When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 80s, we did not wear abayas. We went shopping in Khobar with the understanding that our legs and shoulders must be covered. We would even go in jeans. It wasn't until the 80s, after the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran and the 1979 uprisings in Qatif and Mecca, that the Kingdom started to go back to more conservative ways. By the time my parents retired in 1987, we were going to Khobar in thobes, although not abayas.

In the spring of 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that it was no longer a requirement for women to wear abayas or cover their heads. 

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” the Prince said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

With the Kingdom looking forward to tourism, that's another big reason not to wear abayas. Female tourists will not be enthusiastic about wearing that extra layer. In my opinion, it's in the best interest of the country to get locals used to foreigners not wearing them.

before I stopped wearing one
So why are so many women, particularly expats, still wearing the abaya when they don't have to?

There is definitely no problem with an expat choosing to wear an abaya out of respect to the Saudis and Islam. More power to them. And abayas are convenient in some ways. They cover you up if you have a problem with body image or lack fashion. Sometimes it is a matter of laziness. You can throw on an abaya and just be in underwear underneath. In many ways, it can be similar to lounging about in your pajamas all day.

When I came to Jeddah for my three month contract, I bought a modern, cream, zip-up abaya with pockets. I also bought a thobe. When I arrived, I sort of felt guilt-tripped into buying a more traditional, loose, black/blue one. Once I realized they were no longer required, I stopped wearing them.

I do wear my thobes into town because they fit the conservative, loose, covering criteria to still be respectfully dressed, but I don't wear an abaya over them. I also have loose Cambodian harem pants with a long sleeve top that I wear. I've even gone to Thuwal in jeans. Again, no abaya.

by Skna Hassan
By the way, when did the black abaya even come into being? I tried to research it and can't find any indication of when it started being the black tent version. Black has been around for a while, but keep in mind, that for centuries the women wore traditional, tribal attire that was long and covering, but still colorful and decorative. You can see many examples at the Al Tayabet Museum in Jeddah (picture at top). Also in the artwork of Skna Hassan, who traveled the Kingdom to research the attire.

Yet my abaya revolt doesn't stop the urge to want to buy another abaya. They have changed so much over the years that they can be quite the fashion statement. Colors, fabrics, trims all make for more interesting abayas. It's been hard to resist buying another, but I'm back to the U.S. and they would just end up tucked at the back of my closet. Pointless.

So don't wear them if you don't want to! Especially when it's hot! Who needs another layer?!
I'm calling this a diary but it's actually more like a food log. Instead of daily entries in a diary, I'm giving you an overall log of all the wonderful Arab foods I tried on my trip to Saudi Arabia.

As I child I wasn't exposed to all these wonderful treats except for maybe some baklava and Turkish delight. It also turns out that the Eastern province seems to have less diverse and interesting food (to me, anyway) than the Hijaz (western) region where I was on this trip.

FYI, often used below is...
Kashta - clotted cream flavored with rose water


Mammoul - cookies with date filling

Logaymat - donut hole-like pastries served sweet or savory depending on the toppings chosen

Mann al-Sama (manna from heaven) - candy nougat of nuts

Barazek - eggless sesame seed cookie

Basbousa - semolina cake soaked in sugar syrup

Esh al Saray - AKA Rich Man's Bread- toasted bread in rose water sugar syrup with kashta

Halawat al-Jubn - semolina-cheese dough rolled and filled w/ kashta

Madlouka - orange blossom syrup soaked semolina cake topped with kashta and nuts

Mafroukeh-syrup soaked semolina-pistachio cake with kashta and pistachios

Nammora - phyllo dough with kashta

Booza - ice cream, sometimes referring to...

Turkish ice cream - stretchy ice cream 

 Om Ali - (mother of Ali) a pudding using leftover bread shreds

Kunefe - made with either cheese or clotted cream in the center of shredded pastry, grilled, then pour over sugar syrup

 Kunefe being grilled in special plates

 Arika - torn up bread and dates soaked in honey, topped with cream, cereal, and cheese

Sahlep - warm, creamy milk drink that is thickened w/ sahlep (orchid root), with mastic, rose water, pistachios

Qatayaf - dumpling filled with cheese

Qara’ ‘Asali - middle eastern pumpkin pie w/o a crust


 Maklobat eggplant - Rice with eggplants and meat, served with yogurt

 Shoshkash kebab - Grilled seasoned fine minced lamb served with pepper paste, peppered parsley, tomato & pomegranate molasses

Fatet makdous - crispy roasted flat bread pieces topped with layers of eggplant and saucy minced meat with a yogurt, garlic sauce

Shish barak - Syrian style raviolis in a yogurt sauce

 Buraik - filled with ground meat and chopped hard boiled egg

Lamb madini -lamb and rice

 Chicken Saleeg - rice is risotto-like

 Meat mulgalgal - a meat stew of meat, fresh tomatoes, onions and green pepper fried with spices

Chicken bukhari - chicken and rice

Fatteh - Pita chip pieces, chick peas, tahini, sumac, parsley, Olive oil, walnuts. 

Currently the tallest building in the world resides in Dubai. The Burj Khalifa soars to 2,722 feet and has 163 floors that people can occupy before being topped by the metal spire. No visit to Dubai is complete without a visit to it and, preferably, to the top of it.

Started in 2004 and completed in 2009, the tower was officially opened in 2010. It is a mix-use building, including retail, residential, and commercial offices. At the 122nd floor is Atmosphere, the highest restaurant in the world.

What I found fascinating about the tower is how your perception of its height differs depending on your vantage point. Proximity of other buildings and distance can really distort your perception of its height. When we first arrived and drove by it, the other buildings were close to us and so the building didn't seem that tall. But when you were several miles away looking toward downtown, you could clearly see how much higher it soared over every other building in the vicinity. 

There are two ways to go up the Burj Khalifa and I will tell you the difference between the two. 

The first is what a majority of people do because it is an impulse visit versus being planned well in advance. Most people buy tickets at the entrance or within a few days on the website. This allows you only to go up to the 125th floor with the masses. While the view is still spectacular, wouldn't you prefer to go as high as you can possibly go? To do so requires advance planning.

If you know when you are going to be in Dubai, then it pays to buy the Sky (VIP) ticket to be able to go to the 148th floor. This is the highest point allowed for visitors as the final 12 floors are reserved for corporations. 

Book your visit to Burj Khalifa.

The Sky tickets are sold online well in advance for a limited number of tickets. These tickets include a waiting lounge with coffee, personal tour guide and fast tracking through the lines, unlimited time at the 148th floor with refreshments, access to the (crowded) 124th/125th floor observation decks, and VIP (fast track) exit from the tower.

I can't emphasize enough how much more enjoyable this was just by observing everybody else going only to 125. The Sky experience was much more relaxing without having to deal with pushy people and long line waits. 

From the outside...

You don't have to go to the top to enjoy the Burj Khalifa. They offer two worthwhile viewing events that are completely free to watch from the ground level.

The fountain show runs from 6-11 pm at the top and bottom of every half hour. The fountains are by the same company that did the Las Vegas Bellagio, but this set is even larger. Every show is set to a different song, so you can watch something different each time. Above you can see the one done to the Mission Impossible theme and then again from the viewpoint of the 148th floor above. The Mission Impossible was my favorite because I love that music and it's appropriate because MI:Ghost Protocol was actually filmed here. There's an action scene at the Burj Khalifa.

Don't leave after the fountain show because on the 15 and 45 minute marks there are light shows on the tower itself. Below are snippets from two.  Note that for copyright purposes, I've silenced the sound. 

The Burj Khalifa is attached to the Mall of Dubai, a massive shopping structure filled with almost every retailer you can think of from the U.S., U.K., and more. There are also dozens of restaurants from fast food to fine dining.

The Burj Khalifa is a must item on the Dubai to-do list. Be sure to schedule an evening for it on your itinerary.
Book your visit to Burj Khalifa.

Through our lives we have seen plenty of movies set in Middle Eastern cities – Indiana Jones, Sinbad, Prince of Persia, and more. There’s usually a foot chase that takes place through a series of narrow but twisted, maze-like streets. Turns out, there is a method to the madness of those crazy streets.

I went to a KAUST cultural lecture yesterday on Architecture of the Red Sea region. It was presented by Dr. Hisham Mortada, professor of architecture at King Abdulaziz University. His specialty is traditional architecture and he presented an informative talk on why cities and buildings here are constructed the way they are.

Saudi architecture is governed by the social needs, such as Islamic practices and keeping public and private lives separated, and by constructional needs based on environment.

Above we have typical homes in the Al Balad (old city) of Jeddah. They have a basic cube structure that has many wooden decorative pieces on the windows and fa├žade called rowshan or mashrabiyas. The preferred directional setting of the house was to the north or northwest, the best angles to catch the wind to cool the homes.

There are not many construction resources in Saudi. After all, it is mostly desert. Some regions use mud, other areas have access to limestone. On the coastal areas it turns out that they resorted to coral stone. They would go and take large coral blocks from the sea, dry them out, and use those as the main building blocks.

The problem is that coral is actually pretty fragile and easily breaks down over time, crumbling into powder. To combat this, some wood beams were used to reinforce the walls and then the walls were covered in gypsum. Windows, doors, and ceilings were wood.

The ceiling were usually a combination of wood, mostly from mangroves, and palm leaves and mangrove roots.

The front door is the entry from the public setting of the street to the private setting of the home and is therefore the most decorated. The door itself is usually wood and can be decorated by carvings and/or metal embellishments such as nails. There is often a decorative cornice above.

More decorative elements could be added via the gypsum plastering of the walls.

The most distinctive feature of these homes are the wooden rawashin (plural of rowshan) and mashrabiyas on the windows. They served several purposes, the most important being for cooling and for privacy.

Islam is known for strict privacy - the most well known being the privacy of women. By covering the windows with these creative screens, it allows for privacy as well as for allowing air to flow through for cooling.

The cooling is handled in several ways. First is the screening itself, but also by the construction of the interior of the homes. The method of room and stairwell arrangement was done in such a way as to create air flow through the home.

Another way was from the use of water. Pots of water would be set into the mashrabiyas so that the air would flow across the water and cool – a primitive method of air conditioning. This use of water for cooling explains why some homes would have fountains.

The uppermost floor, or roof, was the kharjah and used as a private courtyard, completely covered by roofing and rawashin, and often used for sleeping on the hottest nights as well as a family gathering area and for airing out laundry. They did not have courtyards or patios, so the roof was their main 'outdoor' space. 

The rawashin not only provided cooling to the interior of them home, but also for the exterior. The way they stick out from the building provides extra shading to the streets and pedestrians below.

Which brings us back to the twisting, narrow streets. This was another method of cooling because it created a way to funnel the wind through the streets.

one of the towers from inside the pedestrian tunnels
A few of these old construction techniques are used in the modern buildings of the campus here at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). The main buildings are set in the best direction to catch the ocean breezes and funnel them through the ‘tunnel’s that go through the buildings. Within these tunnel walkways are many water features that cool the air as it sweeps through. Finally, there are two tall towers that suck the air through and up creating the breezy air flow through the entire complex.

exterior shot of a ventilation tower

I’m glad I was able to catch this lecture because it really helped to explain many aspects of the old homes I had been seeing on my visits to Jeddah.

I was well aware of Ramadan when we lived 16 years in Saudi Arabia. It never affected me though. I was a child living in an American compound and so it never meant more than a month of fasting to me. My father, I’m sure, did deal with it in the workplace with such things as shorter work hours and a slowing down of activities.

That’s why I decided to go to the Ramadan Orientation breakfast at KAUST today. I had been hearing that you can’t even drink water in the presence of others during Ramadan. What other things would affect my daily life?

The event started with a breakfast featuring some traditional dishes. There was, of course, fool. Fool is mashed beans that you top with whatever you like: onions, peppers, yogurt, nuts, herbs, etc. It reminds me a lot of Chinese congee in the same way you put toppings that you like. There were dates dipped in chocolate or filled with nuts, omali (a sort of bread pudding), samosas, kenefe, etc. Drinks included Arab coffee and tea as well as Vimto and Rooh Afza, which is a Pakistani syrup made from a squash, rose water, and other ingredients and mixed with water.

mahmoul - date filled cookies
We learned about Ramadan being the 9th month of the lunar calendar. The dates can differ slightly by where you are in the world, but in Saudi Arabia, it is determined by physically seeing the first crescent sliver of the new moon. That means if it is a cloudy night so that the moon can not be observed, Ramadan will not be proclaimed yet. For 2019, it is scheduled to run from May 6 to June 4.

Ramadan signifies the month that the Holy Koran was ‘revealed’ to the Prophet Muhammed. Sort of like the Ten Commandments and Moses. The month is supposed to be a month of reflection and piety. Fasting takes place as a way to purify one’s heart, soul, and spirituality and to reflect on God’s word. It is also so that people can relate to the hardships of the poor and hungry. During this month there should not only be reflection on oneself, but charitable acts as well. There should be increased peace, generosity, patience, forgiveness, and charity.

Fasting takes place from sunrise until sunset, or more specifically, until after the sunset prayer Currently that’s at about 6:45 PM and will keep getting a bit later as the month progresses. They practice a dry fast, meaning they can’t even drink anything. Fasting is not only regarding food and drink, but also smoking and any other habitual pleasure. It’s like Christians who give up a favorite thing for Lent. It also includes refraining from impure thoughts, pettiness, or vanity.
People can be excused from fasting, but not entirely. Basically, if you aren’t fasting due to illness, menstruation, pregnancy, breast feeding, or travelling, then you have to make up those days later in the year. Fasting begins at age 10 and goes until they can no longer fast due to age/illness. In particular, if you have lifelong medication that requires food/drink, then you will always be off the hook from fasting.

The first meal that breaks the fast is called Iftar. It is suggested that you start with dates because they have many nutrients and are somewhat lower on the glycemic index; they won’t skyrocket  your blood sugar as other sugars/carbs. Supposedly it is a lighter meal, but I’m hearing stories that people still pork out. The ‘bigger’ meal is Sahoor and takes place between 2-3 in the morning as a way to load up for the next day.

How will this affect me?

  • Muslims will work only until 2 PM, the rest of us work normal work hours.
  • All food businesses will be shuttered during the day. For non-Muslims, the only place to eat/drink will be the cafeteria, which will be open 24/7.
  • You cannot eat or drink in front of others. I plan to fast during Ramadan myself, but I cannot dry fast. I will get a migraine if I get dehydrated. This means I’ll have to bring a bag each morning with a filled water bottle in it and take it into a bathroom stall if I want a drink!
  • This will greatly affect our shopping buses to Jeddah as apparently everything stays shut until 9 PM and then will generally stay open until 2 AM! I’m definitely trying to get any last shopping done before May 6 because I’m not interested in those late hours. I just can’t cope without sleep!
  • The Iftar and Sahoor meals are family and holiday celebrations. This is when dishes and clothing that you don’t normally see during the rest of the year come out. Think month long Christmas.
  • I’ve been wearing a couple of Mideast outfits/dresses that my workmates keep complimenting as my Ramadan outfits. Supposedly it depends on the region of the country, but here in the Hijaz area, these outfits are only worn during Ramadan.
  • As for the food, I am hoping that I get invited to someone’s Iftar. They say you should definitely experience it. At the least, there will be Iftar specialty dishes served each night at a couple of the KAUST restaurants. I will try each one for sure.

Unfortunately, I will depart in the middle of Ramadan and so I will not get to celebrate the end – Eid al-Fitr. That’s when even bigger holiday celebrations take place and KAUST will shut down for 3-4 days.

Before we begin these tales, we must make clear that non-Muslims are not allowed into Mecca. 

Circa 1972-73

I'm about 7 and my brother about 5. My dad has become interested in scuba diving and he decides that he wants to drive from Ras Tanura, on the Arabian Gulf coast, across the country to Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, to go diving. This is about a 900 mile trip and, back then, took about 16 hours of driving. 

It has become a favorite family tale that we non-Muslims drove through Mecca. 

My dad drove through the night, mostly because I was car sick, to reach our destination as soon as possible. When you get to Mecca, there is a bypass route so that non-Muslims can go around the city they are not supposed to enter.

It was late at night, so my brother and I were asleep. Dad apparently missed the turnoff and so when he reached the security checkpoint...well, they waved him through! We're not really sure if it was because it was so late they didn't see, it was too convenient to make him turn around, or what. The point is, we always tell how we drove through Mecca. I, being asleep, really missed the whole thing.

Now - 2019

It's a good 45+ years later and a lot has changed and yet I have a new Mecca story to tell. One I wasn't slow to call and report to my dad.

This time I am with my Saudi roommate, Azhar, who is from Mecca, and Jeff, an American friend. We decided to go to Taif for the weekend and so we must drive right by Mecca. Jeff and I are well aware of the rule that we are not allowed in Mecca.

Thing is, Mecca has grown considerably. So much so that I think that it's grown past the bypass route. As we drive along I see the Royal Clock Tower in the distance. It's located in the center of one of the world's largest hotel complexes, built to host thousands of pilgrims that come each year for the Hajj. It is built extremely close to the Great Mosque where the Ka'bah is kept. (Topmost picture gives you the idea.)

There are signs about the need to separate and re-route away, but they are very unclear. Unfortunately, I missed getting shots of the really important ones: "Entering Haram Border", etc. 

Turns out that you can go to Mecca, you just can't go passed the Haram Border. Haram means "holy" and so you aren't supposed to pass into the holy zone. To be quite honest, we are unsure if we might have, just on the very edge, entered the holy zone or not. I would say that we were within a mile of the Great Mosque just based on our sighting of the Royal Clock Tower in the distance.

Mecca is now such a large metropolis that the holy zone is well within the city boundaries now. A lot of growth in 45+ years.