Monday, March 23, 2009

Massalamah - The Grand Good-bye Sat. March 21st

Today was our last day in Saudi Arabia.  We both had mixed feelings.  It was a bitter-sweet feeling for me, so thrilled I had returned and yet, knowing I had to leave and continue on with life as it is now.  In a way, it was a closure for me.  I still cry sometimes when I think about it.  Those were wonderful years living in Arabia, but everyone's life has changed so much since those days. Lucy and I agreed that the very best thing of all that came from our life there were the friendships we formed and that have lasted through the years.  It was the men who were in my ward in Saudi Arabia who were the pallbearers at Mark's funeral.  Who would have thought it?   I will have to write those thoughts later as I want this to end on a wonderful note.
Lucy and I awoke early, and everything that happened I was thinking, "that's the last time I will hear the birds in Dhahran in the early morning", or this is the last time to do such and such. How did I want to spend my last day there?  I wanted to go walk the streets of Khobar one final time.  (That adds new meaning to the term "streetwalker"!)  Lucy thought I was nuts!!  "Karen, are you kidding?  We have so much to do.  We have to be packed by 4pm because Sheik is coming to pick us up and take us to the airport in Bahrain."   But I packed early that morning, and by 8:30 I was ready to head off to the Aramco bus stop to catch the bus for my final trek into the Arab shopping community that I knew the best.  And at the very last second, Lucy grabbed her purse and said she was coming with me.  Later she confessed that she liked traveling with me because "you're always willing to cram in one more adventure!"  As we sat on the bus, we noticed that we were the only Americans on the bus.  That was different from years ago when we could be guaranteed to run into several friends on each shopping trip.  This time we were amid women from a variety of countries, mostly Saudi women all in abayas.  When we arrived in Khobar, we jumped off the bus at the "Thieves Market".  Sue Alexander had laughed earlier when I mentioned that area, saying that she had never heard that part of Khobar referred to in that way.  The Thieves Market is a section of town (on the right side as you're driving in right before Eve's Jewelry) that has rows of shops with Pakistanis and Indians selling wares of all types - decorated black abayas, rugs, clothes, sandals, tablerunners, electronics, and houseware items.  Doesn't sound too exciting to the average American, I know.  Geez, it almost sounds like Walmart. (minus the abayas!)  But trust me,  the excitement of bargaining with Pakistani shopkeepers for treasures is not an excitement that is found in Walmart!   As we entered the first row of shops we saw an Indian man mopping the tile floors in front of us.  As he saw us coming, he laid his mop down in the middle of the floor and ran off to his shop.  Lucy laughed at the fact that he laid his mop right in the middle of the aisle and ran off.  I'm quite sure she even took of picture of it.  We have taken literally hundreds of pictures!!!  So of course, as we proceeded down the row of shops all the shopkeepers ran to the doors of their shops, yelling at us and beckoning us to enter their stores.  A real shopkeepers competition!!  We entered one shop where we bought some scarves that were beautiful, would make great gifts, and were only 10 riyals each.  I also bought my grandkids a prayer rug. (Allie, keep it a secret till I get home!)  I thought that would be a fun souvenir for them to kneel on and say bedtime prayers.  I have some secret souvenirs that I won't blog about. As we were ready to make our purchase, the shopkeeper tried to sell us some bathtowels.  Lucy and I were stressed on time and money.  We had a certain amount of riyals left and had set aside the amount we needed to pay our driver to take us to the Bahrain airport. Plus we have to always be aware of prayer time. 
      For those of you not familiar with prayer time in the Middle East, let me take a minute to tell you about "prayer time".  Muslims pray 5 times a day.  There is a morning prayer that is usually about 4:30am, depending on the season and the hour of sunrise.  (By the way, the sun in the Middle East rises much earlier than in America.)   Then there is a noon prayer, an afternoon prayer, a prayer at dusk, and then finally an evening prayer.  Every day is a different time for prayers.  There is actually a calender that tells you the exact time (down to the minute) of prayer time for each day and each prayer.  We know it is prayer time because there is a loud call to prayer that is broadcast from all the mosques.  It is an Arab man's deep voice, chanting a testimony regarding Allah.  Translated to English he says, "God is great.  There is no other God but God.  And Mohammed is a prophet of God.  Come for prayer.  Come for success.  God is great."  This is repeated several times.  In the morning prayer they insert one additional line that says, "Prayer is better than sleeping".   In Arabic it is: "Allah hu akbar.  Allah hu akbar.  Allah hu akbar.  Allah hu akbar.  La ellaha illa Allah.  La ellaha illa Allah.  Mohammed Rassoul Allah.  Mohammed Rassoul Allah.  Hayi ala alsalat.  Hayi ala alsalat.  Hayi ala al falah.  Hayi ala al falah.  Al salatu khairun min al naum.  Al salatu khairun min al naum.  (that last sentence means "prayer is better than sleeping.)  Allah hu akbar.  Allah hu akbar."  (This whole prayer was dictated to me and spelled by a Muslim.  I was thrilled to finally have this written down.  My kids always remember the beginning part of it.)  When prayer time is announced, the stores close for the approximately 20 minutes of prayer time.  Then they will reopen.  Years ago when we were shopping for groceries they would flash the lights in the store approximately 5 minutes before prayer time to let us know that we either needed to hurry and check out, or we needed to prepare to leave our carts as we left the store to go stand outside and wait till we could return.  My thoughts about prayer time are that I love hearing the prayer time chants, but I hate the inconvenience it causes in shopping.  In Saudi Arabia everything closes during prayer time.  That is not true in all Arab countries.  As an Iraqi told me, "Saudi is not the norm."  I laughed and said, "In more ways than one!!"   So back to my story - Lucy and I knew we only had less than 2 hours to get everything done before the noon prayer, and then all the stores would be closed for the afternoon and would reopen from about 4pm till 10pm.  But we were leaving Dhahran at 4pm so this was our last morning shopping in Khobar.  I know I seemed a bit agitated when this Pakistani man pulled out bath towels and said, "towels,  towels, you want towels?"  Quite annoyed with our lack of time and all that we wanted to do, I replied, "No, we don't want towels!  We have no more room in our luggage, and we have towels at home!"  So we hurried away from the Thieves Market even though shopkeepers were still begging us to come to their shops.  We had to cross Dhahran Blvd. which an incredibly busy street with 3 lanes of traffic going both directions.  Lucy looked across the street and spotted an old landmark, Eve's Jewelry store.  All of our friends from Arabia will remember Eve's Jewelry.   She said, "Oh Karen, take my picture in front of Eve's Jewelry."  So I got my camera ready, Lucy was in the process of getting herself posed, but before she was completely ready I saw a Pakistani man coming towards us on a bicycle.  I couldn't wait on Lucy; it was a shot I couldn't miss.  So right as he was beside her I flashed my camera.  It was a classic.  Then we crossed the street, running across the street trying to beat the clock on the street light timer.  I was laughing as I hiked up my abaya and made a wild dash across 6 lanes of crazy Arab drivers.  I was looking at the timer counting down the seconds when I turned and saw Lucy still standing there taking pictures.  I yelled, "Run Lucy!  You've got 10 seconds!!"  Lucy ran!!  I knew we looked like two crazy blonde Americans!  We passed by Eve's without going in.  We needed to get some cardboard mailing tubes to put some watercolor prints in to ship home in our suitcases without them getting bent. Lucy needed to see if she could find a place to get her sunglasses repaired that she had broken.  We went back to a shop we had been to previously, and then hailed a taxi to take us to Al Jarir bookstore where we bought our mailing tubes.  After leaving Al Jarir's we went to the old Safeway, now known as Tammimi market.  We were in the back of the store buying a kilo each of zatar, our favorite spice on Arab bread.  Since then we have learned that we could have bought it in the States.  Oh well, I now have a full kilo from Arabia.  Lucy wants to divide it in little bags for gifts.  That's a clever idea.  I wonder how my grandkids will like zatar bread.  While we were deciding which type of zatar to buy, a Pakistani man approached us.  It ended up that he was the same taxi driver that we had had previously when Debbie was with us and the same driver who we handsomely tipped.  He had seen Lucy and I walk in the store, and recognizing us as "big tippers" he followed us.  We told him we didn't need a taxi then.  I am quite certain he was greatly disappointed.  After we bought our zatar, we went to the bakery there and watched (and took step by step photos) as the man baked us fresh Arab bread with cheese and zatar.  We sat outside on a bench and ate our favorite treat.  As we were leaving that area, we spotted Baskin Robbins.  We decided ice cream would be a grand finale for our final Khobar treat.  So we ordered ice cream (and of course took photos of the signs and the man who dished out our ice cream) and ate as we proceeded to walk through Khobar.  We really had nothing else we needed to get (Lucy couldn't find a place to fix her glasses.) and we walked through Khobar taking pictures.  Like I have said before, the amount of photography here has been a huge surprise.  We have seen Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, and everyone taking pictures.  We even met a man from Cairo who was doing the same. I will be so excited when I get home and get all those pics posted.  Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words!  My only regret is that our Khobar pictures are not "scratch and sniff" pictures!!  That would make our blog complete if we had the smells to go with it!!  As we were walking along I saw an old bicycle leaning against a wall.  It was on a side street that wasn't too busy.  This old bicycle had some Middle Eastern fabric wrapped around the seat with plastic over it, and the rust on it would testify that it wasn't a recent purchase.  I thought of my daughter-in-law Jessica and of the type of "classic", "National Geographic" type of pictures that she takes.  I love unique photographs, and so I stopped, got in the perfect position and took a photo of a Pakistani worker's bicycle leaning against a concrete wall on a backstreet in Arabia.  
Just as I turned to walk away, a young Saudi drove by with his window down.  Seeing that I had just taken a picture of an old bicycle, he craned his neck out the window at me, and I laughed hysterically when I saw the puzzled look of disbelief on his face.  No doubt that his thoughts were, "You have got to be kidding!!  This crazy American woman just took a picture of a bicycle??"   He drove slowly around the corner, still looking at me and Lucy with that same look of disbelief.  Lucy and I laughed and laughed at how stupid I must have seemed to him.  As we were walking down the street shooting pictures of silly signs, people, buildings, scenes, and shops, I nearly stepped on a dead rat laying on the sidewalk.  I stopped and photographed that, knowing that I really was as insane as this young Arab had thought.  But seriously, I wanted to show what the conditions were where we were walking.  Our best find was when we took a side street and found ourselves on the street with the meat markets.  There were fish markets where we went in and photographed the fish and the workers posed also.  (Now you are really missing out on that not being a "scratch and sniff" photo!!)  The smell of dead fish was horrific. Our favorite find was the mutton shops.  The signs in the windows said, 'fresh mutton'.  But there, hanging upside down in the window were about 8 goats, with no fur or hide on them, but their tails and heads were still on them.  They even had their horns.  Lucy had never seen that in Khobar before.  I had seen that in Dammam years ago only it was beef hanging up with their tails still attached.  Anyway, those goats were about as fresh as you could ask for.  The shopkeepers sat in plastic lawn chairs at the doorways of their shops and let us take pictures.  
There were several shops like this, so we had lots of dead goats to photograph!  Believe me, it was quite the photo session.  We proceeded on and found a spice shop.  We crossed the street to go photograph the spice shop with their bags of spices lining the shop.  The door to the shop was a large, hard, clear plastic sheet that hung in the doorway with a split in the middle.  As I approached the shop, a mutawa'a stepped out.  I stopped and froze in place with my camera hanging discreetly by my side, my hands concealing it.  (A mutawa'a is basically a religious policeman that goes around and enforces the laws of Islam.  They are usually older men with gray beards who wear "high-water" thobes.  I have known them to carry sticks and switch women on the ankles who were wearing dresses that weren't long enough.  I have had them stop me and tell me to cover my head.  One time (a short side story) years ago, I accidently forgot what I was wearing, and our family drove in to Khobar for a quick shopping trip.  I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but it was short sleeved, and Heaven forbid, but my elbows were showing, plus my figure in a pair of jeans!  As we were leaving the mall a mutawa'a and 3 policemen approached Mark and told him I was no good and for him to take me home.  A man is responsible for his wife's actions, and so you can imagine that Mark was often worried that I would get us kicked out of the country.)  And so, the mutawa'a hurried past us two infidels, and we both ducked through the plastic door, stepped inside the spice shop and breathed a sigh of relief.  We had already decided that if a mutawa'a approached us and reprimanded us for taking photos, that we would ignore him and walk away.  Besides, we were leaving the country in a matter of hours so we weren't terribly worried about being kicked out. 
We took photos in the spice shop and visited with the men from India who were selling spices. 
We stayed a bit longer, just to take in the pungent smells from the open spice baskets. 
Leaving the spice shop, we turned the corner to find Latif Bakery.  There were a number of Middle Eastern nationalities standing near the street sign and sitting on the ground near their trucks.  They took pictures of us, and we took pictures of them.  I told Lucy there is no telling what internet site we could end up on after all types of Middle Eastern men have wanted our pictures.  But they were friendly, wanting to know where we were from, and I am sure they found our blonde hair to be intriquing.  We visited with them, and then hurried off, continuing our Khobar photo shoot.  A surprise we had was raindrops.  That's right, raindrops in Arabia. There wasn't much since we didn't even get wet, but we did see drops on the sidewalk.  Anyway, we continued to walk and shoot pictures through the noon prayer.  After prayer time the shops were closing for the afternoon, and so we flagged down a taxi to get a ride back to Dhahran.  At this point, we had four hours left in Arabia.  Our taxi driver was a delight, and we rolled down our windows and continued flashing our cameras all the way down Dhahran Blvd.  We thought there seemed to be a lot of traffic, more than usual, and our driver told us it was because it was prayer time.  All the stores were closed, so now everyone was on the road.  But we didn't mind the slow traffic because it gave us great opportunities for Kodak moments.  One of our favorite was when Lucy yelled, "Quick Karen!  Get that truck that says Camel Inc."  I turned and quickly and miraculously got the most perfect shot of a large truck that said, "Camel Inc." down the side of it with a picture of a camel on it.  Lucy said she was so glad that we had spent our last day in Khobar on a crazy photo shoot.  Debbie had let us take her car to the ballfield where the buses were, and so when we arrived at the ballfield we got in the car to leave.  I was driving.  It is illegal in Saudi Arabia for women to drive except on the Aramco compound.  As I was backing up, a Pakistani man in an orange jumpsuit came running over, telling us that he had washed our car while we were gone, and now we needed to pay him.  We were a bit irritated because we hadn't requested a car wash, and we were limited on money.  Kind of tricky, don't you think? We paid him, and Lucy commented that every car in the parking lot looked as if they had just been washed.  We visited a Saudi Arabia Heritage Museum that is across the street from the library.  It was so interesting.  It was basically a museum of Aramco and  its history and the history and artifacts of Saudi Arabia.  Then we went to Debbie's and got some items that Sue is bringing back, and in return I am bringing back her jewelry for her, because she and Dave are going on a "Bike and Barge" trip through the Netherlands on their way home to the States.  For those of you who might not know yet, Sue and Dave Alexander are leaving Arabia and moving to American Fork, Utah.  They leave in April.  We went to Sue's and visited with her for a while. Then we returned to Debbie's and made our final preparations.  We took pictures and visited.  Our bags were packed and we were waiting for Sheik, our driver, to pick us up at 4pm.   Then lo and behold, we had the most wonderful grand finale of all!  We were sitting in Debbie's family room when the doorbell rang.  Debbie looked up, and seeing Tex thru the glass door she exclaimed, "Okay ladies, get your cameras ready.  Tex is here!"  Lucy and I both sprang from our seats and yelled, "TEX!!!  Oh my gosh, Tex is here!!!"  Tex is an Arab with a Texas accent!  Everyone who has ever lived in Dhahran knows Tex, and we would bet that most ex-Aramcons have some pot or piece of Bedouin jewelry or rug or some wonderful artifact from Arabia that they purchased from Tex.  I happen to have two large copper pots sitting on top of a large bookcase in my bedroom that came from Tex.  Tex has a great personality, is an absolute delight to listen to, and he makes house calls!  So Tex entered the room, and Lucy and I threw our arms around him, telling him how thrilled we were that we got to see him since we were leaving the Kingdom in 20 minutes.  Tex didn't mind one bit giving each of us a tight hug!  We loved our visit with Tex and will never forget it.  I began asking Tex questions about his life. He told us that his wife had died, and his sons had disowned him because they think he is crazy.  He has no home and lives with friends.  For a living, Tex sells Arab artifacts.  He said he lived in Houston, Texas from the ages of 7 to 14.  He claims that is where he developed his Texas accent.  I lived in Texas for 22 years, and Tex sounds more southern than me.  Right now I would guess that he is in his 60's.  His dad worked for the US Government under Eisenhower.  As he told us about his family not having anything to do with him, it led into a discussion where he began telling us the story of Joseph of Egypt as told in the Koran.  He went on and on, telling us about Joseph and the coat of many colors and relating his life to Joseph's life as far as his family deserting him.  He talked about Abraham and even about Jesus.  Time was passing, and it was only a few minutes till Sheik would arrive.  Then Tex started to sing.  We told him he had a wonderful voice (which was true) and asked him if he would sing to us.  That is a memory that I will never forget. Debbie Larsen, Lucy Shuler, and I sitting in Debbie's house in Dhahran while Tex stood in our midst and sang a song in Arabic.  I loved it!  It was the most relaxing, peaceful feeling as Tex's voice filled the room.  We sat there ever so quietly taking in this moment of this little Arab man, a man without a family,  who had just taught us scripture stories and then gave us our last wish in Arabia, a song in Arabic.  Our time in Arabia could not have ended on a better note! (no pun intended)  As Tex was ending his song, the doorbell rang, and Sheik, our driver had arrived.  We took pictures with Tex, hugged Debbie and expressed our gratitude for her incredible generous hospitality (we could never have done this trip with so much ease and comfort without the Larsens!!) and loaded our baggage into Sheik's van.  And then we took our last drive through Dhahran.  Even as I write this, it is hard not to cry.  I cannot express how much I loved my life there, where I gained some of my greatest friends in my life who shared memories and experiences that no one else on earth can relate to.  We drove through the Aramco security gate, and I turned and took one last picture out the back window.  We drove on, heading towards the border on the causeway leading to Bahrain.  And thus ended one of the greatest vacations, adventures, and memories of my life, a trip to the Magic Kingdom,  the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

1 comment:

  1. Who knew you would run into Tex and who knew I would actually finish reading that post!?! Now if only you had seen "Saud", the Arab man who offered to buy me when I was a child then it would have been complete! LOL! BTW I can only imagine the Arab hanging out the window as you shot the pic. of the bike. If only he had seen you take the picture of the rat too!