own conscience.  While my initial interest in living in the Middle East was centered on a singular cultural experience, my years in the Arab world have given way to an enriched life with a healthy balance between work and private time, as well as the opportunity to experience time, and time again, the hospitality and generosity of the average Arab – my friends, my workmates, my community.

I remember quite clearly my consternation over Bishara admonishing me for admiring a Saudi friend’s handbag when we lived in Riyadh, and the friend insisting that I accept the several hundred dollar handbag as a gift.  (It would have been an insult had I not accepted the handbag.)  Or the bedraggled desert Bedouin who needed our help to start his truck, later pressing us to join his family for a camel feast.  And visits to Arab friends’ homes that begin with “Come in, my brother and sister” tend to continue with extended conversation over cardamom coffee and sumptuous meals of lamb and rice.  This magnanimity, based in tradition and religion, first became apparent to me in 1996 when we had a stopover in Lebanon, Bishara’s homeland, during which Bishara’s mother and sister could not feed us enough molkiha, stuffed grape leaves, and kibbe; it was a point of honor and privilege that we be well fed and properly tended to.

It is this focus on the “human factor” and family, known as tribalism in the broader sense, which drew me to the Arab culture and renewed my spirit.  But it is this very concept of strong familial ties, which makes the region rife for disputes and conflict between tribes, sects, and factions when the steadfast sense of loyalty, love and passion that exists within a household leads to a fierce need to protect the reputation and dignity of the family or tribe.

Regardless of the multitude of events occurring in this region, our hearts remain divided between the west and the Arab world.

Related article:

Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East (Planet Bell: A Travel and Photo Blog by Jeff Bell)

 

The Highlands of Saudi Arabia: Unexpected Delights in Abha

I originally published this article in Romar Traveler, May 2011.

The city of Abha defies images of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one vast sand dune. The impressive Sarawat, or Al Soodah, mountain peaks, climbing nearly 10,000 feet, surround this lush region granting the visitor some unexpected delights.

Asir region in southwest Saudi Arabia.

Abha, the capital of Asir province, resides in the southwest corner of the Kingdom.  The Asir province is one of thirteen provinces in Saudi Arabia and shares a limited border with Yemen to the south.  The larger Arabian Peninsula lies between the Nile River and Tigris-Euphrates basins to the west and north, and, Asia, to the east; in ancient times this area was home to a network of caravan trading routes. Merchants transported almonds, dates, frankincense and myrrh from the Asir province and surrounding areas to trade with the people of Mesopotamia and the Nile River valley.  Spices from India were also born along the caravan arteries through Asir province by way of what is now Oman and Yemen before being transported to the more urbanized western and northern reaches.

Arriving at Abha hotel.

As a western woman making preparations for a trip to Abha and the Asir region I could not help wondering how I would be treated in the more remote parts of this land ruled exclusively by men since the ancient trading days of 3,000 BC.  At the time, I lived and worked in Riyadh where I was accustomed to wearing the abaya (long black cloak), and in some public places, a headscarf.  I assumed I would need to don the abaya for the length of my trip to Abha.  I was surprised to find out that despite the area’s rich and historic traditions I was only required to wear conservative western garb, and shortly after landing at the Abha airport from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport, I was encouraged to forgo the abaya completely.  It was a pleasant surprise, as well, to be greeted as a “sister” by the local population, which made me feel like the member of an extended family.  Due to the Kingdom’s traditional views on gender, it is recommended that a male escort (husband preferred), or fellow group of female companions accompany women intending to travel to the Abha area.  The Asir Province, which includes over one million acres allocated to Asir National Park for hiking, exploring, and other recreational pursuits,is a highly touted tourist destination within the Kingdom.

Most visitors take weekend tours of this unique destination. It is a welcome respite for Saudis and expatriates living in the country, especially due to the cooler temperatures in the summer months that range from 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the evenings to daytime highs of 88 degrees Fahrenheit.  The temperature in Riyadh regularly reaches 113 degrees Fahrenheit and higher in the summer.  In addition to offering a welcome reprieve from the oppressive Saudi heat, Abha and the surrounding area holds some fascinating discoveries for the curious traveler.  Cable car rides starting from Jabal Al Sooda, Saudi Arabia’s highest point atop the Sarawat mountain range, offer stunning vistas. As guests descend, they take in views of the rugged mountain peaks, dotted with green vegetation, dramatic escarpments, and clusters of baboons.

The mountains of Asir were formed through the geological movement of the Alps, giving way to the Great Rift Valley that runs along the Red Sea and much of the eastern coast of Africa.  Evidence of this fault makes itself seen in the mountainous southwest region of the Asir province as well as in the Hejaz region, in a series of escarpments along the western coast of Saudi Arabia alongside the Red Sea. The Tihama, a coastal plain bordering the Red Sea, extends from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the Hejaz region before moving southward towards the Gulf of Aden where it swells to meet the mountains of Asir and Yemen.  Some historians refer to the area surrounding the southernmost portion of this plain as the “birthplace of mankind.”

Mountains of Asir Province (Saudi Arabia)

Originally inhabitants of Yemen, a segment of the Tihama population migrated to, and eventually settled in,southern Saudi Arabia and the Asir area.  The Tihama people reside in the lowlands of the region and tend to live in thatched huts made of mud, palms and grasses.  Each hut contains its own functions; for example, one hut is used for sleeping, another for cooking, and another for living. As is the tradition throughout the Arabian Gulf, the Tihama people show visitors great generosity and hospitality with offers of cardamom coffee, and dates.

The Tihamas, tribal and independent, fish, farm, herd goats and sheep, and take great pride in their craftsmanship, most notably their elaborately made baskets and hats.  The basket souk, located outside of Abha, provides glimpses into a fading artisan culture.  Not only is it a prime locale where the visitor may practice their bargaining skills, an obligatory art form in this area of the world, but it also presents a rare look at a souk run solely by women.  Clad in black abayas with batoolas, gold colored masks covering the eyes and nose, the old women of Abha sit cross-legged on ragged red carpets. Speaking in gruff, throaty, almost unintelligible monosyllables, these women manage just enough English to sell their baskets.  As a western female, raised in a culture where women continue to strive for professional equality, I found myself appreciating this community of women and what they stand for in this society.

Abha Basket – (Woven in southwestern region of Saudi Arabia.)

The Miftaha Art Village at the King Fahad Cultural Village near Abha houses original paintings and sculptures from artists in the area. It even includes traditional Tihama garments that a visitor may try on. For men, black vests or simple cotton shirts, with red, blue, and gold-striped sarong-type skirts make up the customary outfit.  Classic Tihama gentlemen, or ‘flower men,’ may also wear headpieces sporting flowered wreaths with green sprigs, and sometimes dried herbs, green leaves, or grasses and a dagger, or jambiya, at the waist secured by a belt.  Reportedly, the reasons for these head decorations are to attract young brides and as a form of natural perfume.  ‘Flower men’ are said to descend from the original tribe of the Tihama and Asir region.  Women wear black robes, piped through with red and gold embroidery. For more formal occasions such as weddings, their headpiece may consist of an exotic silver band with long, thick silver beaded engravings hanging from the rim; a wide silver belt with lustrous sterling tassels pinching the waist.  Oversized ankle bracelets with large bells and an extravagant silver-layered necklace complete the ensemble.

Playing “dress up.”

Young flower man of Tihama

Young flower man of Tihama (Photo credit: CharlesFred)

 

The “Hanging Village,” or Al Habbalah (the rope), is a remarkable commune located in the Sarawat mountain range around 6,500 feet above sea level.  At one point in the region’s history, Al Habbalah was only accessible to its residents by ropes.  Researchers believe this unusual community was inhabited from the time of the last incursion of the Ottomans until the 1970s.  The turbulent history of this region unfolds in a series of political overthrows,starting in 1818, involving the Egyptians, Ottomans, and the Saudis, resulting in the Abha region’s assimilation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1933.  One can only imagine the extraordinary efforts involved in living everyday life in Al Habbalah, in which residents, livestock, goods and materials had to be hoisted along the width and depth of menacing escarpments by a series of ropes and pulleys.  These days, regularly scheduled cable car rides allow visitors extraordinary views of the ruins of the village: a network of primitive houses, built from mud and clay balanced perilously on treacherous cliffs.

Hanging Village in Asir Province

The nearby archeology museum contains artifacts of the region, including daggers, swords, rudimentary tools, and utensils. It also accommodates a five-story replication of the traditional house of the highland region, replete with multipletiers and tiny windows.  Adjacent to the museum is an open-air restaurant where one can enjoy a break from the day’s activities with fruit-flavored sheesha (water-based tobacco from a pipe).  The intrepid visitor may respectfully ask the staff to try their hand at drumming on a tablah (Arabic drum) or strumming on an ude (small Arabic guitar).  This is sure to bring smiles, as well as the odd stare, from the faces of the diners and restaurant staff alike.  Unlike restaurants in Riyadh where men and women dine in their own sections and women are prohibited from smoking sheesha, Abha restaurants allow mixed gender seating.  It was a welcome change for me to enjoy and relax in the restaurant, pleasantly smoking sheesha in my western clothes within full view of Saudi diners and other visitors.

Smoking sheesha in Asir Province, Saudi Arabia.

The Asir province provides many opportunities to view the prevalent and historic mud, stone, and clay multi-storied houses of the highland area.  Presumably, these structures, sometimes quite colorful, were built for the large number of immediate, and oftentimes extended, family members, which is a common trait of Arab communities.  The massive abodes brandish high windows and multiple, narrow abutments that run the length of the building to keep the rain out.  Each village includes a lookout tower at a higher elevation – protecting its inhabitants from tribal and other attacks that occurred in an earlier era.  In present day, the watchtowers are sometimes used to store food. 

Ruins of multi-tiered homes outside Abha. (Saudi Arabia)

A wide expanse of desert plateau borders the city of Abha.  At the edge of the sandy swath a precipice gives way to an old, crumbling Ottoman fort.  Evidence of rolling green mountains and alluring lush valleys lay along the horizon.  Ottoman graveyards, designated by misshapen sandstone burial markers, pervade the landscape.  The location affords ideal moments for travelers to decompress, relax, and take in the spiritual nature that permeates the ruins.

Ruins of Ottoman fort in background. (Asir Province, Saudi Arabia)

Related articles

Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia

Where did we live?  It was a simple enough question.  The taxi driver repeated the question with a hint of exasperation in his voice.  My husband, Bishara, and I had just been to the Faisaliyah, an impressive triangular tower in the heart of Riyadh that housed a luxury hotel and prominent shopping mall. The building, which rose nearly 900 feet, displayed a glass sphere balanced perilously on the summit that contained the hotel’s multi-leveled restaurant.  At the hotel, we had shared tea and Arabic pastries with a member of the American Businessmen’s Association, Riyadh chapter, a gentleman we had met on an earlier trip to the Kingdom in February 2000 in association with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.  It was now early November 2000 and we had been in Saudi Arabia for three days, which had passed in a frenzy of activities: filing endless administrative forms, signing a final official employment contract with King Faisal Specialist Hospital, (KFSH), making multiple visits to the Family Medicine offices for vaccinations, signing more forms, and meeting my co-workers in the Finance department and orientation sessions.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Where I worked.

Bishara and my eyes locked in desperation.  Where did we live?  We didn’t have a resident address.  Street addresses did not exist in Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh is a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island and, to us, seemed like a confusing hodgepodge of contemporary skyscrapers, Arab sweet pastry shops, cozy outdoor cafes, luxurioushaute couture shops, the ever- present McDonalds, and traditional souks with intricate cobblestone alleyways.  Later, Bishara and I found out the expatriate population used landmarks to define quadrants of the massive city. The roundabout area near a billboard advertising Pepsi Cola was coined the Pepsi Cola Roundabout. The ghoulish and infamous Death Roundabout named after the excessive number of deadly accidents that took place within its curves.  Family and friends back home found it odd that our mailing address included a departmental code associated with the individual’s place of employment.  Bishara eventually recalled that there was a high-end shoe shop on the ground floor of our apartment building.  Shoe shop, shoe shop, what is shoe shop? asked our taxi driver, a middle aged man with a deeply wrinkled face, an off-white tunic and white embroidered skull cap.“Qaser Al-Ahtheiah.”  Bishara exclaimed!  “Ahh, Qaser Al-Ahtheiah,” the taxi driver proudly yelled back.  Bishara leaned over and translated, “Remember the Shoe Palace?”  Yes, this sounded vaguely familiar.  I remembered seeing the marquee through my peripheral vision as we sped away in a taxi we had caught around the corner from the shoe store earlier in the day.

Arab Sweet Pastry Shop in Riyadh

Only three days prior we were met at the Riyadh airport by an official from the KFSH, after a nearly 20 hour flight from Washington, D.C. We greeted our contact with our nine pieces of luggage and two adorable miniature poodles, Mish Mish and Callie, who had traveled with us in the plane’s cabin to join in our adventure, and piled into a van.  We started our journey at Dulles airport, outside Washington D.C., with 43 pieces of luggage including suitcases, trunks, and boxes with every assortment of household item and clothes for every season that we naively felt compelled to lug halfway around the world.  Although we had notified the airlines that we would have excess baggage, the airline representatives took one look at us with our mounds of luggage and two pooches, and said “No way.”  It was one more obstacle to be overcome.  We rummaged through several trunks and suitcases to determine what we really needed for the next couple of weeks, decided we’d need to send 34 pieces separately by cargo, and in the process missed our plane.  Crazy, was the consensus from our friends in the U.S. and from the compatriots we met later in the Kingdom.  In contrast, a Canadian family with two young children who became fast friends within a month of our arrival, and who lived in an expatriate compound in Riyadh, had brought only eight pieces of luggage for an indefinite stay.

Me, Bishara, and the pups with our luggage. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

Prior to moving to Saudi Arabia, we had exchanged innumerable e-mail messages and phone calls with administrators and the Finance department at KFSH, where I would be working, to beseech them to sidestep the regulations that dogs would not be allowed in official KFSH residences.  We explained that our pooches were good natured and just like family to us.  There was much back and forth, and considerable resistance initially, however, it became increasingly clear that with continued persistence we just might be able to prevail.  To complicate matters we had been going through an exhaustive process of filling out paperwork that needed signatures and official stamps from the U.S. department of the Interior, Agriculture, and our vet.  With each successive e-mail we could feel the resolve of the KFSH administrator on the other end of the transmission softening.  An absolute “no,” became “let me check further into it,” later becoming “maybe we could house you in temporary quarters initially,” and finally becoming “okay bring your dogs and we’ll work something out.”

It was becoming increasingly clear that there were definite shades of gray in the Kingdom and that although there were rules and regulations there were many cases where the edges could be bent with sufficient determination.  Such was the case with our fixation on bringing our pooches with us to Riyadh.  We were willing to hold our breath for longer than the other side.  An hour before landing at Riyadh airport, I pondered all that could go wrong once we landed and began moving through immigration, a sense of apprehension rising within me.  After all, we had not one dog but two, and we knew that the Kingdom was not a particularly dog-friendly place.  In addition to gathering all of the immigration paperwork for me and my husband, I checked to make sure that Mish Mish and Callies’s documents were in order.  As we moved through immigration our youngest, Callie, slung over Bishara’s shoulder in a doggie carrier, let out a small yelp. The tall and officious looking immigration officer turned toward us, “For God’s sake, what was that?!?,” he screeched. Bishara replied sheepishly, “That’s just our dog.”  “How many dogs,” the official retorted with a menacing grimace as he eyed the dog carrier hanging off my shoulder.  Bishara answered even more sheepishly, “two.”  “Haraam, haraam, (forbidden, forbidden), we cannot touch them, let them go through,” was the officer’s clipped response.  With a fling of the official’s arm we were through immigration without so much as a peek at the carefully prepared paperwork for our cherished pups.

Hurtling along the modern causeway with its pristine medians cradling palm trees and colorful flowers, I was reminded of the unusual driving habits of our Saudi hosts, which I had experienced during our trip to the Kingdom nine months earlier. Many cars rode two abreast in a single lane. Others cruised along the white line of the lane divider itself, which we came to find out was a frequent occurrence. Even more alarming was the practice of cars switching lanes from far right to far lift to make a left-hand turn or vice versa, in one swift maneuver, a compulsion that we would find happened far too regularly.  The car horn surpassed all other signals as the driving sound of choice. It was not unusual to be stopped at a red light and hear car horns start to chorus from all sides. Saudi drivers made New York motorists seem sleepy in comparison.  Of course, I could snicker; women were prohibited from driving in the Kingdom.

We finally arrived at our new place of residence, Olaya 8, in the heart of the city and right across the street from the soon to be completed Kingdom Center with its nearly limitless haute couture shops.  As we approached a security guard near the entrance of our apartment building both pooches began whooping and hollering, as if they knew we were nearing the end of our journey.  The guard, a formidable looking man with furrowed brow and of stocky stature, practically fell off his feet with surprise. “What is that?” he asked in limited English.  “These are our dogs,” Bishara said, trying to remain calm and keep his voice friendly. “We are KFSH employees, and we have been approved to have the dogs live with us.”  “What are you saying?” the guard shot back.  Bishara repeated, “These are our dogs, and they have been approved to live with us.”  The guard looked skeptical. His face continued to cloud.  “Oh, no, no, no!!” he shouted, his voice rising with each syllable. “No dogs, no dogs!”  “Look, we have a document showing that we have been approved,” Bishara said.  Scowling, the guard grabbed the document out of Bishara’s hands. He stared so hard at the paper I expected a burnt hole to appear at any second. It was obvious he still did not understand.  “No dogs!” was the insistent reply.  It was time for Bishara to use his powers of persuasion.  Calmly, yet with conviction, Bishara began in Arabic, “We have just flown half around the world from America, and right now we are exhausted.”  Bishara continued, “I do think that this is something we can settle tomorrow.”  The guard’s shoulders relaxed; and he pointed us to the double glass doors of the building’s entrance.

Bishara and pups outside front door of Olaya 8 apartment.

The white marble floors of the apartment building sparkled, specks of brown and gray reflecting off the long fluorescent lamps strewn along the ceilings.  We crawled into a cramped elevator, one of those smallish European type elevators, to the seventh floor.  The KFSH representative led the way into our apartment. Piling our luggage in a corner and setting our pooches free, we began surveying our new home away from home.  The apartment was a cavernous place, nearly the size of our 3,000 square foot home outside of Washington, DC, and fully furnished. Colorful reds and greens threaded through the material on a supple couch, love seat, and two chairs in a very long and narrow living room.  A large dining room contained a hardwood table with chairs to seat eight and a matching armoire stocked with plates and glasses. The kitchen was ample, yet somewhat dated, but contained all the necessary utensils pots and pans, cooking sundries such as a microwave, blender and knife block, and even dry goods such as bread, peanut butter, granola bars, and cereal.  A washer and dryer occupied a side room off the kitchen.  A protracted hallway led to three expansive bedrooms with more than sufficient closet and cupboard space.  Two and a half bathrooms were strategically located in the apartment, with the half bath in the foyer looking like something out of “Homes and Gardens;” with finely curved golden fixtures.

View from our Olaya apartment of Kingdom Center construction. (November 2000)

As we approached our apartment building in the KFSH van, we had been happy to spy large balconies running the length and breadth of the imposing edifice; Bishara and I had lived in an apartment building in northern Virginia when we first married, and unlike many of our neighbors made very good use of our spacious balcony, barbecuing regularly and relishing weekend breakfasts in the early morning sun.  My heart skipped a beat as I tugged at the balcony door, and was unable to budge it open.  Even Bishara’s brute force was ineffective.  Peering behind the curtains of the pane glass window, I found a thick chain lock threaded through the door handle and another protruding piece of metal clamped to the outside wall.  I asked the KFSH official, who was about to depart for Riyadh airport to assist another group of incoming KFSH employees, about the lock.  “All of the balcony doors of the building are locked,” he said, matter-of-factly.  Bishara whispered in my ear, “That’s weird.”  My spine stiffened ever so slightly.

Although we had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of food on our Saudia airlines flights, by the early evening the effects of jet lag dictated that we brave the streets of downtown Riyadh on foot to pick up some more substantive nourishment.  Given the dubious driving conditions, we were certain this would be a daunting task. Our notions were confirmed when we tried to cross the street. Flagging down a policeman standing near the intersection outside our building, we expressed our concern with crossing the boulevard.  “If God wills, you will make it across.” The policeman deadpanned. “Good luck to you.”  On top of it all, I was still unaccustomed to my abaya, which I was regularly tripping over.  Bishara and I decided that we would hail a cab to cross the street.

Grocery store around the corner from our Olaya 8 apartment. (Riyadh, KSA)

We finally settled on a grocery shop around the corner where we encountered a wonder of freshly cut lamb and the freshest of vegetables. We found it a bit easier to communicate with the Pakistani and Nepali shopkeepers. After losing ourselves in the honeycombed aisles of the shop, Bishara reappeared with a broad smile, “They’ve got Budweiser. I can’t believe it, they’ve got Budweiser!”  “It’s non-alcoholic,” came a voice just over Bishara’s shoulder.  The curves of Bishara’s mouth straightened, a baffled look replaced the sparkle in his face.  The shop vendor continued, “There is no alcohol in Saudi.  Only non-alcoholic drinks.”  We had read about this in our information packets regarding Saudi culture and general “do’s and don’ts.” The promise of a tasty beer snatched from Bishara’s palate still left him nonplused.

As we left the store, the bag boy followed us out with our full cart.  We stepped out onto the sidewalk and Bishara turned to take hold of the shopping cart for the trip home.  The young man, with a slight build and mussed, thick dark hair hanging over his forehead, pulled the cart away and continued forward with an expression of steadfast purpose.  Bishara politely announced, “It’s okay, we’ll take it from here.”  Expressionless, the bag boy continued marching forward along the sidewalk.  Bishara repeated, “Thank you, you can give me the cart now.”  The bag boy appeared to not have heard or was ignoring us completely.  We gave up. We neared the corner and Bishara pointed the young man the way home.  Down the street of our apartment building, up the elevator, and into our apartment, the bag boy remained with us the entire way.  As we stepped through the doorway, our girls immediately began their ritual of zealously welcoming our visitor with leaps to the buttocks, nibbles to the hands, not to mention pitiful crying, garnering the first emotion from this goodhearted young man; sheer terror.  Cornering our pups, coaxing them out of the room and into a bedroom, we shut the door.  Returning to the front door, we told the panic-stricken young man that all was safe and under control.  His composure slowlyreturning, our compassionate attendant pulled the shopping cart into the kitchen and proceeded to empty the bags placing the items on the counters.  Bishara slipped our friend a hefty tip, and he evaporated into the night air.

Even before arriving home from our grocery shopping jaunt, we could hear our pooches’ high pitched yapping intruding upon the stillness of the night.  We had let our pups relieve themselves in enormous potted plants in a corner of Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and in the parking lot just outside the Riyadh airport terminal upon our arrival in the Kingdom.  It was apparent that nature was calling, once again, after a long night and day in the confined space of a doggie carrier.  This presented an unforeseen predicament.  We were in an apartment building in the middle of the capital city, and our query about grassy spots around town had been met with bewilderment and shoulder shrugs.  The only grass to be found in Riyadh was a park that was miles away, and the Diplomatic Quarter a three square mile quadrant of the city that housed many of the countries embassies, was even further away.

“Walk time” for the pups. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We needed to explore our neighborhood and determine what makeshift arrangements we could organize for “our girls.” It was time to don my abaya, once again.  Near the end of our previous stint in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year, I had begun to accept the abaya as a second skin.  Before coming to the Kingdom, I had several friends try to dissuade me from this crazy thinking about wanting to go to Saudi Arabia, and one of the dubious, and I would later find, flawed, arguments used was, “You’re going to have to wear one of those long black robes, and if you show your ankles the religious police are going to whack your leg with a stick.”  These types ofaccounts only served to make me more determined to follow through with my adventure, even more curious about what this unconventional place would be like.

One great thing about the abaya is that you can wear anything underneath it.  If you’re having a bad hair day, you can even wrap a scarf around your head, and still fit in perfectly.  Pajamas typically became my attire of choice under my abaya when Bishara and I walked the dogs before going to bed and first thing in the morning before breakfast.  On the first sojourn through our neighborhood, we wandered down through the ample streets with their stand-alone concrete homes and stone wall perimeters looking for a suitable place for the girls. We spotted an empty lot with beige sand and chunks of concrete with jagged edges.  It wasn’t the green grass of home, but seemed like our only alternative.  Mish Mish and Callie weren’t entirely receptive to squatting amongst twigs and an assortment of scattered brush and the occasional empty soda can, however, they soon realized that this was as good as it was going to get.  A middle aged Saudi gentleman with bright white thobe, carefully positioned ghuttra, and gracious heart who lived across the street from the empty lot spied us on this first night and asked if the dogs would like to come into his courtyard to consume some grass.  Evidently he thought our fluffy and curly haired companions were sheep.  Our girls are “people pooches” and were only too happy to pounce all over and apply licks to the tip of the nose of this unsuspecting benefactor, very un-sheep-like behavior, putting this kind man in a bit of a tizzy.  “Uh, oh,” Bishara exclaimed as our pups began eyeing the lush green grass just inside the courtyard, and not as an appetizer; with a yank on their leashes we were out of there, the kind gentleman waving us off with a crooked smiled plastered on his face muttering something unintelligible under his breath as we scampered off.

On that first night in Riyadh, Bishara and the pooches ensconced comfortably in bed, belying the fact that we were on the precipice of beginning our unusual new adventure, I wandered in the darkness to the bathroom, switched on the light and stared at my weary face.  “What have I done?  How could we have left two good jobs, our family and friends for this strange place?”  This was the first and last time that I would seriously question the judgment of my decision to live and work in the Kingdom.