Posts in Arab culture

My pilgrimage to Vienna

Three years ago today, I went to Vienna, ready with all the notarized documents from Sudan, and as the old Slovene saying goes: “I left my stomach at home.” It rhymes in our language and it means Vienna is such an expensive city, one must forget their hunger in order to get by there.

Early in the morning I went on a pilgrimage to 3 embassies in the Austrian capital: Sudanese, Slovenian and Saudi. First I stopped at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and treated myself to a cup of pumpkin spice latte in the nearby Starbucks – it was fall after all! The bus brought me from Ljubljana around 8.00 AM, so I had some time to spare before office hours started at all three locations.

I had 2 missions to complete: attesting our marriage certificate from Sudan and to apply for a Saudi visa. At first it went like clockwork, but at the last stop, things went downhill. Us mere mortals cannot simply walk into the embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so I was basically headed to the certified agency that processes applications.

I enter a small office, where a man with distinct Arab features greets me from behind his desk. I present all the papers, my ID photos and start patting the envelope with cash in my purse on my lap…

“Two hundred and forty euros,” the bearded agent tells me with a heavy Arab accent, and at that moment I have to catch my breath.

“But, but… You told my husband on the phone that the whole thing would cost 180 euros.”

“Well hey, 180 € is for running the procedure. What about the shipping costs? We have to send your passport with the issued visa to your home address,” he explains to me with dramatic gestures.

“So shipping such a light envelope costs 60€?” I manage to utter the whole sentence without stuttering with a heavy dose of disbelief on my face.

I hold the bills between my fingers, I know that I only have exactly 240€. That’s it. I still need some cash for at least some water, if not a meal. Don’t ask me what happened with my bank card, I don’t remember. In any case, I found myself in a seemingly hopeless situation.

I call Tamer, who wants to speak to the agent. I sit in the chair listening to one side of the conversation in Arabic. When I hear Tamer’s voice again, I am relieved, because he tells me that everything is okay. I end the call.

“Two hundred and twenty euros,” the agent puts the matter to rest with a smile on his face, no mercy. No receipt either.

After completing the transaction, I sat down in a nearby park and called Tamer again.
“He charged me two hundred and twenty in the end…”
“What?! He told me on the phone that it would only be two hundred!”

Believe it or not, that’s how my first one-year visit visa to Saudi Arabia was haggled in the middle of Vienna. My Arabian adventure began for real just over a month later.

A hologram for the king – a review

At the age of 54, American businessman Alan travels to the city of Jeddah in the arabian desert by the Red Sea, where he hopes for his next big break after past career failures, a painful divorce and inability to pay for his daughter’s tuition. He wants to sell the latest state of the art communication system to the technologically ambitious kingdom, but when he arrives to the other side of the world, he is faced with an obvious lack of interest and so he and his team are waiting day after day to present their business opportunity to King Abdullah personally…

One of the few elements of realism in this film, which takes place in Saudi Arabia (where filming took place and some shots are also from Morocco), is the Godotesque principle of waiting for something to happen.

I have already written about this phenomenon (Bukra, Inshallah), the famous response “come back tomorrow… tomorrow, it can be arranged (Inshallah)” is something self-evident and expected if you live in Saudi Arabia. Nothing can be rushed, nothing comes with force. And this “tomorrow” can be repeated just like “Groundhog day”, which the main character’s everyday routine reminds us of.

From there on, truthfulness is thrown to the wind, starting with the casting of actors who portray the locals. An Indian woman in the role of a Saudi doctor, an American (of Egyptian descent) in the role of a good-natured Bedouin driver… It could have been done better.

image 6483441

For some reason, American film and series productions have great difficulty portraying authentic Muslim rituals, which I can address in more detail on another occasion. Just one hint: it probably isn’t that hard to google, “how Muslims pray” or “what Muslims don’t do while praying.”

The fact that the story (including in the novel published in 2012) is set in 2010 may not tell the outside observer much, but all of us present in Saudi Arabia in 2022 may without a doubt deny and disprove a number of cultural practices, from the mandatory headscarf for women, to public executions etc. The problem arises when this modern depiction of the infamous Arabian kingdom is abused for everyday stereotypes that only harm the progress of international relations and increase fear of the unknown and less visited countries.

The obsession with uncovering and undressing Muslim women could also not be avoided in A hologram for the king, as it is easier for the West to ignore the religious practice of wearing the hijab and modesty. Thus, the widespread belief that “the hijab cannot possibly be a voluntary act of worship,” can continue to live on and remain a fitting argument in any debate on the sovereignty of Muslim women.

Lawrence… Pardon – Alan of Arabia, unfortunately, does not bother to learn even a decent salamalaykum, while Arabic speakers manage to deviate from many other American depictions, in which we can anticipate only broken English, which work wonders to convince us of the lower intelligence / education of non-Westerners.

Tom Hanks, a “can do no wrong” and loved by many (myself included), does not disappoint with his performance, and Hologram for the King can undoubtedly convince a wider audience as a final product, as it has a recipe for a pleasant viewing experience with plenty of moments for comic relief, a predictable love interest and the expected bitter-sweet ending.

Ramadan 2022

April 1st

Ramadan is here. We wish you all the best from our balcony in Jeddah.

Today we drank our last afternoon tea, from tomorrow on we will treat ourselves to it after sunset. The month of fasting will bring challenges and sacrifices, lovemaking only at night, sweetness of dates as soon as we shall hear the sound of the adhan in the evening.

Ramadan Kareem to everyone. Let this Ramadan be generous, in English.

April 3rd

In the spirit of Ramadan, I want to share with you one part of a hadith, a narration from the Prophet’s companions, regarding fasting in this holy month.

Narrated Abu Huraira, The Prophet ﷺ said, “Fasting is a shield. So, the person observing fasting should avoid sexual relation and should not behave foolishly and impudently, and if somebody fights with him or abuses him, he should tell him twice, ‘I am fasting.”

Source of the hadith: Sahih al-Bukhari 1894

IMG 9583

April 20th

After a short break, I am fasting again. I had a severe case of tonsillitis and after I started to get better, I then got my period. All the good reasons for me to take the time off without fasting. I have to admit, the first day I started again was quite difficult.

Now it’s day 4. What a difference! It’s true, I am able to stay home. I can take time to rest. If only I wanted to. I really dislike sleeping during the day. One thing that is converting me into an incorrigible misanthrope is still our neighbors. Just before Ramadan started, a new family moved next door. Tamer says they probably had to be evicted from their previous apartment, and now they can scream all they want without any consequence, because they are related to our landlord (who still lives with his family above us, and the latter likes to move furniture and encourage children to do indoor sports in the middle of the night).

This is the side of Ramadan that puts me in a bad mood. I resent this selfishness with all my being, their audacity to affect others with their choice to live at night and sleep during the day. And no, we can’t afford a conflict. And so, I can only sleep in shorter chapters. 3-4 hours at night. Maybe 3 more in the afternoon. Today, for example, I didn’t sleep at all during the day. As I write this, I look at the clock so that I can fill the water cups in time and prepare a bowl of dates. A little over 10 minutes to the adhan left.

On the other hand: this month is being pretty good to us. Or is it just that our point of view is such that we can recognize blessings in everyday things?

April 22nd

How can you be sure, that you are mastering the Ramadan fast?

When the alarm wakes you up for sahúr and you don’t overthink what you’re going to eat. Leftovers from the previous day, freshly baked bread from last night with a spread or just oatmeal with nuts and fruit… Don’t forget some juice / smoothie and water.

And what’s the most important part?

You don’t panic. You are not gulping water down because you have been hydrating enough with various fluids beforehand. You don’t count down the seconds for the last sip.

Why? Because you live across the street from the mosque, from where the muezzin’s voice often echoes a minute or even two too early. Adhan means fasting has started, regardless of the exact time on your phone.

When that no longer surprises or upsets you, when you are calm and ready for a new day, then you know, “I got this.”

DF3CED22 02D6 4EAA AF4A 34E36BD918D0

April 30th

Tomorrow is the last day of fasting, the last day of Ramadan.

We ate a little less this month, but rested more on the other hand.

I kept up the habit and continued to learn Arabic, which I started during last year’s Ramadan.

We captured and took 5 feline neighbors for neutering.

We visited the park a few times, we also treated ourselves to iftar in a restaurant a couple of times.

And yesterday we finally went to the historic part of town again, to see the decorated streets with lanterns. We were delighted to discover a shop selling traditional sweets on the way, and so we stocked up for the upcoming Eid.

“Will we have these for guests or for gifts if we visit anyone,” I asked Tamer… The look in his eyes was telling me of a different plan.

When we got home, he had already opened the bag. “It needs a taste test,” he said.

So today I had to hide the sweet treasures, as I’ve done in the past. Being the house squirrel and all that. They can wait at least until the end of Ramadan! I placed them in… No. I can’t tell you. Tamer also reads my letters, so I have to keep this secret to myself – at least for another day.

IMG 9582

May 2nd

“I’m afraid you were right,” he tells me while sitting behind the wheel.

We’re running late again. We were stuck in traffic, everyone rushing to the same destination – Eid prayer at one of the lovely mosques by the sea.

I, already in such a bad mood, was not making the situation worse. “Maybe we can reach another place on time, if there is one just as nice nearby…”

Oh, why was I frowning? Because I couldn’t wear my new abaya for Eid! It is customary to wear something new or the best you already have in your closet for such a holiday. However, because the dumbasses in the store overlooked and failed to remove the magnetic tag, it remained nailed to my new wide sleeve. So by wearing it like that, I would be mortified if anyone saw me in public.

“I can try breaking it with a hammer,” Tamer offered immediately. Alas, there was no time for such risks. We were already late for other reasons. I was convinced that, just like last year, e would be missing Eid prayer.

But Tamer did not give up, he managed to escape the caravan and tried to reach the nearest parking lot from a different direction. Successfully! And more importantly, on time.

There was an echoing sound of takbeer coming from the minarets of the nearby mosques, the wind was carrying “Allahu Akbar” from all sides.

20220502 063118

My bad mood vanished completely when the imam’s voice sounded the prayer, much nicer than the one we have in our neighborhood. For such a voice, one would open a window on time for every azan and listen with pleasure day after day.

“What a beautiful morning. I’m glad we made it,” Tamer remarks as we are heading back to the car.

“Yeah, yeah. You did everything in your power, just so I would not be right again!” Good thing, I can be wrong sometimes.

20220503 102142

Pieces of Madinah: Part 1

We took the first train from Jeddah to Medina. To the place where the Prophet is buried (peace be upon him).

The enlightened city is what they call it, ‎المدينة المنورة (Al Madinah Al Munawwarah) by the literal translation from Arabic. And it really is something out of the ordinary.

A place where people look upon each other with much kinder eyes. Where they are only in a rush for prayer, and even then most of them go on foot. Where the streets are so clean that Tamer and I wondered if we might have stumbled into some other dimension. We watched with our mouths open, anytime a person walked to the otherwise sparsely planted bins and threw in only a piece of paper or an empty water bottle, instead on the ground.

We were even more astonished as we sat in the square in front of a mosque in the evening and realized that children were riding bicycles, not driving electric go karts. One kilo of local dates for just five riyals? Two for the road, please.

And more of this side of Saudi Arabia, please. So I don’t lose faith in people. We will go to Medina again one day, Inshallah.

B31B3EBC 23FE 4429 AE1A 510B0085415C

***

In Medina, I finally immersed myself in the language, there was no other choice. English can only get you so far, then you have to go on foot with Arabic. Slowly, but surely.

How proud I was of myself when I heard myself replying to the intrusive taxi drivers that I was coming with my husband from the train station, thus letting it be known that I would not be renting the transport myself.
“La, ana ma zouji.”

Why some aunties in the mosque were asking ‘me’ for directions to the restrooms, I can’t tell you. Maybe by chance, or perhaps, after two and a half years in Saudi Arabia, I appear to be a lot more sure of myself and no longer look around like some shy doe.

Coincidentally, I also knew where the Zamzam water tanks were located and so I was able to point out them out to a woman, who believed I had to be the right person to ask.

What about Tamer? He was astonished at each interaction: “Look at you. Mashallah, Mashallah.”

“You will have to get a move on to catch up with your Slovene,” I started teasing him.

5234DD10 96FF 4291 A2BB 9B9086E969C4

Neighbors from hell

If you think how different it is to live on another continent, surrounded by a bunch of people from all over the world… One can be sure to find “those” kind of neighbors anywhere.

Those who walk exclusively on their heels and let their children jump and scream in the middle of the night. That family surely lives above you, of course.

Then there are also those who brew and burn some sort of stews day and night. Burnt onions and god knows what else from early morning till evening, as if they haven’t heard of “make a large pot for 3 days and give it a rest!” They live next door to us.

How do I know that? It took me quite a long time to figure out why we have to suffer whenever the neighbors get busy in their kitchen. At first I suspected that the smell was coming from our AC if we turned it on. That black onion essence was often so strong that we detected it even downstairs outside our building. We haven’t turned on the air conditioning for some time now, because the weather is so pleasant, our window open can be open practically all day.

Then it happened the other day, a distant memory of our neighbors from my childhood came to me. My family lived in an apartment building in Ljubljana then. Those were some next level special folks, like from a movie, I’ll withhold which genre for now.

I mention to Tamer how they were the only ones in our building with a tactic to open their balcony AND the front door to the hallway of the building whenever they were making some very stinky goulash type of dishes. It meant a nice and fast ventilation for them, but fumigation for all the rest, who needed to enter or leave their apartments in the next couple of hours.

If you, dear reader, do the same, then I am here to tell you that there is a special place in hell for the likes of you.

My husband had never heard of such a thing, of course he didn’t believe me. Then it had to happen, as always, when I’m right. Under our badly sealed front door, I sensed that familiar war gas creeping inside. I called Tamer to come see and theatrically opened the door to the hallway. We peered into the open apartment of our neighboring chefs.

Of course, my moment of victory “I told you so” did not last long. By practical demonstration we let even more pungent odors into our apartment, so we had to close the door pretty quickly.

Do you also have any neighbors from hell? If not, are you one of them?

Young drivers

Since schools reopened in Saudi Arabia as well, the streets have been much more lively in the morning. When I find it a little harder to get out of bed, I show up at our building entrance, where several pairs of hungry cat eyes are already waiting for me, a few minutes later than usual.

At that time, I can also expect to see an audience of curious children with their parents who sway even sleepier than me through our neighborhood making their way to their cars parked on the street.

Most of the time, I don’t pay much attention to these spectators, I prefer to focus on feeding my felines. This time, however, I found myself in the role of the observer, sitting on the mosque steps. Parked cars were lined up on the stage in front of me, and a young man dressed in a traditional white jalabíya, about 12 years old, came to the fore.

He opens the car door and first puts his school bag in the passenger seat. Then he settles himself in the driver’s seat and starts the engine. I watch in wonder. A hint of doubt still allows me to believe that the boy might be waiting for his father, and merely cooling the car with air conditioning until his arrival.

The next moment the young gentleman closes the door and drives off, soon leaving our home street. After I managed to pick my jaw off the ground, I realize what I just witnessed. Young Saudi just drove himself to school alone.

I’ve heard about how boys behind the wheel are an everyday occurrence in Saudi Arabia. But seeing one with your own eyes is a whole different story.

Fishermen’s invitation

“Aha, so you’ve decided to criticize again,” Tamer responds accussingly after I announced my new topic of the article, which I’ve been mulling over for about a week.

“No! It’s not a critique. It is more about raising awareness… ”I can already predict the reactions of my readers from Slovenia and the Balkans:

“So what? We have these ‘same’ polite phrases.”

I dare to even prophesy the objection of a local or an expat who will be offended and claim that I am wrong. Let me explain – this comes from my experience after two years of living in the Arab world and after reading many current debates on social media networks. What the article describes, of course, cannot be applied to just about every courtesy exchange in the Middle East and North Africa.

Allow me to begin by asking a question. With all the travel blogs overflooding the internet, have you ever come across anything like these two statements below?

“The Bedouins slaughtered a sheep just for us and served it for dinner. They wouldn’t let us pay. The hospitality here is exceptional! ”

“A stranger at the airport offered us a ride to the hotel. He didn’t want to take any money. The Arabs really are hospitable!”

First, let’s ask ourselves, why do we equate hospitality with something we can get for free? Is this really the only kind of hospitality that can accompany travelers on their journey back home with the impression: “we will surely come again, because they just gave us everything for free”?

I shall continue by raising some doubt: why would people who are proverbially famous good sellers (“they can sell sand in the middle of the desert”) gift tourists with goods such as transportation services and food? We can only consider extraordinary situations in today’s world when it comes to influencers, who are obviously meant to spread the good word about the country’s tourism. One of the internationally known travel bloggers, for example, in the vast majority of countries continues to point out how he is “not allowed” to pay at the stalls and how he was hosted in this and that restaurant for free. To put it mildly, this is a false story about hospitality, which should therefore be expected by all travelers and tourists. Is it really that hard to attribute smiles and free snacks to parading around with a camera, a drone, and a small technical team?

coffee

I can finally get to the core of the post, tackling the title. Fishermen’s invitation is the naming of a cultural phenomenon characterized by a tireless exchange of courtesy phrases, gifts, and promises. Let me illustrate:

The name of the custom is known in Arabic (دعوة مراكبية pronounced Da’wat Marakbiyah) mainly in Egypt and Sudan, where fishermen from boats would invite people on the shore to join them for tea. Since no one really intends to dive into the water to reach the boat, it is clear that the invitations are only polite and cannot be taken seriously.

Yet this type of politeness is very much alive among all those who stand firmly on land as well. The “fishermen’s” philosophy is also present in money transactions. Of course, one cannot point out any insincerity of the fight “who will pay for lunch for the whole table” between friends. Wrestling for the check is known in many cultures (also in our country, isn’t it?), but the Arabs go an extra mile when it comes to bragging about this kind of generosity (hospitality?).

The story gets complicated when it is necessary to pay for a service to a complete stranger. A taxi driver can say, “No need, it’s on me,” (خليها علينا pronounced Khaliha Alaina). Are you going to believe him? You are to accept an invitation to a dance, the steps of which can be quite unpredictable and exhausting, especially for those of us who swear by a more direct approach to everything in life and “do not waste time”. Back and forth. Twice, even three times you have to insist on paying. Why? Because it’s a culture! Many people think (I am many people), if they don’t want it, they have themselves to blame; why play this game of hide and seek, am I right?

Those who have not heard of the “fishermen’s invitation” may be more familiar with the Persian word ‘tarof’ (تعارف‎ pronounced ta’arof), which also denotes cultural exchange, etiquette in the area of ​​present-day Iran. It is a similar principle, but an even more complex set of rules of conduct. Empty promises and tireless exchange of courtesy gestures are cultural dance steps we must be prepared for.

Once again, invitations and free lunches are something completely different between friends and acquaintances. If someone invites us to their home, we can hope for genuine hospitality. But let’s not forget to return the favor and invite them for next time!

This post is not intended to offend any party. When I first pitched this to my friend Rebecca from the U.S., who had already visited Saudi Arabia as a tourist, she was scratching her head, thinking – did she perhaps unknowingly owe anyone any money? It sounded funny then and it still does today. I first opened the debate with a critique of some two American bloggers in the Kingdom, who shamelessly share posts about how so many things are simply given to them and attribute it to the famous hospitality or kindness of the nation. “But when I ask a guide, how much does a weekend camping in the desert cost, I get an an estimate of 400 EUR per person,” I was bitching to Rebecca and anyone else who was willing to listen to the stingy Slovenian. At the time, I just didn’t know what this cultural exchange was called. I got the answer last week on social media and asked my beloved Sudanese about it in more detail.

So let my monologue serve as a kind reminder to all who may find themselves at this end of the world and naively take a souvenir from the hands of a vendor at an Egyptian bazaar who insists at all costs that it is a gift. And when you are about to leave the shop without a clue, your husband from Sudan pays for it and thus knowingly completes the dance steps of the “fishermen’s puzzle”.

Bukra Inshallah

If you haven’t lived in this climate, in such society and culture … you can’t possibly comprehend: why time moves slowly, why people are always late as a rule, why so many errands and obligations are postponed to the next day (bukra Inshallah, they say, that ‘usually’ means: tomorrow god willing).

Sometimes it is difficult for us to go to the supermarket alone, especially in recent days. Ever since we returned from Slovenia, we have been dragging our feet. We miss the uncomplicated approach to any task, leaving the house for example – several times a day!

“Are we going to the bazaar tonight? And we ran out of milk … If we want cereal or pancakes for breakfast, we have no choice, we have to go!”

We stare at each other, both observing our internal struggles of responsibility versus laziness. Sooner or later one of us admits aloud:

“I already showered twice today, first in the morning after the cats and the second time in the afternoon after some tidying up the apartment. If we go out, I feel sick just thinking about the humidity outside, the fact how sweaty I’ll get just walking to our car. And then we have to wear our masks everywhere, like my face isn’t wet enough. A whole lot of drama for a few groceries and then another, third shower of the day once we come back home. I don’t feel like going!”

Tamer nods to my monologue and concludes that I have read his mind. He doesn’t want to go either. That he will go for milk first thing in the morning. Bukra, Inshallah.

Among only ladies again

This time I was invited to a traditional Arabic, more specifically a “hijazi” restaurant. Twice a week, the place is reserved for ladies only. And so 8 of us gathered in colorful seats and sofas: from the USA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Slovenia.

We were treating ourselves with dates over Arabic coffee and tea, the afternoon turned into evening and the tables around us were steadily filled with other groups of girls and women. From noticeably “western” to a mix of locals, the hall was bursting with life along with a small fountain positioned in center of the room.

There were no scarves and veils between us as one would expect outside in the street. In fact, it is very difficult to guess which of the ladies, for example, wears the niqab, because the latter, together with the abayas and scarves, is left at the reception.

a tall arabic coffee pot with small ceramic cups with oriental sofas in the background
- Among only ladies again
Traditional arabic coffee serving

As we were served our last course on a platter of traditional delicacies from the Hijaz region, which includes the city of Jeddah as well, a blonde woman in an extravagant dress with an animal print walked in. A vivacious lady who I am sure demands and receives all the attention in any room she enters. She greeted her company of friends and every now and then circled the room, sitting down at one table and then the other.

When our time together was almost over, she approached us.

“Do you speak Arabic or English?” She measured us with a smile and curious eyes. Such a diverse company is not something one sees every day even in this vibrant society. But she focused her gaze on me most of the time.

Something piqued her curiosity. Something about me stood out in her book, and she had to uncover this secret.

“Where are ‘you’ from?” She popped the question with her finger pointed at me, right after we explained that we are from all over and that we speak English, and some also speak Arabic.

“From Slovenia,” I answer and immediately notice a smile widening on her face.

“Oh yeah, how are ya? I’m from Montenegro! ”

In an instant, I switch to my broken Serbo-Croatian and turn on that Balkan spark, I get up to hug her without hesitation.

I admit, after such a long time, I was caught unprepared in the social wilderness. I was this close to crying. Luckily I didn’t!

We exchanged a few more words alone and then took each other’s phone number to stay in touch.

“You have to come visit me! I have a pool you know, and another house in Mecca. You and your husband are both welcome!”

What a day! What an adventure.

Ladies only Cafe

Ladies only cafe. After a year and a half of living in Jeddah, I visited one for the first time.

Saudi Arabia still has it’s infamous separate entrances in some restaurants; this means entrance for families and entrance for singles. According to a basically unwritten rule, only men enter the singles sections, whereas families, couples and women in groups or alone enter elsewhere.

It has been some time now that the separated entrances and sections are no longer legally required. But why change something out of the blue if people are used to something and it suits them? After all, certain amount of money needs to be invested in renovating the buildings themselves.

And let’s not forget, “ordinary” mixed cafes and restaurants have been part of the scene in Saudi for quite a while.

But why shouldn’t there still be spaces only for ladies who, for religious, cultural or other reasons, do not take off their veils, scarves and / or long sleeves in public? Where they can let their hair down and enjoy a cup of coffee with their friends outside of their own homes.

Last week, I gladly accepted the invitation of my American friend Aileen, who has been living in Saudi Arabia with her Egyptian husband for the past 5 years.

How was it, you ask? Pleasant! Relaxing. We drank iced tea, nibbled on vegan chocolate cupcakes and chatted about cats for 2 hours.