Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wedding hair is the concert t-shirt of Saudi Arabia

Remember when you were in middle school and you went to your first concert? It was pretty epic, right? In order to commemorate the amazing experience, you probably bought a ridiculously-marked-up-in-price concert t-shirt. And if you were anything like me and my middle school classmates, you made sure you wore that t-shirt to school the next day in hopes that someone would stop you in the hall.

"N*SYNC?! No way! Did you go to that concert?! I'm soo jealous! I wish I were as lucky as you!" you hoped they would say. And for just a moment, you would get to be the rock star.

Maybe the whole wear-the-concert-t-shirt-to-school-the-next-day tradition is a Nashville thing, but it was adhered to pretty religiously up until Senior year when you got to be too cool for all those baby things like being excited about concerts.

Fast forward to today. I realized this morning that 90% of my students won't know the magic of a first concert, not like I got to experience. Music is practically illegal here (it's heavily frowned upon), and there is certainly very little opportunity to gather in public places and enjoy yourself openly like you get to do at a loud sweaty concert.

But my girls do have an equivalent to the rock star feeling of the concert t-shirt: the wedding hair.

At this point in their lives, pretty much the most exciting thing my girls get to do is go to a family wedding. Sometimes they even get to participate in the weddings! Being that marriage covers your religious duties, according to Islam, weddings are a pretty big deal here. Lemme break the process down for you.

They start at least 6 months before what most Americans would consider to be the "wedding day." At a ceremony called a "milka" (I'm sure I'm spelling it wrong, but I'm transliterating here. Pronounce it the way it looks, but understand it has nothing to do with milk.), the bride and groom go before a cleric and a legal body and publicly profess their intentions to be married. For all intents and purposes, they are legally and religiously married at this time. But they do not go home with each other, and in many families, they still haven't physically seen each other (the bride is in the room, but some choose to wear the niqab).

What most of us would consider to be the engagement is actually the beginning of a typical marriage here. The couple continues to live with their respective families, but they are able to go one what we would consider to be dates: dinner, coffee, outings that are in public. This allows the couple to get to know each other before they shack up.

There are roughly 6 months to put together one of the largest events any of us in the States could ever imagine. Basically, everything has to be done times two for weddings here. Male and female guests cannot mix, but they all expect an equally grand party, although from what I've been told, the women's side of the celebration is a lot more boisterous and long-winded.

I haven't yet had the pleasure of getting to attend a Saudi wedding, and considering that none of my Saudi friends are engaged, I doubt I'll get to see one before I leave. However, I have been told that it is quite a to-do. There's dancing on the women's side, and even a quick visit from the groom so everyone can get to see the married couple together for the first time. The women are dressed to the nines, the brides is glamorous, and everyone puts their best face forward for the event. It's not just a pull-your-hair-back-and-do-your-own-make-up kind of affair.

Thus, the wedding hair. This morning one of my girls showed up with her normally straight, pulled-back hair falling in voluminous loose curls around her face. She looked great. A little over done for what is the equivalent to a Monday morning, but lovely none the less.

Every now and then one of my girls will show up like this with hair that is a little too styled for a typical school day. She is immediately showered with mashallahs and oohs and ahhs. She blushes, strokes her hair like she forgot it was done up, and smiles. "My cousin got married," she'll sometimes say. And for a moment, she's the rock star, admired by everyone.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I don't feel safe here

I thought it was really interesting that one of the most frequently asked questions that the Mister and I got while we were home last summer was, "Do you feel safe over there?"

My answer was always an emphatic "Yes!" because I knew that the question was referring to whether or not we felt any animosity from the Saudi community. People wanted to know whether or not we were afraid of a terrorist attack on the American community in Saudi Arabia.

And my answer to that question is still the same. Tyler and I do not fear being the victims of a hate crime, and there is absolutely no reason for us to be afraid of one of our Saudi neighbors trying to blow us up. Even with Bahrain starting to boil again, and the craziness happening in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, my husband and I continue to feel totally safe from violent threats.

That said, I still don't feel completely safe over here. But for a very different reason.

Take our morning commute, for example. It has only been because of the grace of God that we haven't been in a car accident on the way to or from work yet. In the morning, the cars are moving slowly because of the poor driving skills of most Saudis and their hired drivers, so we're not worried about a serious car accident at that time of day. A fender bender, dinged side mirror, or rear-ending is more likely on the morning of any given work day.

But in the afternoons, we are regularly blown past by Saudi shabab that seem to perpetually be in a rush to go somewhere. It is not uncommon for us to be passed incredibly close by a Toyota Camry going well over 90 miles an hour, all while driving in the middle lane. That is not an exaggeration. Tyler and I both feel it is just a matter of time before we are run off the road by someone going high speeds while also checking his BBM thread and not seeing us as we maintain the 110 km/hr (~70 mph) speed limit that is hardly ever enforced.

Add to that the fact that any paved surface is fair game to be used by Saudi drivers. This translates to the shoulders of the road being too congested for emergency vehicles to use. And drivers don't pay any mind to the flashing lights on top of police cars or ambulances. Even with his siren going full blast, an ambulance driver gets little more than a passing glance by the other drivers on the road.

That means that if or when a person is involved in a serious car accident in Saudi Arabia, the response time of emergency services is dangerously long. The danger is increased by the lack of education on emergency response by the general population. People don't know to not move accident victims with possible neck injuries. They are not told how to handle open wounds or what kind of information to get from victims so the EMTs can respond appropriately when they arrive. It's every man for himself out there, and chances are pretty good that if you're in a near fatal accident in this country, it's going to turn fatal real fast because of ill-trained do-gooders.

It's not just while driving that I don't feel safe here. I don't feel safe at school, either. In the States, when a teacher complains of not feeling safe at school, it's usually because she fears a school shooting, or a rage-filled attack by a chemically imbalanced student. That is absolutely not the case here at all. I feel nothing but positive vibes from my girls, and I have no reason to believe that any of them would even imagine attacking me or anyone else in the building.

It's the building that I fear. Last year our school had a small electrical fire that set off alarms and filled the halls with smoke. Thankfully, it wasn't a serious incident, but it did not instill a sense of trust in the standard of workmanship the contractors had when constructing the building where I work.

And again, the emergency response of the students and many of my Saudi co-workers was awful. The whole scene was mass chaos. The evacuation was anything but timely, and no one knew who to turn to for information on what was happening.

This is not a commentary on the organization of my school. No, I fear a fire in any public building while out and about. I get the impression that the knee-jerk reaction is panic, and if you happen to be standing in the way of a stampede for the emergency exit, it sucks to be you. Emergency exits are not marked, and if they are they are usually blocked. People do not listen for instructions in any sort of setting, so I have no reason to believe they would look up from their Blackberries if a fireman or police officer were trying to help the masses evacuate.

People grumble about the excessive safety policies and regulations contractors, administrators, and drivers have to follow in the States. I have to admit that I found the overabundance of caution on the part of my old administration to be a little tedious at the time. But now that I've been here and seen what dangers lurk when the public lets their caution slip, I long for those regimented fire drills and wide open shoulders on the interstate. The lackadaisical attitude toward general safety here has certainly been one of the few negative aspects of the culture that I've experienced.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, February 10, 2012

My students don't know what mail looks like

I'm currently doing a novel study with my ninth-grade class. As one of the assessments, I'm having them do "envelope books." Essentially, they are 4 business letter mail envelopes bound together, and inside each the girls are putting letters written from one of the characters of the book to another. This helps me assess the girls' understanding of voice, point-of-view, word choice, and various other benchmarks. I won't bore the non-teachers will all the geeky details.

Anyway, on Wednesday, we were putting together the envelope books themselves, a crafty, multi-step pursuit that required concentration and, as I came to find out the hard way, a working knowledge of envelopes. The latter of which my girls did not have.

The first major challenge was getting them to switch mentally from Arabic binding to English. Because you read Arabic from right to left, Arabic books open opposite of English books. The girls could make the switch easy enough when the books were already made for them, but it was so hard for them to visualize how they were going to arrange the "pages" of their envelope books so that the book would open English style.

The next big challenge was helping them understand why the front of the envelope was the flat, flap-less side. 

"But you open the envelope this way," one of my girls said while demonstrating the range of motion of the business envelope flap.

"Right, but when you get the envelope, the first part you look at is the front. The side with the addresses," I said, while Vanna Whiting the front of the envelope. "That way you know who the letter is for."

The class's eyes kind of rolled to the ceiling as they were mentally envisioning what it looks like when one receives mail. Several of them came up blank.

"Really?" one of the girls asked.

"...Have ya'll never gotten mail before?!" I asked, perhaps a little too shrilly.

The resounding answer was, "No."

"Really?! No birthday cards? Post cards? Letters from family?"

"No, we just get emails. Our parents get mail."

At that moment, I felt about 1,000 years old. And I felt like a total dunce because this little project I had spent such a long time cooking up had disintegrated into meaninglessness in the span of about 2.5 seconds. 

Teacher fail. Lesson learned.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It's nice to be wanted, sometimes


I don't think I've specifically mentioned it on this blog, but I LOVE my seventh-grade girls this year! They are the sweetest, most innocent, kindest-hearted group of girls I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. I have loved getting to know them, and I'm so sad to leave them next year.

One of the moments that makes me love these girls so much happened last week in Geography class. We are studying Nigeria and its many ethnic groups, specifically how colonialism affected the groups and how the country is organized today.

I knew from the beginning that I would have to explain what "colonialism" means, so I found this image of Africa:

I just put it on the screen and asked them what they saw. The immediate response was, "Saudi Arabia!!" but I asked them to keep looking.

"What continent is this?"


Whew. Glad to see they still remembered that.

"Do you notice anything odd about this map of Africa?"

"It's pink."




They were catching on. I explained that this is a political map of Africa in 1914. I asked them how it was possible for there to be "British East Africa" in a place that we now know as "Kenya?" And what's the deal with "French West Africa?"

"Teacher, in Algeria, they speak French!"
"Maghrib, too!" (Maghrib is the Arabic name for Morocco).

I was giddy hearing all these connections being made. I explained about the colonization of Africa and what a colony is and who it benefited. They were so enthralled. I was on a major teaching high. I explained that Europeans colonized just about everything they could get their hands on, but there are very few official colonies of any European countries anymore.

What I found interesting was that in every one of the three seventh-grade classes I teach, one of the girls asked the same question:

"Who colonized [or colonialized, as one of my angels said] Saudi Arabia?"

Ah ha! I explained that Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world to have never been fully colonized by a European country. Portugal claimed a few small areas, and then there were the Ottomans, but no one country had ever taken control of all of the Arabian peninsula. 

Imagine my surprise when one of my classes collectively drooped their shoulders, dropped their jaws, and let out a very pouty, "Awwww!" One of them even said, "That sucks!"

"What?! Why are you upset by that?! You've always stood strong! No one has fully conquered your country!" I said, genuinely perplexed.

"Yeah, that means no one WANTED us!"

Hilarious! From the mouths of babes.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, February 6, 2012


We got a package today.

I was expecting this package because it contained the scrapbooking supplies I ordered and had delivered to my parents' house. My mom then repackaged them, along with the photo prints I'd ordered and sent them on their way.

This is the date my mom put on the package when she signed for the postage:

January 12, 2012. This is actually pretty good, considering that most packages take at least a month to get here from the States. Heck, most MAIL takes at least a month. I wasn't expecting this package for at least another 2 weeks.

Here's the interesting thing about mail in Saudi Arabia: there is no home delivery. Ever. All mail goes to a P.O. box. So all our mail goes to the school's P.O. box and someone from the school goes to the post office to pick it up. Because the Mister is a...mister, he is the one who receives the mail on both our behalf.

In the middle of the day, the Mister texted me with an image that said, "We got a package!" The photo looked something like this:

Welp. Luckily I didn't order anything breakable!

And this was a package that was delivered to a post office. I wonder what it would have looked like if it had the option of being delivered to our house!

Notice the white tape? That wasn't put on there by my mom.

That tape is from the Saudi censors. I assume that all foreign packages are searched once they arrive in the country. Most of the time this isn't a big deal, but if the censors find something they feel is objectionable, they will confiscate the material. So far, we've been lucky and haven't had anything taken. But we've heard stories of people who received picked over boxes, even one person who had a completely empty trousseau delivered from the States. Just an empty box with a suitcase in it.

But this story is not taking that direction. Nothing, from what I can tell, was taken from our package today. No, this story is about how awesome my Mom is. 

We opened up our package. Here's a shot of what we saw. See if you can spot the item that made both the Mister and me squeal like little girls.


YES! I know most people are cynical about all the marketing that surrounds Christian holidays. People bemoan the fact that Christmas decorations start going up in October, and Easter baskets hit the shelves by New Years. But boy oh boy am I sure glad for commercialization of holidays right now!! Without the premature arrival of Cadbury Creme Eggs on the shelves, my mom would not have been able to send us a fresh batch of the heavenly treats! 

We immediately devoured one (ok, the Mister had two). I've been trying to watch my calories, but all will power went out the window as soon as I saw those yummy blue and red foil covered eggs.


Even Kitty got a present out of this whole deal!

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Stuff Arabs Like #18: All that sparkles

Exhibit A:

This is a commercial for a UAE based home decor company that specializes in window hangings. This is only one example of their commercials that declare the wonders their Swarovski bedazzled curtains. When the Mister and I first saw this commercial, we literally guffawed.

Exhibit B:

This is the back window of a wedding getaway car. I think this might be a uniquely Saudi tradition, and I think it's a pretty cool one, but it's definitely a great example of the Arabs' love of all things sparkly. They completely cover the windows of the car (including the windshield) with this sparkly frosting kind of stuff, then run their fingers through to create little designs. In the windshield, they carve out a heart right in front of the drivers seat so the groom can see to drive him and his new wife to the hotel or where ever they are going for their wedding night. All this doesn't exactly add up to the safest driving experience, but it does allow the bride to remain in her wedding outfit, with her face uncovered for the first time in front of her husband, without having to mess up her make up.

Exhibit C:

This is the scene in the window of any fabric shop or dress shop in Saudi Arabia. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a dress or any piece of women's clothing that is not bedazzled.

Exhibit D:

If they're not heavily embroidered, they're bedazzled. Sometimes they're embroidered and bedazzled! Seriously, there are shiny things all over the place here!

From what we've seen in our travels around the Middle East, the Saudis aren't the only ones that are drawn to sparkling garments, home decor, or car decorations like a moth to the Las Vegas-like flame. Shiny neon lights flicker from most strip mall shops, there is an airline that has based its newest advertising campaign on the sparkliness of diamonds (how that connects to air travel, I'm not exactly sure), and just take a look at a scene from Arabs Got Talent, a show that I would bet anyone has not a single Saudi woman in the competition.

(incidentally, this little girl went on to have a hit Arabic song that I hear all. the. time. in the halls of my school).

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I kid you not, this infomercial is on right now!

Only it's dubbed in Arabic. I haven't seen this many almost naked bodies on television since accidentally falling asleep with an episode of Jersey Shore on in the background. I'm shocked that this made it past the censors!

Circle Glide Infomercial from Joe Frantz on Vimeo.

Vicariously yours,