Monday, September 29, 2008

Thanks, Department of State

I really appreciate that you've furnished my house so nicely.  And I also really appreciate that you've paid so much to ship my stuff to me from DC.  (Of course, my dishes and books from storage would be nice, too, but I understand that these things take time.)  But seriously?  After all the money you paid to ship my DVDs from the US, you couldn't have provided my house with a compatible, US-region DVD player?  

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dining Out in Riyadh

All public establishments in the Kingdom have to have methods to keep women and men as apart as possible, whether it's different hours for families and for men only, or physical barriers separating families from singles, or even not allowing women into places at all, forcing them to order from a walk-through window, in the case of many restaurants here.  In restaurants with separated family and singles sections, there will be a barrier of sorts around each table, allowing women who wear the facial veil, the niqab, to remove it and to eat in peace without strangers seeing their faces.  

Luckily, very few places that I am likely to go will check to see if I'm actually related by blood or by marriage to my dining partners.  I met a friend for dinner a few weeks ago in Riyadh.  We accidentally got there 10 minutes early, during prayer time, so we had to wait outside until the doors reopened.  (All businesses in Saudi Arabia must close by law during prayer times, five times a day.  Normally prayers last about five to ten minutes...  closing time is usually closer to thirty minutes here.  We can discuss Saudi inefficiency another day.)  We were finally escorted upstairs to our booth, and once the waiter handed us our menus he closed the curtain behind us, leaving our "family" to dine in peace.  Every time the waiter had something to deliver, he knocked first to give me time to reveil if I wanted to do so.  It was a surreal experience.  

Riyadh has some good restaurants, especially ones that cater to the large migrant populations here - Indian, Filipino, Sri Lankan, etc.  It's one of the few avenues we have to get out and socialize with friends outside the DQ.  I'd like to visit a few more restaurants here, which I will do as soon as lockdown's over - seriously, this is starting to get on my nerves.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Internet in Saudi

I have a Saudi IP address, which blocks me from using websites like Pandora and from accessing a number of websites deemed inappropriate by local authorities.  It also means that when I go to my usual complement of websites, I get ads in Arabic.  They're hilarious.  My personal favorite so far is one telling me that I've won, not a free iPod or a laptop or something, but a US green card.  Close runner-ups are the marriage ads on Facebook and the places where ads should be, on websites like Wonkette, but are blocked because of inappropriate content.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Security Overseas

It's hard for me to gauge what dominates the news cycles back home now, given that I barely have time to stay abreast of the things I really want to read, much less the news sources I normally follow, but I hope, at least, that the carbomb attack on the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and the carbombing of the Marriott in Islamabad, Pakistan have been covered.  No one I know was injured in either attack, although a lot of people died in both cities, many paying the price solely because they worked for the United States.  It's been a very different ballgame for me in the last week...  even as tuned into current events as I normally am, attacks on Americans or American interests overseas have heretofore just been remote attacks in places where I might work eventually.  Now, there have been attacks directed at my friends and coworkers, threats against others, and severe limitations on my own daily activities due to this pair of bombings.

It gets your attention right quick, I'll tell you.

Right now, I'm on lockdown in the DQ until further notice.  This means that no nonessential travel outside the DQ is allowed, and for the purposes of this warning, things like grocery shopping are considered nonessential.  There is exactly one convenience store on the DQ, across from our embassy, and the owner is probably making more money this week than he has in a year.  Our security measures have been amped up considerably, and I'm sure there's a lot going on that I can't see, as well.  We have had emergency alarm tests, safe haven drills, and doom-and-gloom emails from the security folks with Lots! Of! Extraneous! Punctuation! warning us about the necessity of paying attention and of "varying routes and times," a time-honored FS concept that is difficult to uphold when 2/3 of the embassy staff live within blocks of the embassy.  In short, our already high baseline level of tension has just been turned up to eleven, and we're all a little snappish.  And the best part?  A stomach virus is circulating its way through all of the offices, and we're all operating at about 3/4 strength.  

At the end of the day, though, it's better than the alternative.  As my career progresses, I'm sure I'll be more used to this sort of activity, but my first serious bomb scare is an intense experience, I can assure you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Home sweet home!

My bitching must have come in handy...  Google Maps just added Riyadh.  This is the city from a wider perspective, and this is the DQ - zoom in twice on that link, and the US embassy will be near the center of the map.  I don't live that far away, either, just a comfortable walk.

Happy (virtual) exploring!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Adjusting

I'll preface this by saying that I'm very tired and that it has been a frustrating day - lots of meetings, little productivity. I remember when I took cultural anthro in college, the TA was talking about how the researcher goes through some psychological changes during his or her immersion in another culture. This isn't an uncommon idea; the same thing was mentioned to us in A-100 so we'd be aware of what was happening to us once we got to post. The time scale on this graph (thanks, Google!) is a little longer than what I'm experiencing - obviously, since I'm writing this 2.5 weeks into my stay in Saudi Arabia.


I think I'm at the point where things have just dipped below the dashed line. A lot of things have piled up on me in the past few days, and they're starting to wear on my mind. Here's a few things I worry about/stress at the moment.
  • Women and the way they're treated here. During interviews of married couples, I have to speak to the wife as part of the interview. Not always, but often she will be very shy and will turn to her husband to ask him to repeat every word I said - even if I said it all in perfectly comprehensible Arabic. Less frequently, she will just stare at the ground and refuse to answer while her husband leans over to shout her answers to me. I'm having to fight a habit I already see developing in me - the tendency to direct all questions to the husband in English, even though the wife doesn't speak the language. The worst is seeing the husbands who are in their early thirties and the wives who are barely 19 or 20. The absolute worst is seeing those wives look so listless and resigned. (To be clear: it's not every couple that's like this; indeed, it's nowhere near a majority. Still, one or two a day of these interviews gets you down quickly.)
  • The gravity of my job is finally sinking in. I have laid awake in bed for the past five nights, either having trouble falling asleep or waking up in a nightmare, thinking that a visa I issued will turn out to be the key to the next terrorist attack. I have dreamed about specific cases, held the transcripts and passports and paperwork in my hands in my dream. Don't get me wrong, my job is fascinating. I'm finally doing something that matters, and I'm so glad that I have this opportunity. It's just that I now fully realize that lives literally may depend on the decisions I make every morning.
  • The class hierarchy is starting to wear on my nerves more and more. It's hard to maintain contact with what I consider normal society. (Not that any of my friends qualify as normal, but that's a different issue.) Life in the DQ is screwy, but Riyadh itself is even worse. I can see why they give us two R&Rs at this post.
  • I did my first representational event last night (more on that later, it deserves its own post), and it was underwhelming, to say the least. I assumed that "business attire or traditional dress" meant that my suit was acceptable... yeah. I was one of two people in suits, whereas the roughly 70 Saudi women (and all but one of the American contingent) were in gorgeous, expensive, showy robe-dress-caftan thingies. (I'm going to kill the person who introduced me to the crowd and said that I work in the consular section.)
However, life has its good sides, too. Several friends of mine from the consulates in Jiddah and Dhahran will be in Riyadh at the end of the week for a conference, so I get to see people I haven't seen in a while - it promises to be a fun weekend. Also, I adopted a cat from one of my neighbors. Sheikh A'jan al-Beeji (or Beeji for short) is very shy, to the point of not letting me get within two feet of him, but he yowls when I leave the room, and he follows me at a safe distance everywhere I go. I think he's warming to me. In six months, he might even let me touch him!

Beeji does not like flash photography.

Also, I came home from a crappy day at work to find a note that Fathima (see last week's post) left me when she was here today, telling me that she prays for me every night. It's a nice feeling.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Today, from the Department of Upholding Stereotypes

You know you're in the Foreign Service when you attend a BBQ birthday party for a four-year-old under the following two conditions: There are four attendees under age 10 and seven over age 21. The beverages spread consists of a six-pack of Coke, a six-pack of Diet Coke, three bottles of champagne, and three six-packs of Foster's.

I love my job.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Random Observations from the Kingdom

  • You don't really have to deal with the daytime heat in Riyadh if you normally leave your house between 6.45 - 7.10 AM and don't leave the embassy until 7 - 8 PM.
  • I love walking to work in the mornings - it's very quiet, with usually only one or two street cleaners or garbage men around; the sun's already been up for an hour or two, so it's very bright; and the sky is a gorgeous shade of pale blue. It's my moment of Zen every day.
  • Yesterday as I was leaving work early (at 6.45!!), I saw the Saudi Arabian National Guard forces stationed outside the embassy gates breaking their fast. Their armored vehicle, with loaded gun racks on top and sandbags surrounding it, was sitting empty while they sat on a cloth on the ground beside the truck. Someone had brought them tea, served traditionally (something like this), dates, olives, cheese, and other munchables.
  • When I meet people on the street, it is very hard for me to break the habit of making eye contact and smiling. If you do that, it tends to lead to strange looks and increased harassment from men. It's depressing... I feel like such a Yankee.
  • There are cats everywhere here. They just roam around on the streets. It's enough to break the heart of any dyed-in-the-wool hippy animal lover (not that I paint myself with this brush, of course). This is pretty common around these parts of the Middle East, at least in my experience. Part of the problem specifically in the DQ is that sometimes diplomats returning to Commonwealth countries will leave their cats here rather than send them to six months' quarantine upon reentry to the UK or wherever. This explains the rather unusual breeding stock here in the DQ; there seem to be a lot more cats that look like they have some traceable ancestry as opposed to mutt and sneaky neighbor cat. This leads to the development at every mission of cat ladies, who try to rescue every single cat. It's a pain in the ass for the people who have to deal with maintaining the housing stock.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Is This How the British Colonialists Felt?

For those of you who aren't in this Foreign Service mess, you might not know that the largest chunk of State Department employees worldwide (somewhat over fifty percent, I believe) is comprised of local hires - foreigners, usually of the nationality where the embassy is located, who help out in the day-to-day of running the embassy. Here in Saudi Arabia, I think we have one local hire who is actually Saudi; the rest are Arabs from around the region, South Asians, and Filipinos.

About half the people in my office are not Americans, and they are clearly the backbone of the office. When most of us stay for a year or two at most, they're they institutional knowledge that keeps our section running. It's a bit of a different story for them, because they have a professional position and are often very highly educated. However, they still often have to defer to decisions from Americans in most cases, many of whom have only been in the Foreign Service for two years or fewer. It's a bit bizarre.

My other main involvement to date with our local hires has been with the drivers in motor pool (see previous post for more details on how that works). It's uniformly bothersome that they all refer to me as miss hannah, and if I have some package I'm carrying, they scold me for carrying it myself and not letting them get it. It's so bizarre. I hate feeling like I'm their superior. The other day I was talking to one driver who has been working at the US embassy since before I was born. He still referred to me as ma'am and miss hannah, which sets off all kinds of warning bells in my head, probably due to having grown up on farms in Mississippi and Arkansas. If you have any tips on how to deal with this, please let me know.

One other thing - almost everyone here has a maid that they hire to do basic cleaning and sometimes cooking around the house. I understand that this is a fine Foreign Service tradition all around the world. Given the way that household staff are treated in Saudi Arabia (that's another story for another day), it was a bit of a thorny issue for me to consider. I did just hire a woman, Fathima, taking over her once-a-week contract from the person I replaced in the consular section, and when I realized what pay she was actually asking for, I felt ill. I think that, like her previous employer, I'll be paying her double what she actually asks for. She's here from Sri Lanka to earn money for her family, and at the rate she was asking it's hard for me to see how she is able to send anything back home, even working for three or four other people simultaneously.

Things to get used to, I suppose. Still, it's hard to shake off the willies that I get from the mentality of white person hires dark person to do menial stuff.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Food!

Well, I survived my first trip to the grocery store in Riyadh. We managed to time our visit so we'd arrive right after it reopened from the latest bout of prayer. True to form, the store was utterly empty but then filled up within ten minutes of our arrival. Tamimi, the big chain here, is partnered with Safeway, so a lot of stuff is just Safeway off-brand with a sticker with ingredients listed in Arabic slapped on the side. Amusingly, this is the first store in the Middle East I've ever seen that sells bigger jugs of corn oil than of olive oil. I'm sure that must make the farmers in Iowa thrilled. Prices are about comparable to stores in the States - some things are way more expensive (3 dollars/pound for green beans) and some much less (70 cents/pound for apples). The best thing I saw? Camel meat. Fresh, local camel meat. I didn't buy, because I want to do some research for what spices one cooks camel meat with before I actually indulge.

Life in Riyadh

There has to be some degree of cognitive dissonance when living in Riyadh.  The Diplomatic Quarter, where I live, is somewhat apart from the rest of the city, with walls and checkpoints all around it.  There's a good deal of freedom inside the compound, because all of the embassies located in Saudi Arabia are here, along with all of their employees and a good deal of third-country nationals not specifically tied to an embassy - I think there are about twenty-five thousand people in this compound.  It's big, and it's easy to get lost - everything is the same shade of desert tan, and the roads are curvy and unnamed.  For the most part, however, it's little America in my neighborhood.  All of my neighbors are Americans, we have barbecues outside once the sun is on its way down, and we crack open a beer like there's no big deal.  And once I figure out the way, I can walk to work or to my friends' houses without any problems - unveiled, wearing pretty much anything I would in America.

However.

Our internet is still filtered by the local government, so there are certain websites I can't visit.  Some of them make sense (it's not surprising that Something Awful is blocked), but others seem ridiculous (Snopes?  Seriously?).  AIM is blocked, but not if you run it through Gmail.  Blogspot isn't blocked, but none of my posts since I arrived in Saudi Arabia are visible to me.  (Luckily, comments are emailed to me, so I can see what you write.  I can still address your questions, so keep them coming!)  

I can't drive outside the compound due to local law and to security restrictions placed on us by the embassy, so I have to take motor pool anywhere I want to go.  This means that I just had the following conversation with the dispatcher.

"Hi, can I get a car to take me to [the grocery store] at about 3?"
"Prayers start at 3.21, so you won't be able to go then.  What about another time?"  [All businesses must close for prayer times.  I couldn't get in and out in time to avoid the shutdown.]
"Okay, how about 4?"
"I tell you what, call back after 3.  The shift changes then, and the new dispatcher can tell you what time is best."

For someone who's had vehicular independence for almost ten years, this is a bit stressful.

Additionally, if I don't know where I'm going inside the DQ, I have to take motor pool to friends' houses, because you really can't give directions for how to get around here.  This means that there are always at least two or three people who know whose house I've been visiting.  The other day, I had to pick up some paperwork at my friend Ramon's house, and I had motorpool take me there because I didn't know where he lives.  A few hours later I was planning a trip into Riyadh proper with some friends, and when one of them called motor pool to confirm the trip, the dispatcher asked if I should be picked up at my house or at Ramon's, since that was where dispatch last knew me to be.  You can see the potential for this to get creepy and invasive fast.  

So much for life in Riyadh.  I'm sure I'll have more comments later on.  I'm working on some posts about the class system here, even at the embassy, and my trips so far into the city.  Don't want to overload you all.  I hope you're all well and gearing up for your weekend - mine's coming to an end, sadly, since our work week is Saturday through Wednesday.  Just another oddity about the Magic Kingdom...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Today's Awesome Feeling

Walking by myself into the airport at Riyadh unveiled and not in an abaya, past the crowd of about 200 Saudi men in thobes waiting for family in the arrivals room, and hearing them go silent as I walk straight past security and emerge five minutes later unscathed with my bags.

Evidently they're not used to seeing that. Who knew?

Ramadan Karim!

Well, it's the start of Ramadan here in the Magic Kingdom. I can't really assess changes in daily life, given that I have only had two days here, but I can make a few general observations.
  • Saudi law mandates that all workers have six-hour work days during Ramadan. This clearly does not apply to us, as we have to pick up the excess work that our local staff can't do. I am an expert now at placing visas into passports. By the end of the week I suspect that I will be stellar at data entry, and I'll be on the visa line by next week, still doing data entry around interviews.
  • I obviously don't have to fast, but I have to be covert when I eat lunch so as not to offend or to frustrate the observant Muslims in the office.
  • I still haven't heard the muezzin's call to prayer yet, but I did see three men praying in the middle of the motor pool's garage tonight as I was leaving. There is something I find so quietly amusing about this.
  • I'm going grocery shopping in about two hours, and I don't know whether to expect utter chaos at the store or complete emptiness. We shall see.