Category Archives: Travelogue

A Guide To Graffiti in Sakaka!

Graffiti is, of course, a common sight in the West, but what about graffiti in the Middle East? Have you ever wondered what locals in Saudi Arabia feel compelled to spray paint on their walls? Here is just a sample of the kinds of things you’ll find written. These were taken from Sakaka, a small and relatively more conservative city in northern Saudi Arabia, where I have been living for the past 8 and a half months. Click on a thumbnail to open a slideshow of the graffiti with my notes included. I hope you find them interesting!


Al-Jouf University Graduation Day

As members of staff and faculty, we were invited to attend Al-Jouf University’s graduation ceremony on the 15th of May, 2012. We were representing the university’s Preparatory Year Program (السنة التحضرية). Since our students are all in their first year, none of them were actually graduating, but some of our students were participating in the ceremony as members of Al-Jouf University Boy Scouts. Here is a video of the Scouts practising their routine:

The ceremony was held at the new university campus, located near Al-Jouf airport. The brand new campus is still a massive construction project, which looks more like a small city in the making than a university it’s so huge!

In attendance at the ceremony were all the bigwigs, including the university president, the deans and even a guest appearance from the prince of Al-Jouf himself! Both the president and the amir gave speeches congratulating the graduates.

After the ceremony had finished and the crowds of students made their way outside we managed to get a rare sample of a traditional Saudi dance, called the “Daha” (الدحة), which some students broke into spontaneously in their celebration. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a video of the dance, but here is an example of a typical “Daha”:

Here are some photos from the evening, which include several of my colleagues and fellow teachers. Click on a thumbnail to open the slideshow.

Trip to Tabuk!

The company I am currently working for, Al-Khaleej Training & Education, has a number of teaching projects across Saudi Arabia, including one in the north-westerly city of Tabuk. Myself and nine other teachers thought we would pay Tabuk a visit and see what life was like over there. The trip took about four hours by taxi, which included various stops along the way to use the bathroom, get snacks and also take some photos – like a group shot in front of some camels we noticed at one petrol station!

We took two taxis in total, driven by Saudis, who – entirely unprompted – decided to request the local police to accompany us for the journey. There was nothing wrong, they simply wanted to give us the best service possible, which in their minds meant treating us like celebrities or diplomats! So for the whole way there and the whole way back we had a police escort! One car in front and one behind – with their red and blue lights beaming – and all of us going at ridiculous speeds, sometimes with only a few feet between us! As designated Arabic interpreter for the trip, it was part of my job to repeatedly remind the crazy Saudi drivers to slow down!

Finally, having arrived in one piece (alhamdulilah!), the teachers in Tabuk were extremely welcoming, letting us stay with them for the weekend at their compound – and boy is it a nice place! The contrast between the compound in Tabuk and what we have in Sakaka is astounding! Not only did they have a central social area, which included a bar, pool table, lounge area, cafeteria, two saunas and a large communal swimming pool with two jacuzzis, they also had a tennis court and fully equipped gym! All of this within a nicely kept, clean and secure compound, with trees and small flower gardens dotted about.

It was a lot of fun meeting the other teachers, relaxing by the pool and swapping stories. We played some pool volleyball – Sakaka vs. Tabuk! I can’t remember exactly who won in the end… but let’s just say Sakaka! Our guests also put on plenty of food and drink for us, including some very nice pizza from Little Caesars! We played charades and other group games and later even did some dancing!

Before leaving Tabuk, we had to stop at McDonald’s, seeing as that is one more thing Sakaka doesn’t have! It was so good! At one point I had even considered biking it all the way to Tabuk just for a Big Mac – I figured it would only take me 26 hours to get there from Sakaka! So you can imagine I especially enjoyed that part of the trip, before we headed back to our small little town in Al-Jouf.

You might be in Sakaka if…

Sakaka, Saudi Arabia – a surreal place, to say the least! It never ceases to amaze me and there is never a lack of strange things to see, out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere, lightyears away from the real world!

Here are just a handful of the bizarre things that I have experienced during my stay here in this desert city.

So, you might be in Sakaka if…

  • You’re at the shops and because you’re a foreigner wearing jeans you start to get Saudi locals asking you how much stuff is.
  • You see a car joining the queue in a drive-thru lane at a fast-food restaurant and the driver proceeds to get out of his car, walk into the restaurant and make his order. He gets back in his car, waits, and picks up his order when he finally reaches the drive-thru window.
  • You see a car zooming towards the traffic lights when they’re red, breaks screeching, then, skidding as it makes a right turn at the lights, it suddenly makes a U-turn, then another right turn, thus bypassing the red light entirely!
  • You see four more cars do the exact same thing, one after the other!
  • You can’t see any taxis anywhere.
  • Gas is cheaper than water.
  • You witness a car accident or the aftermath of one at least once a week!
  • You walk down the main street of the city and stop to take a closer look at a seemingly empty plot of land between two shops, and suddenly realise that it’s a graveyard and those rocks dotted about in the sand are unmarked graves.
  • While walking to a local restaurant for your lunch break you stumble across an empty bullet shell in the middle of the street.
  • You walk into a bathroom and find a guy with his foot in the sink, giving it a good wash as he turns and says, “Salaam!”
  • There is no toilet paper in any public toilets.
  • When you use the bathroom (and have brought your own toilet paper) you’re not allowed to put the toilet paper down the toilet.
  • You notice someone has thrown away some pita bread… in the bathroom cubicle’s trash can (…were they eating it in there??).
  • You see a pack of wild dogs and a vicious dog-fight during your morning commute to work.
  • Coca Cola and Pepsi are the same price. In fact, all pop is the same price, even the cheap cola-copies.
  • The only Western restaurant you can find is Pizza Hut and the food there is at least two or three times more expensive than any other place in town, but is still cheaper than Pizza Hut in England.
  • The local currency doesn’t make use of any coins – just paper.
  • There is no half-Riyal, but a can of Coke is 1.5 Saudi Riyals. So, you either buy two cans or pay 2 Riyals for one can and get a free pack of chewing gum!
  • You go into a shop and ask for something very specific and the shopkeeper informs you that although they don’t have it right now, it just so happens (by some miraculous coincidence!) that they are expecting it tomorrow. You come back the next day and, surprise surprise, they say come back tomorrow. It never arrives.
  • You suddenly realise that you have not seen a single woman anywhere at all for days!

If you’re reading this and you, too, are lucky enough to be living in Sakaka – leave a comment with some of your own experiences for the list!

New Apartment!

Hi all! It’s been a while since my last post and a lot has happened! I’ve since moved into town and now have my own place! I’ve been here now since the beginning of February. I love having an apartment all to myself, especially one so close to work. I also bought a bike, which cuts my commute to work down to only about 7 minutes and is a refreshing bit of exercise in the morning before teaching! It’s nice to be able to wake up a bit later too; on the compound I would have to catch the bus at 7:10am for a 25 minute ride to work, but now, living in town, I sometimes don’t even wake up until 7:30am!

I’ve really enjoyed furnishing my new apartment and creating my own comfortable space, where I can both relax and study. Fortunately where I live happens to be near several large furniture stores, which has come in handy. For the first couple weeks or so after moving in I cycled down almost everyday to these stores. Exploring, hunting for furniture and haggling quickly became my new hobby as I finished work on my living room/study space. Here are some photos of the whole process…

My new hardwood desk! Sponsored by Apple, of course...!

My very comfortable reading (and TV!) chair.

A brand new carpet in "study room red" as I like to think of it!

A partition matching the wood theme to make the corner a bit more interesting.

My very own grandfather clock! A great addition to the room!

My TV and books cabinet.

My TV and books cabinet re-modeled with 5.1 surround-sound speakers, which I use with both the TV and my iPad!

The feeling of independence living in town is tremendous. Before I would have to work around the compound schedule. The compound bus would take 25 minutes to get into town and then only stay for an hour before rushing us back home. Now I can go into town whenever I like and for however long I want! Sometimes I just jump on my bike and go exploring for the evening, discovering new shops and restaurants and bumping into interesting characters. The whole city is bustling from about 8:30pm onwards, after the final evening prayer. Streets are packed, horns honking, shops open till midnight at least and both men and women can be seen going about their business. The other day I discovered a great little Indian restaurant, just a 3 minute bike ride up the road. Food over here is so cheap. It costs only 12 Saudi Riyal for a meal at the Indian place  – really for all you can eat. That’s only about 2 British Pounds, not bad at all!

So, as you can probably tell – I am enjoying my new place! I figured there was no point in half-measures when it came to furnishing my apartment as I knew I would be here for a good while longer. For the time being my plan is to renew my contract with Al-Khaleej in September, but I will renew it on a monthly basis instead of another full year,  continuing on until at least the end of November. In this way I can make myself available for work elsewhere starting January 2013, as well as make myself free to come home this Christmas. I haven’t been home for Christmas in two years after all!  Before that of course is this coming summer, when I look forward to coming home for my sister’s wedding in June! It’s gonna be a lot of fun – can’t wait!

Merry Christmas from Sakaka!

This year is now my second Christmas in a row in the Middle East and I could hardly be further from home out here in the remote Saudi desert, on the other side of the world. No snow, just hot, sunny days (I did a bit of sunbathing yesterday in the 80° weather!), no Christmas trees, no carol services… in fact, other than within the compound walls, there’s no sign of Christmas to be found. We’re even scheduled to work as normal this week, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Although we’ve been told there’s a chance we may get the day off for Christmas, knowing the way things work here, I’m not getting my hopes up! At the very least, we’ve been told that our company will be putting on a dinner for us tomorrow night – but even that is still to be confirmed. I’ve learnt that as long as you keep your expectations low here, you’ll not be too disappointed!

Fortunately, we do have a vacation coming up that’s not too far away. In fact, just today I booked my flights to the UK: January 19th – 26th 2012. I will be flying out of Amman, Jordan, since it’s a lot cheaper than going through Riyadh. So most likely I will be sharing a taxi with some of the other teachers here, which will take us up north across the border into Jordan. We’ll have to make sure, of course, that the driver doesn’t take the wrong turn and drive us into Iraq, which is just to the east! I look forward to making the most of my short time back in the UK. I know it will be a welcome change of scenery after almost five months of living in this rather secluded and surreal place! On my list of things to do include: having a bacon sandwich; drinking Lucozade; eating McDonalds and having a Dominoes pizza, not to mention a cold pint… and, if I’m lucky, maybe even a chat with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t wearing a Niqaab! Ya salaam…! And I will of course be making every effort to visit everyone in the process! All of this hinges, however, on our company being able to obtain my Saudi “exit re-entry visa” in time – and once again, you never know with this place… inshallah it will be fine!

Life here isn’t all that bad really – actually it’s very chilled out. There are an interesting bunch of teachers here, from Canada, the US, UK, South Africa, and Sudan, each with their own distinct personality that adds to life on the compound. On the weekends we get together for volleyball in the afternoon, then usually one of the villas hosts some sort of a party in the evening. Recently we’ve started having bonfires on the weekend too, roasting chestnuts and swapping stories, like where people have taught before or which country they would like to travel to next. The stars can be particularly striking out here too. One night, I just happened to be walking outside when I saw a shooting star, very low down, and actually witnessed it break up into several fragments before disappearing. I could hardly believe my eyes!

Around the compound we can often see wild dogs roaming about and looking for food, including some very cute puppies. I would be very tempted to take care of one, if not for the risk of catching some sort of disease. Just the other day I saw a tiny puppy playing by the street next to the university campus. It was so cute I wanted to take it home! It really makes me miss Laddie! There are some cats that live in the compound, but it’s not quite the same – plus, I think I am allergic to cats.

Work is going well. We’re still on three lessons a day – but that is promised to go down to only two a day after our January vacation. It will be determined by how long we have been in Sakaka, so fortunately I have a good chance of getting only two classes a day, since I’m no longer one the of newbies here! Also, the students have their final exams for the semester coming up very soon in January, which means we will get a couple weeks or so of break from teaching even before our vacation starts on the 19th.

In addition to teaching English, I’ve actually started teaching Arabic too! I’m currently tutoring two of the other English teachers, one in beginners-level Arabic and the other in elementary. As well as the added bonus of a bit of extra money, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience and find that I, too, am learning a lot. It’s really interesting to go back to the basics and see Arabic from the beginner’s point of view again. I’d forgotten what it was like first learning Arabic (over five years ago now!), and it’s given me a fresh perspective on the language. Both my students live in town so I teach my Arabic classes at the university campus straight after work, using one of the English classrooms. It’s nice teaching on the campus, with a whiteboard, projector and speakers for use in the lesson. It means, however, that I don’t get back home until around 7:10pm (and the bus in the morning leaves for work at 7:10am!), so it can be quite a long day. I do that four days a week, taking a taxi back to the compound.

One such journey in the taxi, only three days ago, was rather nerve-wracking to say the least. I needed to pick up some bread on the way back so I asked my driver to stop at the nearest shop. Spotting a store up ahead, he slows down and pulls into a parking spot just in front of the shop. But just as we are coming to a halt – CRASH! – A car rams into the back of us! Fortunately, it didn’t hit too hard and no one got hurt. The driver that hit us got out and actually blamed my taxi driver, then proceeded to examine the damage to the front of his car. To the delight of my driver, his taxi had hardly been damaged (it was already a piece of junk anyway!), but the car that hit us was much worse off, especially since it was new. After some heated discussion, and after the guy that hit us admitted he had no insurance, they just decided to call it even and leave it at that. The thing that really topped it all off, however, was that fact that, when I went up to speak to the guy that rammed us, I noticed that he was in fact… cross-eyed! We had been rear-ended by a crossed-eyed driver! Thanking God that it wasn’t any worse (alhamdulilah!), I just shook my head and sighed; “Sakaka, only in Sakaka!” I think the less time I spend on the roads here in Saudi Arabia the better! That is one of the reasons why I’m very keen to move into town and live within walking distance of the university campus. I’m thinking of doing this sometime after the January vacation, perhaps from the beginning of March. I’ve now officially been in a car accident at least once in each of the Arab countries I have lived in. Let’s hope the pattern changes, because I plan on visiting many more Arab countries in my lifetime!

Merry Christmas!

Teacher James Bond… licence to kick you out of class!

I’m happy to report life in the Kingdom is going well… It seems to get easier each week as things become more predictable and I get used to the routine. I’ve noticed my classes have become gradually more pleasant as I continue to build up rapport with my students. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised last Wednesday when one of my students, as a token of his appreciation, gave me a tie – but not just any tie – a 100% silk, hand made Brioni tie, which happens to be the make of choice for James Bond! I guess I must be doing something right!

After a long wait, they finally installed a projector in my classroom, which I enjoyed using today. The lesson was on different countries and their nationalities and languages, so I simply pulled up a map of the world and used that as an instant visual aid. It helps a lot, too, that the Wi-Fi at the university reaches the classrooms, so now I can bring up pretty much anything on the board. For example, I thought I’d introduce my students to university life in the UK, so I gave them a quick tour of Durham University’s website, which included a great video:


Mesmerised by the cathedral and castle against a countryside of rolling green hills and winding rivers, my students’ eyes lit up; they were taking a brief glimpse into this far away world. One of my students described it as ‘like a story’ (really he was trying to say ‘like a fantasy’, but I understood what he meant). He wasn’t half-wrong, as I think there is something quite magical about Durham – it was the filming ground for a lot of Harry Potter after all! Of course, I miss it terribly and hope to return one day. As mentioned before in a previous post, I’m thinking of doing a masters there, in Arabic-English Translation & Interpreting, perhaps in a year or two’s time. Not surprisingly, my students were also fascinated by the concept of boys and girls sharing the same classes, let alone the same dormitories – I kept that part secret – I didn’t want to get them too excited! It didn’t help then that the video just happened to include a couple seconds of belly dancing (illustrating one of the many clubs and societies available at Durham), as well as some students drinking champagne… I guess I will need to be more careful next time!

For the last few days I’ve been teaching overtime to cover for a teacher who has had to go to hospital. He’s an Irish fellow, almost forty, overweight, likes his cigarettes and booze, and has developed problems with his lower back over the years. Recently his condition has worsened and he will likely need an operation. Apparently it’s quite serious, as there is a chance the operation may leave him partially paralyzed. So although doing overtime feels like a lot of work, I can’t complain – at least I have my health – plus I’m getting overtime pay for the extra hours.

The extra students, however, are quite a handful! They’re a rowdy bunch and there’s no camera in their classroom, so there’s naturally a noticeable difference in the dynamics of the class. The first time I took them, for example, there were about four students happily dozing off, while the rest were either giggling like little schoolboys or chatting away in Arabic – throughout the class. At one point a student was even snoring! It’s hard to tell what they’re like with other teachers, but I have a feeling they’ve been used to having the upper hand when it comes to who is actually controlling the class. It’s rather unfortunate to find so many university students acting like kids in primary school! So I resolved to turn things around… I started by making an example of two students, who were sleeping, by making them leave the classroom. I also put an end to the excessive amount of Arabic in class, primarily by demonstrating that I could understand what (they thought) they were saying in secret, but also by threatening to kick them out of class as well. So they’ve got the message now and things are running more smoothly. The next battle I have to pick with them, however, is their constant use of Blackberry phones during class! They know they’re not allowed to use phones in class, but they still do. Some of them will even ask to use the bathroom – conveniently remembering to pick up their Blackberry from their desk before heading out of the classroom, and coming back a good 15 minutes later!

Fortunately, any complaints that students might make about me being too strict will only reflect well on me! This is because the manager of the English school, who makes it a point to receive complaints directly from students, is himself incredibly strict. He’s the kind of person who would be delighted to hear that I have kicked students out of class! He’s even told us to do so when a student comes to class without a pen, but I don’t go quite that far! Today he came into my class, by surprise, along with the two most senior managers. At first I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so was rather scared for a second, but soon discovered he was only there to remind students that smoking is prohibited. He then proceeded to check students’ pockets and confiscated a pack of cigarettes from one of them. He even made a quick check of students’ haircuts, lifting up their headdresses to see underneath, in order to make sure their hair wasn’t too long! So far I’ve managed to keep on his good side – and hopefully it will stay that way!