Category Archives: language

meet my brother-in-law!

February 15, 2016

It’s time for the next installment of my series of interviews with my Saudi in-laws! This time I sat down with my brother-in-law, Suleiman. I first met Suleiman when he was maybe 15 or so, and now he’s all grown up and graduating from college this spring! He’s a good kid, and as you could probably glean by reading the interview, he’s the Mostafa who is most serious about the development of my Arabic language skills; he quizzes me constantly and always pushes me to get better, which I appreciate, even when he’s a pain in the butt about it. Like before, I started out by asking him a few basic questions, and then moved on to questions submitted by readers. Here’s what he had to say.

Okay, here we go. Introduce yourself.

Why would I introduce myself? You know me.

You’re not introducing yourself to me, you’re introducing yourself to the readers!

Okay. My name is Suleiman Mostafa. I study industrial engineering at King Saud University in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. I’m 22 years old. I’m single. I’m a full-time student. That’s my life.

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toddler app love.

June 11, 2015

Here’s a confession nearly tantamount to literally having a skeleton in a closet: we are not, and never have been, a “no screen time” family. Lavender has been exposed to children’s TV shows since before she was a year old. We’ve never encourage her to just park herself in front of the TV, but when she was smaller and would throw a fit when she had to sit in her car seat, we consistently chose to load an episode of Peppa Pig on an iPhone for her rather than let her cry herself sick. To this day, even as an educator, I’ve never felt bad about that. She also loves Bubble Guppies, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Doc McStuffins, and Super Why! In Arabic, she loves In the Night Garden, Special Agent Oso, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates (which show on Baraem, the Arabic preschool channel…nowadays, they’re also showing Doc McStuffins in Arabic, and she loves it in both languages). Again, we don’t park her in front of the TV for hours at a time, but if she’s playing like a madwoman around bedtime, I’ll put on an episode and sit in the rocking chair with her to wind her down. Or if she is having a fussy day, sometimes a treat and a show and some snuggles are all it takes to calm her down again.

Despite research that suggests that children don’t retain anything from television prior to the age of two, my personal experience has demonstrated otherwise. One time, when Lavender was about 18 months old, we were out and about and we came across a puzzle of farm animals, and as I was pointing to the animals and saying their names, she pointed to the horse and announced, “Neigh! Neigh!” I looked at her, shocked; I hadn’t taught her that. Then she pointed to a cow and said, “Moo! Moo!” And let me tell you, I felt like a failure as a mother. Because Bubble Guppies had taught my child animal sounds.

So, yeah. We watch TV in our house. But beyond TV, we also use apps with Lavender. A lot. Usually not when we’re at home, but when we’re traveling, absolutely. She has her own iPod Touch (which used to belong to me, but got transitioned to toddler use), and let me tell you, it was a godsend when we were traveling to and from the other side of the world. Not to mention on our cross-country road trip. And when she does use apps at home, she’s usually sitting in either my or Mr. Mostafa’s lap, and we’re interacting with her about what she’s doing or watching…and research has shown that such experiences, academically referred to as joint media engagement, can make screen time beneficial for kids.

Again, I don’t care what anyone says…apps are wonderful. “But Nicole,” you might say. “Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play with iPads!” True. But that doesn’t mean that such tech is necessarily completely bad for little ones.  Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a man of ridiculous genius, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a bit shortsighted when it comes to the technology he unleashed on the world. Can you imagine Johannes Gutenberg saying, “Yeah, I invented the printing press, but I don’t let my kids play with books”? He probably would have said that, actually. Because when the printing press was invented, folks were alarmed and worried that civilization was headed on a massive downslide because no one would memorize anything anymore. When the radio was invented, everyone worried that no one would read books anymore. You see how this has historically gone down, right?

So, yeah. This is the world we live in. That being said, apps should never, ever replace books and the experience of reading to your children, and it’s important that parents are involved with their children’s media consumption, rather than just sitting them down with a device for hours on end. (And quite frankly, we adults shouldn’t be sitting in front of devices for hours on end, either.) And because of apps, Lavender can already identify letters (I haven’t sat her down and quizzed her on all of them, but when I’ve asked her to name a letter in a book or on a sign or something, I’ve yet to point to a letter that she can’t name). She can identify numbers, colors, and shapes. She’s working on learning the Arabic alphabet now, as well. Despite my background in education, I didn’t sit her down and teach her these things. All I’ve done is read books to her…and I reviewed apps, loaded them onto her iPod, and handed her iPod to her when she was having a meltdown about having to sit in her car seat or stand in an airport security line. That’s it. I feel confident that her time spent on the apps we’ve chosen for her is not in any way wasted. As I’ve pointed out, research is starting to back that up, as well.

So, if you’re interested, here are the apps we keep on Lavender’s iPod. Especially since it’s summertime and that means lots of traveling, this list may come in handy.

20 learning apps for toddlers.

I think this is a great selection for toddlers on up to around preschool age (Lavender started really interacting with apps at around 18 months or so. It will depend on your child). Of course, as with anything, moderation is key. At home, she’s usually so busy playing with me or her baba or with other toys that she doesn’t think about her iPod much. And I tend to limit heavy use of the iPod to car trips, restaurants, and other times when it can be asking a whole lot of a toddler to expect her to sit still.

First Words Deluxe. There is a free version of this, but it’s well worth the five bucks to buy the full app. This is the first spelling app that Lavender ever used, and I love it because it can grow with her. At first, I had it set to only phonetic, three letter words; now I’ve changed it to the random setting so that she spells words of various lengths. You can also set it so that the child has to place the letters in the order they are spelled in the word; I haven’t done that yet. It’s a great app to start out teaching little ones the concepts of spelling and letter placement, because when the child moves a letter anywhere near the correct spot, it automatically sucks the letter into its place. It’s a great precursor app for…

Endless AlphabetEndless Alphabet is a much cuter, more colorful, more creatively developed app than First Words Deluxe, but it’s also a pretty simple, straightforward app; for each word, you move the letters to their correct place in the word. It’s a bit more difficult than First Words Deluxe, because the words are more complex, and the child has to move the letter to its place and drop it where it’s supposed to go. But Lavender prefers it over First Words Deluxe, because as you move the letters, they yell out either their names or the sounds they make in a very silly way. (To be honest, my mom and Mr. Mostafa both find this entertaining, as well.) Like First Words Deluxe, there is a free version, but it’s totally worth it to spring for the paid version (you get all the words, plus automatic updates as they add new words).

Endless 123. This app is designed with the same aesthetic as Endless Alphabet, but it teaches numbers in various ways. It has kids count in different sequences (twos, threes, tens, etc.), and it also has them complete math problems by moving letters and symbols (plus, minus, etc.) to the correct place in an equation. The free version only goes up to 5; the full version (called the “School Edition”) goes up to 100. Definitely worth it.

Endless Reader. Have you caught on that we love the Endless apps? They’re made by Originator, Inc., and everything they make is worth a download. Not even kidding. They have a free version of all their apps, and although the paid version of their apps can be salty, we’ve found them to be worth it. Endless Reader is the most expensive one (the “School Edition” costs $30, unless you buy it in a bundle with other full versions of their apps). It’s a whole lot like Endless Alphabet, except after the child spells the word, the app then offers a sentence using the word and asks the child to place words in the correct place in the sentence. Lavender has been working through the words and sentences in the free version, so even though it’s a hefty chunk of change (I mean, for an app), we’ll be pulling the trigger on the “School Edition” soon. There’s also an Endless Spanish app that is just like Endless Reader…except, you know, it’s in Spanish. We just downloaded that one a few days ago.

YouTube KidsThis is a version of YouTube that is specifically designed for kids–no ads, no questionable content, which means you can let your little one scroll through the options and choose for themselves without worrying they’ll stumble upon something you’d prefer they not see. It requires wifi, so it’s mostly limited to naptime/bedtime for us.

YouTube. Even though YouTube Kids is much more kid-friendly when it comes to letting your child navigate the app and choose what they want to watch, regular ol’ YouTube is also a really terrific source for children’s videos, and it’s worth a download, as well. If Lavender isn’t watching something on the Super Simple Learning channel, she’s watching something on playlists curated by Mr. Mostafa and me. Mostly, those playlists are full of clips we loved watching as kids and really want her to appreciate, too…especially old Sesame Street sketches (a couple of Mr. Mostafa’s favorites are here and here; if you grew up watching Sesame Street in English, you might recognize them. As for me, I’m really partial to Jelly Man Kelly and A-B-C-Cookie Monster! Luckily, Lavender seems to love them as much as we do). Like YouTube Kids, this app requires a wifi connection.

PBS Kids. Like the YouTube apps, this app also only works when your device is connected to wifi, so it’s mostly a bedtime app. It shows ad-free episodes of some of Lavender’s favorite shows, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Super Why.

Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes. There are six different Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes apps, and one in Spanish. We have them all (some are free, some are paid apps). Each app presents two different nursery rhymes in sections where kids can follow along with the words and turn the page on their own. Lavender has loved them for ages. They’re simple, tried, and true.

Little People Player. I hate the title of this app. That being said, it has several little song videos with the Little People characters (you know, Little People is a set of toys from Fisher Price) that Lavender loves, and I don’t mind letting her watch them because the songs are just adorable and have a good message. Like, “It’s great being silly!” And, “You don’t have to be a girl to twirl, twirl, twirl…spin, spin, spin, and do it all again! You don’t have to be a boy to jump for joy…jump, jump, jump, jump in!” Yeah. I like that. Also, even though this app is all videos, you don’t need a wifi connection for it.

Daniel Tiger’s Day & NightLavender loves Daniel Tiger, and I don’t blame her. It’s such a cute, sweet show! (In fact, one time, as we watched it, Mr. Mostafa said, “This show makes me sad that she’s not going to be this little forever.”) In this app, you get to help Daniel go through his morning and bedtime routines. Lavender’s favorite thing to do is help Daniel tie his shoes and help him brush his teeth.

My First Alphabet PhonicsThis is a great, straightforward little app for learning to write both uppercase and lowercase letters.

Little WriterThis is another lovely tracing app, with the same concept as My First Alphabet Phonics, except that kids can trace numbers, shapes, and words, in addition to uppercase and lowercase letters. Even though it has many more things to trace, I actually recommend starting with this one before My First Alphabet Phonics, because it breaks the tracing down into simpler steps that are less overwhelming to little ones.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! Do you know the Pigeon books, by Mo Willems? If not, go buy them. Now. (In fact, go by anything by Mo Willems.) Because they are wonderful. They’re simple and brilliant and Lavender loves them. And go buy this app, too, because in it, you get to make your own Pigeon stories.

Now, obviously, these are all English apps (and a few Spanish). However, we do have several Arabic apps on Lavender’s iPod, as well. These were vetted by Mr. Mostafa to ensure that they teach at least reasonably native-sounding Arabic (because, well…a lot of Arabic learning apps don’t).

Zee’s AlphabetThis app teaches Arabic letters, in addition to vocabulary words that begin with that letter. I like the music, too. It’s very jaunty.

Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors GamePretty self-explanatory, right? It’s simple and fun!

Learn Arabic Numbers GameMade by the same developers as Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors game, this app follows the same concept. Except this teaches both Arabic and English letters. Pretty great! (Especially for me, because even though my Arabic is getting stronger every day, I still get Arabic numbers mixed up! I think my brain is just not wired for math, in any language.)

Fun Arabic Learning for Kids & Toddlers. This is the Arabic app that Lavender spends the most time with, hands down. She especially loves the Arabic letter puzzles. Some of the sections require you to pay (colors and other vocabulary), but others (letters and shapes) are free. Either way, it’s definitely worth a download!

So, there you have it. These are the apps that are currently on the front home screen of Lavender’s iPod. I’m sure the lineup will change over time, and probably sooner rather than later. But for now, these are the apps that keep her entertained…and learning!


meet mr. mostafa.

February 26, 2015

So, a few weeks ago, I was inspired by a blog post on The Kardia and decided that it was time to let my blog readers get to know Mr. Mostafa a little bit better. After all, he is one of the very main characters here, and he’s generally so understanding of how I consistently provide a glimpse into his life through the lens of my own admittedly limited perspective, as each individual’s perspective inevitably is (although I think part of the reason why he’s more chill about my blogging habits than a typical Saudi guy would be is because he’s actually the one who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place. In other words, he created this monster, so he’s got no one to blame but himself. Ha!). So I figured he deserved the chance to speak for himself a bit.

For the basics, I used the interview questions from The Kardia, tweaked a bit to reflect our own cultural foundation. Then I asked questions submitted by readers via Facebook, Twitter, and email, which I lightly edited for length, structure, clarity, etc. where necessary. The result is a very long but meaty interview (but heck, if you expected a short post from me, welcome, ‘cause you’re obviously new here). So, if you’ve made your cup of tea and are settling in for some reading time, here you go: Mr. Mostafa, in his own words!

Introduce yourself.

My name is Saleh bin Mostafa. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. My family is originally from Medina. Most of my family members are located in Medina and Jeddah and Mecca. But I was born and raised in Riyadh. Let’s see…I’m a certified public accountant. I guess that’s it.

What do you think about my blog?

I really like your blog, and I think you differentiate yourself from other bloggers by not talking about a specific topic or a specific location or just your personal life. You kind of, you know, merge all of them. Like, you’re basically talking about everything in your experience, but especially in Saudi Arabia as a foreigner, which I believe is what makes your blog unique.

What is your favorite post that I’ve written?

I can’t really recall all the posts right now, but probably one of my favorites, one that drew a smile on my face, is our kitchen…when you wrote about our kitchen. Because I put a lot of effort…you know, it was kind of difficult to design and buy appliances for a very small, teeny-tiny kitchen, like a small fridge that has a freezer, a small washing machine and dryer in the same thing, a small oven, stove, you know…then after you wash the dishes, where are you going to put the dishes away…so yeah, I was kind of proud of myself when I read that post.

Have you ever had a blog, or have you ever considered starting one?

No. I used to hear a lot about blogging when I was in the States, but I never really knew a lot about blogging. I guess I’m not that kind of geeky guy.

Oh, so I’m a geek?

That’s what they say. Bloggers are geeks.

Oh, really? This is news to me. Well, kind of.

I don’t know, haven’t you watched the episode of The Office when they launched the Pyramid? All the bloggers there are geeks.

Hmm…that’s true. Those bloggers were geeks.

Yes. But those aren’t my words, those are Dwight’s words.

If you could meet any famous person, who would you choose?

Any famous person…well, for me, superstars or singers or whatever are not really role models to me. I don’t really have a role model in my life, so…but right now, maybe…I don’t want to say I have a crush, but maybe Taylor Swift…you know, I like her.

Good idea not to say to your wife that you have a crush!

Well yeah, I don’t want to say I have a crush on her, but I like her. I even, you know, I took it so personal when she released her new songs. I was like, “This is not Taylor.” I was totally disappointed. Even after I watched the video, I was extremely disappointed. But then, you know, I started to like the music, so…

So you like to shake it off?

I do, I do.

It’s okay, because, you know…I kinda feel the same way about Bruno Mars. Like, I won’t say I have a crush on him, but…yeah.

Well, I really like Bruno Mars songs, but, you know…I got disappointed in him when I found out that he was doing cocaine. So…

Let’s hope Taylor Swift doesn’t have a similar scandal.

Yeah, I very much hope not.

Tell about a date night gone wrong that we’ve had.

I think you’ve already blogged about the worst one…the date in the States, our first date after Lavi was born. Another one was…I was very excited, it was our first anniversary. I wanted to take you to a special place and have a very fancy date. So I made a reservation at Spazio, at the top of the Kingdom Tower. I wanted to make special arrangements; I told the guy I wanted a special cake and music. And I told him it was our anniversary, everything should be “Happy Anniversary.” Happy first anniversary. Well, after we had our wonderful dinner, I saw the waiters coming with the cake, behind you. And I was disappointed when they started singing “Happy Birthday.” And they wrote on the cake, “Happy Birthday,” too. Then we went to French Corner to grab you some macarons, because you love macarons. Well, when I came back out, the car wouldn’t start. The battery ran out. So I called the driver, he came and we tried to jump the car. But we couldn’t figure out where the battery was on the other car. We finally figured it out, but jumping didn’t work, so I had to go buy a new battery and put it in there in the parking space in front of French Corner. Yeah, it was a cluster.

Okay, so let’s cover all the bases…sports. Who is your favorite football (soccer) team, and why?

I remember before 2002, or let’s say up to 1998, I’m gonna say, I was very crazy about soccer. I could never miss a game of my favorite team. My favorite team, in my heart, was Al Ittihad…which is, you know, the team from Jeddah. But due to the environment and the cultural impact and the kids’ influence…I had to be like everyone else in Riyadh, so Al Hilal became my favorite team. I remember even my bedroom carpet was blue, everything was blue, I wanted everything blue. I still love blue. But the Saudi league really sucks now. After 1998, probably up to 2002, maybe the last time we won the Asian Cup…after that, I stopped caring a lot about soccer, especially in Saudi Arabia.

What is your favorite American sport, and why?

Again, I’m not really much of a sport guy, but if there is any sport that I would like to learn, it’s American football.


Because, you know, it makes sense. I remember when we went to the Springfield Cardinals baseball game, I was totally confused. It didn’t seem like a sport to me. But in American football, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of strength, it goes fast. And you know, in soccer, it takes a lot of special skills. It’s really amazing to watch a player like Ronaldinho or Messi or David Beckham. I believe that’s a special talent that you don’t really see in baseball.

baba and baby.

That’s all for the basics. And now, on to the reader questions!

Are there times when you thought it would have been better if Nicole was born a Saudi? If so, when and why?

Yes, sometimes, just because of the language. Sometimes I really want to speak in Arabic. Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to express your feelings in another language. Sometimes I really wish…not that she was born Saudi, but at least that she grew up speaking Arabic. Even before I met Nikki, I used to write a lot of poems in Arabic, and I wanted to share them with her. But it was difficult to share those poems with her, because she wouldn’t understand them. But I’ve always loved writing poems. Whenever I feel mad or sad, or when certain events happen, that was my way of expressing myself. So yeah, I don’t have a blog or anything, but I love poetry. I’m a poetry geek, not a blogging geek. So sometimes, yes, I do wish she spoke Arabic…sometimes when I’m mad, you know, when we are in an argument, or when I try to make a joke…that’s a part of me that I don’t think she knows about me. The other part is…you know, I’m really talented when it comes to imitating accents in Arabic. I used to make my friends laugh. I went to international school, so I had friends from all over the Middle East, and I would be very curious about learning specific words and specific accents. So she doesn’t really understand when I make a joke that uses different words or different accents. I believe this is a part of my personality that she doesn’t know, and she can’t know because one, she’s not Arabic, two, she’s not Saudi, and three, she was not born and raised here.

Are there times when you thought it would have been better if you were born an American? If so, when and why?

Well, I’m really grateful that I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, for several reasons. One, I had access to excellent higher education, and it was extremely affordable. I didn’t have to pay for college here in Saudi Arabia or grad school in the States. I’ve never had to worry about that. And I’ve never had to worry about anything medical…I have insurance from my employer, but if I didn’t, I could still go to the doctor. My government is supporting the employment of Saudis, so that’s an advantage for me. I don’t have to pay taxes. The cost of living here is extremely cheap compared to the States…well, most places in the States. I don’t feel like, you know, being a different race or having a different color is a very big advantage here, which it absolutely is when you apply for a job in the States. I feel like there is a lot of racism in the States…modern racism, as they say. I’m really glad I was born Saudi. I mean, absolutely, there is racism in Saudi Arabia. Very much racism. But I feel like it is slowly getting better here, where in the States, it’s getting worse. The thing that has really gotten worse here is the Shia/Sunni conflict…it was not so much of an issue before. Lots of my friends in school and college, they were Shia, and we never felt like we were different or anything. But then, you know, things got worse, with the Iraq War, and other things.

Do you read all of Nicole’s blog posts?

Absolutely. I read them all, and I click like…and I don’t click like on a thing unless I really like it. If I read something I don’t like on the blog, I’ll discuss it with my wife…but I almost always press like. So yes, I do read, and when I press like, that means I really do like it. Sometimes I wish Facebook had a dislike button, so I could click it on some things…but like, not her stuff. Wait…what I’m trying to say is that, you know, I’m not being biased when I click like. Being my wife, and being a part of her experience, that doesn’t mean I automatically like everything. I’m just interacting with the blog as a reader. I try not to let my relationship with the blogger influence my opinion.

Do people in your office read the blog? Do they make any comments when they read about you?

Um…I don’t know. I don’t think so. I do share and retweet her posts, especially the ones that I really like, but I don’t really talk about it with my friends. I think that might be a little bit awkward, like if I stood up at my desk and yelled, “Heeeeyyy, follow my wife! She writes awesome!” They would laugh at me. But I follow her on Instagram, and on Twitter, and on Facebook. Everyone knows that she is my wife, that I’m married to an American. So my friends and colleagues probably know about the blog, but no, I’ve never discussed it with my friends or colleagues. But if the asker is trying to say, “Are you ashamed of your wife?”, the answer is I am not ashamed of my wife. I’m extremely proud of my wife, which is why I am always retweeting her and liking and commenting on her stuff on social media.

How do you contribute to or help with the blog?

Well, sometimes I have to take my wife to places, or I have to stop the car at a certain place at a certain moment so she can take a picture. If I don’t stop the car when she tells me to, then I will be in trouble! Sometimes I drive my wife crazy, I forget to understand that she cannot drive here, and she cannot go to places on her own. Aside from that, she doesn’t need my support or my help when it comes to blogging, except sometimes she will ask me, “Can you translate this for me?” “Can you tell me what does this mean?” “Can you give me the spelling of this Arabic word?” But you know, the only way I’m really contributing is by being a male in Saudi Arabia who can drive, and has to have his wife, you know, rely on him to take her to places.

What would you like the blog to be ten years from now?

Well, for me, one of my wishes…I’m not going to say it’s my dream, because it’s not my dream, it’s her dream, but in ten years, I want to be going to book signing parties for her. I want to see her signing her books. So maybe, you know, this blog can be a way to get to that dream for her, to publish books, because I know what writing means to my wife and I know she always wished to become a writer or a photographer. But even though she didn’t go to college for those things, I think she is extremely talented in them.

What do you wish for your wife and your daughter to be ten years from now?

Well, I think I just answered that question for my wife. As for my daughter…you know, I just want her to be happy. Healthy and happy.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

Me, ten years from now? Probably just…building my career, pursuing my dreams.

Do you see Lavender turning out to be more like you or her mom?

I hope both. I hope she will benefit from this unique relationship, that she will get the best out of both cultures, and dump the negativity and the trash in both cultures. And I hope that also she will take the best out of both of us.

How do you remain so sweet to your wife?

I’m not so sweet. She knows I’m not so sweet all the time. Sometimes I’m a pain in the butt. Sometimes she is a pain in my butt. But before we were married, we were very close friends. My wife is not only my wife, she is also my best friend, and I believe that is mandatory in the equation of a successful marriage. And you know, every relationship has its ups and downs.

What was one thing that you noticed in Nicole that made you realize she was The One?

This is just one of several things, but I’m just going to mention the funny one: I’ve always had a thing for country music, and I’ve always been insulted here in Saudi Arabia for loving that particular music style. And she was the only person who shared that interest with me. So that was one of the reasons that I felt, you know, the click. But you know, it was also the way she always added positivity to my life. I might be negative sometimes. But she always had that secret of comforting me. And actually, probably also even the disagreements were part of it. Before I got married, I never saw my future wife as someone that would just nod her head whenever I say something. I like discussion and debate. So that’s something I share with my wife.

Have you ever been caught in a situation between your mom and your wife? If so, whose side did you take? (Please take it as a funny question!)

I don’t recall one thing right now, but there were several times, especially, you know, after Lavender was born. But who hasn’t gone through these sort of conflicts, especially after a newborn baby comes into the family? I really don’t take sides. I try to understand my wife’s feelings and discuss that with my mom. Now, I realize that I’m a dumbass who does not understand women, because I thought when you just deliver the message, right away, they will understand and be fine with it. But they will pretend they are fine with it, but a couple of minutes later, or a couple of hours later, they get pissed. So I don’t take sides, but I try to understand and concur with my wife. I try to understand her side, and then go and discuss it with my mom. It has worked so far. Thank goodness, I’ve never been in, like, a really messy situation.

Hypothetically, if you were the king of Saudi Arabia, what would be the first order you pass? What other reforms would you undertake?

That is a tough question. I know what most people would answer, and I know they would want me to answer, “Letting women drive.” But I hope that will happen before I hypothetically become a king. And there is one other very big thing that concerns me: finding a way to diversify our economy, our sources of income. Right now, we are 90% reliant on oil, which is absolutely scary. It means that that we don’t have a really stable economy, in my opinion, because oil is not a renewable resource. So if I were king, I would be investing in other sources of energy, and two…well, I know this is not going to interest your readers, but Saudi Arabia does have a lot of surplus in cash, so why not invest it? Why don’t we have a sovereign wealth fund where, like, we can have investments in several countries and several industries to generate a source of funds to support the day-to-day operations and expenditures, you know? I’m talking like a king who is an accountant. But I guess that makes sense. Probably we need to also look into…like, we are the second highest country when it comes to outgoing international wire transfers, right after the States. Many expats working here are sending so much money out of the country. I think we need to reform the tax laws here in Saudi Arabia. It’s about time to apply income taxes on foreigners…like, you know, in America, foreigners have to pay income taxes. But not all foreigners should get the tax, just specific professions. We need doctors, we need engineers. But there are other professions where I believe we have the human resources and the capability to fill these professions, and again, I’m not talking about foreigners who are poor, like drivers and construction workers. But we need to start applying an income tax because our money is going out of Saudi Arabia. I mean, I don’t blame them, because that’s the only reason many are in Saudi Arabia, you know…they are working for the money. But a part of this money could be invested in supporting our economy, and creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone, and making a better country for the new generations of Saudis, and supporting and building infrastructure. I may sound Republican, but that’s how I feel. But I’m not 100% Republican, because I don’t want poor people to pay the taxes. That’s why there needs to be a threshold. I guess that’s all. But as I mentioned, I hope women will drive by then.

What do you like best about living in Saudi Arabia?

I mentioned that before, in the question about why I am glad and grateful I am Saudi. It’s a very family-oriented place. Probably the only thing I don’t like about Saudi Arabia is that people are nosy here. Sometimes I can’t even have a nice dinner with my wife or going out with my family without people staring at us.

Have you ever been to Hajj or Umrah, or both?

Absolutely, I’ve been to make Umrah several times. Never been to Hajj, but inshallah, I’m planning to perform Hajj with my wife.

Was it difficult for you to convince your parents to let you marry a Western woman? As you know, most Muslims are biased on this topic.

Yes, yes, absolutely. I’m not going to say most Muslims, but let’s say, it’s not going to be about Muslims, it’s about Saudis. Saudi Arabia is not an open culture. It’s not a country where almost everyone is an immigrant, like the States. That’s what makes it difficult. It’s probably one of the only countries where you have to apply for permission to marry a foreigner, which means, you can see that our government, our society, is not giving us the opportunity to get mixed with other cultures. It took me, like, two, three years to slowly convince my parents. And it’s really funny, I just had a disagreement with my wife about raising our kids and how we should help them make the right decisions, but if there’s anything I learned from the experience of marrying a foreigner, it’s that your parents might think that you are going in the wrong path, or you are making the wrong decision, but I’m glad that I proved to them that I did the right thing, it was the right decision. I’m glad that my family really likes my wife now, and they kind of clicked.

Would you prefer for your daughter to marry a Saudi or an American?

As of today, I absolutely prefer for her to marry a Saudi. I can’t handle the idea of not being able to see my grandkids and having to apply for a visa for them to come and visit, because a Saudi woman cannot grant citizenship to her kids, so I absolutely prefer for her to marry a Saudi. That was not a concern for Nikki’s parents, because that’s not the situation in the States; they know that, you know, they would be able to see their grandkids, because Lavender has an American passport, all our kids will have American passports. That’s my only concern. I would like my grandkids to be Saudis. I want them to share my citizenship, my language, my culture, and yes, my religion. But I hope the citizenship thing will change, and at the end, it’s not my decision. I believe it’s my daughter’s…because, you know, this what our religion encourages, it should be the woman’s decision.

Who do you think has it better in Saudi Arabia—men or women? And why?

Men, absolutely. It’s a men-oriented society. It is changing, because you know, Saudi women are showing that they have the ability to do great stuff; a lot of female Saudi scientists and scholars have done great accomplishments and are being acknowledged, both locally and internationally. But yes, most decision-makers are males. But even when you look to the States, which is the most liberal country, the decision-makers are mostly still males, not females. So yeah, it’s slowly changing, but it’s still kinda difficult to be a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Have you ever experienced culture shock? Tell us about it.

Culture shock? Yes, when I first arrived to the States. The driving, the waiting in lines…it was not so much a culture shock, I think, because I really enjoyed the experience. I had always heard about culture shock before I went to the States, but I did not feel it much. I absolutely enjoyed each and every experience. But I almost cried right after I arrived…I was sent to this old building on the campus, it was freaking Memorial Day weekend, everything was closed, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have internet, I didn’t have a phone yet. I was one of the first people that the scholarship program sent to that university, so there were only a few Saudis there…literally, all the Saudis who were in Springfield, we all fit in one small living room in a duplex. So I felt extremely lonely…I didn’t know where the heck to go. It was hard at first. But I made it.

I assume that since you married a Western woman, you have no problem with Saudi men doing that, but what do you think of Saudi women who marry/have relationships with Western men? And what are the differences in which your society perceives those women vs. men who do the same?

Of course, she has the right. Again, it’s her choice. I don’t really have an opinion about that. But I think, like I said, before making the decision, they really need to consider whether they are okay with her kids not carrying the citizenship, with them being treated differently than their cousins just because their dad is not Saudi. So, you know, again, it’s not my decision, and I don’t have any objection, but Saudi women have more to think about with that than Saudi men do. But you’re asking if the majority of Saudi families would be okay with their daughter marrying someone outside of Saudi Arabia…the answer is absolutely not. Many don’t even want their daughters or their sons to marry outside of the tribe. And there is a cultural double standard…all over the world, there is this idea that “boys will be boys.” Even in America, especially in the Southern states, like…I think your brother got away with many more things than you did. Girls are the ones parents worry about and want to protect. We don’t worry as much about boys. It’s not really fair, but it’s just how it is. And quite frankly, it’s always the boys who get into trouble, not the girls. From what I’ve heard, it’s much easier to raise a girl.

We all know that marrying someone from another culture can be a challenge, and we know it sometimes is for Nicole, but I wonder what the challenges that you have faced are, and what things you see differently than Nicole.

Probably I will have more challenges when my daughter gets older. I don’t know what these challenges will be yet. I don’t know, I hope my wife and I are making it easier for each other to be open-minded and understanding about cultures. I don’t know what life is hiding for us when it comes to raising our children. But I think couples, even if they don’t speak the same language, if they have that click, and if they are open-minded about each other’s culture, origins, background, I think they will not face so much difficulty. My wife has been open-minded, I think I have been open-minded, too. We try.

What do you really think about your mother-in-law?

I really like…wait, she is the one who asked this question, isn’t she? No, I mean, she always comes to our house when we are in Missouri, we always go to her house when we are there. We go out to dinner with her, we hang out together. I think she is a funny, caring person. Sometimes I feel like she takes sides when Nikki and I disagree; I don’t blame her, though. I would take my daughter’s side, too. But I really love my mother-in-law. I think she’s awesome. She’s a tough woman.

Whew, you made it to the end! If you want to, you can follow Mr. Mostafa on Instagram and Twitter. Thanks for reading!


Baby Simsim is not the only one who appreciates her baba’s nightly bedtime stories. Andy is definitely a fan. I suppose this picture could be construed as slightly indecent, but hey, spoiler alert: our dog doesn’t wear pajamas to bed. Scandal!

And speaking of dogs, last night, while Saleh was reading, I heard him mention “kalb al bahar,” and I stopped him because I knew what those words meant. I said, “Wait…that means ‘sea dog,’ right? What’s a sea dog, and what are you reading to our child, matey?” It turns out that in Arabic, a sea lion is called a sea dog. Simsim, Andy, and I are learning so much!

waiting for simsim.

January 10, 2013

So, yesterday Saleh and I went to the doctor, had our first big ultrasound, and got the lovely news that our little Wilderness Explorer is a…



Indeed, we are the proud parents of a future disciple of Ellie Fredricksen and Hello Kitty (that is, if she’s anything like her mother). And she is a beautiful girl, if I do say so myself. We saw her little arms, her little legs, the top of her little head, her little tummy. And we could see her moving, too, especially as the ultrasound tech pushed my tummy around with the transducer, trying to get a good look at Simsim’s (well, I guess technically we should call her Simsimah now, but it just feels weird. She’ll stay Simsim for now) girl parts. Simsim did not like this at all. We could see her kicking her little legs furiously in protest. She’s a tough little lady!

Everyone in the family seems pretty happy that we have a little girl on the way, especially my sister-in-law. She has been rooting for a baby girl since she found out I was pregnant. (“Our family is all boys,” she said.) After Saleh dropped me off back at home and headed back to work (and went out for lunch with his coworkers to celebrate his daughter on the way), I sat and had lunch with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law.

“Did you see her nunu?” my sister-in-law asked anxiously. Then, “You need to learn these words now. ‘Nunu’ is a cute way to say ‘girl parts.’ ‘Dudu’ is the same, but for boy parts.”

“Good to know,” I said. Then, “No, we didn’t see her nunu, exactly…but we could definitely see that there was no dudu.”

“Ohhhhh,” she said, nodding knowingly.

In true Saudi male form, Saleh had a mild freakout upon learning the news that he has a child with a nunu on the way. He had been rooting desperately for a boy. Although he’s very happy that we have a healthy, perfect baby girl, he had his hopes pinned on a boy because, as he put it, “Boys are easier.” (Although I’m pretty sure my–American–dad, who also had a mild freakout in 1983 upon learning he was the father of a child with a nunu, would disagree with him on that one.)

“I don’t know anything about girls,” he moaned. “And I know will spend the rest of my life worrying about my baby girl. I will worry all the time. And baby girls aren’t close to their daddies like they are to their mommies. She will grow up and get married and leave us.”

We had a long discussion about why A) he knows more about girls than he thinks, B) we’re both going to spend the rest of our lives worrying about our babies, no matter what sex they are C) baby girls can absolutely be as close to their daddies as they are to their mommies–it all depends on how involved the daddy wants to be and D) (okay, I blew up a little on this one) so it’s fine for me to grow up and leave my parents a half a world away but our daughter can’t grow up to make her own choices and live her life wherever she sees fit? Do you think I left my parents because I’m a flaky girl and I don’t love them as much as my brother does? Well, do you? DO YOU?

Ah, the hormones are in full rage.

Despite this reassurance, Saleh held out hope for an hour or so that the ultrasound was wrong, and that we would discover on the delivery day that Simsim was actually a boy all along, a boy who was somehow hiding his dudu from us. Then I told my mom about this, and she replied, “Tell Saleh that we don’t want that. We don’t want him to have a dudu so tiny we can’t see it. If the baby has a dudu, we want him to really have a dudu.”

Good point, Mom.

So, resigned to the idea that Simsim is indeed the proud owner of a nunu (because, I guess, a nunu is preferable to a tiny dudu), Saleh decided we needed to do some shopping.

baby clothes

Until I laid out everything like this, I didn’t realize that so many of our purchases were food-related. But come on, how can you pass up a receiving blanket that has a piece of cheesecake on it? But what sort of (delicious) subliminal messages will we be sending Simsim by wrapping her in a cheesecake blanket? I remember once, before we were married, Saleh and I had a discussion about what our children might be when they grow up. I mentioned that I would be fine if our daughter wanted to be a ballerina. Saleh replied that he wasn’t worried about having to deal with how he would feel if she decided to become a ballerina when she grew up. When I asked why, he replied, “Her parents’ genes.” I guess he has a point. I can’t see the next Alessandra Ferri being wrapped in a blanket that celebrates the wonder of cheesecake. A prima ballerina could never ever truly know the wonder of cheesecake the way Mr. Mostafa and I do.

But by God, Simsim, if you become a ballerina, you can bet I will be at every single one of your performances, cheering you on. And afterward, we’ll go out for cheesecake, ballerina rules be damned. I don’t care if you’re destined to be the greatest ballerina in the world; you’re still a Hunter/Mostafa.

Anyway, Saleh picked out the little cupcake jumpsuit and the pink tiger bib. He also found a little yellow onesie that said “I love Daddy” that he desperately wanted to buy, but the only size they had was preemie. (It was really cute how excited he got about it. It’s like he’s not quite sure Simsim will love him as much as she will love me, because she’s not a boy, and, as he put it, “You’ll be her best friend for life. That’s what moms and daughters do. And especially here, I can’t do as many things with her as I can with a boy. I can’t take her to the mosque with me when she gets older. I can’t take her to gatherings of my friends.” But when he saw that onesie, his eyes lit up and got a little teary, as if to say, “It’s possible! She does love me!”) According to Simsim’s ultrasound measurements, she is right on track, growth-wise. So if she arrives around the time she should, God willing, she won’t fit into anything designed for a preemie. So we left the onesie behind, despite it being the only thing we could find in the store that said something like “I love Daddy.” But in the States, you can’t chuck a pacifier in a children’s clothing store without hitting some jumper that proclaims how much this little one loves her mommy or daddy. So I called Mom and asked her to be on the lookout for outfits for Simsim that proclaimed her devotion to her dad. She promised she’d arrive in May with a suitcase full.

Of course, now that Mr. Mostafa is in full daddy-to-a-daughter mode, we trying to figure out a name for her.

Before we found out that Simsim was a girl, we had a girl name picked out, a name that we loved. And then, once we learned that she actually was a girl, things got real. And now we’re not sure what her name will be, because as much as we love the name that we’ve chosen, we’re not sure how that name will fit in Saudi Arabia. And I’m not even sure that that name fits her.

See, naming babies in Saudi Arabia can be a tricky business, especially when compared to the States. In the U.S., you can name your kid pretty much whatever you want. In Saudi Arabia, there are restrictions. When you go to register your kid’s name, it can be rejected for pretty much any reason–not Arabic-sounding enough, not a nice meaning, too Western. So you have to choose a name that has a chance of being approved, or resign yourself to the idea that if your kid has dual citizenship (as ours will) he or she will have your chosen name on his or her American (or whatever) passport and a Saudi-approved name that comes as close to your chosen name as you possibly can on his or her Saudi passport.

Secondly, we both want a name that sounds good in each of our native languages. We want a name that won’t invite too much ridicule on either side of the globe. Every time Saleh floats a suggestion for an Arabic name, I say it out loud in my brother’s down-home Ozarks accent, and if it sounds utterly ridiculous, it gets nixed.

And an odd discovery we’ve made is that many names that I find cute in English sound like Arabic stripper names to Saleh (Me: “What about Lucy? Lucy is a cute name.” Saleh: “Why don’t we just ship her off to belly dancer school in Egypt as soon as you pop her out?”), and many Arabic names that he finds cute sound like English stripper names to me (Saleh: “What about Luluah?” Me: “Oh yeah, that totally sounds like a diplomat’s name. More like a stripper for diplomats. I can hear it now–‘Las Vegas, let’s give it up for the lovely, luscious Luluah!'”).

Go figure.

Thirdly, once a Saudi baby comes along, the baby’s dad will be known amongst his friends as “Abu [baby’s name here]” (abu means “father of”). (And technically, the mother will be known as “Umm [baby’s name here],” and of course, umm means “mother of.” But honestly, I’m not worried so much about that, because I’m not Saudi. I expect most people will just keep on calling me Nicole or Nikki.) So Saleh wants a name that won’t invite ridicule from his friends, since he won’t be known as Saleh much anymore. (This parental title that will be formed with the eldest child’s first name is, by the way, called a kunya in Arabic.)

Oh, well. Despite not really having a name chosen yet, we are over the moon about Simsim and her nunu. And by the time she arrives in May (or possibly early June), I know we will have found the perfect name for her, a name that just clicks when say it as I go about my day, chatting with her and singing to her, as well as when Saleh talks to her intently through my tummy.

We can’t wait to meet her.