Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life is Full of Changes

It is hard to believe that the first KAUST masters student graduation and commencement is tomorrow! An impressive majority (more than 50 percent) of these graduating students have chosen not to leave, but to continue their education at KAUST this coming year - either by beginning a thesis project or going straight to Ph.D. research.

Other students are pursuing diverse and exciting employment opportunities around the globe. Saudi Arabian companies, such as SABIC and ARAMCO, have offered jobs to Saudis and non-Saudis alike, and even to the female students; other students will be working at high-caliber multinational corporations such as Dow Chemical and Proctor and Gamble; and, not surprisingly, an impressive number of students are beginning to join start-ups or to create a new company with the help of KAUST's seed fund to further an idea or discovery which was made here. Whether in Saudi Arabia or abroad, pursuing a Ph.D. or a career, the graduates have an exciting future.

In other news, the labs are looking much better. This Professor is proudly posing in a stocked biological laboratory. Reagents are now arriving within weeks rather than months, and equipment has steadily cleared procurement and customs - a huge leap ahead from only one year ago when almost all research materials seemed to be held-up indefinitely by a disorganized procurement supply chain and a tight-fisted national customs office.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Return to KAUST!

It is good to be back at KAUST and among friends after many months away. A lot has changed since I left the KAUST campus six months ago - for one thing, construction on campus is significantly reduced, and most of the fences have been removed as work is completed. The sound of birds is now more common than jackhammers here.

This is a view of campus from the oposite side of the Harbor, which was previously inaccessible because of construction.

The Yacht Club (a dining area) is finished, and new spiffy signs help to direct new members of the community.

The Yacht club sports an impressive mural on one side wall.

More random art: this one looks like it is inspired by a Norwegian longboat.

A new venue for events in the same area.

Hibiscus flowers grow where there was only sand before.

Another piece of weird art - perhaps an ostrich?

There has definitely been improvement... and the most important changes are not in the buildings.

While I was away...

Life has been busy - and blessed - since returning to the USA in May. I spent some time with my wife in New York, got a job as a process engineer for a start-up company called e2e Materials, and have generally just been living life.

Just because I have entered the work force, my education has not stopped. Being part of a dynamic and growing company and working to engineer a process for material which has never been produced at scale has been challenging and rewarding.

On another note - my home has had snow all month. There was quite a bit on the ground when I left... Saudi Arabia's mild, warm winter is a pretty nice break for now.

The Last Dive Trip

I just recently ran across these old photos from the last dive trip I made in May with KAUST friends. This was one of the most beautiful yet, but halfway through it my camera batteries died so I only have these three to show for it.

Diving is the one activity I have missed most since being away, and I don't think I will get another chance to go again.

The coolest thing I saw (which I do not have a picture of) was two clown fish swimming at me and all around me to distract me from their tiny little baby in a nearby sea anemone.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Home Again!

It was nice to come back home to Texas. After meeting the new students in College Station, I met up with my wife and we whirlwind tour visiting my parents in Houston, two friends who were married in Victoria (below) my grandparents near Corpus Christi and my grandparents and Carissa's parents and grandmother who are from Waco and the College Station area.

Congratulations, Steve and Amanda!

It was fun hanging out with the old folks in Texas, and a blessing too. Love y'all lots!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Next KAUST Class

Just two days after completing my last final, I was whisked away to College Station in my home state of Texas to help with the KAUST Pre-Departure Orientation for next year's class of graduate students who are currently in the USA and Canada.

Here they are! This is only a small fraction of the incoming students, there will also be orientations in London, Mexico City, Beijing, Cairo, and Jeddah.

The new class endured two full days of informative speaking and question sessions hosted by KAUST administrators Najah Ashry and Faizi Ghodsi, KAUST professors Michael Berumen and Alyn Rockwood, KAUST students Justine and myself, and a keynote address from MIT Professor / KAUST Investigator Ahmed Ghoniem shown lecturing above.

Congratulations to the new incoming class! Your accomplishments will be many, I am sure, and the new challenges will be different than those of the founding class which I was privileged to be part of. I look forward to hearing and reading more from you as your adventure unfolds...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Busy Busy Busy

I am sorry I haven't had much time to post, but life really isn't that exciting these days. I am working long hours to finish the final assignments of the semester: two research review papers and three finals.

My research paper topics are:

"Comparing membrane bioreactors with conventional activated sludge treatment for organic micropollutant removal"


"State of the art wastewater treatment and biological degradation mechanisms for microbial fuel cells"

My final exams will be:

Reaction Engineering
Physical and Chemical Treatment Processes
Clean Fossil Fuels and Biofuels

Sounds exciting, huh?

I took a few hours for lunch with friends and a basketball game yesterday, and I plan to play a little frisbee this evening, but life at KAUST is mostly work right now... I am learning a lot.

I am not the only busy student. One of my mechanical engineering friends complained of four engineering projects that would be due in the next two weeks, the computer scientists are always programming something, and many of the other biologists and marine scientists are also writing frantically these days.

Busy times.

Correction to Blog Post Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

It has been brought to my attention that the "Saudi Oger Recreation Director" mentioned in this post is actually a KAUST-Aramco manager who oversees Saudi Oger's recreation contract. The contracted workers who were suspended are Saudi Oger employees.

Apologies for this misstated fact and the confusion it may have caused. The information has been corrected in the original post.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Reflecting on Jeddah

The Jeddah fountain is, I've heard, the tallest fountain in the world and the city's most distinctive landmark. It is a beautiful sight at night.

I've been to Jeddah more than a dozen times since August for friends, food, and shopping and it has become one of my favorite places in Saudi Arabia - not for the city itself, but for the people who live here.

Jeddah is one of the most diverse cities in the Kingdom. Jeddah has been a major trading port for millennia, and many of its citizens can trace their heritage back to faraway lands in Asia or Africa. More recent immigrants have stayed, sometimes illegally, after preforming Hajj or Umrah. Almost all of the two million Hajj pilgrims come into and out of Jeddah's airport every year.

This cultural mixing is evident in the old market, Al Ballad. Multi-ethnic merchants are selling pashminas from India and Pakistan, carpets from Afghanistan, fruit from Jordan, and every other thing one can think of.

The customers are just as diverse this picture is taken from the gold market - a fun place for the ladies (and their husbands) to browse for fancy jewelry.

Rich and poor, young and old, Saudi and non-Saudi - everyone is here in the old town.

Northern Jeddah, especially along the water front, is much more modern (and more expensive) and has been built up with large houses, fancy hotels, and marinas full of some of the most gigantic yachts I have ever seen.

Eating is another of my favorite Jeddawi pastimes. One of the most famous, and definitely the most crowded restaurant chain is Al Baik, which is a bit like Kentucky Fried Chicken except much, much better (and cheaper!)

Al Baik gets packed. Sometimes these little restaurants get so crowded there is not any room to sit down inside.

Al Baik isn't the only place in Jeddah, this is a pretty traditional chicken and rice dish I got to shared with some friends during Ramadan last year.

And of course, I can never forget the weeks we spent at the Intercontinental hotel and the beginning of the fall semester!

I'll end this reflection with the first picture I took in Saudi Arabia: the view from my hotel window across to the Red Sea.

Jeddah's been great - Ive been to so many restaurants and malls, some friends houses, some coral reef diving trips, and even a wedding. I can't do the city or its people justice with just a few pictures.

Sometimes I wish that KAUST were built bit closer so it would be easier to maintain relationships in the city, but I guess there are reasons for everything.

The Haircut

I can't understand the Arabic spoken by the Moroccan or Turkish barbers (their accents are MUCH different than the Saudis) and they don't speak much English at all.

So getting a haircut at KAUST is always an adventure - because I never know what I will walk away with. One month ago I had a bad experience - the guy took almost an hour to whittle my hair down to nothing. I think I could have done better with an electric razor in five minutes...

This week I got the Turkish guy with a crazy mullet and sharp streaks of styled facial hair across his chin. I wanted desperately to tell him that I wanted a more normal haircut than he was sporting, but the language barrier only allowed me two options: "short" and "long." After trying to convince my barber of the merits of "medium," and him not understanding, we finally settled on "short-long," which he seemed happy with and went to work.

The only successful conversation (I did try!) we were able to share during the whole operation was:

"Where you from?"



He did a great job with the sides and top, but when it came to the back of my head, my mulletted friend left a lot of hair. I said "cut" and he said "no, this beautiful!" I said "cut" again and, a little disappointed, he finished the job.

I have enjoyed the small challenges that living in KSA has brought. Though communicating with the barber took a bit more work, I had fun. It helps to have a sense of humor here.

In spite of the challenge, and with a modification at home, everything turned out just fine...

... and now I have a small story to share!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Discrimination at KAUST

Personal Freedoms

I value my personal freedoms, and as a privileged member of the KAUST community I do have lots of freedoms. I am free to go to the restaurants, the market, the library, or the gym any time I want to during business hours. I am also free to come and go from the KAUST compound any time I like. Really, I am free to do almost whatever I please (within reason), except to spend time with the Filipino and Bangladeshi guys who work service jobs at KAUST. This irks me. I don't care about adding one more privilege to the mountain I already have, but I do care for these men and women who have no privileges at all.

The Story of the Rich Man and the Poor Man

There is an old story about injustice - perhaps you know it - about a rich man who owned many sheep and cattle and a poor man who had nothing except for one little female lamb. The poor man raised her, and she grew up with him and his sons. She shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms.

One day a traveler came to the rich man's house, but instead of taking one of his own animals, the rich man took the lamb which belonged to the poor man and slaughtered her for his guest.

The Little Lamb

At KAUST, there used to be a weekly basketball game between students and recreation staff. The recreation staff members enjoyed this game so much that they rearranged their work schedules to participate... it was the one night a week they could have fun and get some much needed exercise after standing or sitting at their job all day.

Four weeks ago, a terrible thing happened. The students left campus for spring vacation, but many of the employees came for basketball anyway. On that unfortunate day, KAUST-Aramco manager who oversees Saudi Oger recreation was watching. He was furious. The employees had violated one of recreation's unwritten rules: no workers are ever allowed to use the community's sports or service facilities. When it was discovered that most of them were Filipino employees, there was talk of firing them all and deporting them back to their home country, but there was also one Lebanese employee amongst the transgressors, and management couldn't fire and deport an Arab.

The Filipinos and company were given a final warning and suspended without pay for 3-5 days. Now there are no more games between students and staff, no more exercise for the employees, nothing to break up the daily monotony of their lives between working at KAUST and busing to the work camp. Now their little lamb is gone.

The Meeting

I arranged a meeting with the manager thinking that it was just a misunderstanding, but the injustice and prejudice against foreign workers runs deep here. The manager told me that my Filipino friends are dangerous people and that if they are given half a chance they will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise endanger the entire community. They are not allowed to use the facilities, not just because of crowding during peak hours, he said, but because they are not welcome at KAUST when they are not working. They have no rights to relationships or recreation inside the KAUST community, he said, because these might be an inconvenience to me. That is just the way Saudi Oger employees are controlled.

"What do they do after work then?" I asked.

"I don't know, it is not my concern," was his response

Apartheid at KAUST

At KAUST, there are more than 4,000 permanent contracted employees to serve only 1,000 residents. Most of these men and women are from Bangladesh and from the Philippines. They are bussed in every morning of every day from their work camps in Thuwal or Jeddah to wipe our windows, polish our floors, sweep our houses, wipe our toilet seats, and sit behind desks handing out tennis rackets and bowling shoes. Each employee works 10-12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and is "not well paid," according the the manager.

There are four Filipino and Bangladeshi workers for every one KAUST student, professor, and staff member. Whenever one of the contracted workers greets me with a smile and a wave, he makes me both happy and sad. Happy because those gestures are genuine, but sad because as long as Saudi Oger's rules remain unchanged, this is the only interaction we will ever have. They are nameless persons without freedoms brought here for our convenience. Having contracted workers in this way is kind of like owning slaves, Arab News says, and it makes me sick to my stomach. It is difficult for me to live in a community which systematically separates and excludes so many people who work here.

Business Incentives

Why does KAUST need 4,000 services staff for 1,000 KAUST students, professors, and employees? We don't, but perverse business incentives have made the system what it is today.

Filipinos and Bangladeshis will work for almost nothing because the economic situation in their home countries is so difficult. Contractors like Saudi Oger negotiate contracts with clients like KAUST based on the number of employed workers and total work hours. If a company makes more money for providing more workers who are "not well paid," then the business incentive for Saudi Oger is to bring as many workers as possible. Unfortunately, having so many underpaid, overworked, and under-respected employees means that there has to be some extra rules to control the crowds.

The Problems

To keep control, passports are confiscated, walled compounds with crowded bunkhouses are constructed for sleeping and eating, and contracted employees are only allowed to be at work or to be at the compound. No fun, no other human interaction.

Though this apartheid may be acceptable in other parts of the KSA, it makes many of the foreign visitors at KAUST feel uneasy. We need a better model.

A Suggestion

Quality over quantity might be a better philosophy of hiring. What if we had 800 or fewer contracted workers instead of 4,000? Fewer employees means easier care and control, and maybe the salaries and standard of living could be raised a little bit too. Instead of busing thousands of workers in and out of the KAUST compound every day, perhaps a few hundred economy apartments could be provided for these skilled employees. With a better standard of living, better salary, better treatment than the average worker in Saudi Arabia, and membership in the KAUST community, there would be far less incentive for the imagined lying, cheating, and stealing which the manager is trying to prevent.

With fewer workers, maybe a few cash registers at the supermarket would remain unmanned, maybe a maid might not be available to clean my house within ten minutes of calling housekeeping, and maybe some of the windows on campus would remain smudged longer before being wiped, but increased trust and respect between people might be worth a few dirty windows. The janitor and I could shop in the same supermarket, use the same public bathrooms, send our children to the same school, and maybe even play a little basketball together. Does that sound too radical?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wedding After-Party

After the wedding we went out for a few hours of Sheesha and talked and laughed late into the night about the evening's events and antics. One of my friend smoked the largest "hubbly-bubbly" I have ever seen; I called it the kilo-sheesha (in red).

Friday, April 16, 2010

الف مبروك يا عريس! / A Saudi (Jeddawi) Wedding

One thousand congratulations to my friend who was just married! Last night, I had what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a Jeddah-style Saudi wedding. Pictured above are the groom (Arees) his father and grandfather as they began the festivities.

All of my Saudi friends insisted that Jeddawi (people form Jeddah) weddings were more fun than other weddings because they are so lively (at least on the men's side, I have no idea what the women were doing the whole time.) In this picture, the father (left), son (right), and two grandfathers (I think...) are dancing with swords. The old man in white looks was having a great time!

In Jeddah, as in all of Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East, the culture of keeping men and women separated extends even to weddings. The men danced and celebrated with the groom from 9:00 pm to midnight while the women, unseen by us, were celebrating in kind in another large room. Rumor has it that when the men are away they take off their Abayas and wear the most beautiful and colorful dresses, but I cannot confirm this from my personal experience.

I don't know what the meaning of this tradition is, but it seemed important so I took a snapshot. Again, more smiling and more dancing.

The food was excellent of course! Lamb and rice is typical Saudi style and the tender, juicy meat was cooked to perfection. Notice that there are only three spoons at a table sitting eight people. Use your hands, silly American!

After the meal, the water stopped running in the bathrooms for a while (local pressure drop), leaving dozens of guests standing around awkwardly with rice dripping from their fingers. We were in Jeddah!

The band, pictured here, also doubled as a pep squad to keep everyone excited and involved in the festivities. I got pulled into the dancing more than once - they wanted to be sure that I, an obvious foreigner, felt completely included in the celebration.

I have never danced with men before, and I still have some natural American tenancies to shy away from these kind of things. But, in the interest of heightening my cultural awareness, making new friends, and having loads of fun, I overcame these cultural barriers. Shookran shebab!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Palestine: Bethlehem

After visiting Hebron (El Khalil), I caught a taxi to Bethlehem to see the famous Church of the Nativity and spend the night before returning to Amman. The old church was beautiful to see.

I talked with both Christian and Muslim Arabs while wandering and reflecting in the church. Bethlehem is a place where people can live side-by-side in mutual respect without the religious tension which is felt in some other Middle-Eastern countries. This peaceful co-existence is further evidenced by the sunset-framed silhouette of a mosque's minaret across from the church.

After meeting the priest of the church, one of my new friends insisted that I had to cross the street and meet his Imam too. : )

After a full day's travel, I spent much of the night conversing, eating, smoking sheesha, and meeting the extended families of my Palestinian friends. Their hospitality was unbeatable - as a guest, I was welcomed warmly and treated to the best they had to offer.

But even in this peaceful suburb, the consequences of conflict and political unrest still loomed. Before leaving town the following morning, my friend insisted that I see where his little brother's final resting place lay - his life cut short by a bullet during a fight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians some years ago.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Koran's Easter Story

Yesterday was Easter, the most important of the Christian holidays. Though Islam and Christianity differ about other details of Jesus' life and mission, we agree on these important points: (1) he is not dead (2) his is with God in heaven. These are the Koran verses which describe the Easter we celebrated yesterday. n
سُوۡرَةُ مَریَم
وَٱلسَّلَـٰمُ عَلَىَّ يَوۡمَ وُلِدتُّ وَيَوۡمَ أَمُوتُ وَيَوۡمَ أُبۡعَثُ حَيًّ۬ا (٣٣) ذَٲلِكَ عِيسَى ٱبۡنُ مَرۡيَمَ‌ۚ قَوۡلَ ٱلۡحَقِّ ٱلَّذِى فِيهِ يَمۡتَرُونَ (٣٤)
"Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" (33) Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. (34)
سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان
إِذۡ قَالَ ٱللَّهُ يَـٰعِيسَىٰٓ إِنِّى مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَىَّ وَمُطَهِّرُكَ مِنَ ٱلَّذِينَ ڪَفَرُواْ وَجَاعِلُ ٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّبَعُوكَ فَوۡقَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوٓاْ إِلَىٰ يَوۡمِ ٱلۡقِيَـٰمَةِ‌ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَىَّ مَرۡجِعُڪُمۡ فَأَحۡڪُمُ بَيۡنَكُمۡ فِيمَا كُنتُمۡ فِيهِ تَخۡتَلِفُونَ (٥٥)
Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee (blogger's note: muatwafeek means literally "to die" but is translated "to take") and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject Faith, to the Day of Resurrection; then shall ye all return unto Me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (55)

Jesus is alive, and he has shown us the way to heaven, this is why we celebrate this Easter!

The full story can be found here in English or Arabic.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Reflections

This is Good Friday, the Friday before Christianity's most important Holiday, Easter. Good Friday was actually the darkest and most terrifying period which the early followers of Jesus ever experienced.

There were no heroes that day. The disciples acted clueless and cowardly, the Roman guards were horribly cruel, the governor was contemptibly corrupt, the religious leaders unbelievably evil, and at the end of that terrible day Jesus lay buried in a tomb.

So why do Christians call it Good Friday... ? Because amazingly, death is not the end of Jesus' story.

If you are interested, the full story can be read here.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Palestine: Hebron (Al Khalil)

My wife and mother both said I was crazy for crossing over to the West Bank of Palestine, which in not as unstable as Hamas' Gaza, but still has a history of violence and unrest. My first stop was Hebron (Al Khalil) and even in this dreary wet weather, the city and the surrounding countryside were beautiful in springtime.

One does not just walk around Hebron un-escorted. There are dozens of Israeli checkpoints and road blocks in the city center, and Israeli and Palestinian military police roam the streets everywhere. Accidentally wandering into the wrong neighborhood or military watch-post could get one in serious trouble with the police or the locals. Fortunately, I was able to find and hire this taxi driver who spoke excellent English to guide me through the old city.

There is so much tension in this ancient city because of the Israeli settlements which dominate the heart of downtown. These settlements were built decades ago, and they are infamous for being the only Israeli compounds built in the center of a major Palestinian city (see one below).

Two of the Israeli settlements actually straddle the traditional market, which is underground. The Palestinians have strung wire nets across the open areas to catch stones and trash which have been thrown down onto the market streets by angry Israelis. The rage goes both ways though... there were several barbed-wire fences in the old town through which my guide said militants from both sides would shoot at each other from time to time.
Hebron city is a mess. The Israelis have blocked off most of the major roads downtown and closed the Abraham Mosque to worshipers on Friday. The checkpoints and road blocks do not make it impossible to travel from one side of the city to the other, only very difficult. Traffic pours through tiny Palestinian neighborhood streets which were never designed for cars because the main roads are off-limits. All of these inconveniences, coupled with occasional gang raids and bombings on both sides, only make the tensions worse and worse. I didn't talk to a single Palestinian who hadn't lost a brother or cousin to one of these senseless acts of violence, and most carried the picture. Some of these people have exchanged Islamic faith for a religion of revenge, and that is what is most troubling.

Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory are not peaceful, they only exacerbate an already bad situation. After visiting Hebron, I can see why establishing Israeli "apartments" in East Jerusalem is such a bad idea. If the Israeli government is seriously considering such a move, then they are definitely not serious about peace.

The bright point of the day was meeting my host's family - his wife, children, mother and father welcomed me into their home for some coffee and conversation for a couple of hours late in the afternoon. In stark contrast with uniform distaste that Palestinians have for the Israeli government is their zeal for welcoming guests and making travelers feel comfortable in their restless country. I never felt unsafe in the West Bank, only welcomed by the limitless care and generosity of people like these.