Thursday, November 8, 2007

a feast for a crowd

On our second day in Dhahran, our hosts at KFUPM (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals) took us out to a traditional Saudi meal at a restaurant in Dammam. A bunch of faculty and graduate students also met us at the restaurant. When we first arrived, our host jumped out of the van and came back in to tell the driver to go around the back. I noticed a big sign that said "Ladies' entrance" near the door that we entered. We walked on a carpeted pathway to the door and entered a big receiving room, lined on all sides with couches. Between each couch was a small table with a little dish of dates. The room was the size of a basketball court, but we all took seats around the edges on the couches, and a guy came around with a stack of tiny coffee cups and the Saudi-style coffee pot of coffee spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, or something like that. Coffee and dates, everywhere we went.

It seemed the table wasn't ready for us (we had a group of like 35), so they led us out the back door, around the side of the building on some more carpet pathways, and into another door where there was a big oven where a dude baked circular puff breads before our very eyes. We even got to try some (yum!). Upstairs, we wandered through some kind of museum with old artifacts of SA, and pictures of its history, including one of the King visiting KFUPM on its opening day in the 1960s. On the stairs we passed a couple with a child - the woman was wearing a black abaya with a black scarf and veil covering her eyes. She even wore black gloves. You would think that such strict Muslims would have migrated to Iceland at some point, where such heavy attire makes more practical sense.

The dinner was held at a loooong T-shaped table about a foot from the ground, and we sat cross-legged on carpets to eat. Giant platters of rice with lamb in the center and small plates of hummus, salads, triangular cheese pastries, and drinks beckoned to us, and we ate what we could (after being offered so much food all day long). Dinner was followed by dessert of Om Ali, a regional dessert that debatably originated from Egypt with a story of two wives, one of whom died and the other made the dessert. Details of that story were uncertain, but the dessert was very tasty. Then we were offered small glass mugs of tea as we chatted with the graduate students, who were eager to know what I thought of KFUPM and how it differed from MIT and what advice I had for getting into a place like MIT. They were very courteous and nice, and it was really interesting to hear what their student life is like. Most of them seemed to be from India or Egypt, and one guy from Sudan. They were very enthusiastic about this potential collaboration. I would be interested to know how all the other students at KFUPM would view it.

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