24 November 2014

Observations from KSA - II

I don’t know who flipped the switch, but the weather suddenly got gorgeous – cooler, sunny, low humidity, cool nights.  It was broiling hot, and then we had a dust storm.  The students said it was mild, about a 3 on a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most severe, but it was, without doubt, the single least pleasant meteorological experience I’ve ever had – and I lived in Chicago the year all those people died from the heat.  We were buffeted by high, hot wind gusts, sandblasted (literally), and effectively breathing grit.  The visibility dropped, and honestly it felt like walking through a blast furnace and it was hard to breathe - just oppressive.  And the next day was clear and sunny and about 10'F cooler, and since then it’s been really nice. 

The ratio of Tagalog to Arabic I hear daily is roughly 1:1.  The Filipinos I talked to that work in the Saadeddin pastry shop said that working on camp is much better than working off – "people are friendlier" they said.  They only get one day off a week.  The one guy has been here 17 years.  The bus driver – not on camp, but on the Saudi public bus – was Filipino who’s been here 16 years.  My Pinoy taxi driver the other day has been here 20 years but says he’s going home at the end of this contract now that his kids are out of school.  He's been with his family two months a year for the last 20 years.  I’ll never work as hard as they do.

Saadeddin Pastry Shop makes the best goddam cheesecake I've ever eaten.  It's light and fluffy and heaven.  There are a surprising number of chubby-to-obese people here.  Don't know if it's the loose clothing, the fact that nothing is legal here EXCEPT sugar and tobacco, or that they have an American lifestyle (no mass transit, drive everywhere) but there are a surprising number of overweight people.  Maybe it's the Saadeddin cheesecake.  That wouldn't surprise me, actually. 

Arabic text is read right to left but numbers are read left to right.  So in a block of text with a number, they read the number as a whole word, just backwards.  Good luck if you've got dyslexia - no idea how you'd manage. 
We use Arabic numbers, right?  Not Roman, not Chinese, but Arabic?  I'd always thought so.  Except we don't.  Or, well, they don't.  Or something.  A dot is zero; a zero is 5; what looks like it could be a seven is a six - well, here they are <---- .="" font="" nbsp="">

What this means is that I flail at the register, every time, and that I pay with a lot of purple 50s and thus have a passel of 10s floating around my wallet.   
I was a few steps behind a woman in an abaya and full face veil and head scarf walking out of the commissary at breakfast on Saturday.  The foyer was a little darkened and the electronic eye didn’t “see” her. She had to take a couple of steps back and then side to side to get the door to open.  That seems to me to be an apt metaphor.

There is a debate raging at Dammam University about women whose abayas are not all black.  They should be, evidently.  The police have urged the school to clamp down, and they've gone to abaya sellers encouraging them to sell black, all black, and only black.  Sinners. 

I don't know if the TV I've seen on camp and in the hotels here is the same that Saudis get, but there's a lot of violence - a LOT of violence, most of it crap US films - broadcast here, and a surprising amount of sex.  For a country with a "Nudity not allowed in the locker room" policy, I sure have seen some on TV.  Filipino soap operas and sports are on half the channels; stern looking Imams are on a few (I think they're imams - maybe they are sternly discussing cricket?), and stations out of Dubai show lots of HBO, and unedited movies like "Wolf of Wall Street" and German dramas.  Odd.   

Bahrain is a separate island nation 30 miles, 3 hours by bus, and a world away, but it’s a world that Saudis flock to every weekend (along with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, according to two of the drillers in one of my classes, or more correctly, according to one driller who said of Dubai “I go every weekend – and I see THIS guy there too” pointing at another driller) for a drink, for bacon, for vanilla, for a drink, for a flirt, for a drink… On the 13th floor of my hotel in Manama, Bahrain's capital, I could still hear the “mm-ch-mm-ch-mm-ch” from the club on the ground floor down the block.)

I didn’t expect Saudi Arabia to be multiethnic, but according to my students there are a lot of distinct cultural variations around the Kingdom: Jeddah and Mecca are more cosmopolitan and open, and far more diverse, while Riyadh is more traditional.  The two black students I’ve had were both from families from Jeddah, on the west coast, and looking at a map it makes sense: that’s the port where people come through for the hajj, and the Red Sea isn’t that wide; Sudan is *right* there.  (I'm in Ad Dammam, in the northeast on the Gulf, and the city nearest Bahrain.)

One Sudanese guy I met here was born in KSA of Sudanese parents and he doesn’t have a Saudi passport – only a Sudanese one, though he's only been to Sudan once.  He can’t get Saudi citizenship, either, unless he marries a Saudi woman like his brother, and even that isn’t easy - both parties have to be over 35, which is considered ancient here.  He has to renew his residence visa every year, and the cost has recently gone up from about $500 USD to about $1500.  If he gets convicted of any crime beyond traffic violations, tests positive for HIV, or any number of other things, he’ll be deported.  I didn’t ask my black students, obviously, if they were Saudi passport holders. 

There are plumeria (frangiapani in the UK and the empire) everywhere around the camp, making it redolent of Hawai'i.  It's surprising given how much water they need.  And I've just learned that Vanilla is a haram – or forbidden – as liquor is used to make it.  Tobacco use is fine.    

There are shuttle busses from camp into town – to both malls, the Mall of Dhahran, a sprawling affair with some shuttered store fronts that’s seen better days but that has an Outback Steakhouse and Paul’s, a French (?) chain with amazing bread; and Al Rashid Mall, the more exclusive of the two with a bookstore and a GNC.  The shuttles will also drop you off at Ikea or in the downtown shopping district, if you’re so inclined.  The malls are malls.  Well, except that they shut down at the call to prayer, a call which most of the shoppers gleefully ignore as they mill around the locked doors and security grates waiting for the all clear.  And it’s not just us and the Filipinos who are milling around (though, true, some of the Pinoy are Muslim too) – you’ll see Saudi women in full Abaya, head covering and even face veils, and Saudi men in the traditional thawb and head covering (shumagh – usually red and white in this part of the kingdom), milling around too.  Few people seem to pay the call much heed.  My favorite sight from the mall has to be the early 20s Saudi guy, traditional thawb, and Texas Tech baseball hat.  On backwards. 

Morty Seinfeld has NOTHING on me.  The other night I was milling around the commissary at 3:50 PM waiting for them to open at 4 PM so I could eat.  Our day starts at just past 7, we break for lunch at 11:30 – and the whole company does, which is, frankly, annoying, as there is a resulting scrum in the lunch lines and outlandish din in the caf, but prayer time is at 12:30 so there we go – and we wrap up at 3:30. 
And as I’ve been telling my colleagues, since we go to bed, wiped, at 8 PM, we just need to think about the schedule being 2 hours later and then it makes sense: we work from 7:00 9:00 to 3:30 5:30 so dinner at 4 PM is really 6 PM and it’s less crazy.  (Saudis are horrified – they eat late, like 9, but by that point I’d likely be dead.) 
It’s important to be on time at the end of the day as the female students who don’t live on the camp need to know what time to tell their drivers to pick them up.  

Nearly every car I've seen still has the plastic over the seat covers.  It gets over 110'F routinely here, and often hits 120'F with high humidity.  KSA has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in the world.  Maybe it's just from people men trying to scooch around on the plastic over the car seats in a billion degree car interiors?    

Me pretending that I know anything about Saudi Arabia after four weeks here would be like someone new to the US going to Mountain View, living on a Google housing complex, eating in the Google cafeteria, and taking a bus to San Jose 3 or 4 times and pretending they knew what the US was like.   

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