Friday, March 11, 2011

A city of contrasts....

I wander through the narrow, crowded streets of Khobar, filled with western women that have made a token gesture by throwing on an abaya over their shorts or jeans and t-shirts.  The streets are lined with suqs or open air shops that carry things such as kitchen and household appliances, fabric, watches, souvenirs, gold, rugs and other trinkets imported from places like India or Iran.  Freshly slaughtered goats with their heads still attached hang in the windows of the butcher.  The cars are everywhere and people drive manically, disregarding other cars or pedestrians or bicycles or anything else for that matter.  Open air cafes are dotted along the way and mostly men in their thobe and checkered ghutra sit outside drinking coffee in the soft morning breeze.  We stop in to a local bakery for breakfast, remembering to enter in the family section; an area dived by a wall that separates women and children from single men.  We place an order for fatir, a kind of flat bread spread with a thick yogurt called labneh and honey.
After breakfast we head off to the gold suqs to sell some old pieces and by new ones.  This is a common habit of most of the expats that have lived here for any length of time.  Collecting gold jewelry is more of a pastime than really thinking of it as anything of value to be treasured.  Gold of all shapes and sizes, fancy and plain, bracelets, bangles, necklaces, earrings, rings, beads, everything you could imagine is out on display.  Find what you like, it is simply weighed and priced at the going market price for gold per kilogram for that day.  Pieces are laid out for inspection without a care about it being stolen.  Shoplifting is highly unlikely since those convicted pay a stiff price by having their right hand chopped off!
The mall is very large, new, and very clean and shiny.  It has many US stores and restaurants.  There is a go cart track for the children and several places for them to play.  The smell of frankincense and myrrh waft out of shops that we pass.  We are watching the clock – timing is everything here because the prayer times dictate our schedule.  We need to finish our shopping and be seated in a restaurant before the call to prayer.  During prayer, shops close, workers leave, nothing happens like ordering food or checking out groceries until prayer ends.  We manage to just slip into our table before the exotic, rhythmic voice begins to chant.  There is a mosque in or near every public building.  There is a mosque at the hospital and for patients too sick to go to the mosque, every room has a diagram showing the direction for prayer and prayer rugs are found in every conference room, patient room and nurses’ station.  We enjoy our lemon juice with mint drinks and hummus as we wait to place our order.
The mosque is filled with men on hands and knees.  Sandals are parked like cars in a parking lot – all shapes, sizes and colors in a sort of order only they make sense of.  Again, women and men are separated.  The many families continue to filter through the mall waiting for normal shopping to resume.  Men carry the smaller children while the women follow behind, covered from head to toe in black abayas and hijabs, their eyes are often the only part of them you can see.   Prayer can last about 15 minutes or up to 30 minutes depending on the time of day.  In either case, the end of prayer is announced over the loud speaker and people resume their normal activity, including taking our food order.
Fellowship on the camp is held in a gym at a school.  Portable chairs, bleachers and a makeshift podium are there.  As I walk through the gates, a Muslim security guard greets me with a friendly smile “salam” or hello.  People are coming from all directions to join the worship.  There was a picnic yesterday to celebrate missions day so there is an extra sense of excitement in the air. The gym is filled with people from around the globe.  African women in the tribal dresses of bright green and orange, blue, and yellow – and their heads donned with pieces of matching fabric wound into tall hat like coverings.  Indian women in the elegant silk saris of rich purples and magentas and greens all trimmed in gold.  Western and European women dressed in all sorts of fashion ranging from blue jeans to sun dresses.  Men dressed in suits and ties, shirts and slacks, jeans and t-shirts.   Here there is no segregation.  We all sit together and worship as one.   There are Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians – all there worshiping the L*rd – singing new praise and worship music and old hymns and music from their own country in their own language. 
The warm gentle breeze blows through the window, making the palm trees rustle outside my window as the morning doves begin to coo.  Birds of all sorts that I have never seen before begin their morning wake up call.  The sun is barely peeking over the horizon and I am hovering in the sweet place of not quite asleep yet not really awake.  Strains of the rhythmic chants float into the room and the call to prayer begins again.  I drift back to sleep to dream about my week – and wonder what surprises tomorrow will hold.

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