Saturday, March 12, 2011

Another Day, Another Perspective

My last post was a fairly cathartic one, and the process of writing it and then reading the very sweet and supportive comments by some amazing readers was much needed. I mentioned a few posts ago that I'm experiencing a period of culture shock, which is predictably making me a bit more sensitive to the, shall we say, unique challenges and realities of life in Saudi Arabia. But I want to be clear that I am truly grateful for the opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia and really do love my job, my career, my lifestyle. I'm proud to serve my country and to be witness to such an amazing time in history in the region and the world. I just reserve the right to complain every now and then :-). The other FS and expat readers out there understand, I'm sure.

Having recovered from the relative trauma that is shopping here (and the trauma of putting together a bookcase/linen closet with doors from IKEA), I've had a very pleasant few days. Today was a really great day, professionally and personally. And to top it off, we stopped at Juice World on the way home. Fresh juice - more than 100 varieties - what's not to love! Saudis absolutely love their fresh juices, and I love them too. I'm particularly a big fan of fresh strawberry and pomegranate juice. So I bought a liter of each tonight. And am very excited to drink them!

And a blog post today absolutely has to mention the devastating earthquake in Japan. I didn't blog about the recent Christchurch earthquake, even though it consumed a great deal of my thoughts then and even now. I read with horror and relief the amazing blog posts by an FS couple who lived through the quake. See here and here for their stories. Having spent a phenomenal month in New Zealand (including a blissful week in Christchurch) a few years ago, I am so sad at the devastation and loss of life in that quake. And now Japan's ordeal is just beginning, with more than 1000 confirmed dead. And I see how horrible these recent earthquakes have been in, arguably, two of the better-prepared countries for such natural disasters. And I think back to the Haiti Earthquake. I worked the Haiti Task Force at the time, which was professionally and personally extremely rewarding, challenging, and eye-opening. It was the perfect storm of a natural disaster, and Haiti will be recovering for many decades to come. And it's hard to really think too hard about things like this because the unpredictability and immediacy and what-ifs are too difficult to comprehend without making yourself crazy. Maybe I'm not making sense, but I'm just throwing out stream-of-consciousness here. Throw in the fact that I've never consciously experienced a real earthquake, and it's all the makings of fear and wonder. (I've slept through a couple of very moderate quakes and almost certainly didn't notice the very low-level quakes that constantly happen in New Zealand...)

It's the issue of natural disasters plus the recognition that it truly is the places you wouldn't expect that get evacuated for unpredictable reasons. Who knew on Flag Day that my colleagues in Moscow and Cairo and Tripoli would be the first to be evacuated among our A-100 class?! We all could have (and did) predicted the top contenders, and those posts weren't among them. So even though things here are calm (the supposed Day of Rage was, in the words of a local paper, 'a damp squib') (and except where they aren't), I'm planning my "go bag" and consolidating my important papers and making lists of what goes and stays and planning for the cats and trying not to be in a position where I'm entirely caught unprepared. Because even though they always tell us to do these things, I think for many it takes a reality check to actually do them. And I've got my reality check, in spades.

So with all these heavy thoughts in my mind and a very busy couple of weeks ahead of me, it's time to curl up on the couch with my cats, my new quilt (won in a raffle at a quilting bee!!), and my fresh juice. And just veg.

(Ah, how nice that would have been. Instead, I spent two hours on the phone with tech support trying to figure out why they once again canceled my network connection on my internet. Happens at least once a month, for reasons nobody can figure out. The best part is that since my mobile phone is with a different carrier, the calls cut off after 10 minutes, so I have to call back and talk to a new person. Who cannot access what the last person did. I have gotten really good at synthesizing the problem and all my account numbers into about 30 seconds. So my very zen moment is gone. At least I have juice.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Abaya Anguish

I have a confession to make. I wore an abaya today. For the first time since October. And without any external pressures. It was a decision I anguished over and am still uneasy with, and I resented every minute I was wearing it, but I think it was the right thing for right now.

(I am frustrated because I just wrote this entire post, at which time my computer froze. When I restarted, all of my sticky notes had disappeared. Nothing too vital, but it's a pain to have to rewrite this. Apologies if it doesn't flow well, as the second telling loses a little of the emotion.)

Many expat women I know here have a love-hate relationship with their abayas. Plural, because no woman owns just one. (Except me, thus far.) They hate them because of the necessity of wearing them, the underlying cultural mores behind said necessity, and the difficulty/danger factor of wearing meters of heavy, draping, long, black fabric. (Escalators are a safety hazard, and many an abaya has been accidentally dipped into a plate of food. And don't get me started on stairs.) Or at least these are some of the reasons I hate the abaya.

The love part is because it's easy. Because it doesn't matter what you wear underneath. Because it cuts down on potential for harassment. Because it makes it easier to blend in to the crowd. Though, really, I am never going to completely blend in anywhere except Eastern Europe.

After Ramadan ended, I started experimenting with not wearing an abaya. From the beginning I've never worn one for official functions or while working, like many of my female American counterparts. Once I went out a few times to different places and didn't meet any resistance or problems, I stopped wearing it altogether. It's been over five months. I actually had to search for the stupid thing to wear it today. And until recently, I never did have any problems.

Recently, I've had a couple of unpleasant encounters and a reality check about the existence of mutawwa. And these made me rethink my approach.

A few weeks ago in a restaurant (one I'd been to before, without an abaya) told me to put one on or leave. My companions and I tried to argue, but it was futile. I finally compromised and draped a scarf around me. I always carry a scary for just such occasions.

For the record, it's not like I'm showing a lot of skin when I don't wear an abaya. Much of the time I'm wearing a suit. The rest of the time, I wear longer sleeves, long pants, high necklines, and often a pashmina as well. I'm not trying to offend anyone or be under-dressed. I'm just trying to live a relatively normal life in normal(ish) clothes. Scandal is the last thing I want.

Last week, I went to a local wireless/internet store to recharge my internet, something I have to do monthly. It's a hassle. Every time. And more than often involves lots of waiting and often driving to one, two, or even three additional locations before someone can help me. It's my least favorite part of every month. But I've done it every month, always without an abaya. This time, though, one of the employees very politely tried to talk around the fact I wasn't wearing an abaya and asked me to leave. In the nicest possible way and without ever saying any of these words. I think the euphemism was "the guard is always watching." I feigned oblivion and soldiered on. The obvious discomfort of said employee did ensure prompt and efficient service, though. They wanted me out of there, and quickly.

I know that on both of these occasions the employees in question didn't have a personal problem with me not wearing an abaya. They were worried about what would happen if anyone caught them letting me in. Anyone being the mutawwa, the religious police. And while I have still never seen a real, live mutawwa, they're in the news a lot lately. They raided the International Book Fair in Riyadh last week, surprising and angering even the Minister of Culture and Information, who was visiting the Fair at the time. Friends who were there told me it was a scary experience.

Even though life continues as normal here, despite rumors and speculation about various protests and demonstrations and what have you, there's a bit of a sea change. I'm sensing an increased climate of restriction, conservatism, and fear. I don't know whether or not it's justified, but it's palpable. So it was these two incidents and this heightened state of awareness that led me to today's decision. I said it earlier, and I'll say it again: it was truly an anguished decision. It made me sad and mad and broke my streak, so to speak. But I think it was an important social and personal experiment. (Or at least that's how I justify it to myself.)

I spent several hours at IKEA today, and it was enough of a hassle, without worrying about what I was wearing and who was around me. Shopping here is a pain anyway. I have to plan ahead and call a driver to take me there. And then estimate how long I'll be and/or call the dispatcher to arrange for a pickup later on. And work around prayer times, when everything closes for 30 minutes. Five times a day. Most big stores let you stay in and shop during prayer, but there is no sales help and no way to pay or leave. And deal with the language barrier - many retail workers don't seem to speak English or Arabic well. And they're all men. Which actually is weird after a while, for some reason. And everything takes longer than I think. And there are literal herds of people to navigate around, including hundreds of children who seem intent on always being in the way. And few people are polite or acknowledge you when they almost run into you. And then wait in monstrous lines with no organized queues and lots of cutting. And I know I already mentioned prayer, but unless you're shopping between 5am-12pm (and most stores don't open until 10-11) or after 9-9:30pm, you're going to be interrupted by prayer at least once. And then once I've paid, I have to find my driver. And they're always wonderful, and they always help me lug my purchases to my second-story apartment, but I always feel guilty, even if I don't ask them to do that. Today, with my awkward 38kg linen closet flat pack, was particularly tough. And then you realize a quick trip to the store has taken four hours. So add in the constant worry that you'll be called out for what you're wearing, and the whole thing is exhausting.

So I wore an abaya. And I may do it again. But I'm never going to like it.

And now it's time to make a quiche-omelette hybrid recommended by a colleague. And to assemble my new linen closet. I will not be wearing an abaya for either activity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is it time for R&R yet??

It has been a fairly uninspiring couple weeks around here, with almost all my efforts focused on work (and therefore not blogworthy). We had a big visit last weekend, for which I got to be control for one of the principals, which was great experience. But exhausting. Before the visit I came down with one virus, and I'm fighting off its counterpart right now. The great thing about the Health Unit, though, is that I was able to get my antivirals almost instantly, and without needing a prescription. I made it through the weekend and a couple of work days before succumbing yesterday and staying home. And I didn't feel guilty about it! (Goes to show how sick I was feeling...) Today's better, but I'm feeling immunosuppressed enough not to go to Madain Saleh this weekend. This is the third time I've missed this trip. Once it was too last minute and too expensive, once Jeddah was flooded, and this time I'm too under the weather. There's another trip planned next month, so I'm gunning for that one.

I came home a few minutes ago to find the A/C in my bedroom not working. I'm waiting for maintenance now. I will also have them fix the other two broken units that aren't quite as crucial. I keep my bedroom quite chilly, and right now it's stifling, so I hope they fix it with enough time for it to cool off before bedtime. (An hour and two phone calls later, and they're still not here. Argh.)

In other news, I am hovering near the trough of this particular wave of culture shock. I know when I start daydreaming about mundane aspects of life in the U.S. that I'm feeling a bit homesick. The list of things I want to do/eat when I go home is slowly forming. I am going on R&R in June, but right now that feels like a long time from now. Time will pass quickly - there's a lot going on between now and then - but it still sounds like a lot of days. Two cousins are getting married in June, and I'm very grateful to be able to attend both weddings. If only the third could have found a free weekend in June! I won't make it for her August nuptials, sadly. I'm closely watching Lyle Lovett's tour schedule to see if he's got any concerts while I'm home.

Interesting - I just looked at my profile stats and see that I had three visitors from a country I wouldn't have expected. Welcome, new readers!

Life in Saudi continues on as normal, though there's lots of speculation and rumors about what may or may not happen in the coming days. We're also watching our neighbor countries very closely. I'm quite sad and dismayed about the amount of bloodshed in Libya these days and am thankful my colleagues and friends and their families are safely evacuated. It's a fascinating time to be living in this region, that's for sure.

Anyway, that's my random collection of ramblings for the evening. The A/C repairman just arrived and is cleaning the filters now. Hopefully I'll have temperature control back shortly!