October 20, 2005

Saudi part8

From Sandy:

October 14, 2005

I didn’t realize Saudi 7 was two weeks ago. After a few e-mails wondering where the next installment was, here I am. It is the second week of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. This fact alone brings up more of my Saudi learning curve.

When King Fahd died, his age was estimated. From a “superior” point of view, one could say they don’t keep very good records. Here’s the reality. Until very recently Saudi Arabia and much of the muslim world uses the Islamic calendar which is based on the moon. Because the moon cycles differ within a Gregorian year, the date on which one is born is relative. That specific day would be impossible, if not silly, to try and figure out each year;.; Thus, birthdays are not even celebrated here. Some of the younger people might, if they knew which Gregorian day corresponded to the “day” of their birth – Sept 1 for example. But the concept of birthday and celebrating it, is unknown to the generation of King Abdullah, remote to the next generation and I guess I could ask students about it. I have never heard a student wish another student a happy birthday.

This does not mean that birth is meaningless, They do not have baby showers here. When the baby is born, friends and relatives bring gifts to the mother in the hospital. This weekend a lady in our department had an official baby shower for her newborn. Another lady from out department went and was the only person at the party with a gift. The purpose of a baby shower here is to welcome the new baby into the greater family. So, at the appointed hour, all the children from the greater family – cousins and siblings went upstairs and then proceeded downstairs, each carrying a lit candle. The mother followed, bringing down the baby who is now about six weeks old. Margaret, the American who attended this, said it was quite lovely and very loving.

Ramadan itself is that time when healthy muslims do not take food or water from sun up to sun down. The daily fast is broken with a “break” “fast” Iftra meal after the sun has gone down. The purpose of Ramadan is to experience poverty and hunger, to remember those in the world who have nothing by having nothing. This is the time of year when Muslims donate money to charities – a requirement of Islam. It is also a time for prayer and self examination. A time to heal broken relationships and develop patience.

Ramadan is not a set date. The imams at the Grand Mosque at Mekkah determine if Ramadan has begun, by the shape of the moon in the evening of what will become Ramadan.

The reality of Ramadan in life is rather amazing. First, there was a date on the bus schedule which was marked happy Ramadan. And we are now teaching on a Ramadan schedule whereby classes are shorter because the students and staff are fasting, tired and have focus problems. So, I knew about my new schedule (having finally learned when and where I was supposed to be under the old schedule), and then found out we wouldn’t know if it was really Ramadan until 8:00 or so the night before the proposed date. Depending on the shape of the moon, it would either be the assigned date or the next day. I found this quite amazing and my German sense of order was quite shaken by the thought that I would not know the bus schedule or teaching schedule until maybe 9:30 that night. Auch-du lieber.

So, at 8:00 that night I turned to Saudi television and the broadcast was interrupted to say that Ramadan had begun. Yippee. I thought. Students have been telling me how wonderful Ramadan is and that it is like Christmas for a month….

What happens is that the fast is kept during the day for Muslims into puberty (periods have started in the women). Nursing mothers, menstruating women and anyone who is ill or very elderly or has diabetes, let’s say, do not fast. But, after Iftra (the first meal after sunset) everyone goes to visit friends and family and hit the malls. So everyone parties and eats all night. Even if one stays at home, there is a meal at 3 or 4:00 in the morning to help one fast during sunlight.

Result: students are also tired because they have been up all night frolicking with their families. Make for some very interesting classes.

Next week is the last official week of classes, then we have three weeks off – for the rest of Ramadan. First day back is Nov 12, my sister’s birthday – so an early Happy Birthday to Gretchen.

Anyway, the cafeteria is closed, so those of us who are not fasting get a bite to eat from the backdoor of the kitchen. My new office mate, Nina, is muslim so on the first day of Ramadan, not wanting to eat in front of anyone, I was sitting on the floor, back to the wall with all the picture windows eating a sesame stick. Nina walked in, I palmed the sesame stick. I had been having a very bad day – very close to the melt down day my first week here and Nina knew that, so she assumed I was just that bummed so she ran over and said “Sandy, my God, are you okay…” at which point is showed her the sesame stick and followed it up with a sheepish grin. “oh, for heavens sake, “ she said. “you can eat it in front of me…” I told her I wasn’t raised that way, so I have learned how to eat and drink kind of on the sly.

So, one day this week I was in the kitchen when a hoard of menstruating students came in and ordered all kinds of food. After getting their goodies, they loudly ate them in the little one table dining area set up for non-fasting students and staff. After that, I no longer hide my diet pepsi on the floor by my desk.

Ramadan is very colorful and we can all wear thobes. I’ll send photos of that later, too. These are beautiful, colorful, embroidered floor length dresses (my hippy heart burst with joy the first time I saw a thobe shop here). Everyone can wear these and I now a few and wore one last week. It bore a cross-stitched symmetrical design on the front. I was a walking design question: “What principle of organization does my thobe represent?”

The times for stores change radically during Ramadan. Grocery stores are open all day because the Iftra meals are very special. Malls open from 1-5, then close again until 9:00 at night – when the whole town opens up. So, our compound bus goes out at 9:00 in the evening which has been bedtime for me since I got here.

We have risen to the occasion, however. The stores are mobbed. Last night we went to another souk area: Bawadi. It was huge, more well lit than Balad but along the same line. I finally found a shop with the kind of tops I have wanted, so I snapped up quite a few.

So, Happy Ramadan, to you. (Oh, another side of Ramadan is that nearly everyone who is fasting has a low blood sugar problem so they are quite short tempered, sometimes.

To some other subjects.

Did I tell you that some of the scaffolding used here is not metal, but rather wooden poles with lots of rope?

I had another run of geckos. Nailed one and I think Bella the maid got the one I had chased around the downstairs bathroom with a cup.

Okay, I have spent two+ years in the VDIL and fought with computers since 1986. I learned much over the years and have had relatively good luck with electronics over my lifetime. This all ended when I got here. 9/10 of this is operator error.

I got here Aug 31. Have fried on boombox because I plugged it into a 220 line (it looked just the same as the 110 volt sockets and one of the 110 looking sockets upstairs seemed mis-labelled. This is the same boombox I took back to Extra (like Best Buy) twice becaue I thought it didn’t work. Sigh. So, I toasted it.

Bought a second boombox at a grocery store, got it home and realized it didn’t have a CD player, just a CD line. It did have a tapedeck – which is cool because I brought all the cassette tapes my Dad recorded for me when I commuted from Cloquet to Hibbing three days a week when the kids were little. Thank you, Dad. Purchased a third boombox with a CD player the week after that.

The mobile phone I got as a hand-me down from Kiki died this week and the first attempt at a laser printer was not compatible with my mac. Again, my fault, because I didn’t read the box. I assumed that at this point in time any HP printer would work with both platforms. Wrong.

Took it back the to the store on the first day of Ramadan. After much discussion I ended up buying the next printer up the line, at twice the money. Got it home and the prints are horrible. Loaded the toolbox program on the CD to troubleshoot the printer. Meanwhile Bella came for her weekly cleaning of the house; she threw away the boxes. After loading the new software, the printer wouldn’t even talk to the computer.

Went back to Jarir (the store). They said they sell Hps and that obviously there is something wrong. The printer is covered by a one year warranty – so just take it back to HP at another commercial center near the American embassy in Jeddah. Right. That is easier said than done.

Went home, downloaded all the software updates, uninstalled the toolbox program and bingo, the printer now talks to the computer. The copies or either darker or just fine when compared to the hassle of taking the printer anywhere.

I have also been struggling with getting my computer set with the right java applet so I can join some on line 12 steo meetings. I have found them, but can’t enter. AUGGHHHHH. Why I didn’t think to round up tapes of 12 step speakers before I left the states is beyond me. Haven’t been to one of “those meetings” since August in Minnesota and I find my emotional vulnerability is higher than usual.

Two of the other Americans who have been here for at least a year said that anyone doing this will face every fear they have ever had. I am facing some of these and have learned quite a bit about myself since I got here. No pain, no gain, somebody said. And growth does begin at the end of your comfort zone.

Oh, another topic: (I go for a long time and look what happens) Being gay.
Because the genders are separated here, being gay and even openly gay is easy here. It is not uncommon to see to men holding hands. Just friends hold hands, too, so you don’t know what kind of relationship the two men or women have. Don’t ask, don’t tell is the theme for the whole country. AIDs is here, too. There is a men’s section in restaurants so again, spending great amounts of time with one’s own gender is common. I’ve only seen one or two heterosexual couples holding hands. That is kind of taboo because it is an outward show of affection between the genders.

Well, this has gotten rather long. Sorry.

See you later at Saudi 9. Again, if you don’t want to receive these, please let me know and I can drop you from the list.

S of arabia

at October 20, 2005 9:26 AM