Monday, July 12, 2010

Ah, summer vacation

We leave for Egypt tomorrow! Our last working day was the middle of last week, so we have had about a week in Riyadh to relax, go shopping for the kids, and run errands. We've been particularly busy with getting everything settled for our residency permits, which have to be in order before we leave the country. So many hoops to jump through! And Josh, being the man, gets to do most of the dirty work of finding out where official places are, figuring out when they open, and deciphering what documents they need. It's a process. We'll be doing more paperwork in Cairo before re-entering the Kingdom.

Misha joined me on campus for my last day of work so he could register for the kindergarten there for fall. (That has been a headache of paperwork as well!) It will be so great having him one building over from me. Plus, he'll learn lots of Arabic in this school. During our day on campus, I tried to keep him entertained. We spent a little time in the garden of palm trees - but not too much, because it was so hot.

Misha in the teachers' office room.

The boys enjoy the pool on a hot afternoon. We always swim after 5 p.m. to avoid the worst of the sun.

We ventured outside of the compound to this nearby park. I was feeling rather depressed about being stuck in my big, long abaya, which discourages me from playing much with the kids, like taking Sebby down the slide. But it's a better way to interact with people in the area. I talked to another mother in my limited Arabic, and Misha made some buddies by sharing his new sand toys.

The Chili's restaurant, as we discovered serendipitously, has a great shaded park in back for kids! I think Misha had more fun here than anywhere since we've been here.

This is Enid, our wonderful babysitter for Sebastian (and for Misha when he has days off from preschool). Before we left for the summer, we wanted to take her out for dinner - thus, the Chili's expedition. It was a nice evening.

It's funny how Sebastian has realized that the abaya means someone is leaving. When Enid would come in the morning, Sebby would start to whimper as I put on my abaya to leave. When I came home after work and Enid put on her abaya, he knew she was heading home and he would start to wave goodbye.

Sebby falls asleep in funny places. He fights sleep until he's simply too tired to hold his head up, and he conks out right on the floor. Misha kindly put a sheet over him. ;)

On that same day, Misha fell asleep in the closet!

Both kids still have an affinity for crowding into small spaces.

And Misha is forever doing his projects. He makes all sorts of creative things, like this elephant trunk. He does get homesick, especially for his relatives in the US, but he has been adjusting well particularly these last few weeks. Lately he has been talking about building a rocket, or wings, or a tunnel, or a special computerized way to travel back and forth from Saudi Arabia to America. That's quite a task! He gets so involved in his projects that we have to tempt him out of the house to do errands by promising a ride on the roller coaster.

Another project - a papier mache mask.

You can often find Misha with a pencil in one hand and his special bear, Growl, in the other.

Misha in my abaya. When I asked him why, he said he was cold.

Josh and I have had a little extra time to wander the Dira Sooq some more. Here we are outside of Masmak Fort.

We took Misha out to eat at Fuddruckers - and gave him the chance to play a few games.

Driving a Hummer in Toys R Us. Many people actually own Hummers here - it comes in handy when you want to drive over a curb, as so many drivers to do maneuver to a better position.

My first trip to Riyadh Gallery (another mall). They have a beautiful landscaped scene where you can sit and drink coffee while admiring the stuffed animals.

Misha showing off his new clothes.

Hat shopping for Sebby.

Eyeing the dresses - this one sells for 1000 Riyals. ($260)

And of course, we made sure some of our time this past week was spent on mall rides and games. Misha loves this miniature air hockey table. The best part is that since air hockey requires no attendant, it is open during prayer time. Misha played over and over during the break. He even played several games against other kids - he liked that a lot more than playing mom and dad.

Prayer times at this time of year happen at about 3:15 a.m., noon, 3-ish in the afternoon, 6:30 p.m., and 8:00 p.m. Times vary depending on when the sun rises and sets. The first prayer happens at dawn - and if you don't believe that the sun actually rises at 3:15 in the morning, just ask Josh. He was awake quite late one night and he has confirmed this phenomenon. We were amazed.

Each time prayer hits, all stores close down for about half an hour. In theory it doesn't seem like this would matter so much, but in reality, it is uncanny how often we arrive at a store only to find that the gates are closing. In a city where so much time is wasted in traffic, it is hard to be patient for even longer when a store is closed for prayer. We try to schedule our outings so as not to run into more than one prayer time - but it's not easy!

The best time to go shopping is in the morning. Most places are open by 9:30, giving you several hours until noon prayer. Most places close in the heat of the day from 12 to 4, at which point they open until late into the night, sometimes until 11 or midnight. Most of the Saudis like to shop after the last prayer, which means shops are incredibly crowded at night and filled with families with children.

The boat ride.

Another favorite - bumper cars!

Big guy in a little car.

Misha on display!

Dad and Misha in the mall.

Me with the kids in Gap.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Athlete's Foot ... and other signs

This post is dedicated to signs I've seen in Riyadh - some amusing, some interesting, and some puzzling. My favorite is this shoe store. I can only assume that the owner is blissfully unaware that "athlete's foot" has a different connotation in America.

I like to notice how the Arabic transcriptions closely match the original style of writing with regard to font, color, etc. I thought this Baskin Robins sign was a good example of that. (If you zoom in, perhaps you can see that little striped-shirted body in the window -- Misha getting a cone.)

Another store sign with the same feel in both alphabets:

Perhaps you can recognize this restaurant from the logo? It's Fuddruckers. Arabic omits vowels (except in books for children learning how to read) so the sign actually only uses the sounds for /f/, /d/, /r/, /k/, /r/, and /z/.

The American restaurant Church's Chicken had to be renamed here in Saudi Arabia, due to the word "church" in the name. Voila, it becomes Texas Chicken.

Walking through the mall, I was shocked when I saw this sign. Not by the words, mind you, but simply by the fact that such a sign was in a window display in a Saudi mall. Perhaps the censors didn't know what the word "cleavage" meant?

I even found a store named for me:

My Arabic name in lights:

It is also very interesting to see how businesses deal with the human form in their advertisements. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the women on boxes of swim toys were blacked out with marker. However, women are not the only issue. Islam, especially under certain interpretations like in Saudi Arabia, is often very uncomfortable with the representation of living things, particularly the human form, because it's seen as idolatry. This idea crashes head-first into the modern consumer-centered world of marketing, where visuals are everything. The two very opposing viewpoints have resulted in a multitude of ways to censor or tone down the human form. This applies to men, women, and children. Sometimes, a poster of a human model will be unaltered; other times, the skin (even on a man) will be pixelated or blurred, showing only the clothes in focus.

These photos offer some examples. This rather eerie poster has children with their faces blurred out.

In some cases, pixelating the eyes seems to enough. From afar the photo looks normal. Up close, you realize that the "something strange about this photo" is in the eyes.

In more disturbing cases, the eyes are blurred out entirely.

These posters I am discussing are not wallet-sized inserts in a brochure either. To give you an idea of the massive size of these poster children, take a look at me below, with one of our friends who works with Josh.
If I was the store-owner with a choice of having no photo or this one, the choice would be obvious. I'm not sure how an image like this would draw people into the store.

And if all else fails ...

one can always tape a piece of paper over a sign, like this poster for anti-bacterial soap!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Do you know your Eastern numbers?

This elevator sign shows the two sets of written numbers used here. In this photo, the numbers mirror each other, with the two sixes in the middle, the fives one step outside, then onto the fours, and so on. Though both sets originated in India, they are now more often called "Arabic" numbers, for it was the Arabs who spread them. The two types have many different names, but to keep things simple, I'll call the set commonly used in the Middle East (the first line below) Eastern Arabic numerals, and the set we are familiar with (the second line) simply Arabic numerals.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

To really get around here, you need to know how to read both sets of numbers. Many things, such as price tags, are written both ways. Some things, such as speed limits and addresses on buildings, are only in Eastern numerals, while others - often phone numbers - are written "normally" for us as Westerners.

Numbers are written as we are accustomed to - that is, from left to right. Thus, the above address "2000" is written in Eastern Arabic numerals the same way, with the two coming first followed by the three zeros.

Words and sentences, in contrast, are written from right to left, or "backwards" from our point of view. This entails more than just reading right to left on a page. Books, newspapers, fliers, magazines, and menus open from the "back." We recently felt quite foolish at a restaurant when we couldn't find the appetizers on the menu and the waiter kindly directed us to what we had assumed was the back of the menu. When students write essays in their notebooks, they turn the pages "backwards" to continue writing. When they compile a project into a binder, the binder also opens from the "back." When they sheath a paper in a protector, they put it in "backwards." I use quotes for the word "backwards" because, of course, the direction we write is arbitrary, as any parent can see when their young child accidentally writes his or her name as if it were in a mirror.

It takes a bit of "translating" of sorts to read numbers in a different system. This building's address is 758.

Many license plates, like this one, have the numbers written both ways, though many have only the Eastern style numbers.

Knowing numbers becomes a little more important when driving. We recently discovered that the numbers on the left of this sign tell us how many km. until the respective exits. One km. to King Abdullah Road, and three km. to Imam Saud. Only the main roads in the center are labeled in English and Arabic. Once we venture beyond downtown, the road signs become a sea of very long Arabic street names. We can pick out the word for "king" (malik) and the names Saud, Faisal, and Abdul Aziz - and that actually covers a lot!

Saudi Riyals have Eastern Arabic numerals on the front, and regular Arabic numbers on the back. But, if you have any dignity, the last thing you want to do while paying for something is flip your money over to check the number! The bills from top to bottom are: 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500. One dollar is 3.75 Riyals. They also have coins for half-Riyals and quarter-Riyals, but they are rarely used. Cents are called "hallallas." Items in the store may be tagged a certain amount of Riyals with some hallallas after the decimal; at the check-out, the hallallas are usually rounded to the nearest Riyal, or sometimes the cashier will throw in a pack of gum to call it even.

Now for your quiz. Say you're driving down a road in Saudi Arabia. How fast (in km.) would you be wise to drive as you pass each sign? (Keep in mind that getting pulled over is a frustrating and time-consuming process, which could result in being jailed for a few hours if some of your documents are amiss.)





1. 60
2. 120
3. 40
4. 50