Monday, May 21, 2012

Boys and girls

The separation of girls and boys is definitely beginning to take a toll on our group dynamics.  I get the feeling some of the boys think its funny, but many of the girls are beginning to get frustrated. Yesterday we went to the University of Dammam,  a mixed campus with separate facilities. We met with students, both genders in the same room but separated by a sign and each sitting on opposite sides.  At the end of the meeting, we broke out into smaller groups and just informally chatted with our peers of the same gender.  The girls were awesome.  We chatted about music, dating/marriage, and school.  

I am not sure if it's appropriate to really detail what they said because I don't want to break their confidence, but in general things are changing a bit.  One girl said she delayed engagement and marriage until she graduated, and another said she really didn't even want to start thinking about it because she is so focused on school.  Additionally, they said they were held to a higher standard academically because girls are stereotypically academically better than boys. They just want to be taught the same curriculum as the boys.

After our meeting, though, the boys made plans with the Saudis for lunch and of course we could not join them.  We had to go back to the hotel-I find that we are spending an incredible amount of time in the hotel.  We couldn't go to where they have lunch, can't smoke sheesha (not an issue for me, but some of the girls would like to), can't work out to get rid of some of our negative energy.  It's only a couple of days, but you can really see the institutionalization of gender discrimination.  

Honestly, I'm a bit disappointed about how quickly some of the boys seem to embrace this and how willing and without a second thought some just leave us behind.  I have only seen one make an active effort to include us.  And he is the only one I have heard say anything along the lines of how they treat women is ridiculous.  I've only heard jokes from the others. Hahaha, lunch was so awesome. Hahaha, the pool was so nice. Hahaha, oh that massage was amaaaazing. 

While the boys went out to lunch, a handful of the girls begged our guide Saad to take us out. We went for a walk on the corniche, which was nice. The weather was actually pleasant by the sea.  And then the boys came back saying how amazing their lunch was, without one mention of oh, I'm sorry you couldn't join.

I hope no one is offended by this post. I admit I am being a bit sensitive, and i do not mean to complain.  Amy for instance, is good with dealing with this and just laughs it off. But there's no point in sharing my experiences if I'm not honest with how I'm feeling and my experiences.  No one will learn anything if I just relay the positive points of the trip. 

We all later met up and went to this bizarre mini air and space museum and then saw an IMAX film about the deep sea.  I have a feeling that was just time filler.  We went to the mall and walked around a bit, and then the girls went back to the hotel (naturally) while the boys went out with the Saudis. Amy, Brit, Michelle, and I sat out in the lobby for a few hours, hanging out, and eventually the guys came back.  We all hung out for a few hours. Until 3am, actually.  

Everyone says Jedda will be better for the girls, more fun for us. Even if it is, I am still really disappointed about the behavior over the past few days. 

Im on the bus to our next stop, Jubail, and one of the boys just said we empower our girls too much in the West. It was meant to be a joke. He was talking about how white guys don't like white girls and date Asians because they are more submissive.  I had to tell him to stop.  

Ugh, wow. That literally hurt me inside. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Adam, Eve, and dinosaurs

Walking through a museum in Riyadh this afternoon, I was struck to see fossils, a dinosaur skeleton, and a prehistoric timeline, side-by-side with a display on how the earth was created (a pretty scientific description). In the United States, there is a heated debate between creationism and evolution. Many think there is no middle ground. The most dogmatic of the Americans believe the earth was created in six days, which doesn't quite jibe with evidence from a ore-human era with dinosaurs. As Saudi is considered a bit of a dogmatic place, I turned to our guide and asked him what the consensus or general understanding of this issue is in Saudi-did Adam and Eve walk the earth with dinosaurs, or did the dinosaurs come first, adding thousands of years to the six-day timeline.

Faris just looked at me blankly. There were dinosaurs, of course. So I asked him, does that mean Adam and Eve lived at the same time as dinosaurs. He was stunned. The thought had just never crossed his mind. God created heaven and the earth as described. But of course it doesn't really make sense that humans coexisted with dinosaurs-it's doubtful Adam and Eve would have lived long enough to populate the earth. But putting the two together, contemplating the impact each narrative. It was this stunning moment where I could literally see change and a different way of thinking emerging. So crazy.

On the one hand, it's better than in some places in the States where people dont believe in any degree of evolution. Despite Saudi's dogmatism (is that a word?), its students are taught evolution. But the failure of the education system to teach any kind of critical thinking or build the capability to make the connection between these two issues, even presented side by

On a lighter note, the museum labeled the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. Chuckle chuckle chuckle, that is not what it's called, sillies.

Breakfast and lunch were absurdly good. Without access to a gym, I'm going to have to be literally rolled off the plane. Chocolate and white chocolate fondu station, amazing fruit, salad, cereal, etc selection for breakie. INCREDIBLE grilled fish, lobster, chicken, salmon, prawns, fruit, steamed broccoli, salads, desserts, sushi, pastas, hot dishes for lunch. Man oh man.

Tonight we were hosted by Dr. Salsa al-Hazza a prominent women's rights activist. Her children and their friends attended the event too.

I always caution against making generalizations about Arab women being oppressed. Veiled or not, if you see them in action in a market or at home, you know it is really them who wear the proverbial pants. She told her husband to tell us what he does, what his work was. His response? I am a husband. Priceless.

I spoke with her at the end of the night about conceptions of women and women's issues in the Middle East as described in the West. And she said what is basically my understanding, which is that, look. Change had to be homegrown to be sustainable. It has to come from the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Moroccans. I has to happen their way, at their own pace. I think she was a little more forgiving of the status who than I would be (even in America) but in general I think Western involvement in these kinds of changes are only detrimental and cause the issue and those linked with it to be considered foreign ,thereby losing legitimacy in the eyes of the very people they need to win over.

I agree with her that we khawagas should not be involved. But she kept on referring to wearing the abaya as a a choice, which it is not. And I can not tell you how many times I've seen a young Arab lady walk into a house, hotel, or cafe and rip off whatever outer garment she's wearing and discard it with obvious disdain.

And for the he record, were the abaya not mandatory I probably would have happily bought one to be respectful of the culture. I have two Moroccan jellabas and a handful of Indian tunics. I love that kind of dress. But because it's mandatory I think back to those girls I see obviously hating it and get angry.

I've heard a lot of comments from some in the group about well, maybe the abaya is kind of nice. You don't have to worry about what you're wearing, it makes life easier. But for us this is four days. It isn't almost like playing dress up. But for some women, like the ones tossing off their abayas, or in the case of Saudi doing little things to show their rebellion against the abaya by leaving it open, etc., this is life and may not be so fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Saudi Arabia: at least we have rambutans

Welcome to Riyadh.


I do not know where to start. Anyone who has spoken with me about Saudi knows my feelings about this place, or at least certain aspects of it. So I will preface this all a by saying I entered with a sort of bias. I'm giving a half-hearted attempt to keep an open mind about these things about which I have a strong opinion, but it's not easy.

We checked into the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. It is a brand new hotel and super swanky. I'd say it borders on ostentatious but after a day here I'd say it leapt over that red line. It reminds me a bit of the hotels in Vegas, just without alcohol, gambling, sin, and the opportunity to for women to do anything. It is in the middle of nowhere, iles away from anything. Best part-we are stuck here and women aren't allowed to use the pool, the gym, or the spa. The Saudis are comping all of our expenses in the hotel except long-distance phone calls. So all food included. Guys get massages for free too.

Yes, there is a spa With massages. And only men can use it. Total shiznat. I don't even like getting massages but I want one just because the said I can't have one.

When I asked the guy who worked here about the gym and he told me that women werent allowed to use it, I just stood there looking at him. Tammy, Merideth, Ashtar-he got my Teresa face. My friends on the trip said he looked terrified of me. I he is scared now, just wait for the end of a week without working out. Later on I was talking to a guy at the front desk and asked him whys not just have separate hours as they did in Oman. He was extremel apologetic(although would he have been so apologetic if it were his own wife looking to sweat it out?) and said that shhh-we could use the gym in the middle of the night when all the hotel guests are asleep. I appreciated the degre of flexibility and the seeming admission the whole thing is bollocks, but...

On the bright side, the Saudis bought us each our own hotel rooms-we don't have to share. I feel like an adult. And we got a fruit plate with rambutans. So there's that.

Th highlight so far was tonight, after we had a bit of a snack had the hotel drive us to the "happening" street of riyadh(can't remember what it's called right now). Today is apparently part of a seven day celebration honoring the king's seven years on the throne. Saudis were driving their huge American-made SUVs around honking their horns, hanging out of the window and dancing in their cars. And while there are a lot of things I don't like about Saudi, it's people are incredibly warm and friendly. They are undoubtedly not used to seeing foreigners just standing around on the street as most are locked up in their compounds. Everyone was trying to talk to us, telling use welcome to Saudi giving us their numbers(they gaves it to the guys in the group, cynics, so it wasn't like that) and offering to help if we needed anything. We also got a a bunch of "I love america"s. Which is good. So do I. It was nice to get to just talk and meet people.

I'm hoping there are plenty of opportunities for meeting our peers outsides the highly controlled hotel and official delegation environment during the upcoming days.