Friday, December 25, 2015

Dispatch from Saudi Arabia

Me in the Al-Balad neighborhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia built a University of Science and Technology with the goal of keeping his population in the forefront of scientific innovations.  He built a state of the art campus on the Red Sea, surrounded by desert. He built residences, parks, a golf course, a yacht club, and shops in order to attract top-notch professors and graduate students from all over the world.  And, since they would be living there with their families he built schools for the children to attend. And where there are schools, author visits can’t be too far behind.  That is how I got the honor of visiting the elementary school at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology  (KAUST).

I flew into Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where I was whisked through customs by an official from KAUST and driven 45 minutes north through a long expanse of desert to the university. We passed through two military style checkpoints with barricades and I arrived at a campus that was like a miniature city from a science fiction film, except without the monorails.
Some of the KAUST campus buildings at night.

The elementary school, which is English-language based, had an American style curriculum. The student body was fairly international, with about 30 - 40% being local. The school’s faculty, as in any other international school I’ve visited, was energetic, creative, and enthusiastic.  They are primarily from English speaking countries, with a disproportionately large percentage of Canucks and Kiwis. I was treated like a visiting rock star, and I spent a week giving presentations to students, pre-k through 12th graders. I think I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that kids all over the world enjoy drawing monkeys.
Driving around KAUST during the day. Palm trees fed by water desalinated from the Red Sea. 

Most of the Saudi code of conduct was relaxed on campus. Women can drive, and western dress is common. There were a number of mosques on campus, and because of my jet lag I was often outside walking at 5:30 am when the “call to prayer” tone reverberated through the pre-dawn air. There was something very spiritual in the sight of the sleepy figures materializing out of the darkness and making their way to worship. It reminded me of a retreat I once spent in a Benedictine monastery.

A number of teachers compared life at KAUST to the film “The Truman Show”. The experience was idyllic, but kind of artificial. I am grateful that a few teachers wanted to take me on an excursion into Jeddah to have an authentic Saudi experience. The women had to put on long black robe-like dresses called abayas. They did not wear headscarves, but had them with them, just in case someone demanded that they be worn. There are fairly rigid codes about which gender can go into which stores. Men alone cannot go into malls, unless they are with their families. Women cannot go into certain stores unless they are with a man, or not at all.

The Al-Balad neighborhood in Jeddah.
We took a taxi in to the Al-Balad neighborhood. This is the neighborhood where DH Lawrence spent time, and it is rapidly crumbling. Fortunately it has been named a Unesco World Heritage site, so hopefully work will be starting soon to preserve this area. I have posted photos of this fascinating area, but it would be misleading to come away with the impression that all of Jeddah looked like this. There were plenty of contemporary apartment buildings, along with Applebees, TGI Fridays, and Starbucks. They also have public squares where Sharia law is enforced, including beheadings, “be-handings”, floggings, and stonings. An awareness of this side of the culture was certainly off-putting, but it was interesting to note that the priorities and the codes of behavior at KAUST stood in contrast to the rest of Saudi Arabia. Anytime there were delays in getting a visa processed, or in passing through customs, a call from someone at KAUST seemed to “part the waters”, as it were. So it would seem that the powers that be hold in fairly high regard what is happening at KAUST.

The main mosque at KAUST.
Waiting at the airport for my flight home was probably the only time I was unescorted in a public place during my stay. It was fascinating to see all the travelers from various Islamic cultures returning home after their pilgrimages. There was a rich tapestry of cultural dress as the weary travelers from (I’m guessing) Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan all waited for their flights home. I would have liked to have taken out my sketchbook and drawn some of them, but I’m not 100% clear on which infractions get your hand chopped off, so I decided it was best not to take any chances. For a while I was the only westerner, and I felt a little self-conscious, but no one was paying any attention to me, positively or negatively. As Americans we are so used to thinking that the world revolves around us, I think it was invaluable for me to experience what it feels like to be a foreigner, to be on the outside looking in. I am grateful to the teachers and administration at KAUST for bringing me to a part of this world that I otherwise never would have experienced.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Greetings 2015!

This year my Christmas card is a holiday homage to Norman Rockwell. Illustration fans will get the reference immediately, but for those of you who aren't, I've posted Mr. Rockwell's original masterpiece as well. And again, for those who don't know, in his original version Norman himself is there in the bottom row, the subject of the gossip. I wish my version didn't have so much blank space in it, but I needed the size differential between the elves and Mr. and Mrs. Claus to convey the gag.