My Father’s Birthday, Death Day, and a Possibility

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been ninety years old. He died three years ago at the age of eighty-seven. He died consciously, albeit full of oxycodone. He died with his eyes open, searching the ceiling, but he couldn’t tell us what he was looking at. His mouth drew down into a frown of awe,  or fear, maybe, or even a great new emotion he had never felt before in his life. I could not read his face at that moment, except that his eyes focused intently on something above, something on or through the ceiling.

The day before, he had lapsed into unresponsiveness, except for an occasional foray into the world of the family surrounding his bedside. My sister had been sitting beside him, when suddenly he looked into her eyes, called her by the nickname only he ever used, and said, “People upstairs are waiting for me.” Then he slid back into his journey.

My sister said, “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you, and Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose.” She named his brothers and sisters who had died ahead of him. I don’t know how she did that, how she sat there and talked to him normally, but she did. She knew that “upstairs” referred to Heaven. That’s how our father always referred to Heaven— Upstairs.

Recently, I’ve been watching a program on cable TV about Near-Death Experiences, which have been documented often enough now to reveal a pattern. The sick or injured people recognize the moment they slip out of their bodies. They feel peace, euphoria, and indifference to whatever  brought them to the point of death. They see or feel white light, a tunnel, sometimes, and the presence of God. They might hear beautiful music, or see gorgeous panoramas of flowers or amorphous colors,  and relatives who had preceded them in death. The spirits of the dead ones always stand waiting.

This is the point that connects the documented  Near-Death experiences with what my father said just before he died. He “saw” his loved ones who had already died, waiting for him.

This phenomenon of seeing dead relatives is also well-documented by hospice workers who sit with people who actually die. Atheists would have us believe that the brain is fooling us, that at the critical moment, it fulfills our dearest wishes, which are to be reunited with dead loved ones. I don’t know; no one knows, and we cannot know, so discussing the phenomenon with respect to learning the truth is pointless.

However, what seems important is that all these stories of near-death experiences have much in common, regardless of whatever religion the person believed before they arrived at the point of death. This fact suggests that the dying process is more or less universal for human beings. It raises the possibility that whatever happens afterwards may also be universal. Whatever occurs to the spirit after the body completes the death process may well be marked by universal qualities, regardless of what a person believed in life.

Adherents of this or that religion will be with me so far, but will say that only their version of the afterlife will apply from that point onwards, and that it will apply to everyone. There’s something inherently wrong with that concept, but I’m not sure what.

What if the dying experience, and what occurs afterwards, has nothing to do with anyone’s concept of God, Heaven, Hell or how one should conduct one’s earthly life? What if no one religious concept of life after death really applies? What if our actual death experience, with its own, unique sequelae, occur pretty much the same for everyone, and that religious matters lose all relevance? The evidence of the Near-Death Experience, coupled with the reports of actual death experiences, suggest that this possibility cannot be overlooked.

Think about your own struggles with religion, if you’ve had them. Think about the conflicts between you and your family or friends who believe differently with respect to religious systems? Could all of that be meaningless? Could none of it come to bear upon our ultimate experience of death and the persistence (or lack thereof) of consciousness? Could our spirits actually unite in the joy so often related to us by survivors of the Near-Death Experience?

What if all our religious dissension, wars, murders, torture and annihilation of entire populations have no ultimate meaning whatsoever?

Friday the Thirteenth

My cousin Dave, coming home for the last time:
November 2009
 
Last November thirteenth fell on a Friday— Friday the Thirteenth. I had never felt superstitious about that day or about anything else, and I still don’t. Friday the Thirteenth had been a day to make fun, to pretend in ghosts and bad luck, and to attribute any of the day’s unpleasantness to the fact of Friday the Thirteenth. Famous movies have been made along that theme, but I haven’t bothered to see any of them. Last Friday the Thirteenth, my family experienced its own worst nightmare.

The phone rang late in the morning. I answered it, and heard my aunt’s voice, as she skipped the usual, “Hi, how are you?” salutation, and said, “David was killed this morning in Afghanistan.”

“What?” I said. Had I heard correctly?

I had.

He and his troops had been hit by a roadside bomb. He and one other man had been killed.

“A roadside bomb?” I said. How could such a thing have happened? David had been a Navy SEAL. He had been deployed in dozens of dangerous, secret missions, and always came back in one piece. He did this for twenty years, after which he still hadn’t had enough, so he returned to the hot spots as a civilian independent contractor. He didn’t do it for the money– he’d already earned a fortune– he did it because it was in his blood. He couldn’t stay away. Every year he was off to Iraq or Afghanistan or someplace he wasn’t allowed to reveal not even to his wife.

He had won awards and recognitions for bravery and saving people. I never knew the details, and I didn’t ask. He was my cousin David, and I loved him for being my cousin and part of my extended family.

My three siblings and I flew to Virginia Beach for the funeral. Many of my cousins were there, some from Wisconsin and from California. We all stayed in the same hotel, and rented cars to get us to the funeral and to his home afterwards where we gathered to keep his family company, and exchange condolences.

They had laid out his body dressed in formal navy uniform, in an open, white casket. He even wore his hearing aid, which, I thought, was odd, until I noticed that many of the men present also wore hearing aids, because of exposure to one too many bombs, one too many rounds of gunfire. The hearing aid indicated something more than hearing loss.

The only sign of trauma was a slightly misaligned jaw and some superficial facial abrasions that had been well-covered with make-up. He had died from concussive shock. We were surprised. When you hear of a roadside bomb, you think of blood and guts and limbs flying all over the place. David appeared nearly normal, making his death from a roadside bomb almost surrealistic. I wanted to know how one dies of concussive shock.  When I got back to work the week after the funeral, I asked one of the pathologists at my hospital.Concussive shock is like super blunt force trauma; it can shear off main arteries, scramble brains, crush major organs, and short-circuit the nervous system into a fatal arrhythmia.  Any one of these insults can kill a person. I wanted to know which one killed David, so I could further understand his death. I didn’t ask.

The funeral home looked like all funeral homes in the United States, with large rooms holding formal upholstered chairs, gold-leafed frames around classical art prints hung on pastel walls, all creating an air of a settled family home. Crowds congregated in each of the rooms; evidently, David’s funeral was expected to be well-attended, and the funeral home allocated several rooms for us.  We arrived, greeted his wife and children who stood blank-eyed, receiving guests. Hugs and more hugs, tears and more tears, quiet voices and an occasional chuckle filled the rooms for several hours as we all mingled, remembered Dave, and watched his photo DVD.

In America these days, family members put together a collection of still photos representing major stages in the life of the deceased. The funeral homes put these photos on DVD, then project them onto a screen or a blank wall while guests mingle and watch. One of David’s photos included my father and his father,  laughing during one of our family dinners. All three— now gone. I cried.

After the wake, we broke into small groups. My siblings and I went to dinner with our California cousins who we now  see only at funerals. My sister tried to make her usual social jokes and stale conversation, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there, go back to the hotel and read a good book.

The next morning, we all piled into the car I had rented. My brother wanted me to use the GPS to find the church,  but I am more comfortable looking at a map and putting the route into my head. They all criticized my driving, which was evidently more aggressive than usual, but not one of them offered to drive in this city to which none of us had ever visited. I took up the challenge, as the eldest and the one most experienced in navigating beyond the shores of home.

I don’t know what kind of church it was, and I didn’t care. Arriving early, we walked around the grounds and stood under a golden-leafed maple tree. Then we heard the rumble of many engines, as motorcycle after motorcycle entered the parking lot. Denim, leather and steel dominated the view from then on, with an occasional American flag atop it all. They kept coming, until I lost count. I tried to take a picture of them on my cell phone, but I couldn’t fit the whole view on my screen. As the last of the motorcycles crowded into line, we noticed a military formation practicing their moves. David would have a twenty-one gun salute.

The service focused on David, God, love, family and all that is good about America. Open weeping continued throughout the rituals, except when the coffin was carried in by uniformed Navy men. Everyone fell silent as if on cue. The American flag was folded and presented to David’s wife, the twenty-one gun salute was performed, followed by a strong, slow sounding of Taps, which covered the weeping that had, by that time, started up again.

Throughout it all, I thought about Dave, our childhood milieu, and how his life had developed. He and I went to military service within a year of each other during our twentieth year, me in 1970 to the Air Force, and he in 1971, to the Navy. Two years later, I washed out, and he continued on toward distinguished service, SEAL training, and a decorated career that continued well beyond his twenty-year military commitment.
I tried to identify childhood markers or personality traits that could have predicted the opposite paths each of us had taken in the military.

David had always been an adventurous one, finding the excitement of the unknown worth the risk of consequences. Once, when we were children at his house, he wanted to play “doctor and nurse” with me. This is the game most kids played sooner or later in order to explore each other’s private parts under the pretences of innocence.

I refused to play not because I didn’t want to but because his mom was in the kitchen and might hear something. David persisted in his urging, and I persisted in my refusal, until our squabble reached his mom, who came into the room and scolded us.

I kept that memory to myself throughout the funeral gatherings, but other relatives recounted other memories in which David played the thrill-seeker, the risk-taker, the one drawn to  the excitement of the dangerous and/or the unknown. It must have been in his blood, more than in mine. All I ever wanted was to find a husband, love, be loved, do my art, read and write. My search never found its goal, except piecemeal, and sporadically, while his endeavors took him upon a constantly inclining track marked by money, honor, and the extremes of human capabilities.

I knew he had killed people during the course of his assignments as a SEAL. I knew he had won some sort of honor for shooting his way out of an ambush and saving his troops. I never wanted to know the details. He was my cousin Dave.

After the funeral, we all went over the his family’s house. I would have preferred to go back to the hotel straightaway, but my siblings insisted, so I studied the map, put the route in my head, and drove us to Dave’s house. Though we’d never been there, we knew Dave’s house as we approached it, not only by the clutter of cars but by the eight floral arrangements that had been set on tripod and planted in his front yard. Why had I waited until now to come visit my cousin Dave and his family? Why hadn’t I visited this house at least once during the previous ten years after which I’d repatriated to the United States? Now, this would be the first and last time I would do so.

Casseroles, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads, biscuits and cakes and more of everything fed the crowd that meandered in and out of the house. I noticed a young man wearing a hearing aid, and I wondered if he’d been a SEAL. I noticed another man wearing a left hand prosthesis. I wanted to talk to these men, to get a sense of what their lives had been like, what attitudes had shaped their actions, what quirks of upbringing or personality served them well in their military activities.  Most of all I wanted to ask them why their particular brand of service needed such extremes of action, risk, dedication, and ultimate sacrifice. Of course, I couldn’t talk to any of them about these things. I didn’t talk to them at all, except to say, “Would you please pass me a bottle of water?”

In the living room, I saw several photos of Davie’s son on horseback. His son owned three horses. My stomach turned with envy. I had never been blessed to own even one horse, and here was a fourteen year old boy with three. Living in Virginia, he was able to ride all the time because the winter never brought snow or ice or even very cold temperatures. I asked him if he ever needed help exercising those horses, and he said yes; if I lived close-by he’d let me ride them whenever I’d want. He didn’t want to talk about horses, however. He was more interested in the Italian side of his heritage, and looked at me in awe when I told him I’d been to Italy several times and met our distant relatives.

America is so big. Travel across it needs time and money, and yet American families continue to split themselves in ways that isolate members who should not be isolated.  My siblings and I stayed for three days, and then flew back home. By that time, articles and photos about David’s life and death started trickling into the Internet. One article claimed that he was helping in the effort to eradicate the poppies of the Afghan drug trade. That must have sounded thin even to readers who didn’t know his military career. Another article mentioned reconnaissance. Word of mouth suggested that he had been working on the disassembly of roadside bombs. Who knows? Maybe he worked on none of that.

I read everything I could find several times, and studied photos.. David had aged well, having kept himself fit and healthy, unlike me, who let myself go. Maybe if I’d lived closer to his family, I could have been riding his son’s horses all these years and stayed fitter and healthier. Virginia felt like a much more comfortable place to live than Wisconsin.

In the months following the funeral, I read books about SEAL training and memoirs written by SEALs. I saw my cousin Dave in every one of those authors, and I felt closer to him for having read those books. David had fulfilled himself in a way that many of us do not. He had developed his special talents, called upon his tremendous personal strength, and sought the means to put his entire life in service to a cause greater than himself. He was happy, and he always ready to answer a call. Every time he deployed for an overseas mission, he made sure his wife knew what to do in case he did not return.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

WNFIN— Progress Commentary


Excerpt from the WNFIN challenge:
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
597 words

Maybe my ambition to write  is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to romanticize my life now which is entirely devoid of romance. Maybe my desire to write is nothing more than a sublimation of my desire to escape the routine of working. Not yet a week into this writing challenge, I am threatened with doubt about my intention as well as ability to write. The goal is fifty-thousand words during the month of November. Granted, I joined late, which means that to reach the goal, I’d have to produce about two thousand words each day, which should not be too demanding for a real writer. I, however, have fallen short of even half that measure, and I can not rationalize by blaming my job or other worldly responsibilities that rob my writing of its due.

The truth is that I spend less time writing than I do surfing the net, playing Spider Solitaire, downloading music, watching Italian films and even  inferior American films. I also do my Arabic lessons on-line, and read dozens of emails and blog comments from various sources. I am currently not doing digital photo editing, but when I get on a roll, I do nothing but digital photo editing which doesn’t even have redeeming value, such as a  family album for the grandkids; it’s fractals and kaleidoscopes and combining unlikely layers into patterns and colors that thrill my eye. No one even sees half those images, except perhaps a few of them that I put on Flickr and are looked at by a minuscule slice of Flickr membership.

All of this activity entertains me, engages me, and inspires me, but at the end of the day, I have not written the stories I think I’d like to write, so what’s going on? Even my Intensive Journal certification course has fallen by the wayside, but that, at least, is an effort I always preferred to develop in retirement.

I love reading memoir, and this year I’ve read at least a dozen, with several dozen more sitting on my bookshelf and in my Kindle, waiting. I fancy myself adding to the tidal wave of memoir that now overruns literary circles, but here I am, right now, at the keyboard, giving myself the chance, and what do I do? I complain about my lack of production. So what can a rational soul think about a person like me, a writer like me?

Well, I do have talent, that is indisputable, evidenced in the fact that I’ve been positively reinforced for it all my life by people who own  credentials. I’ve even been published a few times, once by TIME magazine when I answered one of the their questions to readers about phobias. They wanted a few words– literally– about their reader’s phobias, so I crafted a statement about my phobia of nasal congestion, and several months later, my brother was on an airplane and read my blurb. He was so shocked he said out loud, “Hey, that’s my sister!”

The TIME piece, novelty as it was, is not something that would go into my portfolio, but it does stand next to the handful of magazines, chapbooks and anthologies that include my name. So, I have talent, and that fact makes my lack of production even more suspect.

I am rambling. Yes, I am rambling, and I hate rambling, but I am doing so in order to fill the screen with words in an effort to reach the daily goal. It’s not going to happen, not today, at least. Maybe tomorrow.

The Anniversary

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday, The Anniversary

It’s been nine years.I find myself thinking and writing about it more than I ever did when it actually happened on 9/11/2001. On that day, I went about my daily activities in a fog, knowing that I’d never again want to talk about Saudi Arabia, Islam, or anything personal from that period of my life, except as a matter of fact and history. I knew I’d have to censor myself even more carefully than I’d already censored myself after having returned to the United States in 1998. As an American, I could move through society as if I’d never known any other, and no one would be the wiser. No one would see the holes in my heart, drilled out by the images I watched repeatedly on television that warm, September day, sunny, like today.

The events of that day amputated a cherished aspect of my life, and yet I am an invisible molecule compared to the thousands of people and families whose lives were obliterated in the most horrible manner imaginable on that day. I am a short blade of grass in these magnificent pastures of America. I am growing along the periphery, where shards of muck and the innards of America created a breeze that barely grazed past me as the buildings symbolizing America’s best accomplishments yielded to the suction of black holes of horror.

That breeze, however, scrambled my spirit, knocked me out of religion altogether. Islam became a cherished memory, and I’ve been walking parallel to it ever since. I’ve kept it next to me, safe, inaccessible to the rest of the world. I’ve wrapped the arms of my heart around it, not wanting to expose what was left of it to remnant forces of destruction. I’ve turned away from it at times, fearful even of my own anger, and my weakness, my moral cowardice.

I’ve spent the last nine years trying to cultivate the spiritual courage to attempt a reconciliation between the parts of myself I used to cherish. It’s not just religion that has suffered an estrangement. I’ve gotten divorced, I’ve gone back to work; those stories are already well-developed. The spirit is swelling, like an inflammation on the skin after an insect bite. It doesn’t feel good. It’s part of healing, however. That’s what these recent posts are about— healing. I’m ready to take the cure, endure the therapy, accept the scar. I will recover. America will recover, too, but not soon.

My Two Riyadhs

July 7, 2010
It’s the metaphorical Riyadh I need to find.  It’s the place– more spiritual than physical, more emotional than tangible— that will do for me what the actual Riyadh did for me. This is the message of the dreams.
I’ve known it for years. The new dreams, however, are hitting me over the head, because I haven’t honored the original message. The new dreams have taken me back to Riyadh, but have shown me that the actual Riyadh holds no more substance for me.  I must find my metaphorical Riyadh here in the States, because here is where I need to live for now.
I’ve been there before– the metaphorical Riyadh, that is. I was there in 1970, in Texas, when I joined the US Air Force. I was there again, in Denver, CO when I quit the Air Force. Later, I found myself there when I went to college in Milwaukee, WI.
Then came the actual Riyadh years, twelve of them, that carried me over middle age and through sea changes I could have never anticipated.  As my father said to me shortly before he died, “Nothing is forever,” and that includes these current years now in the States, years of ennui after sadness, during which I have to work and live like an ordinary person.
I hope I can live in the Middle East again; my girls and I talk about it. Their husbands are open to the idea.  We all want the children to grow up knowing their Arab heritage.
I’d also like to spend an extended period of time in Italy, perhaps get my Italian citizenship.  My sons-in-law think it’s good to have two passports, in case the situations in one country become uncomfortable, one can go to the other place. There seems to be merit in this idea.
Anyway, if I continue this blog, I will expand its direction.  I will include posts that reflect my time in the metaphorical Riyadh, yet I will not abandon highlighting the years I spent in the actual Riyadh.
I might lose readers this way (those I haven’t lost already due to my year-long hiatus). Successful blogs tend to focus on one aspect of a writer’s life. Readers want to know what to expect.  We’ve all thought about why we blog, and what constitutes a successful blog.
I want to blog about both my Riyadhs, now, the actual and the metaphorical. My criterion for success is one– excellent writing.  No matter what I write about, I’ll write it the best way I know how, and that means I’ll even revise once in awhile!
Continue reading

Serendipity

Serendipity

I liked the concept of arranged meetings for the purpose of evaluating potential marriage partners. Even though the meetings were stressful, they cut through a lot of crap that the American system of dating ensures before getting down to business. The flip side was that partners did not have much time to evaluate situations or personalities. They couldn’t really get to know each other before marriage.

“Oh, no! If people got to know each other before marriage, NO ONE would get married!” said an Egyptian friend, during a lively discussion comparing the cultural practices of finding a mate. I laughed, but lived long enough to learn the wisdom of her words.

My American friend– the one married to the Egyptian shiekh who had an Egyptian first wife –asked me to write a letter explaining what I needed in a husband. Her husband wanted to start a project to bring couples together for marriage.

I wrote the letter, indicating that these were my requirements:

1. The man must know English and Arabic.

2. He must not smoke cigarettes.

3. He must not already be married.

4. He must be educated with at least a bachelor’s degree.

5. He must want to move with me to the United States.

Somehow, my letter ended up with a Saudi man, a smoker, the owner of a small vegetable market who had a wife and children, and did not know English. He was looking for a second wife. The sheikh gave him my letter. I have seldom felt more discounted as a woman, or insulted as a person.

The grocer couldn’t read my letter, of course, but he remembered a loyal customer, an Egyptian man who bought fruits and vegetables every week, and who knew English. He asked this man to translate the letter.

Both men knew instantly that I was not a suitable candidate for becoming anyone’s second wife, but the Egyptian man recognized that he did possess the qualities I was looking for, so he contacted me, and we married after five months of whatever kind of courtship we could manage in Riyadh at the time. We moved to the United States after six years of marriage, and stayed married for six more years.

I Looked for a Husband

I  Looked for a Husband

During  my first year in Riyadh, I fell under the charm of an Egyptian man. We got engaged. I converted to Islam and expected him to fulfill his promise to marry me, but he took up with another woman– an American, besides — and I never learned why. He married her and moved to the USA. She didn’t have anything I didn’t have— even less, from the looks of her.

I still wanted to get married, and I let my girlfriends know. As a Muslim, I would not be able to date, but as an American, I couldn’t imagine marrying a man without a period of dating. Well, first I’d have to meet someone…

One girlfriend, a Syrian pharmacist, took on the project of finding me a husband. She would come to me and say, “I’ve found someone!” I’d ask a few questions, and the answers always caught my attention.

The first man she introduced me to was a Syrian businessman. The three of us met in the family section of a nice restaurant, where we chatted, and sized up the potential. He had been widowed– a story I was to hear too often — and he had two little kids. He spoke well, dressed nicely and would have interested me had he not been six inches shorter than me. I am not tall, at five feet four inches, and I could not work up an  attraction to a man shorter than that.

The second man she introduced me to was a Saudi businessman. We visited his home, as she assured me that all his kids would be there. He was also a widower, and had six girls of various ages. I met them all, and was charmed by all except the father. He was skinny, and I was fat, sort of, and his face was not attractive to me. Nevertheless, he seemed nice enough, and the situation was tempting. He drove me home in a Mercedes Benz, and I would have agreed to see him again, had he not handed me his business card and asked me to call him when I wanted to see him.

I do not call men. They call me.

The next man was an Egyptian who smoked cigarettes. On that fact alone, I wanted to reject him, but he and his sister both bothered me for days, begging me to meet with them and consider the man. I invited the sister to my apartment. but when she pulled out her cigarettes and wanted to smoke in my home, that was the end of it.

Another girlfriend showed me a nice photo of an American man, a convert like me, but I was not interested in Americans. Besides, he was too young for me.

The next man my Syrian friend brought was another Saudi  businessman, a wonderful man who I grew to love after many phone conversations and several clandestine dates. We considered getting formally engaged, and breaking the news to our families, when the first Gulf war broke out. Suddenly he stopped phoning me. The tensions of the war caused me distress, and I left Riyadh until the war ended. Afterwards, I never heard from him again, and I still don’t know why. What is it with these Arab guys when they want to break up with a woman?

July 14, 2009

During the three months since this post was published, I’ve received responses from men who are looking for wives. I thank them for their interest, but I must emphasis that this post refers to a time in my life that is now past. I am not currently looking for a husband, nor do I anticipate doing so. I am too much in love with my grandkids to admit any new man into  my life!

 

Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

A few days ago, my cousin paid me a compliment. She said,”I think your years in the Middle East have caused you to lose touch with mainstream America.”

I had been worried that I had slipped further back into the American mainstream than is healthy for me. Repatriation had its challenges.The completion of tasks to re-establish a working relationship with my culture of origin needed several years. Now that I’ve lived in the States nearly as long as I lived in Riyadh, I look back at the early years of repatriation. I was definitely living a “double” life, if only in my mind. I smile now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so good. Here are the salient points of my readjustment process during those first awkward years “home”:  

Hair: Though I did not cover, I felt irritated by the sight of all the other women in public who naturally did not cover. I drew mental scarves over every one of them, for months, yet did not cover myself. Maybe I merely disliked the hairstyles, which had become less arranged, less sculpted, and less styled over the years. Eventually I got used to seeing all that hair, but I still don’t like the contemporary American hair styles.

I also realized that the messy hairstyles reflected the fact that most women work (in addition to caring for families), and therefore do not have time to style their hair.

Language: I got very sick of hearing everyone speak English with an American accent. Every time I caught the drift of a foreign language or accent, I had to check out who had spoken. My own English had become inflected, talking to so many Arabs and other assorted non-native-English speakers. Several people in the US asked me where I was from. Eventually, I lost the Arabic accented speech, but I still love to hear other languages. I still get sick of hearing English all the time.

Driving: It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, except for the changes that had taken place in carsways in which cars had evolved. The first car I bought after repatriation was six years old, and ten years newer than the last car I’d owned. While most people were enjoying CD players, I was thrilled with a tape deck and air conditioning. Electric windows seemed like the height of technological advancement. 

I was a bit befuddled with all the bells and buzzers. One afternoon, I drove downtown  to visit a Muslim family we’d just met. The bell sounded when I opened the door. I thought it meant the door was open. Later, I discovered– the hard way– that the bell was supposed to alert me that the headlights were on. I hadn’t known they were on in the first place.

Shopping: I scolded a young clerk in a convenience store for overcharging me for a can of soda. He asked for  fifty cents, and I said, “Are you kidding? It’s twenty-five cents!!” His face fell, and I realized that the last time I’d bought a can of soda at a convenience store, it was indeed twenty-five cents, and some years back.

Grocery shopping was an adventure. The big warehouse stores had grown up while I was gone, and I loved wandering up and down the aisles. I still do. Meat became an issue, of course. Pork popped up everywhere, but worse than seeing it was having to leave the smoked pork hocks in the grocery store. I used to adore eating smoked hocks and beans! It’s the one pork dish I really miss, all the more because it is now in front of me.

Conversation: This was difficult, because my speech had become so mixed up with Arabic injections that I sometimes let slip an, “Insha Allah,” or “Humdullilah,” or even a,”Yellah!” I had to stop prefacing people’s names with, “Ya.” Eventually I learned to add those lovely Arabic phrases in my mind only, and to stop them before they settled on my tongue.

Much of the new slang sounded odd to me, and excessive. I dislike slang in any event, but I was especially irritated hearing it during the first years after repatriation. I also dislike the regional accent with which my fellow citizens speak. I have consciously tried kept my speech free of it.

Dealing with Men: At first, I could hardly look a man in the eye, and certainly did not care to prolong conversation with one. I must have appeared rude. I disliked shaking hands, and still do. Before living in the Kingdom, I didn’t mind casual physical greetings, but I do now. Eventually, I relearned how to interact with men, and in the process realized that I had became very comfortable with gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Culture: I did not know the new TV shows, movies, or actors, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was embarrassing though, when people would talk about some show or movie I did not know about. I remember the evening I spent with a group of Americans at a game of Trivia. Someone asked me if I liked Jonnie Depp. I replied, “Who is Johnnie Depp?” Everyone fell silent and stared at me.

That was OK, though. I still don’t care much about American entertainments, but I know who Johnnie Depp is, and I think he’s handsome..

Dress: No problem there. Since I became middle-aged, I stopped dressing in anything but the most modest styles and colors. Head covering never posed a problem  because I never believed in it, anyway.

Friends: I’ve made one friend in the entire ten years I’ve been back. My Riyadh years, coupled with my conversion to Islam, formed a barrier between me and most Americans, beyond which I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want to go. I have no interest in the things that engage them, and have no interest in my concerns, either.

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

Work: I did not know how to use a computer when I repatriated in 1998. I had no idea that “Windows” was a sort of system that allowed you to use other programs. That lack of knowledge hurt both me and my husband in the job market. My husband then bought a home computer, to the tune of $2300- the same model today costs $399.

A friend connected all the wires and plugged everything into the correct holes. Later that evening, I cultivated the courage to poke around on a few keys. I nearly fell off the chair when the computer emitted a sort of melody. I didn’t even know it could make sound.

I picked up enough skill to fool people into thinking I knew how to use Windows, and I got hired. Learning the specific applications really challenged me, and I tried to poke around the keyboard and figure things out for myself, but I’d frequently have to ask someone how to do something. Since everyone thought I knew basic Windows, they’d rattle off a series of finger maneuvers that would magically pull up the desired “page”. Then, the person would vanish, leaving me sitting like a lump, no further along and still wondering how I was going to do it.

Now, I’m addicted to my computer. My family refers to it as my “husband,” since I am so devoted.

I learned not to talk about my expat experiences while at work. People in my community think a seven day Caribbean cruise is a big deal, and a two week European tour the epitome of travel. Their lives are filled with work, families, ball games and plans for the next holiday or ball game. I’ve learned, over the years, how to talk to them, without having to to join them. They  bore me silly.  Some people think I am a snob. I wouldn’t deny the possibility.

Split Personality, or Double?

Split Personality, or Double?

I stayed in Riyadh an entire year before returning to the States for a vacation. As the day of departure approached, time seemed to slow down; I was so eager not only to see my family again, but to immerse myself in ordinary American culture. I wanted to go outside without an abaya, I wanted to drive, I wanted to see a movie, I wanted to eat  a McDonald’s fish sandwich.

Finally, the day arrived. Since I no longer possessed ordinary American clothes, I wore a comfortable cotton galabiya, and I wrapped my hair turban-style in a gauzy black scarf. The outfit combined the requirements of the Saudi dress code with the my family’s expectations of what I might look like after living in the Kingdom for a year. The head covering was more for practicality than religion; I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to style my hair before getting off the plane.

The plane would be full, as usual for a June departure. I was surprised at the large number of Saudis who were waiting at the gate with me. I hadn’t realized that the US was such a popular destination for them. I wondered where they would visit, and what they would wear.

I knew they were Saudis because the men wore white thobes and the woman wore black abayas with face covers, and after a year in Riyadh, I was able to recognize the Saudi dialect.

That particular flight was the longest and most uncomfortable flight I’ve ever had, but that’s another story. After a complete, delicious dinner,  I took another Dramamine, flipped the ends of my black scarf over my face, and tried to become unconscious. All I wanted was to zone out until we landed in New York, the sooner the better; I didn’t care about making friends on the plane, or walking up and down the isles. The interior lights of the plane were dimmed, and I lost myself in the anticipation of seeing my family and visiting my native country.

About ten hours later, the passengers were roused for breakfast, and the NY arrival soon thereafter. I looked out my window– across an unwelcome seat mate, I might add– the entire time, marveling at the early morning view over the ocean. I paid no attention to the other passengers, until the plane landed, and everyone popped out of their seats at once to grab their belongings from the overhead bins.

“Where did all these Americans come from?” I thought. The white thobes had vanished, and most of the black abayas had disappeared, too. An occasional face cover still did its job, and but for those random remnants of Saudi wardrobes, I  might have imagined that  we were all Americans. Plenty of blue jeans, in all hues and degrees of fit, clung to most of the legs, male and female alike. Colorful shirts and blouses, some of them short sleeved, also draped the torsos of men and women alike. I saw more female hair on public display amongst those passengers than I’d seen during the entire year I’d been in Riyadh– long hair, short hair, curled and straight hair, up, down, and caught in decorative clips. I had never seen Saudis dressed in anything but their national garments; I was amazed.

At that point, there I stood, waiting in line to get off the plane, and I became self-conscious about my galabiya and gauzy turban scarf. I felt as though I were the only person who looked like an Arab; I hadn’t changed clothes.

How were we all going to behave while in America, apart from a drastic and immediate change of wardrobe? There would be no adhan, no midday meal followed by a nice nap. There would be twenty-four TV, shopping all day long, plenty of pork, and people having too much to drink. There’d be women all over the place, alone and uncovered, and couples holding hands in public. There’d even be dogs, not only on the street but in people’s houses.

There’d be street festivals, musicians, animals, and free mixing of all manner of people, especially men and women together– young and old, black and white, thin and fat, beautiful and not so beautiful. How would we who were Muslims, or almost Muslims, we who lived in Saudi Arabia eleven months of the year, react and respond to all of that?

I suppose the answer suggested itself before we got off the airplane. When in Rome…

In that first year, the question did not disturb me, as I had not yet become fully committed to Islam, but in subsequent years, I become more preoccupied with how to live in the United States and be a Muslim at the same time.

A certain, small sliver of the Muslim population will maintain their prayers, wardrobe, and related behavior no matter where they go. Another segment, a bit larger, will abandon Islamic and Arabic cultural behavior altogether. One is tempted to judge the first group as committed, religious, and the second group as superficial or worse.

The majority, into which I found myself, will make compromises.

I’ve experimented, over the years, by putting myself into each of the categories. I can do this easily because I am a native born American, and no one expects me to be anything but that– free to conform, free to be eccentric, free to behave as I please. What I learned was not that I am a good or a bad Muslim, not that I am an incorrigible hypocrite, or a big sinner, but only that I am subject to the ordinary qualities and tendencies of human behavior. I learned how behavior  can change, and change genuinely, depending upon the culture in which one finds oneself. I learned how attitudes can subtlely shift until the anchor moves out into a different sea, no matter whether one is pulling the rope or not.

I also learned that sometimes one must cultivate a split personality, or perhaps a double personality, and change it with the change of clothes on the airplane or soon after landing. This compromise, the easiest, quickest, most efficient, and least satisfying, cannot be explained or justified in ordinary terms. I suppose a sociologist or psychologist would have something to say on the matter.

When I hear a Western wife of a Saudi lament that, “He has changed completely since we got here! He’s acting more and more like his brothers!” I understand completely, not from her point of view, but from his. This perceived change  is a surprise to the wife who hasn’t lived in the Middle East prior to her marriage. What she may not realize is that her husband has not changed at all; he’s simply reactivated the part of his personality that had gone underground while abroad.

Upon returning to Riyadh at the end of the summer, I would be asked straightaway, “Did you cover? Did you pray?” The questioners would wait expectantly for my reply.  Their animated expressions, coupled with the immediacy of the question, revealed that they, too, wondered how it was done.

Sometimes I’d say, “Yes,” and sometimes I’d say,”No.”

The Best of Both Worlds, Perhaps?

The Best of Both Worlds, Perhaps?

Twenty years ago, handfuls Saudi university students started graduating with a B.S. in  Medical Technology. They came to KFSH for their clinical internship, and I was fortunate to have initiated a few of them into the practice of analytical laboratory testing.

One student,  a woman who covered her face, except for her eyes, became a friend, of sorts. After I got over the uneasiness of not seeing her face, and after she lifted her veil in the women’s cafeteria a few times, I relaxed, and we started to compare notes regarding our lives, experiences, and goals, etc.

She told me she was a third wife. She already had a daughter from a previous  marriage, in which she was a second wife. The divorce bothered her not because of polygyny, but because the first husband did not want her to complete her education and work. She, on the other hand, had developed a passion and a talent for her field, and with a strong personality, was not about to give it up.

The current husband, who had two other wives, was fine with her career, and she was fine with the other wives. They all had separate villas, small but comfortable, and this woman lived with her mother and still small daughter.

I was dying to know about the sleeping arrangements, but could not ask directly, of course, so I ventured to ask, “Where does your husband live?”

“With ME!” came her indignant response. At that moment, I wished my own face were covered to hide the redness of embarrassment. I never asked again, sensing that I’d hit a raw nerve.  She never elaborated, except to complain a few times that he had mixed up the nights, and inconvenienced her.

This woman had her cake and ate it, too.