My First Arab Wedding

Since arriving in the Middle East it’s been a goal of mine to go to an Arab wedding.  I had heard they’re huge, exciting, and go on all night.  I finally got my opportunity when a friend from Yemen mentioned a friend of a friend of his sister’s friend was having a wedding.  I asked if he knew the bride or groom and whether or not I’d be crashing by showing up uninvited, but he and his family reassured me that for many weddings all guests are welcome and that I had nothing to worry about.

I’m not a glamorous woman and the best outfit I had to wear was a nice pair of pants and a blouse. I also don’t know how to do my hair or make- up. Fortunately, my friend’s sisters were more than eager to dress me, curl my hair, a19961384_10154039531627614_3659685372005132368_nnd give me a full make-over.  We started getting prepped and dressed at about 4:00 in the afternoon.  Their mother was more than happy to pull out dresses from the closet for me to try on.  After trying on a few, I chose a lovely formal gown.

The wedding supposedly started at about 8:00 but we didn’t arrive until almost 10. My friend, Aziz, and his brother and father dropped us off on the female side. Men and women are segregated in almost every social aspect, weddings included. I knew better than to take pictures since in many Arab cultures taking pictures of women is a major violation of their privacy.  However, I wouldn’t even get the chance because all of our phones were confiscated and held for the remainder of the night before we could enter the wedding hall.

The wedding hall was enormous and full of about 200 or more women and children.  I’m pretty sure I was the only Western woman there, but everybody was friendly and shook my hand and welcomed me.  There was a catwalk and a dance floor where the women got up on stage and danced to traditional Arab music.  My friends told me that the more conservative weddings were very boring due to the lack of music and that this one was going to be a fun one.

On stage, a woman carried a long red and white striped stick that she used to chase the children away from the stage so the adults could dance.  I watched her pace back and forth herding the kids away like cattle.  My friend told me that it was common for the woman to be there to keep the kids in line and carry the long stick.  I told my friend, “I want this job.”

I worked up the courage to join my friends on stage and dance.  They showed me a few Arabic dances and I taught them a few Western moves which resulted in a lot laughter from the wedding guests.  It was a good time.

zam-zam-arabic-restaurant

After a few hours of dancing and trying not to trip over the dozens of children running around, it was time for the feast.  We headed into the dining hall where tables with a large platter of lamb and rice were laid out.  No cutlery, plates, or silverware of any kind was available which was fine with me because I happen to love eating the traditional way, with my hands.

We didn’t leave until about 1:00 in the morning and there were still guests dancing and having a good time. It was quite a memorable experience and now I can finally mark off my bucket list that I’ve attended a wedding in another country.

I went to Saudi Arabia with seven cavities.

When I started my teaching job in Saudi Arabia, one of the first things I did was go to the dentist.  I knew I had at least one cavity, but it never occurred to me that I’d have seven.  I was horrified when the dentist told me.  He asked me why I hadn’t gotten them fixed. I told him I couldn’t afford to get it done in the States.  When I tell people about the cost of healthcare in my country, they’re often shocked.

“But you’re from America?” a lot of them say.  America has a great reputation overseas for being the land of opportunity amongst other things. For a lot of the locals I talk to, it doesn’t occur to them that some of us are seeking a better life elsewhere.

After receiving my healthcare package from the university in Saudi Arabia, I immediately considered any medical procedure I might need to get done.  Fortunately, my biggest problem was that my teeth were basically rotting out of my head! That might be a bit of an exaggeration since most of the cavities were small, but if I had never left the United States, they would’ve gone untreated and gotten worse.  I had one cavity filled before I left and it cost me around $150. That’s simply a luxury I can’t afford.

I’ve had other exams done and even opted for eye surgery during my time overseas. For me, it was an elective surgery, a luxury, and for a moment I felt selfish.  Even the dental work was somewhat elective.  You can live without perfect teeth.  Here I am, paying roughly $3 per visit to fill cavities while I have friends back home battling cancer.  I have friends who need surgery and can’t afford it.  I have a former classmate from university who had to start a GoFund me page just so she could get a new pair of glasses.

When did America get this way? And why aren’t we more ashamed of it?

I don’t have a solution for the sorry state of healthcare in my country.  And I’m not going to pretend like I know which system is the best. But we, as Americans, need to stop pretending like it’s okay for people to suffer from a lack of basic medical attention in what’s supposed to be “the greatest country in the world.” The fact that I get better healthcare in a 3rd world country is alarming.

If you’re in need of medical care, you might want to consider your options.  With the current state of healthcare in the U.S., you’d probably be better off finding a job overseas like I did than waiting around for us to figure out how to take care of our own people.

The good news is, Saudi Arabia is hiring.  Put me down as a reference and take care of those teeth!

 

 

Getting Eye Surgery in the Middle East

 

It’s been almost two weeks since my second eye surgery, and I can confidently say the vision in my eye is now as good as when I used to wear contacts.  I’ve wanted to get eye surgery for years, but I told myself to pay off debts first and really do my research. So after paying off the student loans and credit card debt, I decided now is the time to get my vision corrected.

The procedure I had done is called ICL Visian. It’s basically an implantable contact lens.  No laser treatment. Here’s a description from the website:

“The Visian ICL, also known as the Implantable Collamer® Lens, is a type of refractive procedure to help correct the most common visual problem, myopia. Simply put, Visian ICL is a removable lens implant that is an attractive alternative to LASIK and other refractive procedures.”

https://us.discovericl.com/

Costs:

I chose to get the procedure done after a colleague went through the same thing with good results. I was told the implantable lenses are generally more accurate, safer, and less invasive than LASIK.  It’s also reversible, unlike LASIK.  They could remove the lens if they need to. I had it done at Magrabi Clinic in Al-Khobar, and I chose to get it done here in Saudi Arabia because I thought it would cost about half as much in the states.  But after reviewing prices, I’m not sure I actually saved much money, but oh well. I’m just happy to have it over with.

The Procedure:

The first eye went very well.  I was a little nervous, but the nurses were friendly.  They put some drops in my eye, put an IV in for fluids, gave me a mild narcotic to relax me, and rolled me into the operating room.  It was a little frightening at first because the doctors and nurses were all rushing around me, giving me more eye drops, and trying to make jokes and small talk to keep me calm.  The most uncomfortable part was having my eye clamped open, like in Clockwork Orange. The actual surgery took about 5 to 10 minutes and I felt nothing. Maybe a small tickle.  I just stared at a bright light the whole time and I could see some movements and feel the doctor touching my eye.  Then they’d administer more drops.  I was so relieved when he said, almost done.  Then they bandaged me up and sent me on my way.  Unfortunately, the narcotic on an empty stomach made me sick, but other than that it went smoothly.

The second eye, on the other hand, was a different story.  It was the same procedure as before and I got it done more than a month after the first eye because I wanted the first to be healed.  I’m not sure what the difference was, but the second time I could feel him cutting my eye.  It was definitely painful, but it wasn’t so painful I couldn’t sit still and let him finish.  I think part of the problem was they made me wait nearly an hour after administering the drops to dilate my eyes.  I just sat as still as I could while the doctor did the procedure and I kept saying “Almost done? I can feel you cutting my eye!” The second experience was actually pretty traumatizing. They didn’t give me a narcotic the second time, but I still got sick.  The minute I got back to my compound, I walked in the gate, and then vomited, right in front of our security guards.  But they were nice and understanding.  One of them brought me a bottle of water. Despite the second eye being very frightening, I’m glad I got it done.  It’s been so nice not needing contacts or glasses.  I love waking up in the morning and being able to see instead of scrambling for my glasses.

Here’s a demonstration video of what I apparently had done.  I haven’t watched it yet because my second eye is still healing and I’m paranoid. The less I know the better.

 

Overall, I’m glad I got it done.  However, I don’t think I actually saved much money doing it here.  It cost about $2,400 an eye, nearly $5000 for the whole procedure.  I imagine in time, it will pay for itself with me no longer needing glasses or contacts.  My main reason for doing it is because I plan on traveling a lot in the future; camping, hiking, backpacking, etc, and I don’t want to hassle with contacts and glasses the whole time.  I totally recommend the procedure, but it might be wise to double-check prices before going for it.

My Week in Dubai

After hearing all the hype about Dubai from my Saudi students, I decided to bite the bullet and take a trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.  I went during the Eid break, so naturally, it was full of tourists, but I’m under the impression, it’s probably like this all the time. Dubai is very much what I expected: expensive, extravagant, and exciting.

Overview: The United Arab Emirates is in the East of the Arabian Gulf. It was formed in 1971 by seven emirates, the Trucial States which are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Qaiwain.

Capital: Abu Dhabi

Language(s) spoken: Arabic (official), English, Farsi, Urdu

Religion(s): Muslim (Islam; official) 76%, Christian 9%, other 25%

History: It was an area originally inhabited by seafaring people who took to pirating after the disintegration of the sheikdom.  The British intervened in the 19th century when the piracy posed a threat to neighboring countries. After the British withdrew in 1971, the 9 Trucial states became a federation called the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bahrain and Oman, once two of the Trucial states, did not join the federation, resulting in the 7 Trucial states today.
http://www.infoplease.com/country/united-arab-emirates.html

Other facts:

according to http://www.kickassfacts.com/20-facts-didnt-know-uae-dubai/

  • Dubai has no address system, no zip codes, no area codes and no postal system. For a package to be sent properly, the sender would have to leave proper directions to the destination of said package.
  • Dubai has no sewer system, instead they use poop trucks to haul the entire cities’ excrement away.
  • The United Arab Emirates donated a laptop to every high school student in Joplin, Missouri, after the city had been devastated by a tornado.
  • Ferrari owns the largest indoor theme park in Abu Dhabi. Their rollercoaster, the Rosso, is the World’s fastest, reaching 150mph in 5 seconds
  • A city is currently being built in Dubai that will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources, with a sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology.
  • Dubai is home to the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa

My favorite thing(s) about Dubai: 
I felt very safe the entire time I was there. Apparently, Dubai has a 0% crime rate, and I believe it.  During my stay, I never saw any problems.  I also loved the aquarium inside the Dubai mall.  It was absolutely amazing!

 

My least favorite thing(s) about Dubai:


Aside from the expenses, my only other complaint about the UAE is the touristy atmosphere.  It’s kind of an unusual place where more than 80% of the population consists of expat workers.  People go there primarily for vacation so the country caters to tourists and travelers.  It feels almost gimmicky when you’re there surrounded by the extravagance.

What I found most surprising:
I didn’t realize the United Arab Emirates was so conservative.  I was expecting to see more shenanigans in the sex and alcohol industries, but since it’s a primarily Muslim country, getting alcohol is very difficult and people highly value modesty.

Must see and do:

  • See the fountains at the Dubai Mall.
  • Check out the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.
  • Go on one of the many excursions offered from hot air balloon rides to desert safaris


My advice to anyone traveling to the United Arab Emirates:


Make sure you have plenty of money before you go. You’re going to need it!
Happy Traveling!

Gardening in the Middle East: Part 1

I love the expat life.  You meet a lot of interesting people and you get to go a lot of interesting places, but there are things back home I miss.  I miss my independence.  I miss seasons.  And I especially miss gardening.  I’m from the Midwest and gardening was a big part of my life.  And I’ve wondered, why don’t more people try to garden while they’re overseas?  I’m sure there’s a reason and that I’m missing something important, so I’ve done a little research about gardening in the Middle East.  I haven’t seen any definite “no you can’t do it” messages.  I even found one woman who happened to be quite successful gardening in Kuwait.

http://www.greenprophet.com/2012/09/kuwait-green-fingered-journey/

And I thought, well if I’m going to be here awhile, I might as well give it a try.  And if it doesn’t work out, well at least I had a fun project to keep me busy after work. I’m faced with several challenges:

First, I know it’s a desert, but I figure with proper water and nutrients, the humid climate here could actually be an advantage.  So I bought soil and seeds and saved some old cardboard boxes to be used as garden beds. I’m actually trying to find clever ways to recycle and using old boxes seemed like a good way.

 

Another issue is the scorching sun which would burn any non-native plant to a crisp.  However, the space I’m provided just happens to be shaded.  I figure if the plants are out of direct sunlight, wouldn’t they be okay? And I got to thinking, would it be beneficial to put up large sheets of plastic, potentially turning my back patio into a green house?  I guess I’ll find out soon.

You won’t encounter the same pests you would in a more garden-friendly environment.  However, one major pest for my garden is considered a pet by my compound neighbors.  There are cats absolutely everywhere and I don’t want them using my garden beds as a litter box.  So I did my best to seal off the gaps in the railing, but now I’m going to have to put something on top of the railing because they could easily jump over.  With limited materials, I’m going to have to get creative.  Still working on cat-proofing the patio.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.  It would seem few people have attempted this, so I’m having trouble finding resources.  I have lots of questions.  For instance, my tap water is desalinated, so does that mean it’s okay for watering the plants?  And, how deep do these garden beds need to go?  Some boxes are deeper than others, but we’ll see.  Once I’ve fully cat-proofed the balcony, we’ll plant the seeds and get started.  Inshallah something will grow.

Peace!

Teaching in Saudi: Red Flags to Look for When Applying

When I decided to come teach English in Saudi Arabia for a year I was anticipating a lot of culture shock.  Things are very different here:

  • It’s illegal for women to drive. (not that I want to.  Have you seen the drivers here?)
  • I’m often stared at everywhere I go even when I’m wearing a hijab and abaaya.
  • All the stores close for 15 minutes 5 times a day for prayers and I always manage to go to the store at the wrong time.

The list goes on, but none of these things really bother me.  The heat isn’t as bad as I thought.  There’s a lot of dust and it took a few days for me to adjust to air conditioning, but all in all, I’ve really been enjoying myself in this country.

However, what I did not expect was the mismanagement and complete lack of interest in the well-being for the employees of the company I work for.  I wrote these issues down roughly two years and now I work for a much better company. Here are a few of my grievances and some red flags to watch out for to avoid the same trap I got into:

 

  • This is a new company, so naturally there are kinks to be worked out, but this company has dumped an enormous work load on the teachers as well as the students.  We teach ESL from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon with one 15 minute break and a 40 minute lunch.  That may not seem like a lot of hours, but for anyone that’s had to teach a second language, especially to a group of 30 Saudi teenage girls, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
  • In addition to this workload, we’ve also been given a ton of busy work, such as filling out a lesson plan template for every single lesson we do every day.  Again, that may not sound like a big deal, but with no down time during the day between classes, we have to complete this in our spare time when we get home.
  • In the past, anytime I’ve taught there’s been time off between semesters.  This is not the case here as admin has informed us that there will be no time off between semesters and the only break we’ll have will be weekends and 2 weeks off for Eid which already happened.  The week between semesters will be spent planning the new semester.  So no vacation time until June.
  • Now I’m no stranger to hard work, and I can do what’s required of me.  However, we’re also expected to do all of this work with no virtually no resources, no working printer, and no technology in the classrooms, so I’ve been writing all of my assignments by hand.  Many of the teachers don’t have a white board to write on.  Most of us have gone out to buy our own supplies.  Now, I normally wouldn’t complain about this, but this is one of the richest countries in the world and the government pays for the education.  You’d think they could at least give us a board and markers.
  • I’ve been managing despite these challenges and the students have been very hard-working and understanding so far, but this school is so poorly managed, that every time I think I’m making progress, admin further adds to the frustrations.  At first it was taking on more students than we could handle.  We all had too many students and not enough chairs resulting in several students having to sit on the floor causing chaos in the classrooms.  And the AC has malfunctioned and apparently won’t be fixed anytime soon so it’s a frigid 19 degrees in most classes, so we’ve been having to bring our coats to class.  A little ironic considering we’re in the desert.
  • After the first week of work I saw at least 4 of my coworkers in tears from the stress.  Two have already quit because of the work load and many others have threatened to leave.  Several have already gotten sick. Fortunately the group of women I work with all seem to be dedicated and caring teachers who are genuinely interested in these girls and we do our best to support each other since administration clearly is not interested in our well-being.
  • Anytime a problem arises from the chaos and mismanagement of the institute, admin is quick to blame the staff.  We’ve already had four very demeaning staff meetings which basically consist of the administrator complaining about how we’re not doing our job properly and reminding us that we’re here to teach.   They see nothing wrong with keeping 30 teenage girls in a freezing cold classroom for 2 to 3 straight hours for English language instruction.  There used to be short 5 minute breaks every hour but now admin has decided we should stop doing that as well.  At first teachers were more willing to express their concerns about how things are being run, but we quickly learned that’s not a good idea.
  • Now maybe you think I’m just whining and I need to suck it up, but this is where my complaints become a bit more serious.  Within the first two weeks of work all the teachers began expressing their concerns about the workload and mismanagement of the school.  The administration’s response was to fire one of the teachers even though we’re already short-handed.  They told the teacher that she “wasn’t a good fit.”  The teacher who got fired thinks she was fired because she made one too many suggestions about how to do things differently in this school.  I suspect it was because she had visa issues.  So naturally, after she was fired, nobody else dared to complain or ask any questions after that.
  • And then there’s all the promises that were made that never happened.  We were promised we would be provided with cell phones.  That never happened.  We were also promised internet service.  Also never happened.  We all had to buy our own.  We were told we should have some time during the day to prepare for our classes, but since we teach for 7 straight hours with 2 breaks the only time we have to do anything is when we get home.  We were promised a class size of about 20 to 25 students but most exceeded 30 in the first 2 weeks.  It was implied that we would get some vacation time even though it doesn’t appear on our schedule, but now the weekends are the only time we have off for the next 9 months.  Now admin has been relatively careful not to violate the contract.  Most of these promises were made verbally and not in writing, so there’s really nothing we can do about that.  Lesson learned.
  • And now things have gotten even more serious.  I don’t want to alarm anybody, but one of my co-workers is kind of missing…Okay that sounds worse than it probably is.  We don’t know where she is and admin is being very vague about her whereabouts.  They told us that she is in the hospital and currently in isolation and that none of us can visit her because she was “running a fever.”  Many of us think she may have been detained by the local authorities due to a legal issue and that admin is lying for reasons of confidentiality. Other teachers have become concerned about what “running a fever” and being “isolated in the hospital” entails. The fact that we can’t trust admin to be completely honest with us about where she is and whether or not she’s truly ill or if we should be concerned for our own health is a little unsettling to say the least.
  • Now I wasn’t going to do this.  I wasn’t going to go online and blast the company I work for, but given the amount of stress I’m under and the fact that they have no problem firing people for no reason, I just wanted to clear the air in the event that I get canned because at this point, with the amount of stress I’m under, I’m not sure I would be terribly upset.  I’m no quitter.  I came here to do a job.  And I love these students and I love this country, but this is by far the worst, most poorly managed school I have ever worked for, and the thought of getting fired almost seems more like a relief than anything else.

So, I’m thinking to myself, is this typical?  Is this what it’s like to work overseas because all I can think is what the hell have I gotten myself into?

Well, now that I’ve left this school and I’m firmly established in another in the same city, I can tell you that my experience is not atypical, but I should have known a few things beforehand:

  1. Read the contract carefully.  It said we’d be teaching a lot of hours, but in the interview she said it would be a lot less.  Of course, when it comes to verbal promises vs written ones, it’s not hard to know which you’ll end up doing. Get everything in writing.
  2. Beware of new schools.  New schools often run into problems getting started and a lot of them are treated more like business than schools, so the aim is to log a lot of hours and look official, but the education isn’t necessarily valued.
  3. Search for reviews of the school before you apply.  I wish I had done this because there are a lot of former employees happy to let you know what their experience was like.

Bahrain: The Saudi Playground

Every Thursday afternoon the causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia is filled with gridlocked vehicles anxiously making their way to freedom.  They’ll wait for 2 to 4 hours, sometimes more depending on how busy the border is, but even just a day or two of freedom makes the trip worth it.

And it’s not just Westerners, unaccustomed to Sharia law that are eager to escape the Kingdom.  The causeway is full of Saudis too.  Bahrain is like a magical paradise.  It’s a beautiful island where the pressures of Saudi life can be forgotten for awhile.  The traffic is calmer.  The rules are looser. And there are plenty of bars and other diversions to please even the most Western of tourists.
Of course, it’s possible I’m overselling the small island nation, but when you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the most conservative country in the world, Bahrain becomes this special place full of fond memories. Here’s an overview of Bahrain in a nutshell.

Overview: Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands in the Persian Gulf.

Capital: Al-Manámah

Language(s) spoken: Arabic (official), English, Farsi, Urdu

Religion(s): Muslim 70.3%, Christian 14.5%, Hindu 9.8%, Buddhist 2.5%, Jewish 0.6%, folk religion

History: Bahrain originally belonged to the Dilmun civilization and was an important trading center of the Persian gulf.  It was one of the first areas to convert to Islam in 628 AD.  After Arab rule, Bahrain was occupied by the Portuguese for a time until being expelled in 1783.  Nasr Al-Madhkur, was defeated by the Bani Utbah tribe at the 1782 Battle of Zubarah. There was unrest during the 19th and 20th centuries over Britain’s influence on the area. This was followed by Bahrain’s independence on August 15th 1971.  Bahrain has seen its fair share of political uprisings and social unrest especially between Sunnis and Shias and during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Other facts:

  • The name Bahrain translates as “Two Seas” in Arabic.
  • Bahrain’s biggest event is the Bahrain Grand Prix F1 race, held every April at the Bahrain International Circuit.
  • 62% of the population is made up of expat workers.
  • It’s home to the United State’s Navy’s 5th fleet.
  • In 2002, a new constitution was introduced which gave women the right to vote.
According to http://www.infoplease.com/country/bahrain.html
http://www.timeoutbahrain.com/aroundtown/features/40006-25-amazing-bahrain-facts

My favorite thing(s) about Bahrain: 

Bahrain has found a good balance between being a traditional Islamic country while still catering to tourists and being tolerant of non-Muslims, something I’d like to see more of in the Middle East. The atmosphere is most definitely Arab, but non-Arabs can feel quite relaxed and comfortable.

My least favorite thing(s) about Bahrain:

The causeway of course.  It takes such a long time to get over and you have to plan it just right.  And everybody is so tense and anxious to get over that the drive in is absolutely horrifying and chaotic.  Of course, I can’t really count this as a part of Bahrain since it’s in between countries.  So the only other issue I’ve had is that it’s so expensive.  You can drop a lot of money in a weekend, but it’s just worth it.

What I found most surprising:

I never get harassed.  When I’m in Saudi, if I forget my hijab, I’ll undoubtedly get a comment or a look from somebody.  But in Bahrain, I’m free to walk around without an abaaya in my comfortable clothes and nobody gives me any problems.  I find it ironic that I can be covered from head to toe in one country and still receive some mild harassment and dress perfectly normal in another and have no issue.  Kind of puts a dent in Saudi’s whole theory on modesty and “protecting” women.

Must see and do: 

  • Check out King Fahd’s Causeway, the four-lane road, 25 km bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Bahrain.
  • Visit the Grand Mosque, Al Fatih Mosque.  It’s absolutely stunning, especially at night.
  • See “The Tree of Life”, a 400-year-old tree that grows in the Sakhir desert.
  • Learn about the culture at Bahrain’s National Museum.
  • Go to JJ’s Irish Pub in the capital and buy a beer for one of the Navy boys. 😉

My advice to anyone traveling to Bahrain: 

Enjoy yourself, but respect the religion and social norms.  It’s a relatively free country, but still conservative and all it takes is one bad incident to ruin the fun for everyone else.  So have a good time, but don’t cause a scene. Happy traveling!!!

http://wikitravel.org/en/Bahrain

http://www.infoplease.com/country/bahrain.html?pageno=2