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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ready to Fill You in on Lebanon

I've now been back from my Spring Break in Lebanon and caught up enough on my assignments, limited they may be, and can take some time on a decent post and picture editing session.  I'll include my general and wisened perceptions of the country, pictures from all the cool stuff I did, and limited tips for what could be your own awesome trip to Lebanon. Once again, I shall direct you to my Instagram for other pictures.

Pigeon Rocks, as viewed from the sidewalk along the Corniche in Beirut, Lebanon

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ammuna Hawwa and Eve's Tomb

Sign on the wall around the cemetery, image stolen from wikimapia
The name, Jeddah, is the Arabic word for grandmother.  This is because it is believed that this city is the final resting place of Biblical Eve.   A cemetery near Al Balad, Ammuna Harra Cemetery, translated to Our Mother Eve Cemetery, is thought to be the burial site of humanity’s legendary grandmother.   The most important people in Jeddowi history are buried at Ammuna Harra, and the site is unfortunately walled off, its contents unable to be viewed by passers-by.  The believed spot of the tomb itself was walled off as a reaction to the many Muslims making pilgrimage to the site while Sunni Islam speaks against such enshrinement. 

Approaching the cemetery by car.  Al Balad is to the right.

Here, you can see female pilgrims being turned away at the gate to the cemetery.  Only men are allowed inside, so the women are pushed back and blocked from entering.  Gender discrimination of any kind bothers me, but instances where it results in women being harshly handled (they're actually pushed back by the guards) by men screams hypocrisy in a culture I exert much energy defending.  
This booth is for collecting donations for the benefit of poor families who can't pay burial fees  when their loved ones pass.  I was too angry about the sex discrimination 20 feet to the right to be touched by such a thing.

Visit to Al Balad

The Souk

In the heart of Jeddah lies Al Balad, the historic market area that is an absolute must-see on any visit to Jeddah.  It houses the oldest buildings located in Jeddah, some of the few remnants of Hijazi culture left over from the capture of the city by Saudi Arabia's first king, Abdulaziz.

Al Balad is an expansive souk with both open-air shops and stalls within long buildings like this one
I only visited Al Balad at night the first time we were in Saudi Arabia as an evening activity after a day of meetings and a quick stop to purchase souvenirs.  Our first night, our guides tried to keep the entire group of 10 students together, which never really works.  We lost one student, who was a savvy enough traveler to hail a cab and make it back to the hotel before us, even though he knew no Arabic.

Al Balad is well-lit and feasible as a tourist day or night.  You will however see a marked difference in the place depending on the time of day you visit.  The shops are known to sell things at much lower prices than brick and mortar stores of the city, so the area is frequented by poor or low-class immigrant /expatriate workers, but even more so in the evening.  In the evenings, the place is incredibly crowded and the intriguing architecture, save for the mosques, are unlit and hidden from view, so I recommend you visit during the day.

What You'll Find Here
This man has been selling prayer beads in a stall in Al Balad for 38 years.  He also gave us each  a set of beads of our choice.  I chose a simple, amber-scented set.

There are few women shopping in Al Balad
My favorite mosque picture from Al Balad
During the call to prayer you hear a symphony (or cacophony, depending on your point of view) of many muezzin from all of the surrounding mosques calling the believers.
Salesman in a spice shop
Piles of spices

Dates! The best kind are Medina dates, which are usually packaged and pricey

Dresses for sale in a stall
 Al Balad Architecture, Now Dilapidated and Ignored

The wood on these old buildings is rotting, and nothing is being done about it at all

An old water fountain.  Wealthier families would have these installed in the street as a public service for all to utilize.
Nasseef House

Nasseef is the oldest home in Jeddah.  It was owned by a local merchant until Jeddah was taken by king Abdulaziz and his army, when the king took it over for himself.  It then served as a library and is now a museum that is usually open to the public, but was unfortunately closed the day I was by.  The house used to just be known as "the house with the tree" since keeping a tree in blazing Saudi Arabia is pretty difficult and few homes had them.
Nasseef House in Al Balad

Friday, March 8, 2013

En Route to Beirut

Once again, I’m writing a blog post from an airport café.  This time, I’m in Dubai airport waiting formy flight to Lebanon.  AUD’s spring break started yesterday, so I’m travelling to Beirut for the first time. I’m even going to see my wonderful boyfriend, as well as a few friends from AUD.  The central location of Dubai makes travelling for spring break affordable and enticing, even though there is a lot to do in Dubai were students to stay in the city.  I’ll be in Lebanon the whole time, but other study abroads are visiting Cyprus, Turkey, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.  I’m incredibly excited for Lebanon and have been reading a massive history on Beirut for the last two days.  I know I will love the city, even more than I knew I would love Paris.  Beirut is in my opinion the most resilient city on the planet: historical, cosmopolitan, and gruesome all at once.  The book I’m reading has some beautiful lines about Beirut and reads more like a novel than a history.  I’m of course reading the English translation, but maybe one day I’ll be ready to reread the French original.

Regarding my current situation, I’m appreciating my time here at the airport because this is one of the first times I've been completely surrounded by Arabic speakers in Dubai. Earlier, I was surrounded by Saudi men, who were staring me down pretty hard.  In a dramatic showing, I had a conversation in broken Arabic with Jeed on the phone. You could argue that I just did so to show off, but when alone, I also find that I’m hassled a bit less if it’s clear that I know at least some Arabic.  Just moments before, I had been walking near two men gesturing towards me and speaking to each other.  I didn’t catch all of the slang they were using, but the conversation centered around one gentleman’s “er.”  I’m pretty glad that I didn't understand my role in the discussion, but, had I been speaking Arabic, the entire conversation would have likely not taken place. It seems that every day, I’m finding a new personal anecdote to include in discussions on the sexualization of women, particularly foreign women, in Dubai.

Anyway, I think it’s time to work my way to my gate, maybe even to swing by a restroom and attempt to wash yet another coffee spot off of my clothes.  Happy travels to everyone doing their own adventuring this spring break!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Some Interesting Finds in a Saudi Bookstore

The Political Science section of Jarir Bookstore
While in Jeddah, Jeed and I visited Jarir Bookstore.  I wanted to pick up a new Arabic-English dictionary, children's Arabic books for practice, and some Arab authors translated into English; however, while looking for these things, I found an entire section that in the US we might categorize as "Conspiracy Theories," but Jarir chose to classify as "Politics."  Many of these books presented Illuminati-like topics theories as facts, demonized the West, and presented some unsavory historical characters in a heroic light I'd never seen applied before.

Anti-West, Anti-Israel

The symbolism on this cover didn't surprise me, just the great number of books that centered on these themes. 
The Gaza Holocaust  
These obviously negative titles weren't limited to American and Israeli politics, but also Iran. This book's title is Cryptic Iran.
The Mistake of the Cunning is Worth a Thousand Mistakes
The title is just Iran. In case you can't see, the image is of a man wearing the Iranian flag while shooting himself with a gas nozzle.  
 History and Political Philosophy
The Prince 
Mein Kampf in Arabic
The way in which Hitler is portrayed on this cover disturbs me. In this book, he is a hero and a visionary.
Just Some Light Reading

The Men Who Stare at Goats
Picasso and Starbucks ends with a much recited quote: "What would Taha Hussein have done if he were not blind?"  There is often little context for reciting this line, just for the purpose of sounding smart, or at least so says Jeed.

Some Entertaining English Products

A how-to for A-rabs to learn 'Merican!
Magic. It's everywhere.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Return to the Kingdom, Part II

**For this post's title, I seriously considered some pun of "Return of the Jedi" and "Jeddah." I refrained, and you're welcome.**
Souq Sharq at dusk
Some Concerns

I spent last weekend in Saudi Arabia.  I left my final Wednesday class early to go pack a bag, head to Dubai International Airport, and board Saudia flight 551 to Jeddah, KSA.  I travelled with Jeed, a Saudi friend from my university (or "uni" as people here abbreviate) with the plan of staying with him and his family for four nights.  Overshadowing the apparent simplicity of this plan were a number of potential issues.  First, my visa was of questionable authenticity.  Although my Saudi visa was issued for 90 days with multiple entries, but the sponsor of our visit, the Saudi Ministry of Education, did not issue our visas with the intention of us returning after leaving the Kingdom in early December, so there was always the possibility that my visa got cancelled upon my exit.  There is a website for checking the validity of Saudi visas, which actually listed my number as invalid, leading me to visit the Saudi consulate in Dubai for some confirmation that I was in the clear.  Regardless of their reassurance, I was still nervous about being questioned about my return and not being allowed into Jeddah.

Second, the very act of travelling and staying with a man I'm not related to could cause major problems and could even get us both arrested if a big enough stick was made by a mutawa with a vengeance.  While both of these scenarios were unlikely, I was incredibly relieved when my travels went off without a hitch.

And Some Possibilities 
Just driving around Jeddah, taking bad pictures through the car window.  If I roll it down, I'll be stared at. 
Jeed showed me around his childhood haunts, including his school.
Usually small stalls selling cheap items like this are run by women, whereas the brick and mortar stores are always staffed by men.
Traditional clothing for a child in a window in  Souq Sharq.
While on this second visit, I was not treated to stays in 5-star hotels and whisked from meeting, to official visit, to scheduled cultural activity, instead I got a more genuine Saudi experience by staying with a local family.  The home I stayed in was beautiful and my hosts epitomized Arab hospitality.  I have, however, definitely developed a new understanding of the discontentment Saudi students describe feeling while at home.  Even though Jeddah is the vacation spot and most liberal city in the Kingdom, there is still very little entertainment there.  Social events are limited to private homes that are separated from conservative social restrictions and preferably located on company or nationality-based compounds.  Possible outings in the city include shopping in malls, visiting a restaurant, or walking or picnicking along the Corniche, where restrictions on behavior, particularly between men and women, are enforced.
A vendor selling spiced, mashed chick peas in a market in Jeddah.  These guys are everywhere, but I wasn't confident enough to try a bowl of their gloopy, spicy snack.
خردوات  means "hardware," but the word it's covering up means "junk."  I value the initial honesty.
With this in mind and with the desire to see some authentic Jeddawi things, Jeed and I spent our first days driving around and sight-seeing, visiting the Corniche, and hitting what Jeed affectionately referred to as the Jeddah "ghetto," Souq Sharq.
Jeed's "ghetto" looks pretty nice from up top.
 I had plans to make a few purchases in the city: oud, Medina dates, and some Arabic books.  Oud is the scented wood burned in a cup-like incense burner called a mabkhar to produce a spicy aroma called bhur that fills the room.  The prevalence of this smell is one of my favorite things about Saudi Arabia.  Next, the dates from the holy city of Medina are supposedly the most delicious dates in the world, favored by the Prophet, and even present in Paradise.  I also bought myself a few Arabic books as gifts and an Arabic dictionary for myself.  The time I spent in the bookstore and Jeddah's old souk will be topics of future posts.
Women in abayas and hijabs visiting stores that sell evening gowns and club wear in Souq Sharq. 
If I'd had access to Saudi dress shops while I was competing in Junior Miss and Miss America, I think I'd have had it in the bag.
Misdirected Scuba Excitement

My schedule while in Jeddah revolved around my plans to go scuba diving on Friday, which would also allow Jeed some alone time with his family and, of course, allow me to dive reefs and wrecks seen by divers, especially American divers.  I was incredibly excited for this trip and even coerced a friend into coming along as a snorkeler.  The trip was however not meant to be.  Jeed and I successfully left the house at just after 6:00 AM (This man is a saint!) and found my other friend's house despite some bad directions from gas station attendants on the way.*  We found the Desert Sea Divers shop and saw it was closed, so we called the guy I'd been in contact with to get directions to the marina.  Jeed thought he'd seen it earlier, so he asked if it was "the one next to the Burger King," which the man affirmed.

So, we went to the marina next to the Burger King and checked with the security guards that we were in the right place.  I went up and checked with a group of Italian men clearly dressed for water sports where the dive boat was and then went to talk to the guys on the boat.  The guys on the boat didn't seem to speak enough English to know what I was saying, and I don’t know “where can I pick up my dive equipment” in Arabic, so I returned to the Italians and asked where the office was.  We waited for the Italians to get all their paperwork squared away for about 15 minutes when I noticed the time and thought I might have a hard time getting all my dive equipment together before the boat left.  The manager seemed to have thought that the blonde chick and Saudi man were with the Italians, which was the first round of miscommunication.  To shorten the narrative, it took the staff of this marina 15 minutes to realize that the dive company we booked with was not located there.  One of the boat crew even inspected my dive certifications, knowing that we were in the wrong place! We had missed the boat because of bad directions and my own lack of advocacy for myself while sitting and waiting for the manager to be free; both are pretty significant realizations and lessons to learn.  I missed out on a great opportunity to dive in an uncommon place, wasted lots of time, and found myself and my friend stuck at the wrong marina while we waited for Jeed to return.

*In the Arab world, it seems to be either rude or embarrassing to admit you don't know the location of a traveler's destination, so they will give an answer no matter what.  Usually this is something along the lines of "keep going straight and you'll see it," but sometimes these improvised directions get quite complex.   

So what does one do with free time in Saudi Arabia? Not much.

As that day was Friday, with my plans cancelled, I got to enjoy a day as a real Saudi housewife, not really able to leave the house while the men were at mosque.  I began to really understand the resentment that Saudi youths, especially the girls, have growing up in a society where there is so little to occupy their time and so little to really be passionate about.  I had no driver to take me places, and even if I did, where would I go?
There are at least four beggars, usually children, on every street corner.  As heartless as writing No MoNey! looks, if you were to donate just one Riyal to every child you see, you'd have to be on the street panhandling with them within a month.
I saw many cars decorated just like this for newlyweds.  There were no dangling cans like we do in America, but the back window was covered in glitter and there were always bows trailing in the wind.
When looking for fun in Saudi, it is absolutely necessary to have other friends to meet with at their homes or out with.  It would be best to have access to private compounds or resorts to do anything moderately athletic and outdoors.  This is a good place to remind you that there are no cinemas in the Kingdom, save for a few museums that have rooms or IMAX theaters for viewing documentaries.  If you are looking for intellectual stimulation, you have to get a little creative.   There are few public libraries ,and those that exist are very unlike the small, community-based libraries located in every town of the US, and also few museums, and the coffee shops and book stores aren't really conducive to an extended or mixed-gender visit.  I suppose that having access to a university would really help with any angst one gets from being away from intellectual settings.  Only the educated and proactive women with open-minded families have ways to entertain and challenge themselves outside of the home.  
In case you were wondering, Krispy Kreme in Saudi Arabia is still pretty darn good, they just don't have the "Hot Donuts" signs that we do in the states, which is probably a good thing, as "Hot Donuts" has derailed many a road trip when viewed from the highway.

About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.