Friday, August 27, 2010

Things That Will Be Missed: the Saudi Mall

I have to admit that when I step into the Kingdom, I immediately become focused on money and materalistic things. That is basically how KSA rubs off on you - it's a capitalistic land of fancy things. Of course I have had the opportunity to appreciate the finer things in life here, but not too fine. No way am I going to Harvey Nichols and spending 3,000 Saudi Riyals on a dress!

The dress was beautiful, though.

The text on the building (towards the left) says "Nights". Cut off: the word for "Ramadan" (i.e. it said "Ramadan Nights")
The picture above describes something in Saudi that I will have fond memories of - food and luxurious malls. Even as a kid living in Makkah, some of the best times were spent at malls! The tall, elongated pyramid is the Faisiliyah tower which contains, on its bottom floors, a fantastic mall. There are no malls in the world like those in Saudi! You cannot see the food in the picture, but I was sitting at a dinner table at an outdoor hotel restaurant when I took this photo. It was for a combination iftaar party-farewell party for a colleague of my mother.

I couldn't take pictures of the hotel or the restaurant because it was a social event and people in Saudi are NOT happy about having their photo taken. I was going to take a picture anyway, but one of the guests at the table advised me not to. That is the thing about rational people - they are irritating because they make sense and their reasoning stops you from doing silly things you enjoy! I appreciate her wisdom, of course, but damn that place was beautiful! And the food...

The iftaar party was wonderful for its food. I ate lamb, and more lamb, and rice. That's what I do when I get to Riyadh - I eat! And I eat A LOT. I eat red meat, drink lots of milk, and basically destroy any chance of a weight loss diet. When I go to the US, I tend to eat more on the vegetarian side, with a hint of chicken or fish here and there. However, I eat badly in the US because I eat a lot of microwaveable garbage or fast food. Here in Saudi, my food is baked, grilled, and fried to perfection. I always feel better here regardless of the health concerns!

The look in my eyes is not a fault of the camera. I channel the devil and devour meat like Satan devours SOULS.
This is a photo of me eating at As-Sorayah restaurant, a Turkish place. I don't have a picture of me eating lamb at the iftaar party, but I have one of me doing it elsewhere, of course! I basically looked the same - I even wore the same abayah! The meat was tender and wonderful in As-Sorayah as it was at the iftaar.

I always end up writing about food (and drink) in Saudi because I think about food a lot in general. I have so many stories about me and food. I believe that I think about food even more than I do about shopping...but I do indeed think about shopping a lot! You would too if you went to malls that looked like...

The interior roof of Granada Mall
As I said, there are no malls in the world like those in Riyadh. Even the rest of the Middle East has a different flavour in their malls. Where else can you go to a place with no changing rooms in the stores or area for single people to linger? However, while these are indeed the malls of muttawas and restrictions, these are also the malls of fabulous stores that sell items at equally fabulous prices when there are sales. It is also a display of the city culture of Saudi.

Interior of Granada Mall

These malls are also wonderful in their decor. It is unique in the sense that there is a Middle Eastern flair that I won't be able to see elsewhere. Some of the decor is simply Saudi, and I'll only experience that when I come back in who knows how long. Those palm trees in the above picture are such a great symbol of Saudi even if they are found in other countries. I always think of Saudi when I see date palms.

Traditional Heritage store in Faisiliyah Mall. I apologise for blurry-ness!
I will definitely miss seeing these heritage stores the most, for sure. There is at least one in every mall, and it is always exquisitely and thoughtfully decorated. Inside you will find, amongst portraits of present and previous Kings, many things you cannot bring on the airplane - including weaponry and armour. As you can also see, this store happens to sell many outfits that are reminiscent of, if not directly made by, bedouin and tribal peoples. The colours and handiwork are phenomenal. You have to hold it to understand. And they always have a smell...a smell of incense and smoke. I don't know how to describe it.

What I love most about that particular store is actually the door to the store itself. Here we see it in all of its glory because it is shut - it was prayer time at the mall, so all of the stores are closed for about half an hour. I remember that day really well and the Isha (evening) prayer because my Mom and I could NOT find the women's prayer room! Women are never forced to go and pray in malls (sometimes the muttawas will get all enraged if the men are not going to the prayer room on time) so many of them were walking up and down the mall or sitting on every bench. We were lost in that crowd of women. Eventually, we found it - the sign was minuscule and the door looked like it was leading to a restricted area.

If the door looked like this, I might have noticed it earlier!!

These specialty stores selling "Arabian" wares are very special to me. While I find the antiques fascinating, the most wonderful thing about the more Arab stores (as opposed to the stuff you can find in England or US like Dorothy Perkins, Debenham's, etc.) are the CLOTHES. Oh, wow, the clothes are fantastic!

Twaila store in Granada Mall, circa 2009 - where I bought my two abayahs.
I wish I had better pictures of the exquisite designs available here. The embroidery, beadwork, and materials are always top notch in these special boutiques for women's clothing. Outside malls, there are boutiques in Riyadh run by female designers that make even better, and more more expensive, clothes for weddings and other festivities. There are also boutiques specifically for men, claiming to have the top designers' thobes and ghutrahs (also known as keffiyehs). I'm talking about Yves Saint Laurent, here! If I had had the chance, I would have definitely gone to these places. My lack of mobility ended up stopping me from doing so. 

However, I will always be glad to have seen these stores within the malls I was able to visit. In Granada Mall, there is a whole "wing" of boutiques of stores with abayahs and galebias (a one piece, long dress). I have on several occassions stopped to look at the beautiful work and thought to myself, "Now that is a dress I'd wear to the Oscars." When/if I ever become a famous actress, I am going right to Riyadh, mark my words! I'd be the (unique) Belle of the Ball.

If this is the kind of crud I would be up against, it wouldn't be that hard!
I think that a lot more imagination and daring goes into the clothing here. It's all lace, net, sequins, silk, and gold thread - combined! And let's not forget the crazy colours. It's orange, blue, and green and amazing. Got a problem? Too bad, the women are too busy working it to deal with you right now.

Intricate, over the top MAGIC

Arab women (and men) are never afraid to stand out. I think that's what they do, when they are amongst themselves. Since women and men cannot mix, they show off to the others of their sex at weddings and parties. I think it's a beautiful kind of self-expression, something that only seems "crazy" and "wild" to someone who has been brought up in a stricter, more subdued environment for the entirety of their lives. They are so used to the little black dress or the colours of the season, dictated by God knows. In places of Western freedoms, individuality is not rampant when it comes to style.

In Mauritius, we like showing off our bright side even though the sexes do mix - we wear our colourful, fancy clothes in order to stand out at every wedding. I myself have worn pastel pink to one wedding and then blue and yellow to another! We are part of the "loud and proud" cultures, or at least I say so. We are expected to shine and make the most of the event.

People coming from the outside world are amazed by the display, either calling it "vibrant" or "gaudy." In the US, I have noticed that the only people who like these clothes being worn in their country are those who are either fascinated by different cultures and hence greatly "other" them; or they are envious of a people who are not afraid of showing off and standing out in a crowd. Maybe I am both of either of those myself, even though I spent most of my life in Mauritius. I wonder that sometimes.

I know now more than ever how much of an outsider I am to each country of the world. Instead of having a prejudice based on my place of birth, I have them based on everywhere I have lived and grown. I am all mixed up.

In the end, I realised that my screwed up mind will see things from the outside and I just have to deal with it. One way to look at the places I have lived is through their clothing and food, but also through their shopping centres. This is where tastes are defined (or refined) and where people group together, after all. It is a curse and a blessing to have malls and mall culture - it speaks much of our habits and ourselves.

Indeed, my life has always included malls and shops. I am a consumer like everyone else. But I like to think I buy into the places as well as the stores. I feel like I can do that especially well when I am about to leave. When you leave a place, that is when you realise what you will miss the most, after all.

Note: Several of these pictures are from 2009 and not of this year. I thought I'd be honest about that. What I show in the pictures has not changed too much since then. I had a plate of the same lamb and rice at As-Sorayah this year, too!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wishful Thinking: A Call to Arms

Yesterday I got some troubling and depressing news about my Alma Mater. Some majors were being cut, and some professors (all of which I knew and have great esteem for) are losing their jobs starting next year.

This blog was meant to be about Saudi Arabia or my life in the past or something. I was supposed to talk for the next few days prior to my departure of Riyadh about what I would miss about Riyadh and staying here during the summer. I am sorry but I cannot follow my plans. Something terrible has happened to me and literally hundreds of people and I need to talk about it.

No, it's not as life-threatening as war or floods or murder. It is not killing people or making them lose their homes. It isn't an act of God or mutilation; nor is it devastating to our basic needs. What it is instead is the destruction of a past; of memories and knowledge that after this year will no longer be. I am sad and depressed and I need to talk about what has happened.

I went to a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree and I will never be sorry for it. The education that I got was larger than I am and much, much better. The people I met who taught me didn't read from textbooks or force me to memorise facts. They made me look at facts and opinions and allowed me to form my analysis in a cultured, intelligent way. I was in small classrooms with no more than 20 students at a time, and the majority of the time there were less than 10 students in my classes. Sometimes, there were only 2 students, as it was especially in my senior year. The professors with whom I had the great privilege to listen to were smart, funny, educated, and inspiring.

At this college, I could pursue a degree in anything I wanted but still take a dance class even if it didn't fit my major requirements. I could sit in on a religion class if I were a business major, or a biology class if we were a performing arts major, and it wasn't just by personal choice; we were encouraged to have a great breadth of learning. We were also encouraged to join clubs and be a part of the small, less than 600 students community. We were inspired to be active members of society and take opportunities to work with a diverse population.

What made me appreciate my education the most was that I could email or visit my professors without any barriers. I have dropped in and talked with them during and outside of their office hours. I have had lunch, danced with, acted with, and sung with several of them, even the school's President. The professors could easily become our friends as well as our mentors. It was the best system I could ever have dreamed of.

I was a crappy student. I'm not an idiot, but due to my own shortfalls I made some large mistakes. If I tried harder to figure out my personal problems, I could have been an excellent student, but I didn't. No matter what, my professors were always there for me. Whenever I gave them a chance to become a part of my life, they welcomed me with open arms. They never, ever held a grudge against me when they really could have. I was always able to have a great conversation with any professor, even if I had never had a class with them.

The idea that some of these wonderful people are not going to be there after this academic year actually hurts. I may have graduated and I may be moving on, but I still love that school and the professors who taught me. I will never forget what they have done for me and I owe them a lot. I want future students to go and experience what I had because I treasure it so deeply.

What upsets me even more, possibly the most out of all this, is that the majors that were cut and the professors of those majors are all related to the arts. There will be no more Music major, no more French major and no more Religion major. They are trying to still offer these courses and have them count towards other majors, but students coming to my school for these majors will not be able to concentrate on the area of study that they want. They will have to leave to study at another school or they will have to settle for second best.

I know that the world is in a financial grave right now, with clods of earth being thrown on it as we speak, but it still angers me that the first thing to be cut from a school has to be the arts. In every kind of school, for every age group, the arts are always the first to suffer. Money is taken away, resources become more limited, and students are less encouraged. The Music program at my college, for example was being cut more and more for years, and the major itself was a concentration of the Performing Arts major - but now it is gone altogether.

Is this the fate of all our schools? I think this arts-belittling mentality is a curse brought upon us by everyone in society. The arts are seen as being of little or no importance to a child's education, and they are never encouraged. Parents scoff when their sons and daughters want to be dancers, artists or writers. People ask "but what are you going to do with your life if you major in Literature?" rather than think about the analysis and cultural information such a major brings to a student. Governments think there is no money in the arts so they cut the community programs.

What is wrong with our world? Ever since the divide between science and art was created by some irritating white people "hard science" was seen as more important than anything else. I don't think this divide should have ever existed - look at what the world has become now! Science and art should always work side by side, not separately and I swear until the day I die I will not budge from this point. I am angry to be living in a world where people do not appreciate both and see how they coexist beautifully and naturally.

We need harmony in our lives and in education through the appreciation for both the arts and sciences. Once upon a time, it was through a thorough liberal arts education that a student would be able to gain this, and gain knowledge that would help them become better people as a whole; better citizens of the world. My college used to be one of the few remaining places. Now, it is going the opposite way, on the path of so many others, by cutting programs and professors who are beloved by the students and who teach subjects that are not appreciated enough. It's not just the fault of the school, but of everyone. We do not place enough importance of a holistic education. Instead, schools are looked at in terms of money and business. Society as a whole looks down on any kind of existence that does not involve making a lot of money. And this is every society, not just American society!

My school was not a business when I got there. It was a place of learning and development. Now, after this year, students who go there are not going to go to the same college I graduated from. Now, I am left here, and I will forever sing for my sister, and to the name we love. It is the name of a college that is slowly disappearing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Things That Will Be Missed: Mr. F

Today I am writing from my heart. The person who I am writing about, who shall be known here as Mr. F, has no idea that I am writing this. I wonder if he will ever read it - he does have the link to this blog...

Mr. F is from Pakistan. Like many men from the Indian Sub-Continent, he was sent here to work by his family so that he could send money back home. He is currently making money for his sisters' dowries. He wants them to have good husbands. There are no good job opportunities for him back in his hometown.

Mr. F is treated like a servant by certain people, but like a good friend by others. I have known him for about 3 years, but it was only this summer that we became more than acquaintances. Mr. F, you see, is my driver. Every weekend he takes my parents and I to the aforementioned Carrefour. He has also taken my Mom, sister, and I to malls like Faisiliyah or Burj Mamlakah (aka Kingdom Tower) so that we could deplete our money of frivolous things. Mr. F has never complained once or made anything we did hsi business.

Last year, when my sister was in Riyadh with me, he took us after our shopping trips to buy the most delicious and fresh Tameez bread, which we enjoyed in the car on the trip back. He wouldn't allow us to pay for it. It amazes me that he actually wanted to help us, but what did we ever do for him? Sure, we paid him well for his services, but we weren't really close. His small acts of kindness meant a lot to me. I began to see him as a decent man.

For a while, however, I couldn't really muster the courage to get to know him as a person rather than as a driver. It's hard for me to strike up a conversation with someone new when other people are around. My social anxiety is not as harsh as it is for many other people I know, but it still exists. I resigned myself to the fact that I couldn't really talk to him that much unless we were alone, and how shifty does that sound? I decided to show my appreciation with kindness and politeness. That's all I knew how to do.

One day, I had a surprise. I was alone in the car with him for a brief moment. It was during this summer. I decided to ask him a question. I asked him, "Why are you here?" How does a young man like him choose to come to Riyadh? Well, I learned that he didn't exactly choose. He keeps coming back, though, for the pay. Whether he likes what he is doing or not, he stays to send his money back home.

Since I asked him that question, I was able to feel closer to him. He wasn't just my driver anymore, he was beginning to become my friend. Don't get silly ideas, guys - that is all that he has stayed, I assure you! Sometimes we texted about silly things like the World Cup (we both were happy when Spain won! Ole!) and sometimes he would call and tell me about the goings on of his job.

I was desperate for gossip of the "outside world" of Riyadh. I barely leave this compound, so his conversation proved to be entertaining, enjoyable, and informative as to the goings-on.

I learned that Mr. F was a smart, capable man who could speak several languages as well as deal with current technologies. I learned this from those phone calls, but also from car rides where it was just my Mom, Mr. F, and me. He seemed more easy-going around women (and he did tell me that all of his friends in Saudi were mostly female. He also told me not to get funny ideas!) There is a question: Why was he a driver for us lazy shoppers if he was a smart guy? Couldn't he be doing something else with his life?

I learned that his obligations to his family are more important than his own happiness. His sisters' dowries and happy marriages are worthwhile to him. How many people in this world are like this? Sure, he used to complain to me about his job from time to time, but he was still doing it. The money he was making was meaningful.

I know many people who are taking certain jobs because of the money. However, they are not making money for anyone but themselves. They become lawyers, doctors, etc only for the benefit of having a beautiful widescreen TV and shiny cars.

Mr. F doesn't take a well-paying job for this selfish reason. He's actually spending years of his life to help his family back home. To some people, the idea of sacrificing years of their lives to other people is like martyrdom. To other people, like Mr. F, it is expected of them. Is that a good thing; an honourable thing? To be honest, I don't know.

Back home for him isn't so great, either, from what I understand. Pakistan is going through some rough times right now with the flooding, and it is a country that is scrutinised especially by the West for being corrupt and a "terrorist mill" of sorts. It has been so easy for the rest of the world to forget that Pakistan has bred more than just "terrorists" but also real people who love and care for their families. Mr. F is definitely one of them. He is an individual like any other and he is from this same "terrorist" country. I wish more people could understand this.

Mr. F is basically my only friend is Saudi right now. I'm going to miss having the ability to call or him for no reason. He is a funny, intelligent guy who is sacrificing so much. I don't know many noble people like him. He doesn't act noble, or like a big man, but I know that he is. He is humble, and religious, and loyal to his friends. If I don't get to see him again, this post will mean a lot to me.

Mr. F, I wish I could tell everyone your name so that they could know who you were, so that they could say to you what I cannot say to you over the phone: that you are an awesome friend and a good man. No matter what you think of yourself, you are doing something right. I know through things that you have told me that you truly care about your friends and family. I can't say that about a lot of people. The day you told me that I was your friend, I was so happy.

Thank you, Mr. F. As well as my dear parents, I will really, really miss you when I leave.

NOTE: Please, if you have the means, do donate* to help the victims of the Pakistan floods.
*There are certainly other ways to donate.