The sun hangs motionless like a flaming orange ball against a cloudless blue sky. The air is still and heavy and clings to you like wet gauze. Summer is here is full force. The temperatures are consistently ranging between 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit and even a short walk to the car or the office leaves my hair clinging to the back of my neck and streams of sweat running down my face. Air conditioners groan under the weight of constant use. People walking outside carry umbrellas to try and protect themselves from the strong rays of the sun. There is little relief from the oppressive heat and humidity and people try to stay inside during the daylight hours as much as possible.
The date palms stand tall with branches that hang heavy with clusters of dates. I haven’t given much thought to dates before and except the occasional date bar dates are not part of my diet routine. Fresh dates picked right off the tree are delicious. As they ripen, the date becomes more translucent and soft. Ripe dates are like sweet velvet that melts in your mouth. But the dates that aren’t quite ripe are still very tasty – they are soft but firm and sweet but not sticky. Some of the best dates in the world come from Qatif and Al Hasa, just about 45 minutes from Dhahran. The camp is filled with date palms and the migrant workers can be seen picking dates anywhere you look.
As the sun approaches the horizon, the temperatures drop into the low 100’s and the humidity climbs. Water runs down the walls and windows of buildings, breathing is difficult like being in a sauna. Glasses fog over making it impossible to see and taking forever to clear. The sunsets are like a Monet painting. The sun looks huge and turns a deep red-orange. The sky is shades of pink, orange, lavender and once the sun drops below the horizon the sky becomes a vibrant bluish purple and the stars look like holes that have been poked in this amazing cloth covering the earth.
The Islamic calendar is lunar. The ninth month of the lunar calendar is Ramadan and its beginning is signaled when the new moon is sighted. During Ramadan, Muslims are required to observe a strict fast from dawn until dusk. They cannot drink even water and cannot eat any food. Some especially strict Muslims even refrain from swallowing their own saliva! The hospital observes Ramadan. Muslims are required to work only 6 hours per day – either 7 – 1 or 9 -3 (day or night). Non-Muslims (primarily Expats) pick up the slack. There can be no food or drink in public places – including water. The cafeteria doors are closed and although food is served for non-Muslims, the doors remain closed and only non-Muslims are seen in the cafeteria. The coffee kiosks are abandoned.
When the sun fades completely below the horizon the fast is broken with a small snack, iftar, which usually consists of dates and water or milk. After the last prayer for the day the family has a big meal together and celebrates the end of the day. As a result, activities shift from day to night. Malls and shops are closed during the day for the most part but they open after the last prayer (around 8 pm) and stay open until just before sunrise (usually they close between 2-4 am). This is my first Ramadan. Many expats that have experienced this in the past leave the Kingdom during Ramadan. When it falls in the hot summer months it is especially difficult for everyone. The gardeners and grounds keepers must follow the same rules that the rest of us are following, no drinking or eating in public during the daylight hours. Security guards stand at the gates in the blazing sun and heat with no water or food. People are sleep deprived, dehydrated and just plain tired by the end of the month.
This week I was in a meeting with my boss, a Saudi doctor, and he called another Saudi man to join us for a discussion. The custom here is to stand with someone enters the room and I was especially conscious of this as it is not my habit to stand when a man (or even another woman) enters a room during a meeting. The man entered, the Dr. and I both stand, and the man and the Dr. shake hands. Without even a thought, I extended my hand. The man covered his heart and bowed slightly. I continued to stand there for what seemed like hours as he bowed slightly a second time and I realized he was not going to shake my hand. My administrative assistant, a Saudi, explained that men are not allowed to touch the skin of a woman they are not married to or close relatives with!
The work I am doing in the hospital is having some impact but things have run like this here for 50 plus years so any small change is difficult. Many of the doctors, nurses and leaders have been here for their entire career so they have little insight into how things work outside. I am constantly reminded that there is the culture of Islam, the culture of Saudi Arabia and the culture of Saudi Aramco that must be considered with every thought or deed. This has certainly been a crash course in organizational behavior!
I am approaching my sixth month here. I have had some amazing experiences. I have met some really nice people and some not so nice people. The culture here is not only the culture of the Arab people but the culture of a relatively small compound with people from around the world, each here for their own reasons. Many have been here their whole lives; everyone has their own personal story and agenda. Some people I thought were friends have turned out to be something else. Understanding the Arab customs has been challenging and embarrassing at times. Being a Western woman means having habits and practices that are neither appreciated nor accepted here sometimes. I will be returning to the US in about a month for a short visit. I can’t wait to get home to things I know and people I love. I am not sure how long I will live in Saudi Arabia, but one thing I know for sure, even six months here have changed me forever!
Addendum: Please don't read into this - I am still having a blast and love experiencing all these new and interesting things - but prayers are always appreciated!! : )