Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving in KSA

I am thankful for a multicultural group of friends to feast with! We shared a wonderful Thanksgiving evening together. I cooked mashed potatoes and banana bread.

Some blessings to be thankful for in 2009:
1. My beautiful wife whom I miss and family back home
2. Old friends who keep in touch and new friends at KAUST
3. Good professors and decent grades
4. A house to live in and being otherwise spoiled by KAUST
6. Travel in the Middle East
7. Much needed rest during the Eid holiday

...and great food!

Note: This "mixed" dinner took place in a married apartment. Male and female housing currently allow only male and female guests.

KAUST-ians Hajj

These are the days of Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, dozens of KAUST students boarded a bus to join millions of other Muslim pilgrims for the once-in-a-lifetime journey to Mecca.

My friends clothed in Ihram. Hajj clothing for men consists two white sheets - one tied around the waist and one draped around the shoulders. The dress represents cleanliness and unity; Ihram is exactly the same for prince and pauper.

Swine flu and the recent flooding offer some logistical challenges for the Saudi Ministry of Hajj this year. This AP article outlines some of the precautions the government is taking.

This is a group shot of most of the Hajj-ers just before the bus arrived. Have a safe trip guys!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rain in Thuwal (and lots of it!)

Right before dawn, I woke up to the sound of thunder and heavy rain on my windows. I love laying in bed listening to the rain at night - it gives me a peaceful feeling.
After listening for a few minutes though, I heard the sound of water dripping inside my house. With a sigh, I threw aside my covers, swung my feet over the side of the bed and...


...onto the floor.

Rain in this part of Saudi Arabia is such a rare event that one cannot help but feel excited, but after ten minutes of sweeping water out of my bedroom and bailing it off of my balcony, I was praying for it to stop.
Heavy rain is something like a natural disaster because the infrastructure here is not designed to handle water.
Homes flooded, streets flooded, and the mobile phone network was knocked out for a while.

The rain was pretty incredible, we must have got three inches in just under an hour (about 7.5 cm). The weather network says that Jeddah only gets 54 mm of Rain every year - we've exceeded our limit for the next 1.5 years in one night!

As I was walking around taking pictures, I waved to my other neighbors who were also cleaning the water out of their houses.

Beautiful morning though.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can Ben Frevert change Saudi Arabia?

To answer this question, let me borrow an expression from one of my Saudi friends:

"When the cows preform Hajj walking on their horns."

The New York Times published an article about KAUST last week in which Ben Frevert, my friend and colleague, was unexpectedly presented as a hero - of sorts.

I was a little embarrassed at the cultural insensitivity of the New York Times in this article. The title, "A Saudi Gamble," does injustice to the people and to the King who have invested so much time, energy, and money to make KAUST a reality, and is ironically insulting to our host country which sees gambling as immoral and illegal.

Next time I go to Jeddah, I half expect someone to ask me, "Is it true that you have gambling at KAUST?" Thanks a lot, Times.

The article's title and opening were crafted to sell papers more than to look seriously at the complexity of Saudi culture or the nuance of KAUST's situation in Saudi Arabia. I though that the article's overall tone either reflects the writer's sever Western bias, or a general unawareness of Saudi society and politics. Mr. Slackman does, however, address a few points about KAUST well and the article is worth a quick read.

So, can Ben Frevert (or any American graduate student) change Saudi Arabia? Not likely. First, US students are a minority at KAUST. We are outnumbered by Jordanians, Egyptians, Indonesians, Chinese, and Mexicans. Second, even all of these students together will not "change" Saudi Arabia. This country is very complex, and I agree with Saleha M. Abedin's answer to Slackman's question: "You cannot bring change from the outside, you have to build from within."

Something else to think about: change works both ways. KAUST's detractors in Saudi Arabia are paranoid about KAUST's influence on Saudi Society, but what about KAUST's influence on the rest of the world? The question: "can Saudi Arabia change Ben Frevert (and all of the others who come to KAUST?)" is just as valid. For students who have never left their home countries before, even just three months at KAUST and a few trips to Jeddah are a tremendous perspective-altering experience.

There are still some Westerners (and maybe some Western newspaper writers) who wrongly think all Saudis drive camels and carry AK-47's. KAUST, an aspiring multinational research institution, will slowly change these prejudices too.

Beating the Ant Infestation

I have been waging war against the Thuwal insect population since I moved into my new apartment, and today I am claiming victory! The roaches and crickets were first to leave - I beat them early on with frequent cleaning and liberal Raid use.

The ants, however, were much more persistent.

I sprayed poison, I swept, I mopped, I crushed dozens with my fingers and toes. I eliminated every food source I could think of and still the kept crawling all over my floors. Finally, I killed them off this weekend by mixing Boric acid with finely crushed crackers and spreading it in little piles on the floor (thanks Mark!) The ants loved it - they took every last piece of poisoned cracker back to their nest and haven't returned since!


This picture was taken after my very first SCUBA dive two weeks ago. When I strapped on my tank and toddled after my dive instructor through waist-deep water just two hours earlier, I had no clue what awaited me just below the surface. After some minutes of stumbling over rocks and coral, I and my classmates saw the edge of the reef and swam out over a sheer cliff. The wall of coral teeming with fish and other animals extended endlessly downward and to all sides - I could not see the bottom. Anxiety quickly gave way to awe and all I could do was stare in wonder until our instructor told us to don our masks dive.

This Friday, I completed my final open water dive and I am just one written test away from being PADI dive certified. The Red Sea is as full of life as the desert around Jeddah is empty - it really is another world under the surface of the water.

When I was younger, I used to read books about fish, coral, and other wildlife in the world's oceans, but I never expected to see these natural treasures for myself. I am glad that I took the chance to dive - I think now I am hooked for life!

(Underwater pictures will be posted later. We dove with a camera on our last trip and I expect to get the pictures from my friend soon.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The week that internet died

Just a few decades ago, mankind thrived without the internet. Professionals went to work every day, students attended classes, and universities conducted research without internet.

Through the ages, great scientific advancements have occured without the internet. Prehistoric man engineered the wheel without internet searches; Pythagoras calculated the hypotenuse of a right triangle without online data sharing, Columbus navigated the Atlantic without Google maps, Niels Bohr mapped the atom without referencing wikipedia, and NASA landed men on the moon before e-mail.

KAUST has a chance to re-live these glory days this week. The entire campus - student housing, KAUST libraries, and staff offices - has been disconnected from the world wide web for two days... and IT cannot predict which day we might go back online.

I have a lot of pictures to share and stories to tell, but blogging will have to wait until KAUST has regular internet access again. Until then, I hope all of you out there in the world are doing well, and don't be suprised if I don't answer any emails for a while!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Explaining KAUST

Is KAUST radical? Women with hijab, women without hijab, men with thobe and shimal and men in jeans and a shirt keeping their culture and religion while learning and researching together at KAUST.

It is easy to slander and to destroy, but building and creating something new takes time, patience, and commitment. God is the great creator, Satan is the great destroyer.

For weeks, KAUST has been criticized for its mixed men and women classes. KAUST’s detractors are mostly anonymous and are using internet tools like YouTube, Facebook, and e-mail to spread images, half-truths, and lies about social life at KAUST. Whether their reasons are political, religious, or personal jealousy, this small minority is trying though any means necessary to illigitimize KAUST. Their attacks are very misleading.

KAUST-ians have come from every continent on the globe and many of us have left family, friends, and other careers to come to KAUST. We have only been guests in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques for three months, and now we are surprised, confused, and a little hurt because of the hostile messages of a few extreme voices. Is this how Islam treats foreigners? Is this how we should view Saudi Arabian hospitality? The voices of an angry minority are given too much credit right now.

When I traveled to Jeddah to buy food on Wednesday, I was asked by a stranger if there were bars at KAUST. KAUST has no bars! The king would never allow something like that at his university!

Our detractors, who are spreading lies, do not understand why we have come to Saudi Arabia. Social change is not KAUST's mission - our primary mission is to promote learning and research in the region for the benefit of the world.

God is the great creator, and science is a profession ordained by God. We, the KAUST-ians have come to KAUST from many countries to learn so that we can create new knowledge and improve on existing technologies. Improving desalination could satisfy the thirsty. Growing food in the desert could feed the hungry. Solar power could provide light in dark places. Red Sea research can lead to new medicines to heal the sick. Engineering research could help us make better use of the resources God has blessed us with. These are only a few of the reasons we have traveled to Saudi Arabia.

I did not come for entertainment (does anyone come to KSA to be entertained?) – KAUST has no bars or dance clubs or even a working movie theatre; I spend most of my time in the library or the laboratory. I did not come for money – I could have had a larger stipend at graduate school in the USA. I came because of KAUST’s potential to promote scientific research and learning in the Middle East.

Right now it is the angry voices which scream the loudest. They are trying to paint KAUST as an immoral institution which is leading righteous Saudi Arabian adults astray, but I have faith that good will and reason of the majority will prevail over slander and deception. Once the citizens of Saudi Arabia have a chance to know us better, I think they cannot help but like us. The problem is: building relationships takes time, but relationships can be damaged by only a few words, or a few pictures.

After all of that talk about our detractors, I have a story about a friend. Abdullah confided in me some weeks ago that he used to hate Americans because of what he saw on TV, and what he heard in the news, but after coming to KAUST and meeting real Americans he has changed his opinion and wishes that others would too. Abdullah's story encourages me because there are some Americans who also think the same way about Saudis. This one of the reasons I believe I am at KAUST - to build bridges and clear up misunderstandings.

Saudi Arabia is a complicated place, but I am still glad to be here. We will do great research at KAUST, and I have faith that truth will prevail. Sometimes it just takes time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A New Home

A new pet for a new home. My friend adopted this adorable little female kitten just a few days ago. He had much difficulty with his first KAUST apartment, but the new one he has recently moved into is good enough to share with a new friend!

This little ball of fuzz is evidence of a larger trend, that many students are beginning to feel more settled at KAUST. Some of us are still in temporary housing, and a few still have leaks, appliance, or mold problems to be fixed. Still, life is normalizing, and in a place as new and different as KAUST, that is a big deal.

KAUST CPR, and Other Medical Emergencies

I have a story to share which made me laugh so hard I cried. I hope you will enjoy this as well.

One of my friends was feeling ill after he finished a brutal exam last week. He complained about sharp pain in his chest when breathing and was rubbing his rib cage. He went to the information desk in the classroom building and asked them to call an ambulance to take him to the clinic.

The people behind the front desk freaked out. One employee made him sit down in a chair, and then another (who was not from Saudi Arabia) made him lay down on the floor to rest. Once my friend laid down on the floor though, the gentleman began to pump his chest.

(Note: preforming CPR on a fully conscious individual whose heart is beating is actually quite dangerous. Chest pumping in this situation can mess up the rhythm of a beating heart or crack ribs.)

Fortunately, the panicked gentleman was not pumping my friends's chest very deeply at all, just very very rapidly. My friend decided it was more trouble to resist than to just lay down and take it, so the frantic CPR continued.

By this time, the employees were making quite a scene. Some of the passers - by must have thought that my poor friend was on death's door when he was really perfectly calm and conscious. After a few more minutes of CPR, a security guard rushed over to help revive my cognizant friend. That's when things got ugly...

The security guard, seeing the other gentleman doing CPR on my friend, assumed that he must need some air as well, so he immediately began mouth to mouth respiration on my perfectly cognizant, respiring friend. My friend was shocked, to say the least, and began to struggle with the two grown men who were misguidedly trying to save his life.

Fortunately, the paramedics arrived quickly. They must have thought they had a death case to deal with because of the "emergency" aid my friend was unwillingly receiving, but when they peeled the two men off of him and asked for his name and ID number, my friend responded calmly and clearly.

The doctors checked him out and said that the pain was due to muscle cramps, probably because of stress from the test. After taking some muscle relaxers, he left.

The worst part of the experience, my friend said, was the smell of cigarettes on the security guard's breath.

... ... ...

It is only fair to note that the trained medical staff has preformed very professionally in every emergency case I have heard of or witnessed. One of my friends had an acute allergic reaction to milk or egg products in some food he ate and had to stay overnight at the clinic, but he was feeling good enough to go to class the next morning. In another instance, one of my friends dislocated his knee playing sports and was rushed into the clinic less than ten minutes after the emergency call was made. The doctors straightened his leg, put it in a cast, and sent him home in less than two hours.

It's the untrained guys one has to watch out for!