Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Monday, March 16th - Khobar with Debbie and Lucy AND an evening alone in Khobar
Today is Monday, March 16th. Debbie, Lucy and I decided to go into Khobar and spend the morning exploring the shops. We called a driver, Sheik Jr., the nephew to Sheik our driver who picked us up at the airport. He took us to Latif Bakery, where they sell cheese bread. Actually, they sell a number of different types of Arab breads with spices or cheeses or other toppings. We walked into the Family Section, past the tables, into the back where we poked our heads thru a window to give our order to the cook. The cook was an Arab man holding a long wooden stick with a flat end that looked like a paddle and held the flattened bread. He formed the dough, placed it on the flattened end of the stick, and stuck it inside an open oven of fire. I poked my head around inside the window to get a better look at what was going on and also to take pictures of this whole process. I had zatar bread, which was flattened Arab bread with a mixture of Middle Eastern spices on it. I actually loved it. Debbie got Arab bread with zatar, cheese, and labneh (which is a more solid form of buttermilk). Lucy got the cheesy bread with labneh. Lucy says the best combination is cheese, labneh, and zatar. Later Lucy got labneh all over the bottom of her abaya, and I got a picture of her cleaning labneh off her abaya in a Khobar alley. What a mess! After that Debbie needed to get a iron and so Sheik dropped us off, and while Debbie went into a household store, I found a fabulous shop that sold beads, ribbons, and sewing supplies. I wished I could find a place like that in St. George. Then we went to some other shops, the Silver Museum where we picked up our orders, and then we went to a wonderful shop where there were lots of "blingy" tablerunners, and Arab souvenirs of all types. The little Pakistani man had us follow him up some very steep stairs in the back to the 2nd floor. There we found bedouin jewelry, scarves, tablerunners, and other treasures. A rocking camel (versus a rocking horse) stood in the middle of the room. I had gotten 2 blingy tablerunners (for those who don't know, "Blingy" means shiny and glitzy...Lucy said she learned that word from me.) the night before, and Lucy loved them. Debbie had shown us how she bought them and cut them up and used them to make Christmas stockings. I don't plan on doing that, but I think they make great centerpeices. I asked this shopkeeper what he had that was from Arabia and I laughed at his reply. "The only thing made in Saudi Arabia is oil and sand." How true!! I found a black fabric with old silver coins sewn on it laying behind the counter on a stool. I reached over and picked it up to see what it was. I had never seen anything like it and was told it was a headdress from Yemen. It was a black, hooded fabric with all types of silver (not shiny!) beads, coins, and trinkets of all kinds sewn all over it. I tried it on, and Lucy took my picture. Then this little Pakistani called me over to show me Christmas tree skirts. Imagine that in Arabia! One had camels sewn all over it. Another had bells on it. In this store was the first time I have seen Santas for sale. The Santas were like the stacking dolls sold in Russia. We had fun exploring all the treasures for sale. Prayer time was approaching and so we hailed a taxi that took us over to the beach (Corniche Road). We saw Chili's restaurant, TGI Friday's, Applebee's, Starbucks, Burger King, and McDonalds. None of that was here when I lived here 15 years ago. Lucy got out of the cab to go check out Tony Roma's for us, and when she returned she said, "Oh my gosh! There's a terrible smell by Tony Roma's that smells like they haven't changed the cooking oil since they opened!" I had to laugh as smells are an important part of visiting the Middle East. There is the smell of the exhaust fumes from the Aramco buses, the smells of Henna, the smells of spices, body odor from the men who labor outside all day, bread baking in open ovens, smells of Thai food, and the smell of urine in alleys and empty lots. Our taxi driver then took us over to McDonalds where we took photos. I noticed a sign with the website of mcdonaldsarabia.com. I haven't checked it out yet. That is another huge difference in being here. When we lived here before we didn't have the internet or cell phones. Now there are shops everywhere advertising internet and cell phone services. Anyway, so while we were parked at McDonalds we went inside to order ice cream. I walked in McDonalds, looked around, took some pictures, and then turned around to leave. I couldn't get the door open. I read the sign that said "push", and I pushed and pushed. I went over to another door that said "pull", and I pulled and pulled. I kept trying, wondering what was wrong. How was it that I had just walked in a couple of minutes ago, and now I couldn't get out? I turned around to the Filipinos at the counter and said, "Help! I can't get out!" A Pakistani man walked over, and I could sense that he was a bit frustrated with me. He said, "Madam, we lock the doors during prayer time." I had completely forgotten about prayer time. I said, "I know, but I don't want to be stuck in McDonald's during prayer time. Can you please just let me out?" So he took me to a side door and opened it with the key. I hurried out with my ice cream, grateful to be outside during prayer time. I thought of the humor of it all. Think how crazy that sentence would sound in the States - "Help! I don't want to be stuck in McDonald's during prayer time!" Only in the Middle East!! As we left McDonalds and headed thru Khobar, I noticed an Arab squatting in his thobe (the long white dress the men wear) and talking on his cell phone. I thought, "what an oxymoron!!" A total conflict of culture! I have wondered how the Middle Eastern people spend so much time squatting. My legs would have the circulation cut off, and I would have my feet go to sleep. I hate that sensation. Or I would topple over after being in a squatting position for too long. Or I would get stuck and not be able to stand up. I would have to have someone slowly unbend me. I wondered how they have enough glucosamine in their systems to handle all that. Maybe they get so used to squatting over a hammam (an eastern toilet) from early childhood that their bodies just get used to it. However they do it, they have to be admired for their ability to squat for such long periods of time. We drove home down Pepsi Cola Road - a road named by the Americans for the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company at the end of the road. When we got home we sat outside in Debbie's front yard and reminisced about our times of living here. It was fun recalling the life we used to know and laughing about memories with friends. I was waiting on a lady from Ras Tanura to come by and bring me a watercolor print of the "women's souk" that I had ordered. Finally they stopped by, I got my watercolor print, and then they told me they were going to Khobar and asked if I wanted to go along and get that framed here. It would cost less than in the states, and so I jumped at the chance. I grabbed my abaya, threw it on, grabbed my purse, and headed off to Khobar. I used to almost never wear abayas when I lived here before, but actually I am quite learning to like this new style of dress. Like I have said before, the abayas have become quite the fashion statement here. But more than that, it is so convenient to not be concerned about what you're wearing and just grab a long black robe to throw over your clothes and head into town. It certainly makes getting dressed much easier and eliminates the age-old question of "What shall I wear?" They dropped me off at the Al-Rashid Mall, which didn't exist when we lived here. How shall I ever begin to describe this mall? It was huge! It was basically shaped like a gigantic octopus, having a central section of the mall which was 3 stories tall and then appendages or shopping corridors expanding outwards. I have been to the Mall of America in Minneapolis and to the mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This mall was the "mother of all malls" for Khobar. We would have LOVED it if we had had that when we lived here. I was looking for the Arabian Gallery to take my print to to be framed. I walked and looked and asked directions for about 45 minutes before I finally found the place. A nice Indian man helped me pick out the best matting and frame for my picture. I was looking at other prints in his shop when I heard the call to prayer sounding throughout the mall. Dang! Okay, I don't mean to sound disrespectful to Muslims, but having lived without prayer call for the past 15 years, I am finding it to be a real inconvenience. All the stores close for the 20 minutes of prayer so whatever you are doing, you stop and come back 20 minutes later. That's why we always try to find a restaurant right before prayer time and use that time to eat. So he told me he would be back in 20 minutes. So as he was locking the door to his store, I wandered off down the mall and found a bench to sit on during prayer time. An Arab women wearing the abaya and veil was sitting there. I sat down next to her, and turning to her I asked if she spoke English. She said yes. So I explained about getting this print framed at this store and asked if she thought that was the best place, was the price the best price in town, and did they do the best work. She said that was the best choice in town. So then I proceeded to have the longest and most intimate conversation with a woman behind a veil that I have ever had. All I could see was her eyes. I asked her about her life and found out she was 30 years old, had 2 kids ages 5 and 3, and was married to a Chemical Engineer who worked for Aramco who was 35 years old. I asked her about her arranged marriage (since of course dating is not allowed here) and she told me she saw her husband for the first time one month before her marriage. Thinking about this marriage being arranged, I asked her if she was happily married. (I knew when I told my daughters about this, they would just die that I was so personal with an Arab woman who was a stranger to me!) She told me she was not happily married. I asked her why she wasn't happy, and she told me, "because my husband drinks too much". That was not the answer I was expecting because alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. With a shocked expression on my face I asked, "He drinks too much alcohol?" She said yes, that he goes to Bahrain every weekend and drinks. (Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf that is connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Lucy and I are flying out of Bahrain on Sat. night.) He either goes by himself or with his friends. Rarely does he take her. She said she doesn't like to see him drink. She even told me that she is concerned that he may be sleeping with other women in Bahrain or maybe even sleeping with women who are dancers. I thought of years ago when Mark and I were in Bahrain sitting in the lobby of a very nice hotel watching the Arab men taking Filipina girls up to their rooms. I felt sad for this woman behind the veil. She said, "But what can I do? I have 2 small children, and in my country it would be very bad to get a divorce. There is nothing I can do." She's right. There is not a lot she can do about her situation. I asked her if he treated her well and she said that he did. He was very kind to her, gave her money, and was kind to her and her children. Later when I told Lucy and Debbie about this conversation we had our own conversation about the plight of many women here. There has been progress made over the past years, but still there is much sadness, control and abuse that goes on here. When prayer time was over, she went her way, and I hailed a taxi and told the driver I wanted to go to the women's section of town. I told him, "Take me to Prince Bandar street or King Khalid - either one." He asked me the address, and I said it didn't matter. Just drop me off somewhere around those streets. I am sure that was an odd request as he was expecting a specific store or address. So as we were driving down Dhahran Blvd. he asked me if I wanted to go to the Corniche (the beach). I told him no, that I wanted to go shopping in the women's section. It was dark outside at this time, and I certainly didn't want to find myself at the beach with a young Saudi man. I told him that I didn't want to go to the beach, but to take me to the women's section of town. He dropped me off around Bandar street. I wandered around looking at different shops, then made my way over to the area of town where Debbie had taken us. I wandered into a shop owned by a man from Afhganistan. He had wonderful, colorful Afghani dresses. They are very brightly colored with beads sewn all over the bodice and very full skirts. Often the skirt, the bodice, and the sleeves are out of different fabrics. They are heavy cotton and with all the beadwork and designs, they are usually very heavy in weight. He had some Afghani belts with old coins hanging down from them. He also sold items that were very representatious of Saudi Arabia such as the Saudi tea pots, copper pots, and rugs. I bought a goat whip from him, telling him it was for my grandson. I could imagine that Jagger might like that, but when I told him it was for my grandson, he thought I meant that I was buying it to whip my grandson. He said, "Oh, that is good. Your grandson needs that." I said, "Oh, I'm not buying it to whip my grandson. I'm buying it for him to play with and hope that he doesn't whip his brother and sisters with it." He replied, "No, it is okay. Sometimes kids need to be whipped with this." I told him I would never do that. While I was in his shop he asked me if I wanted some mint tea. I asked, "It's just mine tea?", thinking that it was herbal tea. So I thought, 'why not? I love herb teas", and so I said yes. He gave me a small cup. (Arab tea cups are very small, not like American coffee cups.) I drank it and loved it. I actually wanted more but didn't want to seem like a pig. I asked him where he got it and told him that I loved it. He pointed out the back door down an alley and told me he got it from a little shop down there. A small teapot costs one riyal, about 27 cents. After I downed the little cup of tea, he told me it had nicotine in it. I was glad I wasn't drinking when he said that, or I would have choked on the tea. I asked, "Nicotine? You mean like what is in cigarettes?" He said yes, and I told him that I didn't smoke and normally did not put nicotine in my body. I may seem naive, but I have never heard of tea with nicotine in it. Caffeine yes, but not nicotine. Suddenly I wondered how it would affect me. Then my thoughts went crazy, and I found myself thinking thoughts like, 'What if this guy drugs me? What if I get dizzy and pass out and I am at his mercy? What if I have adverse side effects while I'm wandering Khobar alone?" He seemed very nice, and he had told me about his life and family here. Anyway, I purchased a few souvenirs for others and then got out of there before I really was drugged and mugged. I had taken a few pictures, but at this time it was dark outside, and as I wandered the streets I realized that I was one of the very women walking around, and probably the only one walking alone. The streets and alleys of Khobar were filled with men from a variety of countries, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, and some westerners. As I was walking along a nice looking older Pakistani man approached me and asked me to come to his shop. So I followed him down the sidewalk and entered a carpet store, filled with Middle Eastern carpets. The dominating color of most was red, however, there were carpets of all types, sizes, shapes, and colors. I moaned and said, "Oh no, I don't want a carpet." I didn't want to waste my time in a carpet store. I do love Middle Eastern carpets, but felt I couldn't afford that in money or weight in my luggage. Long story short, I spent the rest of the evening in his shop, learning about the carpets, sitting on the floor with him and feeling the different fibers, and selecting which ones I liked the best. I called Sue Alexander (on his cell phone) and discussed carpets with her and then let the man talk to her. And so, just like in timeshare sales where no one comes in to buy, I followed him out of the store while he carried my purchase. He told me to follow him because he wanted to give me a gift. I followed him right into a store I had been in previously where I had met the very nice looking Pakistani worker than I had complimented and made him blush. I was a bit embarrassed as I unknowingly walked in and saw him standing there. They told me to select any scarf I wanted as a free gift. Then the young man and I visited. He is only 25 years old. I laughed and told him I could be his mother. He said he thought I was 38. He asked for my email address. I felt that was rather harmless and so I obliged. Then the older man (closer to my age) walked with me down the street and hailed a taxi for me. I rode back to Aramco, thinking what a fun, adventurous, unexpected night it happened to be for me. When I arrived back at Debbie's, Lucy said she had been on the floor of the breakfast room praying for my safe return. She said she was so worried about me, and after I left and the evening progressed, she had begun to think they were crazy to let me go into Khobar by myself. I never felt worried or unsafe, and even though 15 years has passed, I still felt as comfortable shopping by myself in a world of dark strangers as I did back in 1994.