Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ma'salama, I'm Leaving Saudi

You're invited to my Ma'salama - I'm leaving Saudi.  That invite, or something similar, arrives in my e-mail on a fairly regular basis.  A ma'salama is a farewell party, though the literal meaning of the word is 'Peace be with you'.  People tend to celebrate leaving Saudi permanently.  We're getting out.  Woohoo good for us.  Never mind you losers still left here to suffer...that's the general feeling put out there anyways.  Though, believe it or not, I've met people who admit they are actually going to miss the place.

Yes, there are some folks who are sad to leave Saudi.  They have enjoyed their experience, which doesn't mean it was all smooth sailing, they just took Saudis quirkiness in their stride. For all its 'weirdness' Saudi isn't that bad a country to live in, as an expat.  We're a very welcoming community (mostly) and it is possible to do whatever you want here if you look hard enough.  It's that sense of community that people miss once they get back to their rat racing homelands.

Heck, I even know a number of people who left with a 'Cheerio, I'm never coming back' and a year or two later, here they are again! (I don't reckon those types should get another crack at a Ma'salama - not unless the second time round is substantial, like 20 years!)

Anyway, Ma'salama parties come in all shapes and sizes - the formal occasion, the small dinner party, the compound shindig or the desert blow out.  I guess it depends how many friends you have and what kind of circles you circulate in.

Some people don't have a ma'salama.  They sneak out in the dead of night, only telling their nearest and dearest they are leaving.  Usually that's because they have been sacked.  Or they're doing a runner.

Hubster says its not easy to sack someone in Saudi because the Labour Law is quite clear on the when's, why's and how's of any dismissal,  but it does seem to happen quite frequently, the typical 'we have to let you go' reason being 'We don't have a role for you here anymore' or
'We're not renewing your contract'
'Why not?'
'We're just not.' - which isn't actually a sacking, though it feels like one.

I understand those who do runners usually have a lot of debt they're trying to escape, though I know one guy who went out on holiday and never came back because his boss had started being a prat.  Generally speaking, if you do a runner you should have no intention of ever coming back to Saudi because re-entry could be very problematic for you.

Whether you choose to end your contract, or it is chosen for you, once you're on a Final Exit you have to rattle your dags because without a job you shouldn't be staying in the country and Final Exits usually come with a time frame for getting your exit visa sorted and your heeny on a plane.  Women who leave Saudi for good swear black and blue they are going to the airport without an abaya and wearing a mini-skirt.  Alcohol at the Ma'salama party is usually responsible for such promises.

We had two Ma'salama's at the end of Feb, both were quiet affairs - one a picnic in the desert, the other a quiet afternoon by the pool with some very zesty apple juice.   Mr UK has headed back to English shores and The Americans are off to Europe.  We will miss Mr UK popping his head out the window for a chat and No 4 won't be the same without The Americans sitting on their patio.  But life in Saudi is a revolving door of people, so we're looking forward to seeing who will be sitting on the patio next month, and who might be popping their head out the window.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

A Weekend In Al Jouf

Recently, I flew to Al Jouf in northern Saudi to spend a weekend sight seeing with a van full of outspoken Saudi women, one quiet Aussie lady (not the norm for Ozzies, I know) and a bloke from the Netherlands courtesy of Haya Tour.  It was a long, tiring trip and sifting through the numerous photo's I took, it was easy to see why.  We packed quite a lot into our 48 hours.

Our flight to Al Jouf on Saudi Air was at 5am on Friday morning.  Saudi Air, I have to say, is a nice airline to fly.  They have in the past had a few issues to deal with (things like being on time and bumping people off flights for no rational explanation) but seem to have sorted themselves out, just a little.  And the seats on their aircraft are very comfortable.  If they had a points system with Emirates, I'd fly them more often.  (Other expats decry the lack of booze on Saudi air but, really, I'm more interested in comfort and safety).

Anyway, on arrival at Al Jouf airport we were met by our guide and introduced to his daughter, who kept us company the entire time, and the young bloke who was to be our van driver.  After assuring our guide that luggage for nine women was not going to fit in the van with us, he eventually piled it all into his SUV, and we got straight into the tour.

Our first stop was Marid Castle and Omar mosque, both recently reconstructed, and the village that surrounds them (soon to be reconstructed).   Having visited a number of old towns outside Riyadh I'm used to the old mud structures.  This town, however, was stone, and there was a lot of it with pieces piled precariously on top of one another, without cement between.  Stepping carefully among them was highly recommended.  I wouldn't have liked to be the one responsible for bringing a pile down.

The fortified Marid castle built on a rocky hill and standing over the town would have been impressive in its day.  Apparently it used to be a governors residence with a resident garrison of soldiers for protection.  This day though, despite the new face lift, the collapsed brick wall atop it is like a gaping tooth against the blue sky and it is purely a tourist stop.  Those of us wanting a bit of early morning exercise climbed to the top of the fortress and were rewarded with a pleasant view over Sakaka, while the rest of our crew fossicked about the castles lower regions.

We spent quite a bit of time here.  It was quiet in the early morning and Omar mosque was cool and reverent, while the minaret stool tall and dignified above.  Both of these structures are said to replicate the original design of the first mosques in Islam.

With the sun beginning to warm up the day, we drove to our next destination - a lake in the surrounding hills of Domat al Jandal.    Originally a natural formation for water collection, it has been expanded and upgraded for modern irrigation purposes.  It's a lovely day time picnic spot, and we certainly had a very relaxing time there, though I imagine the mozzies would come out in force at night.

Next on our agenda was a visit to an olive farm.  Al Jouf is known as an agricultural center in the north and as well as dates and oranges they have discovered the climate is perfect for olives.  I understand the plan is to expand olive production to the extent Al Jouf Olive Oil achieves a large market share in Saudi.

In fact, this weekend was the last of a month long Olive Festival in Al Jouf.  Apparently there are two festivals - one for picking of the olives and another, a few months later, for selling the olive oil produced as well as other olive related products.  Our trip was to the former and, as we had come at the end of the month most of the olives had been picked though we did manage to find a few stray olives to examine.  Our olive farm visit was simply a nice stroll through an Orange, Olive and Date Grove.  What was interesting though, was this is the first place in Saudi where I have seen inter-cropping of other plants with date palms and, apparently, it's all going very well.

Our group had been up and about for a number of hours by this time, and decided it was time to visit our hotel, scoff a late lunch and have a power nap before heading out that evening to the Festival Hall where we could meet a few locals and suss out some local produce.  We met ladies spinning wool and dying wool and hand looming decorative wall pieces for traditional tent settings among other things.  Although we had come to an Olive Festival, most of the ladies in our group walked away from the market with well priced carpet and tent decor!

This is a ladder!  Uh huh!
The next morning bright and early we were off to Zabil Fort where some of us attempted to climb on to the lookout platform up what our guide called ladders but in reality were little more than wooden pegs stuck into mud walls.  (We failed miserably owing largely to our largeness!).  After stopping off to view a now empty well,  it was off to an oil pressing factory.

The olive oil factory is part of a co-op which means a collective of farms sends in the olives and the factory presses them and ships the resultant product off in rather large cans for sale.  We spent a bit of time here watching the process from washing the olives, to mushing them into and paste and then extracting the oil.  As was expected, we got to sample some of the produce.  According to our resident olive oil expert, Al Jouf Olive Oil is good quality stuff - fresh, slightly fruity, bitter and burns the back of the throat when you swallow, good for salads and dunking your bread in.  (Of course I went straight to Google to see what if he knew what he was talking about and fruity, bitter and pungent are the extent of the list for "Characteristics of Good Quality Olive Oil").  I have to say, the peppery aspect of olive oil was news to me and is only present if the oil is fresh.  Sounds like I've been using older olive oils all this time!

Our van left the olive oil factory loaded with cans of freshly pressed oil.  (Flying with oil is not permitted, however, so the guide organised for all our oil to be delivered to Riyadh by road over the next couple of days).  Next stop was to the offices of the Al Kayid Brother Company.

Doors to the office.  If the doors look good, you can bet the office looks fab!
The President of this company had met Salwa the previous evening and, on hearing we were touring the town, invited us to visit their local offices.  Apart from being a contracting company Al Kayid Brothers is also involved in community activities, specifically the Al Kayid Cultural Center for Community and the OUN Social Project that assists local families into small enterprise.    The President, Mr Muflih bin Abdullah Al Kayid, was at the Olive Festival as many of the women presenting products were part of this social project. The company has also built the local amusement park for women and, two years ago, completed the towns first Mall. With such a big player in the town offering his hospitality, it would have been impolite of us to decline this offer, so we added a visit into our busy schedule.  It was nice to take a bit of time to sit down after our early start.

But all too soon we were back on the mini-bus and driving into the desert.  Our next stop, the standing stones of Rajajil.  No-one is quite sure who put the stones here or why.  Theories abound of sun worship, cursed tribes turned to stone or some astrological connection.  The stones, though currently in various degrees of tilt, are mysterious enough to swing conversation of their origins from historical to fanciful.  The area is being developed for future tourism so is fenced off but, as always in Saudi, a hole in the fence means come in!

After qahwah, dates and biscuits, and relieving oneself behind the dunes, we were off to visit a hobby farm.  The owner of this farm grows olives and also has a number of horses.  He welcomed us to his land and then talked about his hobby as we followed him around.  It was a nice way to spend the late afternoon.  Everyone got a thrill when the horses came over and started running about.

Soon, with the sun setting in a wash of orange and fiery yellow, we were whisked down the road toward a local museum  (no visit to Saudi townships is complete without a visit to a local museum).  The pieces in this place had been collected by the owners father, now deceased, and the gentleman showing us around was happy displaying Dad's hard work.

Our weekend in al Jouf was drawing to a close and though tired from our sight seeing at no point did the chatter in the van slow down.  In fact, when it came time to tell our driver what food would sufficiently meet all our tastes, discussion got louder and more excited.  If you have ever traveled with Saudi women you will know that chatter, discussion, laughter, opinions, debate and friendly chiding are all par for the course - usually not quietly! At one point I admit I had to close my eyes and try to shut out the noise of it all.  But then I thought, I'm spending the weekend travelling in a van loaded with Saudi women, seeing new sights and learning new things about the country and its people - something not many expats get to do, and I should enjoy every last minute of it.  So, with a deep, centering breath, I did.

Finding a local eatery that would keep everyone happy was a test for our driver, but he came through and we ate our food in the van as we traveled to the newly built mall.  We were met by the manager of the mall who had been informed of our arrival and had organised a meal for us (if only we had known!).  This time we had to say thank you, but no as after a quick scout through the shops, we still had one other item on our schedule before heading off to the airport.  We were going to look through the local date market and oh what a lot of dates there were.  Having become quite partial to Saudi grown dates, a few were purchased to keep our house stocks up.

 And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my weekend in Al Jouf.  I'm quite certain I got more out of it than the weekend to Dubai that Hubster had originally planned and I decided to forego (you resident expats will think I'm crazy for turning that down, I know!)  Next year maybe I'll go back to Al Jouf for the Olive Products Festival and drag Hubster along with me.


Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Education Reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Reading articles about education reforms in Saudi Arabia is a bit of a hobby of mine.  Having grown up with parents very involved in education, and then having participated in a number of education related projects myself over the years, I just can't help being drawn to reports on the subject.

A number of recent articles have been quite interesting and, if you're the least bit interested in teaching as a profession in this country, you might find the unfolding saga of improving Saudi's education system as intriguing as I do.  Let's start with this editorial in the Arab News - Streamlining the educational system (Mar 2014) -  which basically looks at whether spending the huge education budget (somewhere in the vicinity of 200 billion SAR) on teacher training and happiness, including accommodation, is preferable to spending most of the budget on better looking schools.  It's almost a chicken and egg situation - What should come first, good quality structures or good quality teachers and how does one strike the right balance of both of these factors effectively?

This article in Al Arabya News, 'Saudi Arabia's education system in the spotlight again', (Feb 2014) touches on a number of reasons for the failure of the Saudi Education system to turn out well educated citizens, though the main thrust is lack of quality, not just in the curriculum but also the teachers, two obvious reasons for failing education anywhere.
But how to fix these problems, that is the question.
Reform is always the answer.
Implementation of said reforms is another story.

It appears issues with the curriculum are being addressed if this 'Saudi education catching up world's best' article (Nov 2013) is anything to go by, where the introduction of a 'revamped national curriculum' allows students to 'acquire skills such as conception, practice, critical thinking, innovation and creativity' through 'discovery, practice, experience and collaboration' as opposed to the rote learning methods currently used.

Having an improved curriculum is a good start to Saudi's education issues.  However, in order for the new curriculum to be implemented successfully, teachers need professional development in its delivery.  Teaching teachers who are the product of a public school system that discouraged critical thinking, creativity or any form of debate how to teach outside the only square they know is a bit of a challenge in itself.  And, unfortunately, training teachers and changing attitudes and behaviors (both of teachers and students) doesn't happen overnight.

(Did a Panteen ad just pop into your head?  It popped into mine - "It won't happen overnight, but it will happen".  I think I ought to wrap this post up and go to bed!)  

Probably the best and quickest way for Saudi teachers to begin to grasp the Constructivism Learning Theory that current policy is asking them to comprehend is to send them overseas to western schools already utilizing the model to get a feel for it, to see the theory in action in the classroom, to ask questions about it and to try it out themselves.  I'm sure many a teacher trainee would jump at the chance of an overseas training  jaunt exercise.  But, in lieu of the government funding teacher training trips to the wicked west, the next best thing is to have the west come to Saudi.

Goodness knows there are umpteen international organisations chomping at the bit to come to Saudi Arabia and help them out with their education woes, while enjoying a slice of the multi-billion dollar budget set aside for education reform, and if you'd visited the recent Education Exhibition you would have met representatives from more than a few of them.

This is the second time I've been to a Saudi Education Exhibition and what was refreshingly obvious was the number of young Saudi presenting products and systems, as opposed to foreigners.  Though, there again is a problem.  The bright and beautiful of Saudi don't want to teach in classrooms...they prefer to be at the top, tech savvy or managerial end of the education sector.

I also got a sense that Saudi parents and students were looking at the educational programs on display as shortcuts to success.  Meaning, they believe if they plug a program into their TV or computer and sit their child in front of it he, or she, will get brainy.  The Saudi psyche, generally speaking, doesn't yet consider learning through communication, questioning, actively searching for answers, discussion and interaction to be 'education'.   One day they will.  That day is not yet here.

Of course, reforms in curriculum, teacher training methods and educational attitudes aren't the only problems with Saudi education.  The mess seems to start from the top in the Ministry (and if I'm reading the signs correctly that means someone is helping themselves to the cream off the budget pie while slices are being handed out willy nilly to keep the loudest children quiet), so it too is going through a shake up.  Hopes are being pinned on the newly appointed Minister of Education, Khalid al-Faisal to sort things out.  Best of luck to him fixing the Saudi Arabian education system and implementing any reforms.  And that, folks is my round up on Saudi Arabia and education.  Chur :)

Ka Kite,

Monday, 3 March 2014

Golden Brown Cupcakes in Riyadh

The other day I was talking to a bloke about muffins and cupcakes.  'Oh', he said.  'Golden Brown is the best' and he got no argument from me.  Cupcakes and muffins are not usually my cup of tea but then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Golden Brown creations and took a real fancy to the mini-cupcakes.  It's not just that they are rather cute with their little iced carrots and bananas sitting prettily atop the cupcake! They're also quite delicious.  It's nice to hear other people still think so after all this time.

Over the last couple of years, more than a few cupcake and muffin shops have opened in Riyadh city central and, being a nosey parker, I've popped in to peruse, and occasionally purchase, the baked treats on offer.
Unfortunately, not all the goodies carried home to be shared with Hubster were as Yummy as the pretty frosting decorations would have you believe.  Many of the large muffins had a mass-produced plastic taste and those piled high with icing are sickeningly sweet.  I was about to give up bothering with The Great Muffin Movement taking Riyadh by storm (a category into which I also lump cupcakes) when I discovered the mini-cupcakes that hail from Golden Brown, an establishment on the corner of Dhabab and Thalatheen, right next to the Family Basket Pharmacy. 

It was, in fact, at the house of Louise that I first laid eyes on a Golden Brown mini-cupcake and I admit I wasn't expecting much.  Even though our hostess with the mostest was waxing lyrical about their delectable-ness, I was somewhat dubious as cakes and bakeries are a dime a dozen in this desert city where a sweet tooth is the norm and obesity must think it's at a fun park!  These mini-cakes had eye appeal, certainly, but they were just so darned small.

But great things come in small packages.
Isn't that what they say?
And the frosting on these little cherubs, made with cream cheese so I hear, is just delish!

Usually these cupcakes are bought by the box and carried carefully to whichever gathering is on the agenda for the day.  (It is not unknown for Mr Noor and I to sample at least one of these tasty morsels on the way to our destination, hence the need to buy a couple of extra's whenever an occasion calls for these sweet treats).  But if you have nowhere to go, or just fancy spoiling yourself (as I did this morning), there is a small space for women only to sit and munch on a cupcake, or three, with mosaic decorated wrought iron seats and tables reminding one of lazy, blue sky days on rough stoned outdoor patios next to an over-grown wild sown garden.  It's just a pity there's no garden in sight.

Golden Brown bakery also sells other bite sized goodies but, to be honest, I only go back for the mini-cupcakes because they make excellent dainties to take along for an afternoon tea visiting friends when the idea of baking sends me into cringing spasms which, these days, is fairly often.  Go try them out.  Let me know what you think.

Where is Golden Brown Bakery?

View Dining Out In Riyadh in a larger map

Ka Kite,

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