Friday, November 30, 2007

Disabled Childrens Association

This visit occurred the day before yesterday so I'm trying to catch up!

This center is a special education center that takes care of disabled youth. We met some of the students who of course, were adorable. The teachers at the school had many questions for us on the issues of mainstreaming, medication, and strategies.
Hajj Rituals

One remarkable thing we noticed was how quiet and peaceful the students were. I asked if they took drugs like Ritalin, and was told that this was not the way behavior problems were addressed in the school. "The children spend lots of time with their family and watch little TV. they are low-income so they do not have money to buy sweets or video games". Culture must have an impact, because students were not running, jumping, being rude to each other or the teachers.

These were students with not just physical disabilities, but social ones as well. One particular girl, Faye, was so beautiful. She is unable to walk and has ADD, but she was precious! She reminded me of my daughter, who I miss very much.

Beautiful Faye

The room decorations were so interesting, and I recognized a lot of typical teacher boards, but Saudi style. Seeing the Bratz on the wall, albeit more conservatively dressed, was hilarious. Overall, it was a great visit.

Bratz in the Middle East
Our bus is escorted by a security detail

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Freedom of the Press in Saudi Arabia?

Teachers on the Red Carpet

Editors of the Saudi Gazette
There are no laws that protect the freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia. So when newspapers try to publish stories about controversial issues, editors must walk a fine line. Today we met with editors of the Saudi Gazette, an English language publication that focuses on issues in the Arabian peninsula.

A Tour of Facilities/Printing Press

We discovered that this publication was the first to break the news about the woman who was raped and then punished with lashings and jail for being alone with a stranger in the first place. When the editor was asked if he was really free to report what he wanted, he emphatically said yes. "No one is standing over me telling me what to report," said Essam Al-Ghalib, Editor of the Gazette. He decried the Western media for giving that story massive amounts of attention and reinforcing the image of the human rights abusing, terrorist breeding ground portrayal that has become indelible in the minds of many. BTW, Essam was raised in the U.S. and went to college in California.

A Panel Discussion and Arabian Coffee

The issue of how Saudi Arabia is portrayed in the media hinges on the events of September 11th. Saudis feel they have had to pay the price as a nation for the actions of terrorists, who they condemn vehemently. They feel that the media has created a frenzy around their culture and customs and have tried to blame the entire culture and religion for the actions a few fanatics. Just as in America, the media pounces on negative stories and neglects to mention the numerous positive stories that occur each day. This is similar to what happens in the neighborhood where I teach: South Central Los Angeles. Every time there is a shooting, a high speed chase, or other such thing, the media is all over it. But those of us who work there see numerous stories of accomplishment and citizenship that never make the news.

Even Mission Statements Tied to Islam

As a history teacher, I urge my students not to stereotype and judge. Just as we cannot say all Americans are terrorists because of the actions of Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh, neither can we say that Islam is a religion of war. At the same time, the teachers have stepped up their questioning of practices we feel contradict their repeated assertions that they are making progress. One teacher asked why in the Sharia court, the testimony of 4 women was equal to that of 1 man. The response from a female was that it was in the Ko'ran and that his teachings are "perfect. We do not question the teachings of our religion." It is explained that because women are more emotional and hassled due to their responsibilities raising children, they are not as reasoned as their male counterparts. Looking directly into the eyes of this woman, I asked if she really believed this, and she said yes!

Coffee and Dates Served At All Times

It has been hard for me to accept this way of thinking. All other aspects that we have encountered can be explained culturally, such as the wearing of abayas, the separation of the sexes, and even the multiple wives. But to say that men and women are equal in this society (because both men and women in government jobs get paid equal salaries) is in direct contradiction to the value of men vs. women in the Sharia court.

Yes, This Ice Structure Says Saudi Aramco

The day was redeemed, however, when we were hosted for dinner at a palatial building by Amr Kashoggi. This frank and plain-speaking gentleman was blunt in his assessment of Saudi culture: "There are some things that are wrong in this society and must be changed. Women should have the right to drive. We must prepare a future for our youth, or we will have a youth-quake", a term he used to describe the scenario of a nation where 60% of people are under the age of 20. In a rapidly changing world, the conservative, older society must adapt to changes and offer the youth a viable future, or society will fragment, he believes.

Women will definitely be a part of that equation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Questions From Students

We have not visited markets or grocery stores, but the main snack food that we see are dates. Dates can be prepared in a million different ways, and they are served with coffees. They are like a cross between raisins and prunes. We have them in the U.S. but they are not as big as the ones here. It is said they used to be a favorite snack of the Prophet Muhammad.


They have lots of fast food here, although I have yet to try it. Their famous burger is called the McArabia, served at McDonalds

What is the most fun thing they do to entertain themselves including the children??
Children play with toys, ride bikes, skate, and generally do a lot of the same things as westerners. The difference I see is that they seem a lot more innocent. The girls are not trying to look sexy at age 12. The boys, and even men, hold hands in public and no one thinks they are gay. Children go to the park, swim, and play video games. I will ask the guides if they have a favorite game or toy.

Are the childen ever together meaning boys and girls??
Children are in mixed classrooms up until 3d grade and then they are seperated. If they are family members they can be in the same room. Otherwise, when they go to dinner, they must use the "family section". Women and girls cannot go to the boy's side and vice-versa.

Are the showers the same as L.A??
Yes, at least the ones I have used. What is sometimes different is the toilet. In other countries, people sometimes use the "squat" toilet that is on the floor. I'll try to take a picture of one.

Good question. I'll ask today. Update: The answer is no, people in Saudi Arabia rarely get permanent tattoos as it is against their religion.

It is washable! Mine looks real nice, but it will only last 3 weeks.

Good job LIZ, give your new group 10 points.

We Ate What We Thought Was the Main Course...

and then the main course came" were the words of one of our stuffed colleagues as we entered the third hour of our dinner meal. Yes friends, stick a fork in me 'cause I'm done.

Only Muslims can visit Mecca (Makkah) but I did see the sign!

So seriously, I'm going to have to buy a new abaya, because I've eaten so much that it won't fit much longer.

Tonight we visited Anqawi House, a modern home built using traditional Muslim architecture. To say that it was breathtaking is an understatement. This multi-level home had an indoor pool and jacuzzi, exquisite wood and tile work, two planetarium-like domes, and detail upon detail of geometric artwork. It is interesting to note that Saudis live in extended families with parents and grandparents frequently living under the same roof as their children. Our host for this visit was Mrs. Sami Mohsen Angawi, a renown architect. BTW, this family can trace their direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammed.

After the visit we proceeded to another humongous dinner. There was just no way I could eat another bite, so I sat at the table trying to stay awake and drank 3 cups of coffee. Now, at midnight, I can't sleep:(
Rick and I pretending to be courting

However, dinner proved to provide another fascinating conversation with our hosts. On the topic of multiple wives: Yes, it is allowed in the Muslim religion, but it is not common. It is done for the purpose of having more children and providing security to the woman. Instead of having affairs, the man legitimizes his union with the woman. When asked if a woman could have multiple husbands, the response was no, because then the father could not be positively identified (DNA?)...also, the male has a stronger, ahem, drive. The gentleman I spoke to grimaced when asked if he wanted a second wife, and said having one was hard enough.

Our male hosts entertained us with the many different ways to style their gutra and igal. They even have names for the styles such as the Cobra. It can be compared to how Western men wear baseball caps and cowboy hats in different angles and tilts. Notice in the picture below the two cell phones on the table. All of our hosts have cell phones, Blackberries, etc. Don't let the robes fool you...

Abdullah, who doesn't want a second wife
Asking tough questions without imposing Western judgements has proven to be difficult. For example, one of our tour guides frequently referred to the women in our groups as girls. Now this is a cosmopolitan man who has lived all over the world, including several years in the U.S. He quickly stopped doing so when it was pointed out that this was considered patronizing in our culture, but even some women in the group disagreed and said they didn't mind being called girls. He said in Saudi culture, it is considered a compliment, and the Saudi women in the group agreed. "Girl" has a different connotation in Saudi Arabia than in the U.S. Does this mean they are wrong and we are right?

Devaluing Arab women for wearing abayas should not be the goal of our visit. Understanding why the women wear them, and reporting their words straight from the source is our initial goal. Continuing the dialogue between our two worlds is the next step. Achieving mutual respect and understanding would be ideal. Will this happen any time soon? Teachers, what do you think? Thanks Mr. Von Matt for your feedback. We will definitely talk when I get back;)

Leaving the Compound

Jeddah Women Have Style

Now, we are no longer living in the confined, idealistic world of the Saudi Aramco compound. We are traveling as foreigners through Saudi Arabia, getting a more authentic experience of the country and the culture.

Driving Through Jeddah

Many of us in the group feel we have finally cracked the shell of this Arabian nation. A visit to Effat College was invigorating and insightful as both Americans and Saudis held a frank discussion on misconceptions held by both countries. This college was the brainchild of Queen Effat, wife of King Al Faisal who back in the 50's had the vision to one day have higher education opportunities available for women. Over the years the school went from being an elementary school to a college.

Imagine the surprise to walk into this college and be greeted by many women of different races and nationalities, including a blonde woman who graduated from Yale. It seems like when you leave the United States, you meet so many other Americans who have chosen to live different lives, different than those on the mainland. Who is to say this is a lesser choice?

After going through the obligatory question and answer period, there was a breakthrough when we asked how Saudi Arabia would modernize and still keep its customs and traditions. Maha Al-Juffali Ghandour, Director of the Help Center (a special education program) responded clearly: "There is no contradictioin between being Muslim and being open-minded." However, the women on the panel pointed out that there is a big difference between Islamic law and Saudi law. Islamic law has existed for 1400 years and has been interpreted in different ways by different countries. It is the Saudis who have passed laws such as the wearing of the abayas, but in other Muslim countries such as Lebanon, women DO NOT wear abayas.

Nevertheless, the younger women, who have known no other way of life than to wear abayas in public and being forbidden to drive, defended their country's customs: "There is an advantage and disadvantage to everything in life. Hot weather makes us uncomfortable, but we don’t have to focus on physical appearance or men gawking at us on the street. We can focus on inner development, not appearance. "

When the issue of driving came up, we heard similar responses such as "we don't care if we are not allowed to drive. That is what we have a driver for." In fact, one expat American woman boldly said "I dread the day the government will allow me to drive because then I will be forced to make trips to the market, fight with traffic and congestion, etc." Robert from New York asked what the choices would be for Saudi women of lesser resources, and it was acknowledged that they did not have the luxury of the driver, but public transportation was available for them. Our discussion today broke new ground for increased dialogue between our cultures. The tour of the school got cancelled because neither side wanted to stop talking. Many business cards were exchanged and there is a strong desire to continue the communication with each other.

Being greeted at the IMC

Our next visit was to the International Medical Center, a private hospital in Jeddah. It is a new hospital with a beutiful building that incorprates all facets of Islamic art and beliefs into its practice. In fact, the architecture includes structures that resemble a fancy writing instrument as a reminder that "everything is written" and we must all answer to a higher authority: God. There are beautiful scriptures from the koran written on windows and in installations that remind the patients that they are not alone. There is a mosque on the first floor of the hospital, and sure enough, at noon, the call to prayer sounded. Many people made their way down to the mosque and began praying.

Mosque at IMC

This medical center has collaborated closely with America and has many Americans on their Board of Directors. It continues to amaze me just how much of a connection, an alliance, we have with this country. Americans have been engaged in business relationships (and private relationships too, with all the expats here!) for almost 100 years. Almost everyone we speak to knows English and speaks it well. In fact, at this hospital there were not just Americans, but British, Phillipine, Indian and Malaysian doctors and nurses.

Lunch at Byblos was so gooood...but I was still full from all the feasting from yesterday! This restaurant is Lebanes and we had a fantastic discussion with Noha Makarem, Principal os Global International School. She kept us so engaged with her views of Saudi culture as a Lebanese immigrant.

Even though we only have a two hour break before we visit Anqawi House and go shopping, I cannot help but blog and share with others what a positive learning experience this coninues to be. Every teacher should experience something like this on a regular basis throughout their careers. There are not enough words to express the appreciation we feel to our benefactors that made this learning experience possible.

Congratulatioins to Liz Jacobo who correctly stated that the price of oil currently hovers around $100. Five points to her new period 4 group. You can also earn points for posting comments and questions to the Blog, but hurry, because I only have 6 days left in this country!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Diversity in the Kingdom

Americans in Saudi Arabia
Americans have been living in Saudi since its inception as a nation in the 1930’s. On of the reasons that adapting to a lifestyle decidedly different than our own is the construction of international schools. Currently there are 8 international schools serving students from grades k-9. There are almost 1800 students from over 50 nationalities in these schools. Their teachers are predominantly Americans (who by the way get paid between 80-95 k) with masters and doctorate degrees.

Students take traditional subjects based on U.S. State standards. A committee chooses which state has the best standards in each area, and then uses them to design the scope and sequence, exams, and instruction. They know that for high school, most likely they will be going to boarding school (like Hogwarts!) so there are up to 40 visits by boarding schools who come to Aramco to offer their services.

When these kids go on field trips, they usually leave the country and go to Kenya, Zululand, Switzerland, Italy and Madagascar. They don’t really travel within the Kingdom due to security reasons. In other words, Americans might be a target for disgruntled folks who might want to cause them harm.

For being 5000 miles away, life at Dharan Third Street Middle School on the Aramco Compound is remarkably similar to many schools in the U.S. The kids have rules they must follow, they take academic and elective classes, they visit the library, and play sports. Most students speak both Arabic and English, and some speak up to 4 and 5 languages. They sent a message of friendship to L.A. Academy students and would like to correspond with you, so get ready to be pen pals!

Sumua Al Amal School for Special Education
Although talking to American middle schoolers was a treat, the highlight of my day was visiting the Sumua Al Amal School for Special Education. This school was the product of the tireless work of the Principal, who constructed the first comprehensive Special Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He explained that he was “gifted” with the birth of a special needs boy 18 years ago, but could find no one to help him get care for his child. So he decided to use his influence as an Aramco employee to build a school that serves children with many handicaps, from birth to death. We met several children who we fell in love with, because they were so innocent in their joy. These kids receive physical therapy, speech therapy, family counseling services, and financial aid if needed.

As always, the issue of the abayas came up because the school is divided into female/male sections. The teachers and staff in the female side were in a panic when they thought the men were about to enter because they were not covered up. So they rushed to but on their abayas and hijabs and most also wore the veil that covers their face.
It was the teachers' first time wearing the abayas, and I was not very comfortable. The hijab kept falling off, and I had to remember to lift it up when climbing stairs. It was very hot in one of the schools, and I was starting to feel dizzy. Perhaps, if I was used to wearing one since birth, it would not be hard to get used to. Saudi women definitely do not seem to mind it.

We have left the city of Dhahran and are now in the western coastal city of Jeddah. It reminds me of Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, etc. During the flight, we were required to wear the abaya (which helped out this time due to the cold!) Even the flight attendants wore a hijab, but not an abaya. The monitor that showed the flight map also had an interesting screen…it showed in which direction Mecca was, so that people could face the correct way during their prayers. I’ll tell you, the Muslims I have met in Saudi don’t just talk about their religion; they LIVE their religion.

As a student told me today: PEACE in the MIDDLE EAST!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Saudis Welcome Teachers

Saudi Hospitality

It is after midnight and today has proven to be the kind of day I hoped for when applying for this program. It feels like we are peeling off the layers of an onion, slowly growing in our understanding of Saudi culture. Conversations with Saudis at Aramco, in schools, and in industry are challenging the assumptions many of us arrived with.

Henna Tattoos

Student Art Dhahran Aliyyah School

College Prep Centers
Saudi Aramco is a company that plans and invests in its future. The operating budget for the Development division is 0ver 600 million. This money is spent on creating a comprehensive recruitment plan of the brightest and talented Saudi boys and girls. The company recruits the top private and public school students, gives them a year of intense college preparation classes, then sends them off to universities in the Kingdom and around the world.

College Prep Students

We visited two such centers today, one for young men, and the other for young women. These kids are amazing. Speaking fluent English, they readily answered our questions. Most major in some type of engineering, either petroleum or chemical. The officials at Aramco said if students want a lucrative job upon graduation, they should major in petrochemical engineering.

Our team asked students how they felt about being segregated from each other. Most said it makes no difference to them because that's how they have grown up. it is the only lifestyle they know. Most have traveled outside of the Kingdom and are familiar with Western ways. Some have participated in the Johns Hopkins Summer Program, the same one some L.A. Academy students attend!

Without a doubt, however, it is the male students live distinct lives from the females. For example, fathers cannot attend their daughters graduations. It is only for females. Mothers cannot speak face to face with male teachers. They must speak by phone only. If a special guest speaker were to come to Dhahran, only the males would be allowed to see him/her. The girls would see through remote video. Women are not allowed to drive and must be accompanied by a male relative when in public. They cannot leave the country without the permission of their oldest male relative. When asked about this, many agreed that to continue advancing as a nation, womens' roles would have to change. But it was pointed out that Saudi Arabia is a young country, only about 70 years old. What was US culture like in the 1840's when we were 70 years old? Very similar to how Saudi culture is now. Women could not be alone with a man, they dressed very conservatively, and there was tremendous respect for the family structure.

Dhahran Aliyyah School

At the private school we visited, no males were allowed in the girls side. The teachers and female parents and workers did not allow their picture to be taken. The culture prescribes that due to modesty, women should wear the abaya to cover their body, and the hijab to cover their head. This is so no one outside of the family can see their bodies. For this same reason, many women do not want to show their face or bodies to strangers by way of pictures.

Lockers and Art

Students begin to learn English since Pre-K. In fact, we saw many signs that said "English Only". Many Saudis know English and other languages as well. It was interesting to note that our fellow Saudi educators also must teach a curriculum determined by the Saudi education authorities. I thought this was just a US situation, but its worldwide!

We observed a model lesson taught by a young Saudi teacher who went to high school and college in the US. The 12th grade girls were wearing a school uniform skirt, but had the funkiest tennis and shoes on. They wore no makeup, but very stylish tops. Most said they owned two or three abayas, and chose the designs they liked. They asked why America had so many problems like drugs, violence, and teenage pregnancies. How do you answer that question? Although Arabia does not have movie theaters, many families have satellite TV and watch American shows like Gray's Anatomy and the Hills. They have Internet access and visit websites such as Facebook and MySpace. They download the latest music on their Ipods and are very tech savvy.

Graduation Decorations

College Prep Students

Some college prep women did not mind their picture taken. They were very open, positive, and absolutely zealous about what the future held for them. They will be among the first Aramco women to be sponsored to get advanced degrees and to return to work for their company. What does this mean? The company:
  • pays for their university
  • pays for apartments, food, books, flights

  • prepares them at the college prep centers for free

  • offers them a LIFETIME job at Saudi Aramco

All they have to do is finish college with a degree related to the oil industry and return to Saudi Arabia. What happens if they fall in love and marry an American? If they stay in the U.S., they have to pay back all the money that was invested in them. If the male wants to convert to Islam and come live in the Kingdom, he is welcome.

Leaving the tours of the schools was uplifting because I saw the eagerness with which young Saudis want to communicate with young Americans. They want you to know they are regular teens just like you. They have hopes and dreams and want you to know they are not oppressed and are not terrorists.

Cultural Celebration

In the evening we were treated to a feast that we could never have imagined we would ever take part in. It was held in a private country club owned by Saudi royalty. There was a live ensemble of musicians, singers, and dancers who entertained us all night. I couldn't help but get up and dance the hypnotic and mystical music.

There were camels transported to the city for us to ride and take pictures of. Tents were set up and the Arabian coffee and tea flowed endlessly. Henna tattoos were given to anyone who wanted one, and even the guys had their wives names or colleges printed on their arms! To tell you the truth, I didn't want the night to end. We went way past our scheduled time and did some serious cultural exchanges tonight!

Arabian Coffee

Tomorrow we wear our abayas for the first time. All the teachers were excited to receive theirs, and do you know, each and every one of ours was different, customized with unique embroidery or hand drawn art. We ran to our rooms to see what they looked like and for being Americans, we sure were eager to try them on!

Have a great day everyone.