Footprints in the Sand

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Second published piece:

Footprints in the Sand

First published piece:

5 places to escape the compounds of Riyadh

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I need your help..

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The Great Human Race (5K)

FINALLY.. I’ve patiently waited an entire year to get outdoors and race, and I have chosen  The Great Human Race, as my first. This is a 5k-run/walk event that has been taking place in Durham, N.C. for 18 years. Each year, around 100 different nonprofits from the area get together to raise money. Each organization has their own “team” for the race and team members raise money for the organization. I’m participating to raise funds for team “Church World Service”. Over the past 65yrs, CWS has done great work with reunification, resettlement, and integration of refugees of all cultures and religions. By race day (April 6th, 2013), my goal, with your help, is to cover the expenses of 2 families ($500 each), by safely reuniting spouses and children in the United States.

A little more about the reunification program: CWS-RDU assists refugees and asylees who have seen their families torn apart by conflict. Some families are separated when a parent flees to a neighboring country, not wanting to risk bringing a spouse or children into a potentially dangerous future. In any case, the organization receives refugees here who are missing key parts of their families. Currently, CWS is working with one mother of 5 from Burma who is seeking to bring her husband to join her here in the US. Having the husband here will mean an additional earner in the home, more safety for the family, and a second parent for the children.

Video on CWS refugees:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUORjDoFm24&list=SPCBEF4FC5F8AFCBA5&index=3  

This event represents my passions as a runner, an international educator and a student of Diplomacy: International Conflict Management. With a friends’ list of family, fitness fanatics, teachers abroad, and fellow alumni, we can all relate to this cause. I ask that if each of you could simply donate $10, we could reach or surpass this goal. Reuniting families is a crucial part of what CWS does–it provides refugees with safety, stability, and a sense of home in the United States. This is a well-researched group that I have chosen to volunteer with this year, and I hope you would like to be a part of this process.

To Donate: https://thevolunteercenter.givebig.org/c/TBR/a/cwsrdu/p/Ashley

To learn more about CWS:  www.cwsglobal.org. and www.cwsrdu.org

Thanks again for your support.

The Passage to Happiness

Assignment 3: Capturing Voices. Visit a place where several people are gathering. Eavesdrop on their speech, behavior, body language. Revision 11/29/15

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It’s Professional Development month. The teaching staff has survived another semester and now spends their break desk-warming and evaluating their futures. Paint by Numbers sets, knitting needles, and outdated books teaching formal Arabic have worn out their excitement. Each desk holds a pushpin board of extremely ambitious goals or countdowns to the next “break”. Hidden under her hijab, a comatose employee is stretched out on the couch, using her abaya as a makeshift blanket.

In sequence, teachers glance up at the clock wondering if the battery has died. Eight hours tick by slowly as clusters of women busy themselves with Koran study, sample potluck dishes, or share the all-too-familiar story of what has brought them to Saudi… money.  One woman, intending to be homebound when she is next inconvenienced, strikes away at job applications on her laptop. Next to her is yet another American/British debate.

“Why are they called biscuits and gravy?! Those are definitely scones and sauce!” Then comes a needed explanation of how the two ingredients go together anyway. “You Americans will eat all kinds of bits n’ bobs together. Especially when it comes to peanut bu–uh!” says the Brit, as they laugh in agreement and list off peculiar peanut butter combinations.

“I’m ready to go home”, the applicant says undirected at anyone in particular, as if thinking out loud. She has been a popular bet in private discussions of who would flee the country next. Unable to get job experience after university and having received one too many “We’re sorry to inform you” letters, it has turned a once optimistic professional into a chronic sigher.

“Should I go home to a life and family that makes me happy, but be jobless and dodge student loan collectors all month… and ruin my credit, if it isn’t already? Or be miserable and bored to tears, here, just to keep them paid and off my ass?” Her ‘pros and cons list’ has been drafted at many points throughout the year.

The questioning begins, where co-workers assess her skills, the job market, and her potential. “Well, are you, you know, like a ‘teacher-teacher’, or just teaching?” asks a real teacher who has found this her calling.

“I’m an Architect major..”

The group winces.

Doctors, lawyers, and hopeful retirees have found themselves teaching in Saudi after the downturn of the economy. The  moment of silence from the group says enough.

“Just one more month.. That’s all I can take..”

“Well, love, look at it this way. Here, you work half the time for double the money. We’ve been taking the piss this whole month! I don’t know about you lot, but we’d never find this back in the U.K.”, says the Brit with the obvious solution.

A few more opinions and trampled American Dreams and the applicant has impassively stated that she’ll finish the year. Unmindfully, she is shaking her head while voicing this decision.

“Just imagine how much you could save if you stuck it out for 5 years, got married to a teacher here, and doubled the income..” chimes one of the ‘lifers’.

With no response, the applicant’s eyes glaze over as she looks through the computer screen.

Devil is in the Details

Assignment 2 (Revision: 11/15/15): Direct Observation

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This is not my flat, btw (lol). But is along my scenic route.

Before I leave the serenity of my heated flat at 6:30 am, Saturday morning, and rush out into the crisp desert air of Saudi Arabia, I say a prayer.  Not to get me through the seemingly endless workday, or a prayer to keep the attention of SMS addicted students, but a prayer that I safely make it through the unpredictable 15-minute adventure to the university.

Jumping into the dirt-speckled taxi, I’m greeted by my old driver, Uncle Ahmed. “Good Morning, Zahrah!” .. My name is Ashley. However, Uncle Ahmed insists that a name must hold a meaning, and “from an ash tree” wasn’t good enough.

“You moat (dead)?!”, he asks. I apologize for my lateness. I wipe out a circle of condensation from the window to peer out. Uncle Ahmed uses his sleeve on the windshield and rolls down his window to see from a different angle. We teach him about the defrost button and he instantly lights up in amazement of this new invention.

We first pass a playground that holds abandoned balls, bottles, and bags from yesterday’s attendants. The cement football/soccer courts sit on the grounds of an old mosque, making it a temporary babysitter during prayer calls. We come to a median at an unnamed street, which would require a right turn, followed by a U-Turn. However, we always make the left onto possible oncoming traffic, until the break in the median. The motels along this street are identical, besides the unique designs of gated windows that encase its inhabitants. Guarding the door, one of the cleaners is occupying a set of airport benches.  Adjacent, a dusty old couch decorates the motel’s outdoor seating area.

We are now approaching what we call “the road of death”, a road left unnamed by city planners. We see our first hazard at the corner construction site, where foreign workers lift a spin saw to the 3rd story of the structure, by tying the handle to a rope. Piles of debris stretch carelessly out into the street.

Facing another mosque, we turn right. It’s pretty much a straight shot from here. The challenge is to navigate an unmarked road of perhaps 3-lanes, unpronounced speed bumps that we brace for by memory, and the absence of signals at crossings. Unbothered, the driver of a sputtering moped speeds past us, using a tightly wrapped scarf as his helmet. Our 65-year old driver slowly makes his way down the street, in comparison to the 20-somethings and occasional 14-year-old driving his mother to the store. Recycled, round trash receptacles line the road. Most of the trash misses the bin by mere inches, while one is used to contain a fire for the chilled workers.

A row of lively, green palm trees peek out from the stone fortress of a private villa. In contrast, outside its walls, it neighbors large piles of dusty rubble and stray cats.  Meanwhile, within the taxi, there’s a burst of conversation between my British co-workers “Oh, I hope my students don’t ____”, “Oh My Allah! Did you just see that ______?”, “Just 4 more weeks, ladies, until we _______”. I spend less time chiming in, and mentally prepare for the dreaded road ahead; the 4-way, 3-ish lane intersection without stoplights. Most of us have learned of common courtesy in driving school of how to execute this in a 1-lane, turn-taking, setting. However, patience is not applied here. We are now sitting in the center of a myriad of angry drivers, who clearly voice themselves with their horns and gestures that are universally understood. My driver gives back the same look and yells a stream of Arabic. One full year in Saudi and the extent of my Arabic is knowing how to say, “You crazy, mentally ill person” with fluidity.

Uncle Ahmed’s horn gets him through the traffic, and I can convince my heart to stop racing. The rest of the scenery helps, as everything else is predictable. We will always pass the smaller men’s only shops with unrushed patrons taking in their Arabic tea and breakfast foul. The cluster of pre-teen boys dressed in their crisp white thobes and checkered scarves always pick up a Pepsi from the local gas station on the way to school. And I delight in seeing rare English, as we pass the golden arches of Mickey D’s and a pharmacy, simply titled “Pharmacy”.

We have one more intersection, but thankfully this one comes with a traffic light. The very second it turns green, starts the blaring of every car horn, including ours. After the driver to our right, makes a left-hand turn, we’re in the clear. We make our final turn onto the backroads of the school, passing Arabic graffiti and a pink villa that stands out among the brown city. We hop out the taxi to join the dozens of veiled women in long, black abayas. A student greets me at the door. She smiles with stunning eyes and lavish accessories. I’m pretty sure it’s Ghada.

My Hometown in 500 Words: Madison, North Carolina

First assignment (final revision, 11/9/15): Give a hometown narrative in 500 words.

At the top of Hanging Rock, 30 minutes from Madison.

At the top of Hanging Rock, 30 minutes from Madison.

My Hometown in 500 Words: Madison, NC

A dead deer lies on the side of the North Carolina road. A year-long of traveling separates me from the airport and Madison, my hometown. As always, I feel myself slipping into a mild trance. Time moves slowly here. I enter a past of when things were simple and no one was in a rush. I open the car windows and breathe in the scent of honeysuckle. The rickety barn at the end of the long gravel road to my right is still standing. Barrels of hay, lie in the seemingly endless fields. And that old, unchained dog still sits on a peeling porch. Several minutes pass by before a car is behind me. They ease past me without hitting their horn.

As I get closer to Madison, activity slightly stirs. Everyone who I’ve grown up with, seem to be present at the town’s only shopping center, Wal-Mart. The cheapest gas rates would be found here. As I get out to pay the attendant, it’s common knowledge for me to smile and nod to the unfamiliar African-American two cars down. Surely she’s attended my baptism, is a friend of a friend of my grandmother, or has chaperoned a long-forgotten elementary school trip. “Aren’t you so-and-so’s daughter? I remember you when you were a little thang. Look at ya’ all grown!” she says with a lazy Southern accent. Conversations are never short and sweet. I give my update on how every member of the family is doing, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

Nearing my old house, I drive under the old, stone bridge. The passage always holds a puddle, which questions its foundation. Low and narrow, it was likely built during the same era as the colonial house that neighbors it.Dalton-St

Turn right and you are on our old street, a steep road that we dared to ride our bikes down as children. I smile as I reminisce. Parents had absolutely no idea where to find us. From the finish of our Saturday chores until the signaling of streetlights, we would play “Hide and Seek” near sewers, through woods, and across train tracks. We acquired an impressive collection of cicada shells and lightning bugs. Someone would then receive a “triple double dog dare” to turn the glowing bums into earrings.

Today, though, there’s an unearthly silence, with not one child in sight.. perhaps glued to a TV screen or the over-protective eyes of a parent. The tree house that we attempted countless times to create now stands professionally built by grown-up hands.

Manicured hills that held my old house on its peak, have now been overtaken by forest. My old residence was once named best-kept houses in Madison. It was postcard worthy. However, “It’s a money-pit”, they say. With the constant change of owners, its appearance has fallen into the same lazy rut.

I finally reach my destination, my mother’s new apartment. After the elation of reconnecting with the family, I close myself in a guest bedroom filled with generic decor. The pace has slowed, but time did not stand still here. I lie in bed and realize that the Madison that I remember is long past gone. But then I hear it… the chorus of cicadas outside of my window, a familiar lullaby.

The Challenges of ESL in a Foreign Country

Teaching ESL, or English as a Second Language, is a great starter career for those holding a Bachelors degree… in anything! This is why you’ll often come across everyone from Art to Science majors travelling to the far ends of the Earth, with little to no experience. I started out as a Forensics and French major, teaching in Korea. No relation whatsoever!  But these years of travelling and soul searching, not only makes you stand out a little on paper, but also narrows down the careers that you don’t want to do, what luxuries you prefer not to give up, and what stresses you can and cannot handle long-term.

Depending on the country, ESL can get you a pretty lucrative salary or make you go broke. It can open your eyes to vibrant cultures, or make you hide for cover. The biggest impact of teaching English overseas, for me at least, is its ability to make you incredibly descriptive and creative with words… but at the same time makes you second think everything.  So, below, I listed my rules to getting through your teaching year without losing yourself.

 

1)   “Prepare” to get caught off guard

At one point of your year, you will have a student who questions everything! They will hit you with a grammar question that you won’t know the answer to. I get flustered easily with these. So what I do is applaud her for such a “great” question, and “since it’s more complex, and we’re low on time, I’ll answer that tomorrow.”  So to at least get me 24 hours to find a grammar wiz who knows. And as ambiguous as English is, sometimes there is no answer. Spelling “their”, “beautiful” and “guard” are the three words that I sometimes have to give second thought. I’ve seen the students spell these wrong so many times, that it starts to look right. So last month’s lesson was teaching them to use a paper dictionary, instead of asking me.

 

2)   Try not to question yourself too much

Because of these grammar questions, you may find yourself questioning everything you say. “Do I run quick? Or quickly?.. If I run quickly, then why can’t I run fastly, instead of fast?”. You can imagine how these thoughts can interrupt the ease of your conversations as well. When on Skype with family at friends at home, they often catch my grammar mistakes. The longer that I teach English at an elementary level, the more frequent I make these slip-ups.

 

3)   Don’t get caught up in the accent arguments

Living and working with every type of English accent on the planet, there are often debates on correct usage of words. I am adamant on retraining my British-taught students to pronounce “Z” like “zee” instead of “zed”. Amongst us, the teachers go back and forth mocking the Queens English versus American accent. Aubergine vs. Eggplant. “At the weekend” vs. “On the weekend”. I also think I should be able to hear the difference between “walk” and “work”.  From imitations, apparently all Americans sound like a “valley girl” or a “Redneck”. I’ve learned to laugh at these differences and stereotypes. Ultimately, we end up taking some of these, once awkward, phrases home with us.

 

4)   If all else fails, play Charades, Pictionary or Taboo.

I am often in situations where a picture or actions are the only way that I can get my point across.  When explaining the different consistencies of water to my students, I pointed to someone’s bottle of water, drew a snowman, and then pretended to slip on patch of ice.  A few of us teachers were curious about the location of the infamous “Chop Chop Square”, where executions take place. No amount of English could convey what we wanted to a nearby shopkeeper. But with the simple gesture of hand (signifying a sword) passing throat, we were pointed in the right direction.

 

5)   Don’t talk like your students

My students speak in very broken sentences. Instead of “Teacher, did you mark me late?”, they normally say, “Teacher, late?”. The easy way to get everyone’s understanding is to say, “Class, 7:30. 7:40, late.” However, this easy way out does not teach them proper sentence structure, and probably contributes to #2’s blunders. Just as, only doing baby talk to your toddler, probably wouldn’t help with their speech growth either.

 

Being an ESL instructor will give you great appreciation for the patience it takes to teach it. Many valuable experiences have come from talking to a local with little English. However, having a girls’ night of normal conversation has helped to keep my sanity. Another big help, is to keep reading. And write! It’ll reassure you that you have some intelligence left.

 

 

Who should choose your “freedom”? Saudi Arabia vs. Democracy

Should Democracy Be Forced on Saudi Arabia?

            Someone, outside of Saudi, asked me this question yesterday. If I were just arriving in this country, I would think this a common sense answer! I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a democracy, right?? Who wouldn’t want the freedoms of religion, speech, church and state, and the right to bear arms? Americans ability to basically do as we please seems to make the general public happy. And what works for us should work for everyone else…

In comes Saudi Arabia.  This country, I must say, is unlike any other. Saudi is an absolute monarchy that has been heavily portrayed in media to be a trap, a desolate place for its women, and lacking of freedoms that “everyone” enjoys. Women can’t drive, its laws restrict most women from working (although this is changing), drugs and alcohol are prohibited in the country, it is gender-segregated, it is illegal to protest or say anything negative about the person in power, and women must cover in abayas.

The only thing that many people outside of Saudi don’t get the chance to see is that many Saudis may find the freedoms of democracy as detrimental. They love their country, how its run, and don’t want all of the changes. Democracy and Saudi don’t quite go together. And weirdly, I kinda agree.

You can’t separate church and state here. Saudi is 99.9% Muslim. Religion runs every part of everyone’s day, even if you’re non-Muslim. It is ruled by Sharia law (Islamic law) that has interpretations based on Saudi’s culture. Religious police are given the duty to enforce a dress-code standard. And shops shut 5 times a day, for 30 min-1 hr each, for prayer that blasts on loudspeakers across the country.  As a Christian, I don’t get a free pass to forgo all of these rules. To me, yes, it can be a headache. Especially when I want to go straight from work to buy bread at 3pm, but I must wait outside the shop till 4pm which postpones my nap, my workout, and dinner… However, for the other 99%, this is a constant reminder to keep God first, no matter what you have on your schedule. And I’m sure that whatever religion you (my readers) follow, you can appreciate that.

Freedom of religion for Saudi would not only start some uproar within the country, but possibly from Muslims outside. Saudi is like the ‘Holy Land’ for Muslims around the world. Islam hasn’t gotten the best rap after extremist acts from Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. And consequently, even Muslims who believe in peace (the majority) have received a lot of hatred and assaults. Like the Saudi women, many foreign Muslims don’t see the cover-up as an obligation, but a preference. Saudi is an escape for many of these individuals; a place where they can wear their hijab (scarf) and/or niqab (face covering) without harassment. And just as Christians may cherish the journey to Jerusalem and would like for it to stay a Christian site, every Muslim hopes to keep Mecca and Medina of Saudi Arabia.

Driving only seems like a freedom/luxury to western minds, depending on whom you ask. I personally enjoy wandering aimlessly around town, with the windows down, blasting whatever I want. However, there are those who see driving as a chore. It’s thought to be a luxury if you can afford your own personal driver, being able to sit in the back and take a nap until you reach your destination. That’s how many Saudi women see it. They don’t have to worry about pumping gas, following directions, insurance, tune-ups. Plus, in this country of only male drivers, you can imagine the impatience and swerving of the speed-demons behind the wheel. I wouldn’t want to drive in this country either!

Same thing with working.. How many women in the U.S. wouldn’t mind being able to have a life as a housewife, especially if you are given a nanny and a maid? Your time is basically freed up of all responsibility. Once again, I’d probably more enjoy a life working a purposeful job. But in the near future, these Saudi women will be able to work because they want to, not because they have to.

When you first step off the plane into Saudi, there’s a sign that says, “Drug trafficking equals death”.  Alcohol is not publicly sold in the country either. Now, there are many days when this country does me in, and I feel like need a drink. But, I will applaud the government for being able to keep a handle on its country by applying these rules. Let’s be honest, drugs and alcohol is the start of many confrontations, accidents, and abuses. To attempt to eliminate the access of these into a country was a smart move. Saudi Arabia is basically run by expats, people who aren’t used to these restrictions. So you may not want alcohol involved, or they’d quickly start voicing their democratic opinions (and get kicked out of the country or jailed).

Lastly, there’s the gender segregation. If I was single, this one would be quite hard for me; but only because in the West, we are in constant interaction with men. Men give a nice balance in point of views. I could always go to my female friends if I want a little gossip and emotion; the men if I need a more logical opinion, less feelings involved. Call that statement slightly sexist if you want. But, more often than not, that’s how it goes.. If I have something heavy to lift, I don’t need to lift a finger. It’s pleasant to have something sexy to look at, and not be ashamed to actually look. Plus, they smell nice… For single expat women, this seems to be one of their biggest complaints. However, for a Saudi woman who has spent her whole life segregated, she can’t really miss something she’s never had. I can imagine that these male-female interactions, for them, would be quite awkward and intimidating. I don’t know the statistics, but in comparison to blended-gender societies, I would believe that Saudi’s percentages of rapes (date and stranger) are significantly less.

Now although I studied Diplomacy, I’m not a huge political person. I wrote all this to say that democracy is just not for everyone. Perhaps one day, Saudi would pick certain features to adopt, but to make any democracy work; you would need the general public’s consensus. Without their participation, you are bound to have a few riots on your hands. Despite how it looks from the outside, I believe the majority of Saudis citizens are quite proud of their country and would be fine without change.

Footprints in the Sand

So apparently I will have a chance to mark off a huge goal on my Bucket List: Run an international marathon! Of all places, Saudi was the last place I thought to get this done. By living outside of a compound, it’s an extreme rarity to see a woman 1) running, 2) in an abaya, and 3) in the heat. My whole blog was meant to sum up my struggles adjusting to these restrictions.

In the States, I ran daily with an outstanding group of ladies from “Black Girls Run”, a nationwide movement of long distance runners that has added quite a bit of color to a sport that was predominantly white. When I first joined, 2 years ago, I could barely run 3 minutes without getting totally winded. In elementary, I absolutely dreaded that timed, 1 mile test we were required to do in P.E., and almost always came in last. However, today, it’s an addiction to beat my PR, run extreme distances, and rack up on medals! With one marathon under my belt, I hope to one day qualify for Boston, complete an ultra, and team up in a Ragnar Relay.

 

Before arriving in Saudi I asked my recruiter about the ease of running in this country. “Oh… it’s no problem! Many people run. They have plenty of parks. It’s just like any other modern city!” .. So I packed my running shoes, hydration belt, energy chews, and every runner’s favorite: Body Glide.

For the 1st few weeks, I just observed my surroundings. Not only did women not run, but I barely saw them rush for anything! Nothing  (literally) moved fast in this country, except for impatient drivers. No one even walked around outside for fresh air. People caught cabs to cross the street. There were gyms every two blocks, but none that catered to women. I later found out that the few womens’ “gyms” (more like spas), cost $150-200 per month. Very cruel joke this recruiter played on me..

 

So on Month 2, I made my first big purchase, a commercial treadmill. Although, I was happy to have some sort of real movement, it did kill the excitement and stamina I had for running. So much to the extent that, when I vacationed in the US this summer, I went from being a marathoner to barely making it 10 minutes. It’s as depressing as having an injury that hinders you from doing the sport you love.

Therefore, my goal for the next 5 months is to get back into the shape that I was pre-Saudi. This past Saturday started my marathon training…mostly by treadmill! I know you’re wondering “How in the world will you practice 20 milers on the ‘dread’mill?”. Well, I may have found one outlet. This past weekend, I …ran… outside! Although pricey in terms of transport, and quite inconvenient, the Diplomatic Quarters is heaven-sent. The DQ is a city of embassies, international schools, parks, and are ‘free-zones’ where most of the cultural Saudi laws do not apply. Therefore, I wasted little time shedding my abaya and hijab; finally being able to be out in my run-gear!

 

I really didn’t have a plan, not even a place to put my stuff. But after scoping out the area and making sure I wasn’t in a restricted zone, I walked a few dead end paths through boulders and sand, until I found a distinct path. For once in my lifetime of running, I could care less about my run/walk ratio, mileage, or pace. It was so unearthly silent out that I didn’t even want to ruin it with music. Perhaps the silence would have alarmed some, but it was such a peaceful escape that it almost felt Godly. The only sounds I welcomed were the rare songs of birds and the occasional “Hello” of another runner escaping his treadmill. Two hours later, I climbed up as high as I could on a boulder, while eating my energy chews and watching the sunset. I got to use my hydration belt and my Body Glide. Not because any of this stuff was needed, but because it’s as good a time as any. Right in the middle of a dry rocky ravine, was a random cluster palm dates. The contrast was oddly beautiful and kept me for another 30 minutes. As my ride called out from a distance and echoed my name, I made my final 10-minute jog to the car. This time it was effortless ..

Top Ten Books that make you go “Hmmm..”

Being an avid reader, I always make time to find a good book. This is especially the case here in Saudi, where a lot of my time is idle. Here’s my top ten book reviews, in no particular order.

"The Kite Runner"

* “The Kite Runner” By: Khaled Hosseini

This is one of my all-time faves! Don’t let the title bore you. For that reason, I had this book on my shelf for years without opening it. All I knew of Afghanistan was war, terrorism, and poverty. So to see the start of this book portray Kabul as a beautiful ancient city, with wealthy sectors, and children who enjoy familiar activities, was an unexpected touch. This story is about a motherless young boy, named Amir, who struggles with his high social status and desire for his father’s affection and approval. He grows up with Hassan, his incredibly loyal servant boy. Just as most kids who are quick to make friends, they form a close relationship. So close, that Hassan’s 1st word was his boy-master’s name. However, this unique bond is challenged due to their tribal differences, jealousy, and a conspired separation. This book takes you through the family’s sudden decent during the war, Amir’s betrayal to his best friend, and their experiences escaping Kabul. This book gives a good mix of personal and political events, that makes it a page-turner with underlying Afghan history.

* “A Thousand Splendid Suns” By: Khaled Hosseini

After reading “The Kite Runner”, Hosseini was the author at the top of my radar. His 2nd book, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, is a story of 3 generations of Afghan women, during the reign of the Taliban. One who is forced into a young marriage after the death of her mother. One who is orphaned due to war. And one who lives an isolated life because of an unsupported pregnancy. It’s easy to think that this would be a story of weak, quieted women, behind veils. However, these three have shown me that women, in general, no matter where in the world we are… we are fighters for love, freedom, and power. Their lives become intertwined for an unforgettable ending.

* “Left To Tell” By: Immaculee Ilibigiza

Immaculee was a student in Rwanda, who grew up in a highly respected family. The scenery of Mugabe and Lake Kivu is so vividly described that you imagine a vacation getaway, instead of the massacre that had transformed the country. Into her teenage years, Immaculee was quite naïve of the prejudices existing between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda. This alluring country was suddenly turned upside down by the Rwandan genocides, that led to over a million Tutsi deaths. Being an educated woman from a prominent Tutsi family, Immaculee was at the top of the “Wanted” list. After being split up from her family, a Hutu preacher took the risk of hiding her and 7 other women in a 4×3 bathroom, for 91 days. Every 12 hours they took turns sitting down in the cramped space. With only a toilet and a shower stall, flushing or running water was a risk of being caught, as they could hear the killers outside the window hunting for them. She struggled with hatred for the Hutu killers, until she found her only relief, through prayer. During these 3 months, is when Immaculee finds God; not by pleading for her life, but instead by learning to forgive her enemies. She was left to tell her story of survival.

* “Eat, Pray, Love”, By: Elizabeth Gilbert

Out of all of the books that I have read, I cannot find a more likeable character than “Liz”. She’s a recent divorcee, who realizes that she doesn’t want to waste away anymore time in depression and dwelling on the past. She unearths her old fun and carefree personality, frank humor, and wild curiosity as she decides to randomly hop a flight and find herself. Like most daydreamers, Liz takes in every event with all senses, and the dialogue of the story reflects a lot of her quirky thoughts. First she travels to Italy (to enjoy pleasure). Here she learns what it’s like to purposely lose track of time, enjoy food, and let loose. Then she goes to live in a monastery in India (to study the art of devotion). She learns to simply meditate until she finds healing from previous relationships. And lastly, in Indonesia, she builds unexpected relationships, where she learns to love again. This book is more for the open-minded, wannabe travelers, with big imaginations. The movie sucks in comparison, so read 1st. The quotes in this book are outstanding. You will highlight every page!

Two favorite quotes (so hard to narrow it down!)

People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”

You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.”
Elizabeth Gilbert,
Eat, Pray, Love

4 Hour Workweek”, By: Tim Ferriss

24 hours in a day, just doesn’t feel like enough time to work 2 jobs, cook, clean, plus squeeze in a workout. Lately it seems like everyone’s been working themselves to complete exhaustion, but not really having much to show for it. That is why I picked up this book! This book teaches you how to be smart with you time, work less, while making more money. It gives tips on how to convince your boss to let you work from home, how to put timed blocks on your computer so you don’t waste hours on social networks and email, how to give instructions to avoid back-and-forth questioning from employees, and also tells you how to afford “mini-retirements” throughout your career. It not only deals with work advice, but also how to get discounted airfare and free international housing. It advises on how to outsource even the simplest tasks, such as making and canceling appointments, so to free up time for larger tasks. And also how to afford random vacations and still make money while away. In summary, this book is definitely not a waste of time!

*“First They Killed My Father”, By: Loung Ung

Loung is a 5 year old girl, who lived in a middle class family, in Cambodia. Being of this status brought pride to the family, until the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s ruling party. The Khmers were of lower class, and sought to exterminate all Cambodians who were intellectuals. Luong tells of her and her family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge genocides that killed over 1 million people through execution. The family spent days fleeing the city by foot, and faced months of starvation. After eventually being split up to increase their chances of survival, young Luong was made into child soldiers so to have a “better” life. This one will put a lump in your throat, to think of a child who has seen and gone through so much!

*“How to Win Friends and Influence People”, By: Dale Carnegie

This New York Times bestseller is helpful for everyone; whether you are shy, a sales person, or someone who often gives presentations. It teaches you how to receive positive responses when you talk to others. You will learn what exactly people want to hear and why we are wired that way. I first picked up this book thinking that it would give a lot of common sense tips. There are simple principles, such as, “Principle No 1: Don’t Criticize, Condemn or Complain”, “Principle No 2: Fulfill Others’ Desires to Feel Important”, and “Principle No 3: You Cannot Influence People by Telling Them What You Want”. However, these are things that I almost constantly need to be reminded of. So this book isn’t one of those ‘one-time’ reads, which makes me feel like I really got my money’s worth.

Abraham’s Well”, By: Sharon Ewell Foster

I first picked up this book years after my grandfather once told me that I had a great aunt that walked the “Trail of Tears”. At the time, he never went into detail, and I never asked for more. So when I read a synopsis on this book, about the Black Cherokees of North Carolina, I had to buy it! The main character, Armentia, is a young girl born on the edge of slavery while trying to still identify with her Cherokee side. This book has blunt details of the 1,000 mile forced movement of Cherokees from N.C. to Oklahoma and the difference of treatment between full-blood and half-blood Cherokees.. details that you’ll rarely find in textbooks. There are little sections of the story that drag, but be reassured that it will pick up again!

48 Laws of Power”, By: Robert Greene

I’m actually not anywhere near finished with this book. I started and left it in the States, due to its large size. But found a pocket-size copy here, last week. But the fact that it’s made it on my list this early on, should tell you that it’s an interesting read. This book may be a little controversial to some, only because it teaches you how to get ahead of the game, even if you have to step on someone else to get there. By the way, this book is written in the point of view of rulers and great leaders of the sciences. It quotes a lot from Machiavelli, who wrote the famous political piece “The Prince”, which advises on how to takeover kingdoms. So, I’d only advise people who already have high ethical standards to read this one. My reason for reading it: it gives an interesting touch on history and ties to modern day, it’s beautifully and uniquely written …. and most of all, to be less naïve of the conniving tactics some people take to get ahead, especially if it’s against me.

Bible for Dummies”, By: For Dummies series

I am far from being a wiz at my Biblical knowledge of “who did what, where, and why”. Many parts of the Bible can be up to interpretation. And this part, I actually do enjoy. However, there are parts where I’d like some nice hard facts; like, “What are the rules of Biblical war?”, “What was the exact route of the exodus out of Egypt?”.. This book goes deeper into the historical account of the Bible stories we learned as a child, gives explanation to Hebrew words, summarizes a text in modern-day language, and gives interesting geographical tidbits. It gives it’s own interpretation of some accounts, such as the presumed location of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is thought to be near the Dead Sea, which explains a lot about the fate of Lot’s wife. “The salt content of the Dead Sea is about 30%, making it impossible for anything to live in it (hence, the name). Yet, because of this high salt content, salt deposits appear all along its banks. Therefore, one walking through this region would notice a lot of “pillars of salt”. Jordan has never really been on my list of places to visit, but facts like these keeps my travel list growing!

**** What’s your favorite read?? Any suggestions on what I should check out next?****

Go Hungry for a Change

I am a Christian living in an Islamic country. It would have been totally ignorant of me to enter Saudi Arabia and not read up on the basics of what Saudi Muslims believe. Without personally knowing a single Muslim, I had to find my information in the most random of places. I browsed blogs, camped-out in Barnes and Nobles, FaceBooked public Saudi profiles. These attempts were made mainly because I try not to offend, if I can help it.. Of course there will be slip-ups; like crossing my legs with the soles of my shoes up, or mentioning how much I’d love a piece of bacon.. but I try to be respectful with the knowledge I’ve acquired so far.

I’ve come to find so much love for two fabulous ladies in this country. One happens to be Muslim and the other Atheist. We make a VERY interesting trio, to say the least .. We all exchange our beliefs and why, but we never end in a heated conversation; always in respect, and often cracking a slight joke in the end. Although none of us will probably ever convert to the other, we are friends who’ve offered and listened to sound opinions, great entertainment, and a have been a shoulder for homesickness. They’re good people, in my book!

Last week was the ending of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’ve heard of it, but honestly only knew that I’d be vacationing during that time. So, to gain a little understanding on what a good percentage of the world was doing, I interviewed my friend, Amaal, about this time of the year.

1) So what exactly is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a period in which all Muslim adults ‘fast’, or abstain from certain activities. It is one of the five basic tenets/pillars of Islam. It lasts for 30 days, and each day we fast from sunrise to sunset. It’s the month of mercy, blessings and forgiveness. During this time, Muslims are completely immersed in their connection with God. They persevere in doing righteous deeds, pray often and read the Quran (Muslim’s holy book) as much as they can.

2) What must you refrain from?
Food, drink and sexual activity

3) Does it last only certain hours of the day?
Yes, it lasts for a range of hours depending on which country you’re in and what time the sun rises and sets.

4) What is your favorite Ramadan memory?
Ramadan is a beautiful way of bringing family together. I love breaking fast with my family, sitting down all together to eat. I also love going to night prayers. These are special prayers that occur only during Ramadan. You go to the mosque and pray for about an hour, and read chapters of the Quran. This is truly a spiritual booster.

 5) How is Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, in comparison to your home country?
Well I come from England and that is extremely different. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and therefore it abides by Islamic law. I’ve been in a Muslim Country 3 times for Ramadan and every time it always feels like it’s Ramadan. People are all doing the same thing. They are unified in their worship and acts. People are extremely charitable, they give each other goods, they pay for the needy to be fed in Ramadan, and they share whatever they have. Whilst in Riyadh, what I’ve witnessed consistently is the constant giving of food and water to anyone and everyone. One time I was in a car and we were just about to break fast and people came around to our car window and gave us water and dates. This moved me. I’ve been taught that nothing is free in this world so to be given free food is shocking. But these acts aren’t even one of a kind; they happen constantly throughout the Muslim world.

6) How do you celebrate the breaking of fast?

At the end of the day, we actually mourn the end of fasting because it signifies the end of our spiritual detox. A good Muslim’s heart longs for the next Ramadan to come quickly and prays to see the next one.

At the end of the 30 days, however, we have a celebration called Eid. This is where all families come together, get dressed in their new attire and have a good day out or within their own houses. On the morning of Eid, we go to mosque to pray the ‘Eid prayer’. People exchange greetings and children are given sweets and money. Communities come together and celebrate. We also pay a charitable sum of money on that day. This goes towards feeding the poor and needy.

7) How is the environment around you during fasting and non-fasting hours?
Riyadh is quiet because during fasting hours not much is open. Food outlets in Saudi are usually closed, people stay in their homes and wait for the break of fast. They use their time to involve themselves in acts of worship. The beauty of Ramadan is that it pushes you away from the worldly things that often distract you from worshiping God. So during fasting hours, Muslims are meant to use that time to be productive. Non-fasting hours in Saudi is when everything and everyone ‘wakes up’, so to speak. Shops and restaurants are open, people come out and the city comes to life again.

8) How has normal daily tasks been affected?
Well, people can still go out and shop and go with their daily tasks, the only thing they aren’t allowed to do in a Muslim country is eat in a public place. Pretty much anything else can be done during the day.

9) How are non-Muslims handling it? Have they changed their activity hours?
I’m sure they are finding it hard. They aren’t allowed to eat in a public place, so I guess the less tolerant of them are annoyed. Most non-Muslims are very respectful, though. In fact many are happy because their hours of work are reduced during Ramadan.
10) Now that Ramadan is coming to an end, how do you feel?
In all honesty, I’m upset. This month is like a beloved friend that departs from your house and you must wait another 11 months for its goodness to return. Many think fasting hard and draining but it’s the opposite for a practicing Muslim. Knowing that every deed you are doing is exclusively for God can only make it an easy endeavor. I almost cried at the last sunset, signifying the end of Ramadan. But the celebrations of Eid somewhat eased the pain.

 

 

**I wrote this post, not only to be educational. But also so that different religions can learn to be more  tolerant of others. Many religions practice and find importance in fasting. By knowing the of similarities that we have, perhaps individuals wouldn’t be as quick to judge. With that being said, any disrespectful comments/responses against any religion will be deleted**