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.

Jordan: The Dead Sea

We went to the Dead Sea on my last full day in Jordan and spent hours just floating around. The dead sea has such a high salt concentration that it is denser than the human body and people float instead of sinking.

One of my Chinese friends never goes into water for fear of drowning, but in the Dead Sea he said: "Oh! Now I know how to swim!"

"Swimming," if you can call it that, takes no effort at all!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Amman: Food and Friends

The best experiences I had from visiting Amman were not the tours or the old ruins, but just sharing life and great food with friends. The two guys above are excited about Kunafa, a sweet dessert, from the most famous Kunafa restaurant in all of Amman!

I am convinced that Jordanians have some of the best food in the world, and Hashem famous among Amman restaurants. Hashem is known for its excellent hummus, foul (mashed beans), and falafel. If KAUST had a restaurant half as good, I would never eat anywhere else!

My stay at the smoky little Cliff Hotel was really enjoyable - mostly because of the manager. This man treated all customers like grand-children and he was never short of stories or good humor. As a Christian Jordanian with Palestinian roots, he had a unique perspective on the history and politics of the region.

My Jordanian hosts were terrific. In many ways, hanging out with these guys in the evening felt like hanging out with my old friends back in the USA. Being on the KAUST compound has a much different feel from driving around a big city like Amman. We went to restaurants and malls, and even took one evening to play video games against each other! Thanks guys for such a good time.

Jordan: Amman City

I traveled to Amman for the spring break to visit friends, to play the tourist, and to take a much needed break from KAUST and Saudi Arabia. This has been one of my favorite vacations so far: Amman city is full of life, color, and music, a place where cultures from the east and west can mingle with relative ease. In Amman I saw a women in full black Abaya - Saudi style - walking and talking with a friend in jeans and a t-shirts showing... her hair! This mutual tolerance impressed me. The people of Amman are friendly, the food is amazing, and this hybrid laid-back culture doesn't take itself too seriously.

People have been living in this region for thousands of years. An old Roman temple at the top of a mountain and an amphitheater in the heart of downtown are hard to miss.

The weather was great - much cooler than Jeddah of course - and we even got a little rain! The green grass and trees blanketing the landscape on the outskirts of Amman were almost overpowering. I haven't seen that many green and growing things since leaving the USA last August.

I found Amman to be the perfect vacation spot. Its Roman ruins are not as impressive as Europe's, nor are its beaches as nice as Egypt's, or its scenic vistas as majestic as in the USA, or China, or Norway. But the quality of life is good, transportation is convenient and cheap, the food is amazing, the streets are safe, the people are more than wiling to sit and drink tea and chat with visitors, and there are more than enough places to sit, rest, and enjoy a little peace.

Dow Comes to KAUST

This is spring break week for KAUST students, and the rest has been a much needed reprieve from mid-semester assignments, presentations, and tests. Two weeks ago, in the middle of this frantic time, Dow recruiters and deal-makers took the KAUST campus by storm.

Dow brought roughly a dozen representatives for two days of focused recruiting for summer internships and careers with Dow Chemical Company. Most of the business leaders which have come to KAUST have seemed much more interested in meeting with KAUST administrators than with students, but Dow's student-centered approach was refreshingly different and impressive. It was nice to have so much attention from an organization which might want to pay me once I graduate!

Friday, March 12, 2010

An Afternoon at Sea

How do researchers pass the time when all of our chemicals are stuck in customs?


I went diving again today!

I dove with some colleagues at a reef and a wreck and, as usual, saw some beautiful fish.

I had a brief statistics population modeling project based on these little fish - Pseudoanthias squamipinnis, I believe.

These baby reef fish stayed quite close to their protective coral.

This large (1.5 ft) angel fish was the largest reef fish I saw today.

Beautiful purple corals.

We were lucky to spot a shy clown fish near the wreck.

Look closely and see dozens of tiny baby blue reef fish hiding in this coral.

Sunken Treasure

These are some pictures from last weekend's ship-wreck dive. My friend's camera goes deeper than mine and I just got the photos from him. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Everyday People

It is easy to gain a false sense of reality here at KAUST with all of the attention we are getting from kings, presidents, sheiks, and Ivy League Department Heads.

Today KAUST hosted a conference for respected Red Sea scientists. Two days ago, the Lebanese President came for a visit. The week before that, a drove of international diplomats stopped in for a tour. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in the area just a little while ago. Saudi Princes check in regularly.

These powerful politicians and researchers are always hurried and as they move between important meetings their entourage of guards, media men, black suits, and blue suits are buzzing like a swarm of bees, but they will often take a few formal minutes to spend with students - maybe to say a speech or shake a few hands - to spread a few bits of their wisdom and encourage us that someday we too, might be fortunate enough to be in their shoes. We might also have this version of "success."

Why should we be so fortunate? There are a lot of employees here at KAUST who have very little control over their life situation and plenty of time on their hands. These guys are happy to talk and make new friends if you give them half a chance. The noble Saudi security guards from Thuwal or Abha will never become sheiks or doctors, but they are rich with the everyday wisdom of kindness, sincerity, and friendship.

Then there are the "visiting" workers - so many Filipinos have signed two or three year contracts and left their families and country to live in work camps and work six or seven days a week for as little as a few hundred dollars a month - which is still better than being unemployed in their home country. They get no paid vacation or flight home, little leisure time, and little respect, but they are also some of the friendliest people on campus. Most speak at least a little English, and I try to make a little conversation every time I pass a guy on the street or in the gym.

"Visiting" workers fix our stoves, patch our leaks, and carve our melons...

Pour our coffee...

Polish our tile floors...

And greet everyone with a "hello sir!"

Another class of visiting workers comes from Bangladesh. These guys usually speak no English and are limited to the unskilled jobs which pay a little less and offer little chance for interacting with community members. Bangladeshis make up the majority of the construction crews, window washers (KAUST has tens of thousands of square meters of windows to wash), and trash pick-up.
Workers moving bookshelves in the library.

Fixing a wall in the library.

Scrubbing the sidewalk,

Watering the flowers,

And the trashcan.

Visiting workers maintain our gardens (no easy task in Saudi heat!)

A wave and a smile is usually reciprocated.

There are the occasional injustices. One Bangladeshi guy who spoke a little English said that he had worked for three months without pay, but his company kept promising to pay "soon soon!" This conversation was in October, I hope he has been paid by now.

Lots of sidewalks need fixing.

Construction crews are always thrown on a task in large groups.

More road work. Sometimes construction crews cause traffic problems...

I've used a jackhammer before - I would not want this guy's job!

Night shift going back to the work camp in the morning.

More road work.

Without these everyday people, KAUST would not function or even exist today. Filipinos and Bangladeshis provide almost all of the common services and have completed the lion's share of construction work at KAUST. Visiting workers built my lab, fixed my appliances, checked my groceries at the store, served my meals, cleaned the bathrooms, staff the recreation center, care for children, open doors (I can't believe that we pay people to open doors...), and take out the trash.

It is easy to be unmindful or even ungrateful when something is not done well, but these people are just trying to earn money for their families - they have no ambitions for power politics or publishing research papers. All they have to offer is priceless; sometimes just a wave and a smile.