Taha Al Sabban - Sea 1

What I’ve been up to – August

Just like July, August was still a quiet month. Not many events took place in the city, and I sometimes struggled to find topics to write about. The few events I attended and the interviews I did carry out were exciting though. Here is an overview of my published articles of last month.

Art & Culture

"Formation" by Abdulhalim Radwi
“Formation” by Abdulhalim Radwi

Ayyam Gallery Jeddah opened a very interesting exhibition on the beginnings of fine art in Saudi Arabia. In fact, they already launched the show, which will run until October 16, in July, but I did not have the chance to attend the opening, so I did an interview with the gallery representative in Saudi Arabia that came out in the Saudi Gazette on August 9. (See also the cover picture, “The Sea 1″ by Taha Sabban.)

Visitors trying one of the activities at iThra Knowledge Riyadh

Saudi Aramco’s initiative to organize exhibitions that combine knowledge, science, and culture under the name ithra Knowledge also opened in Riyadh during the Eid holidays. Unfortunately, I could not attend the opening myself, but the organizers sent me all the information needed and asked me to write about it. Read the article here.

Smoke art photography in Gaza
Smoke art photography in Gaza

As there were not many art shows in the Kingdom, I looked abroad for inspiring art and found this Palestinian “Smoke Art” that made headlines all over the world. You may disagree whether this is real art or not, but it did make a statement. Read the article here.

Anas Arabi improvising a rap for the audience.
Run Junxion’s Anas Arabi improvising a rap for the audience.

Last, but definitely not least, there was the exciting launch of Saudi hip-hop band Run Junxion’s latest album, “Shock “N” Awe”.  I wrote about Saudi hip-hop before, when several artists made an amazing song together with German hip-hopper Max Herre and performed their creation at the German Consulate. Run Junxion was present there as well, but stood in the shadow of Qusai aka Don Legend the Kamelion. This evening, they were the stars of the show, and their new cd did not disappoint the fans who had come. Read my article here.


Healthy salad at Rosewood Corniche Jeddah
Healthy salad at Rosewood Corniche Jeddah

Of course, I also had several health articles for the Wholesome Living page in store. One of the things I wrote about is how to recover from the Ramadan ‘Jet Lag’. You see, most people here live at night and sleep during the day in Ramadan. During the Eid festivities, people even stay up until after sunrise, go to bed around 9 or 10 a.m., and wake up at 6 p.m. If that’s your rhythm it is not easy to get back to normal when work and school start again, but with these tips it shouldn’t be too hard.

7-minute workout by Ben Wiseman, published on the New York Times website on May 9, 2013
7-minute workout by Ben Wiseman, published on the New York Times website on May 9, 2013

Something I’ve been trying to incorporate in my own fitness routine is the 7-minute workout. Although this came out more than a year ago in the New York Times, I found it so inspirational I wanted to write about it. So I did. There is even a website that helps you time your exercises. (Note to self: I should really start doing this highly effective and efficient workout, but I’ve been struggling to stay motivated.)

Grand Hyatt’s Damai spa in Singapore
Grand Hyatt’s Damai spa in Singapore

Remember I went on a media trip to Singapore several months ago? One of the things I did there was a spa review. Not a bad job do I have, right? If you’re curious about my experience, read the review here.

And, perhaps not that wholesome, but I wrote about the ‘good ole’ burger. I’ve been noticing a trend here that sees traditional burger places (e.g. McDonald’s, Burger King) losing business to the benefit of fancy and gourmet burger joints that offer higher quality beef, more customized burgers, and a cosier sitting area. Apparently, this trend is not unique to Saudi Arabia, but happens in the States as well. Read my article here.

Local news

Interviewing Mr. Todd Holmstrom, the new US consul general in Jeddah
Interviewing Mr Todd Holmstrom, the new US consul general in Jeddah (Picture by Jason Raskin)

A nice opportunity I got this month was to interview the new US consul general in Jeddah, who had arrived only a few weeks prior to our meeting. All I can say is that it was interesting to meet him, and that the interview can be found here.

Other local news I reported on: Saudi Arabia blocking a deal on a threatening greenhouse gas (which made it to the front page) and how many residents here shiver in their offices despite the sweltering summer heat.

About the former I can say that I wish I could have interviewed the Saudi negotiator, Taha Zatari, prior to sending the article to the editor. Unfortunately, he called me on the day the story came out in the paper, and although his arguments were quite legitimate, he repeatedly told me not to quote him because he was not authorized to speak to the press. He proposed to get me in touch with someone who was authorized to speak, but he never got back to me. Which I think is a missed chance, because I would have liked to also tell the other (i.e. Saudi Arabia’s) side of the story and create more awareness on the issue. Unfortunately, I could not convince him that I was unbiased because of my European roots.

Regarding the story on shivering residents, I remember freezing in the office during previous jobs and even in my current office whenever I go there. I just can’t understand why some people put the A/C on such a low temperature when it is extremely hot outside. It is such a waste of energy and not healthy at all. I may write more about this in the future.


Arab Vines - the latest social media hype
Arab Vines – the latest social media hype

One of the editors asked me to write about technology, and while I am not really a tech geek I think it is quite nice to do some research on things I am not so familiar with. For our LogIn page I wrote this report on Arab Vines, a funny social media hype. Read the story here.

To conclude, I wrote an opinion article on the TV anchor that had appeared without headscarf on the Saudi TV. According to Western media, this had led to an “outrage” in the country on social media. According to my own research, the Western media heavily exaggerated the issue. Read my opinion here.

So that is it! How was August for you? What did you do? Enjoying summer vacation or working hard in the office for all other colleagues that were on leave?


Cordoba – or how we found a new love

One of the places during our trip to Spain and Portugal that most surprised us was Córdoba.

We had both been there before, nine years ago, but not together. While I remember being overwhelmed by the beauty and spirituality of Cordoba’s Great Mosque, I do not remember being very impressed by the town itself.

One of Cordoba's numerous patios
One of Cordoba’s numerous patios

Ahmed felt the same. Perhaps, our love for Seville left us blind for other marvellous towns.

How different was it this time! We loved the place from the moment we arrived. Probably it helped that we were very happy with the hotel we stayed at and the view from our window:

View from the window of our hotel room.
View from the window of our hotel room.

But also when we took the bus to the old town were we surprised by the maze of charming streets, colorful patios, numerous statues and other monuments, including churches and synagogues, and the Alcazar.

All these little gems notwithstanding, what stands out and should be on everyone’s number 1 thing to do here is the Great Mosque/Cathedral. I wrote about it in the Saudi Gazette. What follows is a copy of the article that appeared in the Saudi Gazette on July 25. Find here the original piece.

Codoba's wall
Codoba’s medieval city wall


The Great Mosque of Cordoba

A reminder of Europe’s interfaith history

Cordoba Mosque

Spain’s culture is full of reminders that the Iberian Peninsula was once occupied by a Muslim population consisting mainly of Arab and Berber ethnics. Encompassing nearly 8 centuries, the Islamic Al-Andalus period left a clear Arabic influence in the Spanish language: Some scholars estimate that around 8 percent of the words found in the Spanish dictionary have Arabic roots. In terms of monuments, the highlight of this period most often mentioned is the imposing Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex located in the Spanish southeastern town of Granada.

More patios with flowers in Cordoba
More colorful patios in Cordoba

The Alhambra complex and its Generalife gardens are indeed extraordinary and should be on anyone’s bucket list, but of more significance for the Muslim traveler is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, also known as the Mezquita.
The mosque, built initially by Abd Al-Rahman I and with various later additions, is an architectural marvel that leaves Muslim and non-Muslim visitors alike in awe. It is not difficult to imagine how this magnificent structure was a center of worship, religion, philosophy, anatomy, geometry, and all the other sciences the Al-Andalus scholars excelled in.

Cordoba's wall and minaret
Cordoba’s city wall and the mosque’s minaret, which was later converted in a bell tower

The story goes that when the exiled Umayyad prince, Abd Al-Rahman I, fled from Damascus to current-day Spain, he bought half of the Visigothic Church of St. Vincent on which the Mezquita is built for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers. Soon, this space became too small for the fast-growing population, and in 784 A.D. the emir bought the other half as well, erecting a mosque that he hoped would be on par with those built in Jerusalem, Baghdad, and his home-town Damascus.

His descendants expanded the structure, built a new minaret, and adorned the mihrab, the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Makkah, with gold mosaics, a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium. Remarkably, though, the mihrab in the Great Mosque of Córdoba does not point south-southeast toward Makkah, but south. While in that time it was not uncommon for the qibla (the direction of the Kaaba) to be a bit off, the reason it is here is probably because the mosque was built retaining one of the walls of the old church. The structure reached its current dimensions in 987 A.D., when the outer naves and courtyard, used for ablution and full of orange and lemon trees, were completed.

The nihrab
The mosque’s mihrab, the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Makkah, is adorned with 1,600 kilogram of gold mosaic cubes.

Soon after and due to internal conflict, Córdoba fell in a state of steady decline, eventually leading to the fall of the caliphate in 1031.

Thereafter, several dynasties ruled the city, but it lost its domination to Seville until in 1236 the Christian Kings “reconquered” Córdoba from the Moors.

While building numerous new churches, the center of the mosque was also converted into a Catholic church, although only very small alterations were made. A chapel was built within the mosque, and the minaret was transformed into a bell tower.

The cathedral built in the middle of the mosque
The cathedral built in the middle of the mosque

Nearly three centuries later, however, King Carlos I — allegedly against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council — approved the construction of a Renaissance altar area, choir and nave, largely altering the look of the mosque. Unsatisfied with the result, he famously regretted to the priests who built it: “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.”

Regardless how history shaped the building for better or worse, the result remains simply awe inspiring. Visitors enter the Mezquita through the ablution courtyard, now called the Patio de los Naranjos, where lush citrus and palm trees protect the queues, waiting to buy their entrance ticket, from the scorching Andalusian summer sun.

One of the mosque's many entrances (not open for the public)
One of the mosque’s many entrances (not open for the public)

Once inside, the peace and harmony of the large space overwhelms its visitors, as rows and rows of columns —a total of 856 remain from the 1,293 original pillars — and red and white striped horseshoe arches dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. The entrance side is the original part of the mosque built by Abd Al-Rahman I. Though quite dark, it is easy to imagine how full of light the mosque must have been when all original 19 doors were opened at the time of the caliphate, with the courtyard palm trees providing a natural continuation of the columns inside, leading Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal to describe them as “countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria.”

The columns were made from pieces of the church that had occupied the place previously, as well as from destroyed Roman buildings, while the red and white stone and marble were found in the region surrounding the city.
Opposite the entrance is the mihrab, spectacularly adorned with 1,600 kilogram of gold mosaic cubes shaped into flower motifs and inscriptions from the Holy Qur’an. This is the latest and most sophisticated addition of the mosque and according to many one of the most magnificent mihrabs worldwide.

Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba
Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

In the center, the serenity of the structure is interrupted by a resplendent cathedral that boasts light and vertigo into the low-ceilinged mosque. Like Carlos I, many Muslims regret the building of the Christian structure, saying it destroyed the serenity of the place, and it is not difficult to understand that Muslim worshippers feel offended when security guards brutally order them to stand up when they prostrate in reverence of such marvel, while up to today it is still in use for Catholic services. Several incidences took place in recent years, and Spanish Muslims have lobbied to allow them to pray in the cathedral.

But to say the sacred place belongs to the Muslims is historically incorrect as well. After all, prior to the mosque the soil was home to a Christian church. Rather than claiming it to be either Christian or Islamic, the site is the ultimate reminder of how intertwined the two religions are. For Muslims, the mosque may prompt them of the Islamic Golden Age, during which people of the three monotheistic religions lived together fairly peacefully. For Christians, the mosque is a living proof that Islam is not something alien to Europe: Its existence is intricately part of European history. In fact, it were the scholars in Al-Andalus who transmitted the works of Greek scientists like Aristotle to the hands of the Christians, eventually leading to the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, which rescued Europe from the Dark Ages and led the continent to blossom.

One of Cordoba's many patios
One of Cordoba’s many patios

Remarkably, the current monarchs of Spain directly descend from the Catholic Kings that expelled the Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. In a sense, they represent the continuation of the “Reconquista,” the reconquering of the peninsula from the Muslim rulers, which one may doubt if it is, in fact, a re-conquering, as there was no Catholic monarchy prior to the arrival of Tariq ibn Ziyad and his small army that came to the peninsula upon request from the Visigoths to intervene in their internal conflict.

The “mosque-cathedral” of Córdoba, as the site is often referred to, could be a symbol of Spain’s history at the crossroads of cultures and religions. It could be an example of how civilizations can flourish if they live and work together. It could be granted the status of museum, as the Turkish authorities did with the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, another junction of the Christian and Muslim worlds. The Aya Sophia was a church during the Byzantine Empire, became a mosque under the Ottomans, and in the twentieth century the authorities decided to secularize the building and open it as a museum.

Instead, the Catholic authorities chose to keep using the Mezquita as a place for Christian worship and continue the spirit of the Reconquista.


Cordoba in bloom: I would recommend anyone to visit Cordoba in spring, when nature is at its peak.
Cordoba in bloom: I would recommend anyone to visit Cordoba in spring, when nature is at its peak.

If you have a morning or even day to spare, another place just outside Cordoba and well worth a visit is Madinat Al-Zahra,

The ruins of the Arab-Muslim medieval palace-city give a unique insight into live at the time of the Arab rulers. The museum located at the base of the site is modern, interesting, and very informative.

Ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra
Ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra
Ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra
Ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra

In my next post about Spain, I will write about Seville. Not only did the hubby and I both fall in love with this city years ago, we actually met each other in this city… Stay tuned!


Running in the heat

Let’s take a break from my Spain holiday posts and talk about fitness instead.

Staying fit in Saudi Arabia can be quite challenging, especially as a woman. I used to have a membership for a ladies-only gym (very expensive!) and go there three to four times a week, but since we moved to a compound I have my ‘private’ fitness room in the backyard. Here, I run on the treadmill about three times a week and do some strength training.

Of course I am aware that running on a treadmill is nothing compared to the real thing and so I try to go to a bigger compound once a week for a ‘real’ run outside. And once in a while, we venture to the desert or the mountains for some sandy, cross-country fun.

Running in the sandy desert is a great low-impact workout.
Running in the sandy desert is a great low-impact workout. (Picture by José Ortiz)

The biggest challenge these days, however, is the heat. I always thought I tolerate hot temperatures pretty well, but during the last few weeks the heat started to affect my runs. What is worse than high temperatures though – in Jeddah the maximum varies between 36 and 40 degrees Celsius in summer – is the humidity. Usually, August and September are the months when humidity peaks, so this might explain my affected performance.

The reason running in high humidity is so heavy is that the moisture in the air prevents your sweat from evaporating from your skin, meaning your body loses an important cool-down mechanism. This is especially true when there is no breeze either. Luckily, after four years of living in Saudi Arabia I have gotten used to running in high temperatures. Read on for my personal tips!

(For more tips on how to stay cool while working out in the heat read my article, which appeared last year in the Saudi Gazette.

1. Slow down

Adjust your pace when running in hot, humid weather, such as during this Friday morning desert run.
Adjust your pace when running in hot, humid weather, such as during this Friday morning desert run.

Although the degree varies from one person to another (depending on your fitness, age, bodyweight, etc.), the heat is likely to affect your workout. Therefore, don’t expect to be able to do the same distance and/or intensity you would do on cooler weather days. It is ok (and probably necessary!) to slow down, do your intervals at a lower pace, and forget about that two-hour run. Once fall arrives, you will see you still improved your fitness.

2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Hydrate both during and after your run.
Hydrate both during and after your run.

Evidently, you are going to lose a lot of liquid during your run when the weather is hot, and your body will be probably screaming for water anyways, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it here: DRINK! While I usually rely on water even during longer runs, when it is extremely hot I feel my body needs some carbs and electrolytes as well to replenish those lost in sweating and prevent hyponatremia (low blood sodium). Nonetheless, you may still feel slightly dehydrated following a run in the heat, so keep drinking water or isotonic sports drinks throughout the day. I also like to eat fruits with high water content after a sweaty run. Think of orange, apple, (water)melon, or grapefruit.

3. Run early in the morning or late in the evening

Run early in the morning or in the evening on hot weather days.
Run early in the morning or in the evening on hot weather days.

You would not want to end up with a sunstroke besides the dehydration, right? So no matter what, do not run when the sun is high in the sky. I like to do my run early in the morning before the sun comes up, although humidity is often highest at this time of day so it may be smarter to start around sunrise. Working out around sunset or slightly after is also a good (and perhaps less humid) option.

4. Cool yourself prior to a run

Running a 10 km race in the Netherlands on a hot weather day
Running a 10 km race in the Netherlands on a hot weather day. (Picture by Hester Roth)

When you start running already feeling hot, chances are you won’t last very long. Out of experience, I can say it is easier to run in the heat when you felt cool prior to your start. This could help you especially when you are going for a short run or race. There are even athletes who wear an ice pack before the start of an important run!

5. Wear proper clothing

Running my first marathon on January 24 this year in Dubai
Running my first marathon on January 24 this year in Dubai

Most runners know not to wear cotton, especially not if it is hot and you are going to sweat a lot. While breathable, cotton gets very heavy when it is wet. Wear light colored clothes that allow your skin to breathe. A cap may be useful as well, though I always feel much hotter when I wear something on my head.

6. Stop when feeling unwell

We shortened our run a bit because of the high humidity we witnessed during a run in the desert. (Picture by José Ortiz)
We shortened our run a bit because of the high humidity we witnessed during a run in the desert. (Selfie by José Ortiz)

Knowing the early warning signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion will help you stop on time. Extreme fatigue, nausea, headaches, feeling cold, and dizziness are all signs you need to slow down or call it a day. Don’t try to be strong and proof to yourself you can endure, because you may be putting your life at risk!

7. Cool down!

After a run in the desert.
Run in the desert (Picture by José Ortiz)

Many people skip the cool down, but I personally need this time to slow down my breathing and body temperature, prevent low blood pressure later, and mentally award myself for the run I just did. On hot weather days, it is even more important to cool down before going inside the air-conditioned house or car, which can give your body a shock. If jogging still feels too intense, just walk for 1 or 2 kilometers until your heart rate lowers.

These are just a few tips I apply when running in the hot and humid Saudi weather. Yesterday, I got up at 4:15 a.m. to do a run in the desert just outside Jeddah at around 5:30 a.m. While the plan was to do 18 kilometers, I ended up running 15 in a pace much slower I would usually do, but it was nevertheless a nice (albeit challenging) run.

What are your tips for running or working out in the heat?


Spain: Marbella and Mijas

Following three busy days of exploring Toledo and Granada and a hike in the Sierra Nevada that turned out much longer than expected due to us getting lost, we decided to spend some very relaxing days on the Costa del Sol, one of the sunniest parts of Spain and despite the throngs of tourists flocking to this area every year still a gorgeous coast.

La Costa del Sol: nice beaches, beautiful surroundings, and flowers everywhere!
La Costa del Sol: nice beaches, beautiful surroundings, and flowers everywhere!

We rented an apartment in a small village not far from Marbella, as we didn’t want to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle yet we did want to be able to visit the town – known for the many Arabs who visit it every summer – easily.

Not a bad view while having breakfast, right?
Not a bad view while having brunch, right?

That appeared to be slightly more complicated than expected. Or rather, we made it ourselves quite difficult. You see, I love the idea of days spending on the beach or by the pool, reading my book and listening some music, but once I finally get the chance to spend a day just doing that I feel bored easily and want to move my body. So I convinced Ahmed to walk on the beach to Marbella, which was ‘only’ 10 kilometers away from where we were.

It turned out 10 kilometers may appear little for a marathon runner, but it should not be underestimated when walking over the beach. After two hours or so we were only halfway. The sun was burning on our head and shoulders (of course we went during the hottest time of the day) and we did not exactly feel like walking another two hours, not to speak of how to get back.

The Costa del Sol as seen from Mijas Pueblo.
The Costa del Sol as seen from Mijas Pueblo.

So we decided to walk to the highway and hop on a bus. But that was also easier said than done: once at the bus stop we saw this bus was only coming once every two hours or so, and – you guessed it right – it had just passed. We had no other option than to hitchhike or take a taxi to the town. The former resulted impossible, but luckily we did find a taxi who stopped and took us, charging us a fortune that was difficult to bear knowing that we had a cute little rental car parked right under our apartment.


Marbella, however, was well worth the journey. Though the tourist boom has undoubtedly taken part of its former charm, it is a well maintained village and beautifully located.

Mijas Pueblo

What we liked even more was Mijas Pueblo, a tiny village up the mountains that is famous mainly because of its stunning views. Having learnt from our Marbella experience (I haven’t even talked about the adventure to get back to our apartment in the evening!) we decided to take our car and drive up the mountain.

Chapel in Mijas Pueblo
Chapel in Mijas Pueblo

Although this village, the views aside, doesn’t boast of many attractions, it is mainly worth visiting because of its typical Andalusian character of whitewashed houses and maze-like windy streets. In fact, it is one of the most visited Andalusian traditional white villages. To make your experience complete, you can rent a donkey taxi to go up and visit the town.

Experiencing with my camera
Experiencing with my camera

Ahmed and I decided to do the climb up the village without the help of a donkey, and I had a great time photographing all the gorgeous views, houses, alleys and flowers.

Snapshots of Mijas Pueblo
Snapshots of Mijas Pueblo

The following day we were going to our next destination, Córdoba, where we both had been before but about which we were both happily surprised. I’ll write about that in my next post.

In Mijas Pueblo
In Mijas Pueblo

Curious what happened on our way back from Marbella to our apartment? We thought there was only one bus going back, and only every two hours, so to be sure we decided to take the one before the last. We were at the bus stop 30 (!) minutes before the bus departed, but somehow it left without us, because I was looking for coins to pay the tickets and Ahmed was busy on his phone booking our next hotel!

We didn’t want to wait another two hours, so we tried to hitch-hike (no one even looked at us) or find a taxi (there weren’t any). Somehow, we were so busy looking for other ways to get home that we missed the last bus as well!

We were quite desperate when a friendly bus driver told us there was another bus going to where we had to go; we had to wait another 40 minutes or so but that was totally ok for us!

Sneak preview of my travels in April and May!

Spain: Toledo and Granada

Last April and May the hubby and I did some amazing travels, about which I hadn’t find the time yet to write about and show you some pics. The truth is we visited so many picturesque places and saw so many stunning things that I simply don’t know where to start and what images to show you.

So I decided to simply divide our travels into several posts as well as to make some collages to be able to show you some of the places we visited. Today I will talk about the two first towns we drove to after landing in Madrid (we didn’t skip the Spanish capital but kept it until the very end): Toledo and Granada.


View of Toledo
View of Toledo

The small and amiable town of Toledo is located at only 70 kilometers south of Madrid and should be on anyone’s travel list. There is plenty to visit, but we went mainly for the stunning views.

The town, which may seem of little importance, has been the capital during Visigothic Spain, the capital of one of the richest Taifas of Al-Andalus, and of Castile, until the court moved to Madrid in the 16th century. The result is an interesting mix of cultures located on a hill and surrounded by hills, which offer scenic views of the medieval town.

One of the city gates

Though we only stayed one night, we did feel we had enough time to explore the UNESCO-enlisted old town. If you like to enter the cathedral and museums you may want to stay another night. We were happy we had only planned one day in this town, because when we woke up the next day it was raining cats and dogs, and Toledo is a town you only want to visit when the weather is good.


Fountain in Granadas new mosque
Fountain in the garden of Granada’s new mosque overlooking the Alhambra

While driving south, the sky cleared and a warm spring sun appeared. We checked in at our hotel in the middle of the center and immediately took off to explore the town, as we had booked only one night here as well.

Several weeks prior to our trip we had tried to book tickets for the Alhambra, the enchanting attraction most people visit Granada for, but they were already sold out. Although it is possible to obtain tickets on the day of the visit, it is very difficult and we decided to forget about it this time, given that we had already visited the Alhambra when we visited the town nine years ago, albeit not together.

The Alhambra

Luckily, we did manage to see the Alhambra from outside from the touristy Plaza San Nicolás, both during the day, around sunset, and at night, which allowed us to observe the architectural marvel in its full glory.

Not being able to visit the city’s highlight also allowed us to focus on different historical places that are also well worth a visit but are often overlooked by tourists due to time restraints, such as the Madraza, an old Islamic school with magnificent Arabesque decorations.

The Madraza is currently a cultural space of the University of Granada.
The Madraza is currently a cultural space of the University of Granada.

Walking around in the town, we both wondered why we hadn’t chosen Granada to study back in 2005. We met in Sevilla, which perhaps has more to offer for young students, but Granada is at least as beautiful. Plus, it is known for being a university town and has plenty of interesting places to go to.

The Church of Santa, located right at the end of Plaza Nueva, was built on the site of a former mosque and used the minaret for its bell tower.
The Church of Santa, located right at the end of Plaza Nueva, was built on the site of a former mosque and used the minaret for its bell tower.

One interesting neighborhood is Albaicín, the city’s old Arabic neighborhood, where the windy streets and whitewashed houses haven’t changed much since it was inhabited by the Arabs.

Albaicín is a wonderful place in itself, but its most loved attraction is the views it offers of the Alhambra, as both the neighborhood and the palace are situated on two different hills.

Visitors watching the Alhambra from Plaza San Nicolás
Visitors watching the Alhambra from Plaza San Nicolás

The area also houses Granada’s new Great Mosque, which offers views as stunning as from Plaza San Nicolás, but without the throngs of tourists and locals that gather at the square around sunset.

Tapas at Albaicín neighborhood
Tapas in Albaicín neighborhood

In addition to this, Albaicín is a popular spot for a drink and tapas. Not only has Granada very good tapas, they are also not expensive at all. Often, you will be served a tapa with every drink you offer.

Calle Galderería Nueva is a lively “souq-like” street full of teterías (tearooms) and shisha places

Descending from Albaicín we found ourselves in the middle of the huzzle and buzzle of Calle Galderería Nueva, a lively street full of small shops selling everything from Arabic-style clothing to accessories, tearooms, and shisha places.

By that time, we already realized we had made a mistake by only booking one night in this wonderful town, but we had already booked our next night elsewhere, so we could not change plans anymore.

Cahorros walk
Los Cahorros walk

On our way to the Costa del Sol we stopped by Monachil, a small town less than 10 kilometers away from Granada and gate to the gorgeous Sierra Nevada. We parked the car to do the Cahorros walk, a spectacular hike that follows a gorge, passes greener than green fields, and returns to the town over the mountain to offer incredible views.

Occasionally, we had to crawl during Los Cahorros walk
Occasionally, we had to crawl during Los Cahorros walk

The hike was a lot of fun, including hanging bridges, caves, metal handles to help you stay on the path, and sometimes the necessity to crawl to get past the overhanging rocks.

We did kinda lose our way (the route was not very well signposted) but to be honest I didn’t mind spending some extra hours hiking in this gorgeous landscape.

These were only the first three days of our trip, so stay tuned for more pictures and stories about the places we visited!

The Great Mosque of Córdoba

What I’ve been up to – July

While July was a relatively quiet month due to Ramadan and the summer holidays, I managed to have 15 articles published in the Saudi Gazette. Most events I covered this month concerned art exhibitions and other cultural events. I also wrote several health features. In addition, the three articles about my trip to Singapore came out, in addition to another travel article to a very special place.

Art & Culture

Painting from the exhibition "The Language of Human Consciousness"
Painting from the exhibition “The Language of Human Consciousness”

One of the largest events this month was the opening on July 10 of the mega exhibition “The Language of Human Consciousness” at Athr Gallery about geometry. The inauguration included a panel discussion led by Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon. Unfortunately, the talk was not very entertaining, as it was rather technical and abstract; the exhibition itself is all the more interesting, with works from over 20 galleries around the world. Read the article here.

Germans and Saudis celebrate Germany's victory of the World Cup.
Germans and Saudis celebrate Germany’s victory of the World Cup.

Another major event was, of course, the World Cup final matches, and though I was sorry Holland didn’t make it to the final I was happy to support our neighbor Germany for once. The consulate was pretty packed and the atmosphere tensed, until the Germans, nearly at the end of the extra time, saved their country’s pride and reputation. This picture was published in the Saudi Gazette a few days later.

France Consulate celebrating its national day
France Consulate celebrating its national day

World Cup champion or not, the French had their own celebration the day after, when the consulate observed “Le Quatorze Juillet” or July 14 National Day. It was a pretty plane event without any surprises, but there were some interesting remarks in the speech (in Arabic) by the French consul general.

Woman selling traditional foods in Al-Balad
Woman selling traditional foods in Al-Balad

Together with my family-in-law, I also visited Jeddah’s Old Town, which held a festival on the occasion of Ramadan. We were all amazed by how Al-Balad (the old town) had been changed. The municipality has truly done a great job reviving this area, and we all hope it will continue its efforts. I interviewed my husband’s stepfather and mother-in-law for the article, which came out on the newspaper’s front page!

Exhibition on Saudi Arabia in Singapore
Exhibition on Saudi Arabia in Singapore

The festival in Al-Balad is not the only thing the Saudi authorities are doing to revive their culture and heritage; when I was in Singapore nearly two months ago I came across an exhibition on “The Kingdom” (as Saudis themselves refer to their country) organized by the Saudi Embassy there. I thought it would be nice to write about it.

Lastly, I wrote something on the iRead competition organized by Saudi Aramco, which aims to promote reading in this country. The sad truth is that almost no one here reads novels.


"Straits Kitchen," a halal restaurant at Grand Hyatt Singapore
“Straits Kitchen,” a halal restaurant at Grand Hyatt Singapore

Food-wise, July was a quiet month as well. For some reason, I don’t really like dining out during Ramadan. In the evening, when breaking the fast, I like to keep things light on my stomach (and most restaurants charge you for an exorbitant buffet), and in the morning I am careful not to eat things that make me thirsty. However, I did write an article on the halal dining scene in Singapore, as the press trip I attended focused on that. And I must say, for a country with only a Muslim majority it does have a large variety of halal venues. (I didn’t try any of the meat though.)


Singapore's infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands
Singapore’s infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands

On this blog I already wrote about my trip to Singapore in June. However, my most important article on this press trip for our travel page came out on July 5. I decided to focus on Singapore as an ideal destination for Saudi families.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain
The Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

Although I didn’t travel in July, I did also write an article about the Great Mosque of Córdoba in Southern Spain, which I visited with hubby in April. This mosque holds a very special place in my heart, and if you haven’t been there yet you should schedule your next trip! I will hopefully soon write more about the great trip we did in April and May this year.

Health & Green Living

Sambousa - a favorite during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia
Sambousa – a favorite during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

For our Wholesome Living page, which comes out every Saturday, I focused this month on Ramadan-related health issues. My first article was on how to get healthy and fit during Ramadan. (Note: fried sambousas, as seen in the picture above, do NOT fit in a healthful Ramadan diet!)

Something that really bothers me to see here is the amount of food wasted throughout the year, but especially in Ramadan. I wrote about this issue before in the Arab News, but after reading that Saudis on average throw away an appalling 35 to 40 percent of cooked rice I knew I had to write about this again.

The last health story this month was about a topic relevant all year long: the fat vs. sugar debate. I have been noticing that lately, nutritionists (whether professionals or semi-professionals) seem to blame the obesity epidemic on the amount of sugar we eat. Low-fat is so 1990s, you could say. I was very curious what scientific studies say about this and came across a very interesting BBC video, which I used for an article on this topic.


Signature Interiors' new showroom
Signature Interiors’ new showroom

To conclude this post, I wrote several miscellaneous articles, such as this one about the opening of a new showroom. I just love their designs as well as the furniture and art they get from India, Turkey, and the Middle East. I would definitely furnish my house with their stuff if I had the money!

I also got in touch with someone who created a website to check how much salary you should get. I doubt its accuracy, because I got a ridiculously high amount – more than 2.5 times as much as I currently earn! Nevertheless did I write about the website, as I do support the idea.

U.S. Consul General Anne Casper during her farewell speech
U.S. Consul General Anne Casper during her farewell speech

A last event I attended was an iftar (breaking of the fast) on the second day of Ramadan organized by the U.S. Consulate. While this is a yearly event, this time it was combined with the farewell of the U.S. Consul General Anne Casper. Read the article here.


Ramadan 2014: How did it go?

So here we are, nearly on the eve of Eid (al-Fitr, also known as the “Sugar Feast”), the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.

I can’t wait for Ramadan to be over, but on the other hand I can’t believe it’s been a month I wrote this post with tips for a happy Ramadan. This year, I was determined to spend the holy Muslim month in a useful and positive way. Did I succeed? Read below to find out how I did regarding diet, training, energy levels, and work.

(Pictures are taken during a trip to Al-Balad, Jeddah’s Historical Town that recently gained Unesco status, and from an iftar meal (breaking of the fast) at my mother-in-law’s)


Iftar table set at my mother-in-law
Lavish iftar table set at my mother-in-law’s

During previous Ramadan months I sometimes struggled to eat enough. A few years ago I ended up with (not wanted) weight loss and anemia. This year I paid extra attention to my diet, eating enough complex carbs, (mainly plant-based) protein, and healthy fats. I mostly ate a relatively small iftar in order to be able to do my runs later in the evening. Following my trainings I would have a meal with proteins and carbs. As planned, we ate suhoor around 1 a.m. (though this shifted to 2 a.m. as the month progressed) and went to bed between 2 and 2:30 a.m. I then woke up again some 10 minutes before the Fajr (dawn) prayer to eat yoghurt with oats and muesli and dates.

Balilah - a traditional Ramadan dish containing chickpeas, pickles, vinegar, and optional) hot sauce
Balilah – a traditional Ramadan dish containing chickpeas, pickles, vinegar, and (optional) hot sauce

The result is that my weight remained stable, so in this sense I was successful.


Jeddahs Old Town Al-Balad) during Ramadan
Jeddah’s Old Town Al-Balad) during Ramadan

My goal was to take it easy on the exercise front and not run more than an hour a day four times a week. I later changed this to 45 minutes, as I also wanted to incorporate some strength training in my sessions and did not want to exceed much over one hour.

Despite my high energy levels I could stick to this, and after four weeks of following this schedule I can say that I probably maintained my fitness pretty well. This last week, however, I felt weaker than before, and so I am looking forward to build up my strength and stamina again after this month. I also got some pain in my hip, which could be due to dehydration or the extra burden on my body as it couldn’t recover that well during the day. Often, it was difficult to motivate myself, but once a week I ran outside with some running buddies, which gave me the energy to keep up my trainings.

Woman selling traditional foods in Al-Balad
Woman selling traditional foods in Al-Balad

Before Ramadan, I thought I would focus on cross-training on the days I did not run, but the truth is I haven’t done much swimming or spinning. In this sense, I failed I guess. (I did buy goggles today, so I may be more motivated to go swimming from now on. Haven’t tried them yet, though.)

Energy levels

People praying on the streets of Jeddah
People praying on the streets of Jeddah

The question is: Did my diet and training regimes help me to remain energetic and positive this month?

The first week was terrific. I felt good and although I was tired in the afternoon due to low blood sugar and dehydration, I recovered quickly after breaking the fast. I studied Arabic every day, did my runs and had to really force myself not to get carried away. I also did my work as usual.

Traditional sandals sold in Al-Balad
Traditional sandals sold in Al-Balad

The second week was already more difficult, with a major dip around the end of the week on my birthday. I found it hard to concentrate and felt lazy and sluggish. While I always struggle a bit with getting myself to write this week it was even more difficult to force myself to be productive.

The third and fourth week were even worse, and today and yesterday I spent the weekend working because I thought I didn’t do enough during the week. Feeling lazy and unproductive is a shortcut for me to be down, so I have been having a hard time to stay positive. As I said, I can’t wait for this month to be over.


My husbands stepfather
My husband’s stepfather showed us around in Al-Balad

As said, though the first week I managed to do my work as usual, the weeks after I struggled to be productive. I tend to procrastinate and while on normal days I can then get a coffee and force myself to write during Ramadan my concentration went below zero. I truly believe it is the low sugar and dehydration that fogs my brain and makes it impossible to think clearly, and so I can’t wait to go back to my normal routine.

Some last thoughts  on Ramadan 2014

Sambousa - a favorite during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia
Sambousa – a favorite during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

All in all, I think I did best on the diet and exercise front. I am less happy with how things went regarding work and energy levels/boredom. Also, I probably saw too little daylight, which affected my mood as well.

I think I also missed a good opportunity to focus on spirituality this month. The truth is I wasn’t very motivated to read about Islam or other faiths. Somehow, so little can be done on Ramadan days; so much time is spent preparing iftar and at my family-in-law’s. On the other hand, this gave me the opportunity to practice my Arabic, and although it is difficult to say whether I improved I do think I learned some important new words. In any case, I am excited to go back to taking Arabic classes in September/October, so my wish to learn Arabic did revive.

Ramadan festival in Al-Balad
Ramadan festival in Al-Balad

Lastly, I think for a person who is convinced of Islam and Ramadan being part of that it is much easier to fast a whole month. For me, it is just something I do because I happen to be married to a Saudi. I never chose to follow this faith myself, and I am not so sure about the benefits of fasting. If I saw it as an ordeal and tried to meditate and read about different faiths more this month would perhaps be easier and more beneficial. What do you think?

Al-Balad was recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site…
Despite Al-Balads recent recognition as
…despite that, many buildings are still in a dire state

Happy Eid!


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