Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Season's greetings! These are a few pictures from my holiday vacation with my wife. We spent time in New York City and an Maryland's
beaches on our way to visit some of my wife's relatives in Virginia for Christmas.

New York City was full of lights, activity, and last-minute shoppers. This picture was taken from the top of the Rockefeller building - one of the tallest in New York. The Empire State Building can be seen lit up on the left in this picture.

A picture of Times Square, for those friends and family who have never been there. The mass of people which are out until all hours of the night can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. This part of the city is always full of activity.

Our morning hike through Central Park was beautiful. A huge blizzard blew through the city two days before I landed - snow like this is a real treat at Christmas time. The weather here is completely opposite of Jeddah. Yesterday, the temperature was -8 degrees Celsius, cloudy, and snowing in New York where we are living, compared with 28 degrees Celsius and sunny in Jeddah.

Tomorrow, we driving to Washington DC to celebrate the New Year with some friends. My wife and I wish everyone a safe and happy New Year, wherever you are!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Khalas for now!

I finished my last final less than two hours ago. Now that all of the frantic studying is behind me, and I have finished my courses with (Inshallah) A's and B's, I can look back on this semester with satisfaction. A lot has happened in just four months and I can safely say that this has been my busiest semester of school yet.

KAUST has come a long way too. Administrators are settling into their roles and delegating more work to an ever-growing staff. The students will be moved into permanent housing in January and (Inshallah) have fewer problems with maintenance. Some of the construction fences have been taken down and buildings have been finished. Even the large grocery store is now open (which has seriously increased the happiness of almost all KAUStians!)

Many things remain to be improved upon as well: biology labs still have much work until they are fully operational, the lab consumables supply chain is questionable, the housing really isn't finished yet (but we are moving in in January...), a lot of decision making is still happening at the highest levels and sometimes seems disconnected from student and faculty concerns, the beach is still colosed off, and there are still hundreds (if not thousands) of construction laborers working at KAUST every day.

Hopefully some of those things will be sorted out during the vacation. In the mean time, I am badly needing these next three weeks back home in New York with my family.

Goodbye KAUST! I don't think I will be gone long enough to miss you, but I look forward to another, even better semester in the spring where I make new friends, strengthen old friendships,visit new places, learn more valuable science from new courses, and start some real laboratory research!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hanging Out in Riyadh

Riyadh is a business city, not a tourist city. Seeing museums and malls doesn't take more than a day or two, but visiting with friends and their families, especially during the Eid Holiday, was the best experience I've had since coming to Saudi Arabia.

Local friends were eager to show me what they through was the best that the city had to offer, whether that was going to a favorite restaurant, touring a museum, driving into the desert to drink camel's milk, or coming over to a father's house to drink coffee or play X-box.

My friend's little cousin was fascinated with talking to me. He quizzed me incessantly on sports stars and American pop singers. He know more than I did about pop culture! When asked why he was asking so many questions, he responded by saying that he had never met an American before and wanted to know if I really did know all of those things! Sometimes I worry about the image that is portrayed through media and movies exported from the USA...

I have missed being with families. My world at KAUST is filled mostly with other students my age and with faculty and staff who are older. Families are different though - and I have missed being with people from all ages and all backgrounds, not just with students, academics, and the foreign workers who have been hired to run our services.

Just hanging out was a blast. There is something freeing about hopping in a car to cruise around town with the music up and friends to joke with. This was a much needed break from the walls and windows of the KAUST library.

I think I suffered from drinking too much tea and coffee - a necessary component of any group gathering in Saudi Arabia.

And of course, the Sheesha in Saudi Arabia is better than any I have tried in the USA!

Food in Riyadh

So much socialization in Saudi Arabia revolves around meals (and coffee). I thought I'd share a few pictures of different cuisines my friends treated me to while I was in Riyadh. Even though we were in the heart of Saudi Arabia, there is a great variety of ethnic restaurants to choose from, but the best food is always found at family gatherings.

Big barbeque

Yemeni food (the banana/cream/nut/honey dish was excellent!)

Syrian / Lebanese food (grape leaf rolls at left)

Saudi style barbeque

Home cooking

Fun Police

The influence of the religious police is felt much more strongly in Riyadh than in Jeddah.

One evening, I was waiting on a friend and made the mistake of walking in to a coffee shop on Tahlia street right before prayer time. Not only was I unable to order a hot drink, but while I was indisposed the staffed locked the front door and refused to let me out of the shop. I tried to reason that leaving a store during prayer time could not be possibly against any religious rules, (what if I wanted to go to the mosque?) but he was immovable.

"No, no, no," he told me, "last warning from Muttawah!"

Uh oh.

I think this store had been reprimanded a few times before for serving customers during prayer time, so I finally gave up on convincing him verbally and just stood in front of the locked glass door. Me being in full view of the street made him even more nervous, and I was quickly let out.

Riyadh doesn't mess around with prayer time. Prayers are called five times a day, and most stores close for up to 45 minutes or risk a reprimand from the Religious Police. The same happens in Jeddah, but for some reason, in Jeddah it doesn't feel as forced or as legalistic.

Also, in Jeddah I haven't heard Religious Police discussed as much as in Riyadh - maybe there just aren't as many. Some people praise them as a good influence, and many young people ridicule them in private jokes or complaints for the restraints they force upon youth, but Saudi Society sees them as a necessary force to enforce cultural and religious practices which are not quite civil law.

Shopping Riyadh

I didn't shop in a single mall while I was in Riyadh. I really dislike malls. Everything is brand-names, new and shiny, and overpriced. The open markets feel much more real... and I can get better bargains too!

My American friend took me carpet shopping to "the best carpet shop in Riyadh!" After spending hours in his store learning about the qualities and histories of each regional style, I have to agree.

Every carpet has a story. Each one an expression of art and heritage. Each hand-made carpet reveals its maker's tribe and country, affluence, and skill. I bought a beautiful red and blue carpet from Afghanistan which look forward to laying out on the floor in my States-side apartment.

Touring Riyadh

When I told some Saudi's that I was going to Riyadh, their initial reaction was usually, "why do you want to go to Riyadh - there is nothing to do in Riyadh!" That is simply not quite true. For the common American tourist, there are skyscraper-malls to visit, museums and historical districts to wander about in, and streets lined with restaurants, fancy cars, and restless Saudi teenagers.
The Al Saud family has ties to Riyadh which date back to 1744 with the creation of the first Saudi State. Since that time, the Al-Saudi family drifted in and out of power in that part of the desert, until 1902, when the late King Abdulaziz bin Saud returned to his family's ancestral capital and stormed the mud castle named Masmak with a small band of twenty or forty men, taking its inhabitants completely by surprise. This tiny skirmish was perhaps the most felicitous change of fortune in the Al Saud family's history, as oil was discovered only 36 years later.

Al Masmak still stands today, and was an interesting visit for the first time visitor to Riyadh (and for my "local" friends who had never been).

An example of traditional decor.

A map of the expansion of the third Saudi State from 1902 to the present day.
Descriptive museum signs. : )

A lineup of kings from Ibn Saud to Abdullah.
A 100 year old Koran.
"Chop-chop square" (I don't know its real name) where criminals were famously de-limbed or decapitated in public. (This doesn't happen much anymore.)

My friend running from a flock of attacking pigeons.
Atop the Kingdom tower lookout bridge. The bridge offers a great view of the whole city.

The national museum was very interesting for me. Not only did I learn a lot about the history of Saudi Arabia from ancient times to present day, but I also learned a lot about how a society perceives its role in the world as the historical home of the Prophet Mohammed and the Two Holy Mosques.

In the USA, we have divorced spiritual significance from national and natural history in our museums, but in the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, religion history, natural history, and political history are presented side-by-side and intertwined. Among the divisions of history were such labels as: "Pre-Islamic," "The Prophet's Mission," and "The Islamic Age."

An old desert oil exploration truck.

Hanging out on Tahlia street after touring museums, I thought the snowflake displays and lights around palm trees were a bit ironic. A crisp chill in the evening air and spending time with families during the Eid Holiday made me think of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years season back home.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Upside-Down Days"

In front of a tired and tested group of students last night, our Provost for Academic Affairs told students that, "there will never be another first semester at KAUST!" Everybody cheered.

This has been the most stressful week yet for me, and I think for most students, faculty, and administrators as well. Final exams started this week, and end of semester projects were also due, but beyond those normal academic stresses have been others which are unique to KAUST: housing changes, lots of IT problems, registration problems, and even a minor security issue all while trying to study for tests. My friend from Mexico called them "Upside-Down Days" I term I thought was both funny and fitting. It has been a struggle to keep patience with people and with systems at times, but I have not yet despaired. Finals have gone well so far, and I will be back home in the USA with my family in just five days!

During a typical Upside Down Day this week, I would:

Have the internet cut off a phone call with my sister back home...
Discover that a group biostatistics project that was almost finished had to be completely redone because of one mistake...
Wait in class for a professor who never showed because he was called to an emergency meeting with the president's office...
Hear rumors that all students will be moved from their current houses to permanent houses after finals (moving is stressful...)
Find out that free coffee at night in the library has been discontinued because a stingy business owner (who charges way too much for coffee during the day) is upset about students using his milk at night...
Migrate from computer to computer in the library until I found one that both worked and had internet (IT problem...)
Endure criticism from irate campus security who threatened "big problem for you" to my study partner who had just connected a lan cable to his laptop to try and get internet which wasn't working anyway...
Throw my hands up in disgust when I finally got online and access to all online notes and study materials was denied because all student passwords were changed (another IT problem) just two days before an exam...
Get five hours sleep that night and do it all again the next day...
Score an 'A' on my exam at the end of the week!

I don't think that any of the students would like to relive this first semester at KAUST. When we all come back after the vacation, I hope to return to a KAUST which has left many of those organizational problems behind. Being the first class has been trying, everyone has had expectations which have not been met in some way or another. Some days I feel like those who survive to graduation should be given a medal, not just a degree, for smoothing out a rocky path which others will follow for years to come.

Still glad to be here though - and I will be back for more in January!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eid Mubarak Riyadh

View from Al-Mamlaka (Kingdom Tower) at 300 m, 1000 ft
During the Eid break, when most students left the KAUST campus to vacation in such exotic places as Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and India, I booked a ticket to Riyadh, the capitol of Saudi Arabia. I had a great time in Riyadh! (I wonder how many Americans will say that?) I met up with some old friends and made a few new friends as well. Traditional hospitality in this part of the country is incredible - I ate very well and was only able to pay for one meal during my travels (the meal I ate with American friends) and I drank more tea and coffee in four days than in the past four months combined! I owe a very special thanks to Mohammad, Abdulaziz, Mohammed, Abu Malek, Mrs. McEvers, Abdulrahman, Mishaal, and Mohammad for going out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Riyadh, situated in the heart of Saudi Arabia, conjures in the Western mind images of desert, camels, men in long white robes, women in long black dresses, mud houses, expensive sports cars, and religious police. I encountered all of these things in Riyadh, (even the religious police!) but there is so much more to this ultra-modern city and the people who inhabit it. This is not your grandfather's Riyadh, anymore.

The skyline is dominated by two very tall skyscrapers, Al-Mamlaka (Kingdom Tower, shown here) and Faisalia tower, which is famous for its multi-story rotating restaurant. The streets are wide, straight, and clean - a stark contrast to Jeddah which is a much older and congested city.

There are some (relatively) old parts of the city too. Most of Riyadh as it exists today was built within the past 50 years or so. The old style mud houses can still be found (some of them crumbling away) in old downtown and the Ad Dir'iyah area, in the Northwest corner of the city.

Since I arrived at KAUST, I have felt that there was something very important missing from daily life. In Riyadh, I found what was missing: visiting with families, meeting new people from many different backgrounds, and just hanging out with friends and cruising around the city. I have been missing normal daily interactions with people who are not students or faculty and who live in a real city, not a compound. My days in Riyadh with Abdulaziz's and Malek's families, and hanging out with all of the other friends, new and old, have refreshed and revitalized my spirits. Four days away, and I have rediscovered a love for travel and developed a new respect for the everyday people of this country. Thanks again guys.

So much happened in Riyadh that I will have to cover the trip in future posts. Hopefully, I will have time during the next few days between studying my brains out for finals and organizing a new research project. Ma' salama!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jeddah Flood Volunteers

(Photos are used with permission from my friend Rami.)
Our prayers and thoughts are with those who lost family in the Jeddah flood. Some of the oldest, and most densely populated areas of Jeddah, a city of more than 3.4 million people, were underwater after unusually heavy rains (by Saudi Arabia standards). The city's infrastructure was overwhelmed and hundreds of people died. Some of the KUAST students also have family in Jeddah who were affected by the flood waters.

This crisis was and is terrible, but Jeddawis responded generously by giving their food and time to relieve the poor people who are suffering from the flood.

Last Wednesday, "Friends of Jeddah," a Saudi NGO, organized more than 500 volunteers to unload, sort, and repackage donated food boxes at a warehouse in North Jedddah to be distributed amongst the people who lost property and loved ones in the flood. One volunteer estimated that they sent out at least 10,000 packages that day, each one holding one week's food supply for one person. Four KAUST students joined the Saudi volunteers on Wednesday.

According to my friend Marc, the relief effort was efficient and well organized. "It was neat to see so many Saudis willing to lend a hand," he said.
The official death toll is just 116, according to today's AFP article, but a Jeddawi friend said she doesn't trust the official number and fears that the deaths total many times more. One hospital was said to have more than 400 people declared dead, and other unofficial estimates put the number easily above 1,000. The King has promised significant aid and compensation for families who lost loved ones, a generous gesture which further implies that government mismanagement is at least partially involved. Many Saudis and blame poor infrastructure on local government's negligence and misuse of public funds.

International attention was brought to this crisis because Hajj was happening in the same week. Some are hopeful that this extra scrutiny will move officials to fix Jeddah's infrastructure problems for good.