Machine Guns and Brides – Part II

In case you missed The Machine Guns and Bride post from a few months back, you may want to read it now before venturing into part two. Otherwise, it would be like watching Game of Thrones in the wrong order.

When I said that arranged marriages drag out here in Saudi, I had no idea how long. The friend whose family was trying to marry him off in the last post struck out with the first choice. Despite a banquet and some genuine interest in the pairing, promises had been made to cousins and so it wasn’t to be. My friend’s dad still got to keep the machine gun that the father of the bride-that-almost-was gave him, so it wasn’t a total loss.

So, the search continued. Somehow my friend heard about a girl who was of marrying age in the town he grew up in. His father and uncles piled into the car to start the negotiations with the father of this lady. Mind you, my friend is somewhat apprehensive as he’s never seen or met this girl that his family is trying to convince her family to let him marry, but a box of gold and some candy can help persuade. They got a ‘yes.’
Box of Gold

As it turns out, my friend had a single brother and the future wife had a single sister, so why not a two-for? Families agreed and the double wedding and double honeymoon was on! Unfortunately, it was scheduled for a day I’d be outside the country, but I asked for lots of pictures. Let’s just say that Saudi would be an awful place for a wedding photographer to try to make a living, as there aren’t many pictures taken and the ones that are taken are not shown. It’s view it live or not at all.

Another unique twist to the wedding is that the receptions don’t allow for the men to mingle with the women, so there are parallel receptions held in separate halls. None of the male guests meet the bride, it seems.

Before the wedding, my friend and his brother scoped out a place to move into (all four of them) once the knots were tied. As an American, observing all of this was very interesting. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if they didn’t like each other, but I suppose arranged marriages have been going on for centuries and it somehow seems to work out a lot of the time.

My time in Saudi is almost up, but I can’t wait for updates on how the families grow – via instant messages with no pictures. I’ll let you know.

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Faster Fasting

In Saudi, probably the most significant thing to happen since my last post was Ramadan – the holy month of fasting in Islam. This means nobody should eat, drink (even water) or smoke during the day. It came at a tough time of year with the longest and hottest days in June. Of course, me not being Muslim and me just being me, I didn’t fast. I spent more time plotting where to eat or smoke in secret than doing any spiritual reflection. One thing I discovered for sure is that the crunch of a Dorito is A LOT louder when you’re trying to do it quietly. I’m pretty sure that all of Riyadh knew I was wolfing down that bag of chips.

I decided to do a sort of “fast light” one day because my colleague was kind enough to invite me over to join his family for a traditional Saudi ‘breaking the fast’ dinner. It seemed like a good idea to at least be pretty hungry for it. He came and picked me up and we stopped at a store so I could pick up some dessert to add to the meal. I asked if we could find a place for me to sneak a cigarette (behind a pile of trash or something) before we got to the house. As I said, it was “fast light”. We couldn’t find a place where I might not be spotted so he suggested we get on the highway and open the window and I could smoke in the car. I was so paranoid that someone would see us that I didn’t really enjoy it.

On the way to the house, he showed me the place where they buy the live goats that we’d be eating at dinner. For some reason, however, they don’t slaughter the goats in the same place so you have to transport them up the street. For your average Joe, this means wrestling it into the trunk while it tries to break free and then listening to it try to kick its way out. It reminded me of that opening scene in Goodfellas.
Goodfellas Opening Scene

The dinner itself is divided into two main parts. The first part includes dates and some light pastry along with some Arabic coffee. For the people who have been fasting the correct way (everyone but me), it means it’s the first thing they’ve had in over 15 hours so there’s just a little sustenance before they go pray. After that prayer time is the main event. Honest to God, the food was amazing!! It wasn’t just the goat, but there was everything from lasagna to vegetables and chicken. The men and the women eat separately, as is the custom. So it was just us guys digging in with our bare hands – tearing apart the meat. It was a great time. Nobody can ever say that Saudis are not hospitable.

Work-life was certainly different as working hours are reduced to 10-4 to help people cope with the fasting. The earlier finish gives people enough time to get home to be with their families to break the fast together too. It’s a bit of a mad rush at the end of the day with very hungry, thirsty people desperate to make it home in time, but not as clear-headed behind the wheel as one would hope by this point in the day.

The month closes out with about a week-long holiday where basically the whole country shuts down, so I went to Boston – missing the last week of Ramadan and the holiday at the end. When I got back to Riyadh, it was business as usual. No more huddling in the closet devouring a Snickers or hiding on the 123 degree roof for a puff.

Sorry for the delay in posting. I have more to come soon!

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Machine guns and Brides

Arranged marriages in Saudi seem to drag out. My Saudi friend’s family is working quite hard to get him married off and I’ve been waiting to post about this since until a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ came along. I could die of old age before there’s closure here, so this blog can be considered Part I.

It’s been more enjoyable for me to hear about the process than it has been for him to live through it. The whole thing started a few months ago when out-of-the-blue he cryptically mentions something about getting married. This was about 2 days after I explicitly asked him if he had a girlfriend and got a clear ‘no’. He went on to explain that there’s a girl in his hometown that his family would help him to arrange a marriage with.

Naturally, I wanted to know more about this. You have to keep in mind that men and women who aren’t related or already married have little to no chance of interacting which poses some difficulty in popping the question – specifically, since you’re not yet allowed to talk to the woman who you might marry. Arranged marriages make sense under these conditions. This is where the family comes in.

The first step was a trip with his father and older brother to the town where the girl lives so that they could talk with the father and scope out the possibility. I asked if they just sat down over a cup of coffee and decided who he would spend the rest of his life with. He mentioned that it wouldn’t be polite to ask for coffee during this visit, then quickly pointed out it was ok to ask for the daughter though.

I was anxious to hear how the weekend long trip went when he got back to work after the weekend. He seemed disappointed because there was no definite answer, but was somewhat relieved that the answer wasn’t ‘no’. After a few weeks another trip was set up with, as my friend described it, the alpha males of the family. They were headed there for the weekend and I didn’t get a clear idea of what the deal was until they got back.

Apparently, my friend’s father is held in rather high regard there so a banquet was called in his honor hosted by the father-of the-not-yet-bride. Tons of the townspeople came. I’ve heard stories of lives being threatened for refusing an invitation to these things. They take their hospitality seriously. To that end, they slaughtered a sheep and maybe a goat.

As he’s describing the party he casually mentions that the girl’s father came strolling in with a machine gun. I’m perched on the edge of my seat leaning in as he tells me this – picturing the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones.
I survived Red Wedding

Turns out that the machine gun was a gift for my friend’s dad. I want to know if this is the ‘traditional’ way of saying ‘you can marry my daughter’. Then I thought, “How traditional can a machine gun be?” It seems that the machine gun has been slowly replacing the sword as a gift for a guest of honor although it doesn’t really get you any closer to answers on marriage.

After the dinner, they learn that the girl has been betrothed to her cousin, who has a reputation as a fighter and a ready supply of his own guns. The girl’s father decides that my friend is a better bet, but now he’s kind of locked in because his brother will be mad if he changes his mind about the nephew marrying the daughter. Understandable. He decides to give it a month before switching his loyalties.

Now more than a month has passed and the cousin hasn’t shot my friend and he’s no closer to getting married.

Now I want to figure out how to be the guest of honor somewhere because getting a machine gun instead of dessert is just cool.

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You’re welcome

As I warned when I started this blog, it wouldn’t be a substitute tourism guide, but rather a place to share experiences in the Middle East from a personal perspective.

So, my weekend to Jordan…
Jordan
I was planning to book a trip to Egypt actually, but my boss told me I’d probably like Jordan, so I went to Expedia, checked the prices and booked the ticket within about 20 minutes. Those who know me best know that I’m not one to spend hours checking out the destination, hotel or those other pesky details.

When I did a quick check of the town I’d already booked a hotel in, I read this: “Because there are lots of Christians in Madaba, alcohol is plentiful.” My kind of place. Plus, the town is small enough that you can walk the whole thing.

The weekend came and off I went. The plane was packed, but since it’s only a two hour flight, I didn’t mind the screaming children everywhere. You can survive most things for two hours. I made it through immigration quickly. There were about 20 switchbacks of crowd control rope ahead of the counter, but I was a little impatient and ducked through them to save myself about 2 kilometers of needless walking since there was only one person waiting. I got to the counter and was told that I could only buy the visa with Jordanian money, so I ducked under all the ropes again to find an ATM, got my cash and scurried back to the counter to buy my visa.

Apparently the visa sellers aren’t authorized to stamp passports but they work in pairs with the immigration guys (same uniforms). The visa guy held out my passport for the immigration guy and said, “Stamp this” He stamped it without looking at me or the details on the passport. As we was handing me the passport he said ‘You’re welcome’ before I had a chance to say ‘thank you’. We’ll come back to this point later.

I had no trouble finding the driver the hotel sent to get me at the airport. He introduced himself after I identified myself. For his name, in the loudness of the airport, all I heard was “Fuck” plus some sound. I didn’t want to say “Fuck what?”, so I actually never got his name until we arrived at the hotel and he gave me his card. I should mention here that twice, Fuckme or whatever his name was, said ‘you’re welcome’ then took my bag for me. I thanked him and began to wonder about the peculiar order of a thank you/you’re welcome exchange in Jordan.

About a half hour later we arrived at the hotel. It was quiet, so I checked in quickly, (they knew my name before I said anything) asked where the bar was and what time they closed, then went up to my room to dump my bag and get back to the bar. Cute little bar, but I was the only one in it. The bartender followed the same habit of saying ‘you’re welcome’ before I could say ‘thank you’. By the time I left I had it figured out. If I wanted to thank first – it was a race!!! “CanIhaveabeerpleasethankyou?” I win!!!

It was late so I didn’t plan to do any exploring until morning. When I got up, I went to the buffet breakfast and found I had the huge dining area to myself AND the entire buffet. Nobody even asked me if I was staying at the hotel. They just acted like they knew me and said ‘you’re welcome’ at odd times quite a bit.

Now it was time to do some exploring, so I walked into the historic district and looked at all the historical shit and then sat down in a café to do some people watching and have some coffee. I was surprised at how different the people in Jordan look compared to the people in Saudi. They are neighboring countries, after-all. Jordanians seems to have a wider range of skin-tone and eye and hair coloring. After coffee, I walked around some more, but since it was Friday morning (Muslim holy day) pretty much everything was closed, so I went back to the hotel to sit on my balcony and read for a while until some places opened.

Until now, I realized I hadn’t seen a single other guest in the hotel or any signs of obvious tourists in the whole town despite perfect weather for exploring. Turns out I was the only guest in the hotel of maybe 75 rooms. I figured I’d throw the hotel restaurant some business for lunch before heading back out, so I went down and ordered up a mixed grill – which was supposed include lamb and other tasty treats. They brought some sort of fried chicken instead. ‘You’re welcome.’ I didn’t bother saying anything about it being the wrong thing because this looked good and I didn’t want their only meal served that day to turn out COSTING them money.

After exploring for a few more hours, I decided I’d try the bar at the neighboring hotel for my ‘night out’ because they had a sign that said ‘bar’. (Easy to sell to me) I walked into the lobby and the only guy visible was sitting at reception. I asked him the way to the bar and he led me down some back stairs, past a couple of dark rooms and the swimming pool and into a really nice lounge/bar with huge windows over-looking the pool. He asked what I wanted, got me the beer, said ‘you’re welcome’ before I remembered about the ‘thank you/you’re welcome race’, then left me alone in the bar to go back and run reception. Not a soul in site, but the tv was on and had Star Trek playing, so I watched that until my beer was gone. I was torn whether to get a second beer on my own or go back upstairs to ask for one. I opted for the latter choice. I nursed that beer in the deserted bar and decided to try someplace else. More of the same, it turns out.

The last weekend of April is a trip to Beirut, but this time I’m meeting a friend, so even if there are no other people around, there’s bound to be more conversation.

You’re welcome.

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The Suit

One of the fun parts of living abroad is trying to think a few steps ahead of what I’m used to. In a little while I’m headed out to buy a suit that will serve three purposes:

1. 60s night at our company’s 50th anniversary party. A thin tie and a vest will make it 60s enough for me.
2. Black tie night for second 50th anniversary party. Switch to golden bow-tie should do the trick. (I will change to a different white shirt since the nights are back to back.)
3. Any upcoming weddings, funerals or fancy dinners with the monarchy

To get to the suit store, I can either walk or take a taxi. I considered walking for about a half hour too long, so now there’s no shady side of the street and I don’t want sunburn. I wish the street angles were in my favor for this part of the day, but since they’re not, it looks like I’ll be cabbing it.

Cancel that. I just checked what my cash situation is and I don’t have exact change or close to it (refer to older blog posts). I could walk to a store and buy something that is in the right price range to give me a variety of small change, but I risk a sunburn getting to the nearest store, although it’s likely to be minor if I walk fast enough. I suppose I could just buy sunscreen at the store, but with my luck it would be more than what I have in cash and I’d have to walk to a cash machine which would be close to total the distance to the suit store and bring me back to a more painful sunburn.

I now have an hour and 18 minutes to get this done before the next prayer time if I want to get it done without waiting an extra hour to pay.

Screw it. I’ll walk there and hit the cash machine on the way in case they don’t take cards. I’ll think about how much to take out on the way.

I hope there are some English speaking Indians or Filipinos to help me get the right suit in the right size.
To be continued…

…Mission accomplished – albeit an anti-climactic mission.

With only slightly less than an hour left before prayer time after showering, I figured I was going to get stuck at the suit store anyway, so I decided to go the opposite way from the store that was recommended to me and take a chance of finding something affordable a bit closer. I passed the “Plus for Men” store and a place called “Elegant Man”. Although I was tempted to go into the store that seemed to be named with me in mind (“Elegant Man”, wise-asses), I followed my gut instead and happened upon a store emblazoned with 50-70% off signs along with some suits in the window.
Elegant Man

No English speakers in there, but who needs English when miming has proven to work so well. Hats off to the easy-going guys in the shop who acted as if they’ve never had a customer who actually spoke to them. Miming, “These are too tight” or “Both of my legs ARE the same length” is actually a good time – despite close to $400 being on the line.

I never did discover what was 50-70% off, but I got two suits for the equivalent of $387 and didn’t get a sunburn in the process. (No 60s suit looked tux-y enough and no tux-y suit looked 60s enough. Both are ok for dinner with the King.)

Simply walking into Macy’s and walking out with a suit isn’t memorable. This is.

Trying to think a few steps ahead becomes a way of life and it’s an adventure just to do daily tasks while living abroad. That, to me, is fun – and I got it all done before prayer time!

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A Filipino, a Pakistani and an Egyptian walk into a bar…

Well, probably a ‘chocolate bar’ here in Riyadh since it’s the only kind of bar there is. The joke kind of falls apart when you come to the conclusion the Pakistani just drove someone there, the Filipino works there and the Egyptian sold the place for a Saudi holding company. Add in the fact that there’s a good chance the chocolate bar doesn’t admit men who aren’t accompanying their wives/kids and you’re left with a fairly lame joke.

Riyadh is a city that wouldn’t survive without its huge ex-pat community. Certain nationalities seem to dominate certain jobs, but I haven’t quite figured out why. Restaurants are staffed by Filipinos, taxis are driven by Pakistanis, Egyptians are big in sales roles, Syrians are over-represented in medicine and Irish appear to be the architects. Outside of the capital, where the oil flows, is where you can find lots of Americans and Europeans. Oh yeah, my plumber is from Sri Lanka, but a sample size of one isn’t enough to figure out if that is a trend.

With all of the ex-pats living here, most day-to-day transactions are done in English – at least in my circle of life. This doesn’t necessarily mean that communication is clear, however. I’ve found that there’s really not a lot of point in pushing for understanding– even when language doesn’t seem to be the issue. Take this dialog with my dry-cleaner as an example:

Me: Are my shirts ready?
Clerk: (Looks around for a minute) They’ll be here at 8:30pm
Me: Great, I’ll come back then. Do you know how much it will cost so I can have the right change ready? (Note to readers: If you read my last blog entry, you will know why I asked)
Clerk: When did you leave them here?
Me: Yesterday morning.
Clerk: Ok. See you after 8:30.
Me: Bye

Don’t go back and re-read that to see if you can make sense of it because you’d be wasting your energy – just the same as I would’ve been wasting my energy if I’d bothered to clarify and get the answer I was looking for. Besides, I was going to take my damn shirts whether he had the right change or not!! (Imagine me running from the shop holding my dry cleaning over my shoulder and the shirts flapping in the wind.)

This type of conversation is hardly limited to one or two per day and there are times when pushing for an answer is necessary. The apartment complex I live in is old by Riyadh standards, but more importantly, is not well-maintained. As long as the essentials work, I’m ok with it. We’ve been having issues with elevator for the last few weeks, so each time it breaks, I stop by the maintenance office on my way to work to ask them when they are fixing it. I usually get an answer like, “Later, they come.” Whatever, 6 flights isn’t terrible. After they got it working a couple of weeks ago, I went out to buy a clothes washer and arranged for delivery a couple of days after that. Of course on the delivery day the elevator was broken, so I had the delivery guys drop it in the tiny maintenance office. I told the manager that it would be out just as soon as they got the elevator fixed and his guys could bring it up. (Meow!)

This wasn’t all that annoying because it was only a matter of time. I went to London for a few days figuring all would be well when I got back. My return flight arrives at about 2am and I have to work in the morning and the elevator is broken again. I drag my suitcase up the six flights and collapse on my bed. By the time I wake up for work, there was no water in my building either.
I dump my remaining spring water over my head, get dressed, walk down the six flights and get to the maintenance office.

I said, “I would’ve been here sooner to complain there’s no water, but the elevator’s broken – AGAIN. When will you have these fixed?”
“Coming, coming,” he replies.
“That’s not an answer. Will it be fixed by 6pm?”
“New elevator!! 2…3 days.”
I’m actually happy to hear this about the elevator, but I don’t want to let on because he might think I’ll accept no water if I look anything but annoyed. “What about the water? I couldn’t even take a shower this morning.”
He non-answers, “It just stopped at 6 this morning.”
I’m determined to not let it drop yet. “I don’t care when it went off. I want to know when it will come on.”
“Maybe tonight,” he says.

Satisfied that I least got some kind of answer, I left for work.

For those readers who are Seinfeld fans, this is sort of like the Chinese restaurant where the wait is always “5, 10 minutes” and you don’t get messages because of name issues.

Just ask me, Mark Cotelello, next time you see me walking into a bar.
Sahara Towers ID

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Change – as in, ‘ch-ching’

If you’ve ever wondered what links banks, Band-aids, coins and gum, you’ve come to the right place.

As with living anywhere that’s not ‘home’, there are always some adjustments in the day to day that need to be made. One that I’ve needed is to be prepared with small change. It seems that no matter where you want to spend money in Saudi, you’d better be prepared with exact change – or close to it. This might be a little easier if ATMs dispensed smaller bills, but they don’t.

Coming back from the airport a couple of weeks ago at 2am, I only had a large bill on me and needed to take a taxi home. It’s not like I could just break the bill inside the airport either because NOBODY has change. After we left the airport, I mentioned to the driver that he would need to have change (I’d already anticipated a changeless driver). “No problem,” he says, “We’ll just go back to the airport and I’ll get some from my friend.” So, we circled the whole airport (pretty much the same layout as all major airports) and started out again. It was a pre-arranged fare, so it didn’t cost me anything extra for the pre-dawn sight-seeing tour of the airport road and his friend DID had some change!

At first I thought that not having change must be hurting businesses because there was the time I couldn’t buy anything because the shop had no change. The total was 37 and I gave a 50. In this case, sale lost. Another time I found myself adding stuff on until I spent the whole bill. I guess it’s just a matter of how much you want some of what you wanted to buy in the first place. Maybe the whole thing is a wash for the store, but they don’t have to drag their asses to the bank for small bills all the time. I also learned that saying, “Hey, you’re the store, not me” gets you absolutely nowhere.

There’s only one coin that ever gets used here – and it’s only if people happen to have one. At shops, you basically round up to the nearest whole to pay and get back a pack of gum or a cupcake in place of a coin. (I prefer the gum because the cupcakes are the pre-packaged deals with a shelf life of just under forever.) Apparently some shops don’t limit themselves to food. On my way back from the dentist last night, I stopped off for some ice cream thinking it would be easier to catch whatever fell out of my numbed mouth than other food. Anyway, my total was 11.50 and I gave the shopkeeper 12. He gave me the bag and threw in a pack of gum to cover the 50 coin change. Standard transaction. Then he presumably says to his colleague something to the effect of, “Hey give me one of those Band-aids.” He promptly put the Band-aid in the bag and I was on my way.
Gum and band-aid

So, as I’m walking out of the store, I begin to wonder why he thought I needed a Band-aid since it’s the first time it was ever part of my change. I begin to make sure I’m not drooling blood after the dentist visit. No blood on my hand after I wiped around my mouth. Of course, Band-aids don’t work inside the mouth anyway, so I figured I must be bleeding from someplace else and promptly started checking the rest of me. Nothing. I suppose this will remain a mystery.

So banks don’t like to give small change from their ATMs, taxis don’t have any change at all, stores hoard whatever change they might have and I’m left with a jar of gum and a Band-aid.

A day in the life of Mark of Arabia.

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