Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

Book Review ~ The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

May 28th, 2012 4 comments

In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.

Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.

At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday.  The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”

The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.

And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.

The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.

The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.

Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.

Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?

Mecca & Medina without a Map

May 3rd, 2011 8 comments

When we got our visas for Saudi Arabia, the first thing I did was grab my Lonely Planet Guide to the Arabian Peninsula. I turned to the chapter on Saudi Arabia—seventy-five pages describing the cities and regions of Saudi. But wait!

There was no mention of Mecca or Medina. How had I missed it? I turned the pages one by one, flipping past maps of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and Al-Khobar. Aside from one line about Hajj visas, there was no word about Mecca or Medina.

The Mystique

Of course, entry to Mecca and Medina is permitted to Muslims only. The holy cities are so inaccessible that even Lonely Planet didn’t dare write about them. (Don’t they have Muslim travel writers? Don’t they realize they have Muslim readers?)

All of this secrecy only increased mystique surrounding Saudi Arabia, reinforcing in my mind the notion of the “last forbidden kingdom.” My imagination grew. I pictured myself in the abaya and shayla I would be required to wear. I wondered if I would have a run-in with the infamous mutawwa, the Saudi religious police. Always the curious traveler, I secretly hoped I would.

Déjà vu
Despite the mystery, my overall impression of Saudi was one of familiarity. The streets of Mecca reminded me places in the UAE: Al-Ain and Ras al-Khaimah. The landscape around Medina reminded me of Fujairah and the way to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. But above all, Medina made me think of Jordan. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was in Saudi, not Jordan. This was partly because our hotel was filled with busloads of Jordanian pilgrims.
There were surprises, too. We had a series of friendly, chatty Saudi taxi drivers who asked if we were enjoying our trip. They performed the role of tour guide and shattered any stereotype I may have had about Saudi men. One driver told me, “I like the American people. I like your President Obama.”

Another driver felt the need to tell me, “I hate Osama bin Laden. All Saudis hate Osama bin Laden.”  Good to know.

We spent most of our time in the holy city of Medina, a sleepy getaway town. According to the hotel brochure—as I had no guide or map of the city—the list of “significant sights” was a list of mosques—the Prophet’s Mosque, the first mosque in Islam, and seven mosques for the seven companions of the Prophet. (Peace be upon them all.)

In the days that I spent there, I did not encounter the “rich oil country” that Saudi Arabia is known as. The Saudi that I saw was more underprivileged and run-down that I had expected. (Granted, coming from Dubai, even Seattle and Paris look run down to me.) I did, however, get a few glimpses of upscale neighborhoods.

The Saudi women were more modest and less flashy than their Emirati counterparts. Along with the black abaya and shayla, many wore niqab. At first glance, they all looked the same. But if you steal a second look, the variations appear. One wears sandals, one spiky heels, another wears Converse All-Stars.

In a Medina Starbucks, the Arab woman at the next table declared that I was a “beautiful woman.” This was particularly uplifting as I was feeling old and invisible in my black shayla. I wanted to tell her, “And you, too!” but it felt insincere, as I could not see her face, only her eyes peeking out from behind her niqab.

Saudi was not as strictly segregated as I had imagined. There was plenty of interaction between men and women. Saudi women needed to talk to men to order their cappuccino, buy clothing or do any kind of shopping. Everywhere I looked was a Saudi woman speaking to a man that was not her relative. Shocking!

Of course, Saudi Arabia does have its own wacky weird unusual qualities.

Unique Aspects to Saudi

  • I bought a TIME magazine, and later, I discovered the pages I wanted to read had been ripped out! (I much prefered the Emirati censors who merely black out offending images, but don’t rip out the whole page.)
  • Restaurants and cafés typically have two sections: Single men and Families. My husband and I spent a lot of time in the “Families Section” of Starbucks, where screens provided privacy to us caffeine-addicts. I also noted Starbucks’ trademark naked-mermaid logo was conspicuously absent from the signage.

  • Dressing rooms were non-existent. In the mall, I took a stack of clothing from the shop (based on the honor system apparently) and walked to the nearest restroom to try them on. Perhaps the idea of a woman undressing in a shop was too provocative.
  • However, sexy lingerie stores were not a problem. Just like in Dubai, they were all over. But in Saudi, women’s teddies and thongs are famously sold by men. According to one of our talkative drivers, the country had recently tried to employ women in these shops, but that attempt had failed—I’m not sure why.
  • Regarding Saudi hours of business, shops didn’t simply close for various prayers. They closed all afternoon as well. Restaurants closed a full hour before prayer time to make sure everyone was out on time. This meant that businesses were closed more often than not—a frustrating fact for a visitor.
  • Supposedly, the abaya and shayla were required by law when in fact I saw women from various countries wearing their own cultural form of Islamic dress—jilbab, dishdash, sharlwar kameez. The point was to be modest by Islamic standards. It was an interesting experiment to wear hijab for five days. I become temporarily fixated on pins, drape, and hijab styles. I discovered I preferred the long shayla over a square scarf, but in the end, I was content to return to Dubai, where there is no such requirement.

  • Women often have their own lines. I saw this as the positive side of segregation. For example, the women’s line in the airport was always shorter!
  • On our last day, we were at the Jeddah airport riding a bus to the tarmac on our way out. A man indicated to me that I had a strand of hair showing. I shoved the hair under my scarf, feeling utterly annoyed. Then I realized. Maybe I had encountered the mutawwa after all! Only then was my trip to Saudi complete.

Please share your impressions of Saudi Arabia.

My Umrah

April 27th, 2011 7 comments

We arrived in Mecca in the evening.

My day had started in Dubai at 6:00 AM when I rose to get the kids off to school and to pack for Umrah— a trip similar to Hajj but shorter and performed at no specific time. While Hajj is a huge, annual event that takes days, Umrah requires only several hours. I thought of it as “Hajj Lite.”

On the airplane I skimmed over my “Guide to Umrah,” a printout from the internet that explained the ritual, what to do and what to say.

I could grasp the four main steps: 1. Purify oneself and make intentions, 2. Circle the Ka’bah seven times, 3. Walk seven times between two geographic points (full of symbolic meaning), and 4. Conclude the Umrah.

Flying somewhere over Saudi, we made our intentions and murmured some phrases in Arabic. Half the passengers were doing the same. The male pilgrims—from the boys to the old men—were dressed in two sheets of white cloth, one around the waist and the other over the shoulder. Thankfully, my daughter and I could wear ordinary clothing—if you consider the abaya and shayla “ordinary.”

We arrived in Jeddah at 8:00pm. After a long taxi ride, we reached Mecca finally. (Mecca! We reached Mecca!)

By the time we set out for the Ka’bah, it was late (11:00pm Dubai time). Tired and sleepy, I willed myself into a spiritual mood. We entered the Masjid Al-Haram, the holy mosque, and walked amongst our fellow pilgrims through a series of archways. I admired my husband and sons in their white Gandhi-style wraps. My daughter and I adjusted our shaylas for the hundredth time. We paused to sip Zamzam water, holy water from a nearby spring.

Then we stepped into the Haram, the space around the Ka’bah, open and brightly lit. The Ka’bah stood before us, illuminated and glowing. Just as I had seen in photographs, it was cloaked in black velvet and trimmed with gold embellishment.

I stepped toward it and made a prayer of greeting. It was a lovely and magical moment … and lasted about four seconds.

Then I took in the mass of pilgrims churning around the Ka’bah. So crowded! The entire area—every inch—was filled. We joined the throng of people and tried to stick together as we were swept along with the others—old people, young people, children, elderly, Arabs, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, people of all nationalities, all walks of life, families, couples, groups and wheelchairs. Lots of wheelchairs.

Everyone around me was chanting, reciting, raising their arms or reading from little prayer books. Overwhelmed and distracted, I could hardly focus. Beyond the most obvious prayers, my mind drew a blank. I couldn’t remember the Arabic words I had planned to recite. Like a special-needs child, I repeatedly tugged my husband’s sleeve and asked, “What was I supposed to say?”

I grew agitated by those bumping into me. We moved to the outer edges in order to minimize collisions. The crowd swelled and grew as the hour went on. At last, we completed the seventh circuit and moved to the next step.

We trudged along barefoot between two points. My husband (also exhausted) told me we needed to walk back and forth seven times. I looked at the long hall and thought: Fourteen trips? I can’t do this.

I was stunned at how physically demanding it was. I had never imagined that Umrah would be too much for me. After all, Umrah was performed by the elderly! I hadn’t considered how exhausting it would be to walk barefoot on a marble floor or to be jostled by a crowd.

At midnight I found myself mindlessly performing the ritual, wishing to get through as quickly as possible, to be done, to be in my room sleeping.

My husband, who saw how I was feeling, said, “You know you can rent one of those wheelchairs and pay someone to push you.” My mind clicked in, and I wondered how much such a service would cost.

Stop! I told myself. I was doing it all wrong. So, I made a decision. I would withdraw and perform Umrah the next day—from the beginning.

Before I traveled I had received lots of advice. Every Muslim friend had practical tips to share: plan your prayers in advance, keep your shoes with you, avoid taking photos, stay hydrated … etc. etc.

What I failed to hear was this: Start out well-rested. Stay focused. And most important of all: Maintain a positive state of mind.

So, the next day I began anew.

I re-read my Umrah Guide—which finally made sense! I realized there had been a miscommunication. I didn’t have to walk fourteen lengths—but rather half that— seven trips only.

I choose a few Arabic supplications that I could easily remember. I brought prayer beads, a book of English supplications, and acceptable footwear.

Inside the Masjid Al-Haram, we settled our children where they could relax. (They had completed their Umrah the night before). So, with my husband, I circled the Ka’bah another seven times. It was midday, and the sun burned down. The Haram was crowded. Yet none of this bothered me. Not even the bumping. (I realized I was accidently bumping people, too.) My beads and book helped me stay focused and mindful. Moving in unison with the others, I was “in the zone.”

For the next step, I breezed through the seven trips, feeling humble and thankful. Then I concluded my Umrah. What had begun with a rocky start ended smoothly and beautifully. I had a desire to do it all again—correctly the next time.

God-willing, I will have that chance and I will know what to do.