Category Archives: Saudi Arabia

Expat.com a Genuine Friendly Expat site. 

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genuine friendly expat site

 

I have to apologise to Julian the creator of Expat.com.

I just took the liberty of adding a tag line –  genuine friendly expat site to his logo and here is why:

Back in March 2010,  Bill was headhunted for a project in Riyadh and he left me to research the place. As you all know,  surfing the net sucks up hours of your life and many times leads to redundant websites, irrelevant advice or worse still – clickbait-that erroneous info you didn’t really need to know about or worse you need to pay money to get anything other than the crumbs. Thankfully I found expat-blog.com (expat.com’s previous avatar) and it became my go-to place for advice. I became a member and quickly got chatting to other expats living in Saudi Arabia. I found Riyadh challenging and frightening sometimes (read my Riyadh posts here) and the contacts I made in the forum became friends I could trust. We had so many good times and so many laughs just chatting there.  It wasn’t as big as it is now and it was lovely to have Julian come into the forum now and then to keep us in line or add to the conversation. It was a difficult time and my disillusion grew when Bill was asked to not come back to the (Riyadh) office, while we were on holidays so I never got to see those friends again. I dropped out of the expat blog scene after that but returned in recent years so happy with where Julian has brought it to.

The site now has over a million members and is bigger and better and just as genuine and friendly as I left it.

If you are an expat you need to join Expat.  com

 

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The Girl Who Wrote Everything is Leaving the Oasis

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Time to move on from all things Arabian.
All the best to my subscriber, KSADriverDiaries, in her quest to win the right to drive in Saudi..you go gurl!
I miss expat living but life is much more than a location and a fancy shmancy salary package.

Getting ‘dismissed’ from the job in Riyadh meant we were able to return home and be with Brian, Bill’s Dad, for the last year of his life.
We were also here to greet our latest grandchild, Abigail born in February.
Now the girl who can’t decide what flavor gelati is her favorite is free to write about everything.

Ramadan and Running the Gauntlet of Riyadh Airport

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Nov 26 - Interior, Riyadh Airport

Image by khowaga1 via Flickr

I love surprises and surprised myself by booking an impromptu flight home to attend my son’s 30th birthday.

My taxi pulled up to Riyadh Airport right on 6.30pm and I noticed there were no porters ready to pounce on my suitcase.

Inside long queues snaked down to the x-ray machine but the conveyor belt was not moving. Further ahead I noticed there were no ground crew in the check out area. My plane was departing at 7.45 and I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry:

I was in the Iftar zone.

While hundreds of passengers milled around the airport, the staff were enjoying breaking their fast. I overheard that they would be returning at 7pm.

Hello? This is an international airport and my gate closes at 7.15. Does anybody care?

Lined up at the end of the queue (where one needs a pair of binoculars to see the x-ray machine) I thought to myself, these people don’t let anything get in their way, not even international carriers waiting for their passengers to board.

A family man next to me saw my mouth agape and thought I must be thirsty so he put a can of drink in my hand and offered me a date (no, not that kind of date). Normally I’d huff ‘n’ puff and ask, ‘who’s in charge around here but hey, this is Riyadh, shut up and eat your date, they’ll get to you in their time, don’t make waves.

At 6.55,  I saw a Filipino with an I.D. badge walking hurriedly alongside my queue, his head bobbing up and down, looking for someone or something.

Our eyes met and he ran towards me. You are Mrs Wallace?  Yes, I replied. Come with me. People murmured and shuffled as I took my place at the front of their queue. My back felt like it was being stabbed by a thousand indignant daggers as I was clearly being assisted by someone who doesn’t do Iftar.   I handed over my travel documents and he zoomed off  to process them.

Fortunately I was wearing my abaya  without a head scarf which made it easier to identify me as an expat, otherwise I look like every one else here. My Greek features blend in well  and I’ve also been mistaken for a Rajasthani and Spaniard. Unfortunately I’ve never been mistaken for Angelina Jolie or Raquel Welch.

By 7.10 my documents and I joined the immigration queue. This one I figured was about as long as the line  for admission to the Louvre on a sunny Sunday, or Adventure Mountain at Disneyland. The Filipino had disappeared and no one came to my rescue. As the guard opened the entry leading to the exit booths, I forgot my manners and jumped the queue and got to the immigration officer in time for him to answer his mobile.  7.18 and chat chat chat, he was clearly in no hurry to get back to work. I closed my eyes and practised meditation until I heard  him thumping my passport. Next stop was another security pass, one for my bag and the other a body search behind closed curtains.

As my hand bag bobbed to the end of the conveyor belt  I entered the search cubicle where two women were chatting. I was close to boiling point. Asked to extend my hands out to the side I almost landed a punch to the face  of one of them. Oh dear, so close and yet so far, I thought. Ana asfa! – I’m sorry! She was fully veiled so I couldn’t see her response but she waved me through with her beeping rod. Grabbing my bag I had about 60 seconds to walk the few metres left between Riyadh and the Rest of the World Out There. You know the way you walk when a teacher says, walk don’t run! That’s what I did, a rapid shuffle to Gate 15.  As I successfully entered the tube towards my plane I flung off my abaya and skipped to the door where I was greeted by a Singapore girl.

I was Alice jumping through the Looking Glass and (on my way) home.

Oh, what a feeling!

Stuck in the Middle with You

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SpriteIraqi

Image via Wikipedia

 

This is the time of year when I need an extra bit of patience and a game plan to get me through each day here.

I’ve gotten into the routine of wearing an abaya, not being able to drive and at the mercy of  some scary taxi drivers.  I’m used to not being understood, constantly repeating myself and speaking in three languages just to find a spray bottle in the supermarket.

´Spry? Ah, you wanting Sprite?´

 ´No, I don’t  want a drink,  I want a plastic, you know, um, Choof! Choof!Choof!´  (as I pull an invisible trigger and make a fool of myself in aisle 3 ).

After three months I also got into rhythm with prayer time and kind of knew how things worked around here until Ramadan came along.

My choppy sea existence turned into a tsunami.

Everything around here opens and closes at will.

If you’re like Jarir Bookstore (the local haven for expats needing a good read and more art supplies) you have a website with Ramadan timings posted.

Thank you.

If you’re a small business, the corner shop, pharmacy, mall, I may not know when you open because there are no White Pages and if I do have  your number, you can’t see my sign language when I try to explain what I want.

It’s easier for me to just sit at home and wait until 7pm when Riyadh comes back to life but by then Wallace is home, he’s hungry and just wants to settle down for the evening. In my other life I’d just hop in my car and go where I want when I wanted to but here I’m not going out on my own after dark.

This is also the time of year when expat clubs close down over summer and any friends you have made are on vacation. I’d go on vacation too but Wallace doesn’t get any leave before September (Greece, here we come!)

You get to feeling lonely and out of place while everyone around you is having a good time. 

So I’m hibernating.

Meanwhile the locals are having a ball!

It’s like Christmas for 30 days around here for them.

There’s food to prepare for Iftar, houses buzz with family and friends and after dinner many gather for an evening stroll through a park or down the shopping mall. The shops stay open till 1am and cars toot and children play below while Wallace tries to sleep.

Many restaurants, local businesses and all the malls put up beautiful decorations and hang fannous (brightly coloured lanterns).

Everywhere you see the sign Ramadan Kareem ( I’m guessing  it translates to ”Happy Ramadan”),  the prayer calls last longer and the locals become more devout. 

Wallace has to hide to eat or drink while at the office and his fasting work associates get extra snappy and moody from low blood sugar, no doubt. They’ve most probably been up half the night, have indigestion and need a good sleep. It’s hard for him to satisfy all their work requirements as it is, he can do without the extra aggro.

I’m stuck in the middle of Ramadan and I’ve got Steeler Wheel’s song going around my head..

”Stuck in the middle with you and I don’t know what it is I can do……..” 

Maybe I’ll just download the song and dance around my hotel room till this blows over.

Ramadan Kareem.

Ramadan Iftar

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Iftar literally means breaking the fast and this is what Muslims do after the sunsets here. Part of the religious observance is to share this meal with others and with this in mind, Wallace and I attended a lavish Iftar put on by one of his associates.

We had eaten here before and knew what to expect, a hearty meal with good company. This time we were in a company of 15 and mostly business associates. As it wasn’t a Saudi household we all sat and ate together.

 The fast is traditionally broken by eating a date but there were no dates here just bowls brimming with fresh sweet almonds. Actually we arrived promptly at 8.30pm and soon realised we were the only ones hungry. All the locals had already had a bite to eat around 6.30 pm and Wallace and I had last eaten around 2pm. The almonds staved off  hunger till 10pm when dinner was served.

Caterers had already set up low-lying couches out on the patio, candles flickered on the long table set in front of them and a cooling mist spray ensured our comfort in the 37C  evening heat.

Upon arrival, I handed over my abaya (nicknamed Saudi fur coats!) and we   were offered a glass of  jeleb: date palm syrup mixed with water and a few pine nuts thrown in for a chew. This was delicious and unlike any other taste I have come across, so much so, I made it my preferred drink for the evening.

Of course there was no alcohol being served and the jeleb was far superior to any can of soda being offered.

Across from the dining area there were three work stations set up and there seemed to be as many staff as there were guests. Two chefs wearing their tall  hats used a pasta machine to roll out pieces of dough that were then placed on top of a hot griddle. One chef rolled while the other stuffed the cooked pastry with either cheese, spinach or zaatar herb. Served as hot entrees they quickly filled the gap, the cheese being my favourite. They use a traditional cheese which is stringy like mozzarella but has the flavour of halloumi (the name escapes me). I could have sat there all night content with a half dozen of these and my jeleb.

The second station was in the dark but you could make out a young man turning over a spit that held a whole young lamb. This was disappointing to eat as it was  overcooked and there were no herbs or spices to thrill the palate. In my hands it I would have been marinated without mercy using ‘latholemono’ – my father’s killer marinade made with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano.

A waiter stood behind the drink station and was dutiful in replenishing the guests drinks while other staff set up the rest of the banquet in the dining room. When all was ready we lined up and had our fill of hommous, baba ganoush (that’s the Turkish name of the eggplant dip as I can’t remember what the Arabs call it), Greek salad, artichoke salad, fatoush (green salad embellished  with fried pitta pieces), the lamb set on a giant tray of rice, chicken casserole (not called casserole but you get my drift!) and fried hammour (the local fish).

I disappointed myself because I barely could eat a plate full of dinner but I made up for it with dessert. There were tiny pots of rose-water flavoured custard, pieces of ‘baklava’ style treats, crème brûlée (that’s what they call it as well),and fluted pastry horns filled with custard (cream here is a real treat and hard to find). The chefs in the big hats also provided us with hot pastries filled with Nutella and halwa to make sure none of us remained hungry.

The best though was saved till last and rightly so.  Our host brought around a box of  macaroons flown in from a French pastry shop in the Champs-Elysees. These are morsels too divine to describe but I can tell you they came in pistachio, chocolate and strawberry.  Happily  these little gems can also be found here in Riyadh at my favourite café, Le Notre but that isn’t as exotic as having them flown in from Paris.

It reminds me of a cake shop in Qatar that has all its cakes flown in fresh fromVienna! I never tried them, I was still getting over paying $10 for a bunch of celery flown in from Holland. 

Another special treat was our own individual sheesha-the Arabic hookah which came with either strawberry, grape or apple flavoured tobacco. I lounged back in my low-lying couch, jeleb in one hand, sheesha in the other,  surrounding myself in plumes of smoke, Mata Hari style.

Our hostess wore a lovely salwa kameez and other women wore flowing Arabic national dress, leaving me to feel under dressed in my western style blouse and skirt. Come to think of it, the Mata Hari look was a far stretch considering my outfit.

 Still, we all learned a lot about each other that night, and  shared Iftar together- just the way it is meant to be.

The Ramadan Effect

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Day 2 of Ramadan and we have been invited to our first Iftar tonight and an opportunity to show self discipline in the midst of what should be a cavalcade of food

The last time we visited these hosts we had a truly Arabian experience with a lot of  good local cuisine and equally good company. The air was filled with laughter and Arabic music.

Their villa is exquisitely fitted out with large fluffy sofas set out in a courtyard filled with tea candles and a humidifier that wafts cooling mist around your feet.

I’m off to get ready, meanwhile have a read of  the following article about Ramadan in Egypt. It’s interesting to note that although it is a time of fasting, there is ample time after sunset to make up any lack.

In Egypt, Turning Back The Clock For Ramadan : NPR.

Ramadan Kareem

Heeeeere’s Ramadan!

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Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Muslims is upon us and it has been conveniently preceded by a security warning from my embassy.

This is no surprise as there are those amongst us who would think they’d be doing a higher being a big favour by knocking off an infidel or two during High season. It has happened and will continue to happen and all you can do is not be at the right place at the wrong time. The Rock Monster is probably preparing his arsenal as I write this and no doubt I will hear of his handiwork along the expat grapevine. It has taken three months but yesterday the British Embassy confirmed the victim of the last rock assault was one of theirs…perhaps I need to wear a helmet as well as my veil when out and about. Yeah, hidden under my abaya I can have the whole Lara Croft thing happening…cutesy shorts, black singlet, boots and a bullet proof vest.

Ramadan means no eating, drinking, smoking or intimate relations with your spouse once the sun rises but I suppose everything is possible behind closed doors if you are not a follower of the faith.

Restaurants and coffee shops remain closed throughout the day only opening after sunset then many stay open till sunrise next morning.
It’s the time of year when everyone stacks on weight as you stuff yourself at a variety of buffets put on by family, friends, hotels and restaurants.
The fast is traditionally broken with fresh dates which are in abundance right now. I think I read there are over 100 varieties: each one better than the last and some are as big as your thumb and a meal in itself.
When we lived in Abu Dhabi, we ate at a Turkish Restaurant that had a cheap but grand Iftar buffet (the meal that breaks the fast is called Iftar). The majority of patrons there were single guys with big appetites who piled two to three plates of food then sat down and waited for the official call to start eating.
They would stare at their plates, stare at each other to see if anyone had jumped the gun, lick their lips, adjust their plates, fill their glasses, fidget some more then dive in when the call was given-beamed live from Mecca on overhead TV screens.

It’s the time of year when mega companies and various charities feed the poor in huge outdoor tents or simply open spaces. I watched this happen in Qatar in the park opposite our apartment. Strangers coming together in circles of ten or so who were handed plates of food by workers from the local mosque. You could tell by their different dress, some were Indians, others Pakistani, Afghans and Sudanese. They also fidgeted and rearranged their plates, paper this time, until the call rang out from the adjoining mosque.
Come to think of it, I don’t know where the women and kids were eating because the park was constantly filled with men.
You’ve heard of the Red Cross?
Well, it’s called Red Crescent here – and they do a fine job looking after the needy.

Time will tell how Ramadan pans out for us here,
I’ll keep you posted

Swashbuckling

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On a daily basis I am reminded that this country operates vastly different to my own.

The laws are to be respected and if you put a foot wrong, who knows what might happen.

The ‘word around town’ is that things are changing for the better but until then read the following article:

 (dated 21 December 2009 and written by Kelly McEvers from NPR.com)

A Lebanese man who hosted a popular TV show where he gave callers advice and sometimes predicted the future was sentenced to death by a court in Saudi Arabia last month. His charge? Sorcery.

Ali Hussain Sibat’s popular call-in show was broadcast on a satellite TV channel in Arabic around the Middle East from Beirut. In May 2008, Sibat traveled to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His lawyer, May al-Khansa, says Saudi religious police recognized Sibat from his TV work and arrested him.

“They took him to prison,” Khansa says, “and after that they took him to the court many times, asking him, you have to say that you have done something against religion, and after that we will release you and take you to your country.”

Not An Isolated Case

Human rights groups say such cases  are on the rise in the strictly religious country. Saudi officials have arrested Saudis and non-Saudis, Muslims and non-Muslims on sorcery charges.

In recent months, a Saudi man was arrested for smuggling a book about witchcraft into the country. An Asian man was accused of using his powers to solve marital disputes. And a third man was given a death sentence for trying to learn magic.

In 2007, Saudi authorities executed an Egyptian pharmacist for sorcery.

Interrogation On TV

Sibat confessed to Saudi authorities that he consulted spirits to predict the future. But the authorities didn’t release him. Instead, they brought him to a TV studio and told him to confess again. The conversation was broadcast on a Saudi program about religion.

“How do you rate yourself among magicians?” an interviewer asked Sibat.

“What?” said Sibat, clearly nervous. “I have failed. I confess in front of God.”

Sibat was then tried in court, and the confession was used against him. He was sentenced to death on Nov. 9. Saudi justice officials would not respond to several requests for comment about his case.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the problem is that Saudi Arabia has no specific law governing such crimes.

Instead, judges view people who believe in the supernatural as heretics and often sentence them according to the judges’ own personal training in Sharia, or Islamic law. Whitson says this means anyone could be targeted.

“You will never know on any given day whether the book you are reading or the words you are saying are going to be interpreted or used against you deliberately as a form of witchcraft,” Whitson says.

Belief In Genies

Belief in genies, or jinn, as they’re called in Arabic, is quite common in Saudi Arabia. But the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia forbids people from worshiping anyone other than God.

The religious police headquarters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, has an entire department devoted to combating sorcery and witchcraft and regularly distributes pamphlets and DVDs. In one DVD, which is set to religious music, police search people’s homes for signs that they practice witchcraft.

Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif says religious authorities truly believe they are helping society by discouraging faith in the supernatural.

But, he says, there is also a political reason for the recent rise in sorcery cases.

In the past few years, the government has tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment by sacking key religious figures, pushing for reform in the courts and criticizing the religious police.

“One time, I met the head of the Hey’a [the religious police] and he was really sorry because in the past he was saying that they were free to do whatever they like to enforce the Sharia laws — even, he said, in the public buses, in the train, in the airports,” Saif says.

But now that they are under pressure, the religious police are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways they still can, including looking for people who practice magic or who don’t pray five times a day, and for women who don’t properly cover their hair, Saif says.

In the light of this article, I have made some ‘word’ changes to this blog.

Now where’s my veil??

House de Beaute et Jacque Hammer

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Vanity called my name so I headed down to my local beauty salon. It’s a monthly ritual  I can’t avoid unless I want my head  looking  like a ski field.  It’s a sanctuary from the construction noise surrounding me and the drivers that toot as I walk by.

This is jack hammer city, I’ve heard them daily here for more than two months and woke up to the sound of one at 2am. I ‘m dreaming, I thought to myself, no one uses a jack hammer at this hour. As the sound rattled my fillings and rearranged brain cells, I looked out to see a road crew hammering away. Opening the window I yelled, ‘Shut up! Imshee!’, slammed the window shut, fell back into bed and slept with a pillow over my head. The other night,  Wallace woke me up complaining that the drone of the AC was keeping him awake and he was going to get the night manager to come and hear it for himself.  There I was, 2am-again-half asleep, swaying my way to the kitchen to hide while the night manager checked out the noise.  His solution was to shift us to another room and we’ve  already tried that..I’ve just got to get out of this hotel and out of this neighbourhood. In zombie mode I instinctively started making coffee in the kitchen until Wallace appeared and walked me back to bed muttering, ‘It’s not time for that, it’s still bedtime.’ Still bedtime?  I don’t know what that means any more!

You would think that I would be able to escape and enjoy the sanctuary of  my beauty salon but no, THEY are after me, whoever THEY are, THEY know I’m at the end of my tether so THEY cued a renovation crew in the beauty salon today- replete with electric drills and buzz saws – going through metal- a lot of metal. I tell you, my fillings are on High Alert!

Ah yes, getting your hair done to the shrill of  buzz saws is only eclipsed by moonlighting  jack hammers:

It’s the expat life for me!

The Other Side to Shopping

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Back at the Deara souq today, we had a two-hour window (between prayer calls) to do some last-minute shopping for my American friend. She heads home on vacation in a couple of days and was keen to pick up a couple of oriental rugs. Prices for these beautiful woven items start from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on size, quality of thread and weave.

We meandered in an out of shops covered from floor to ceiling with all types of trinkets, trying to decipher the terribly cheap from the exquisite. Goods made in China have found their way to this corner of the world which angers me as I see so little evidence of local craftmanship. I recently bought a beautiful pewter ‘oud’ burner, (oud is a fragrant wood that Saudi women use ‘as incense’ to perfume their homes) from a specialist store, took it home and discovered a ‘Made in China sticker on the box!

With an hour left before the prayer call, we hurried into the first carpet shop we came to and were left with mouths wide open at the display of beauty before us. My American friend quickly got into buying mode within the budget she had set herself  but she kept getting distracted by all the expensive silk rugs displayed. The owner was talking in the thousands of dollars, even though his humble store was in the midst of the people’s marketplace.

I remarked, ‘How come you have all this expensive stock?’

For 45 minutes we stood in awe as he told us his remarkable story.

His family, from Afghanistan sold carpets for three generations until the Russians came and war broke out. Their land  confiscated and their business destroyed they fled to Pakistan as refugees. Slowly they started up again in Pakistan only to be persecuted there as well so they returned to Afghanistan. Now Americans were occupying his country and my friend started shuffling on the spot as he mentioned that, but she had nothing to be concerned about. It was because of them that his family prospered. Penniless, his  father went from house to house in the wealthier areas asking for any old, worn, unwanted carpets. He repaired a threadbare carpet that was over 100 years old and immediately sold it to an interested American for $5000. With that money he was able to rebuild his business and send his son to Riyadh.

 The owner spoke so passionately, tears came to our eyes and he showed us a tattered album of  the carpets his father purchased and lovingly restored. The son now operates three small stores in Saudi Arabia and sources all the material himself from the wool in Russia to the dye in Peshawar.

 He has now been invited to open a store in Uruguay by an enthusiastic expat!

‘Now you have heard my story Madam and I am happy that you asked me about my store. It does not matter that you have not bought anything from me today, you have made me happy. Please come again, sit and drink tea.’

My American friend and I left the shop as prayer time loomed and we didn’t care that we hadn’t bought a thing.

We simply were inspired to hear a good news story only metres away from Chop Chop Square.