Accomplishments by Saudi Women

(Susie published a lovely post on her blog, Susie’s Big Adventure:  susie’s big adventure: Saudi Women: Changing Reality, Making History. I tried to post a comment, but had trouble getting recognized, as usual, so I’ve decided to post my comment here.)

I was happy to read about so many accomplishments by Saudi women– genuine accomplishments, not acts of defiant behavior leading to the jail. I know I am in a minority by believing that Manal Al-Sharif’s day of driving did not help the cause.

It’s interesting that women have been permitted to do the things you’ve mentioned, yet not drive cars. I was in the Kingdom when the first driving episode occurred, resulting in severe censure for the women drivers as well as their husbands.

Driving is still a frontier for Saudi women, maybe because of these episodes and not in spite of them.

 

Progress in Photography

Well, six months have passed since my last post. I guess I’m in hibernation from blogging, but only because I delved more deeply into other interests, among them photography.

Following my last post– in which I related my discomfort with the local photography group– I studied their images of that railroad station, and I gained a decent respect for their knowledge and talent. I learned from them, without having to speak a word. Just studying their images taught me so much that I decided to walk with them again.

I not only walked with them again, I actually volunteered to organize one of the walks, which attracted quite a few people and yielded a wonderful variety of images. I met many new people, as each walk attracts people that did not attend the previous walk, and they accepted me as part of the group.

I still learn from them by studying their images, and my own work has improved as a result. I haven’t formed any new friendships, however– perhaps that’s asking too much– but I am eager to continue the activity.

Photography is a passion I couldn’t indulge when I lived in Riyadh. Back in the eighties, photography was considered “haraam”– forbidden!– and may still be considered forbidden by many Muslims. I didn’t dare take pictures of buildings or even landscapes, much less people, and I miss those photos I never took. We didn’t even have cell phones that could take the surreptitious image, and no Interenet on which to post the nonexistent pictures.

Bloggers, however, have taken up the slack, and have enhanced their blogs with lovely images of the places and people of the Middle East. I can only surmise that photography is somewhat allowed these days. Even Flickr offers quite a few groups dedicated to Middle Eastern and Muslim photography. I adore perusing these sights, and I send a silent, “Thank you,” to all people who are now allowed to photograph the scenes I was not allowed to photograph when I lived there.

My bucket list includes another trip to the Middle East, next time with my camera.

 

Are You Fasting?

“Are you fasting?”

I hate that question. My friends in Riyadh used to ask each other that question all the time. The appropriate answer was, “Yes.”  An answer of, “No,” meant that the woman was menstruating or that she was sinning by not fasting. No one wanted to admit either of those two conditions.

Nevertheless, “Are you fasting?” was asked repeatedly, and I always said, “Yes.”

Many years ago in Riyadh, one of my close friends invited me to go with her to an iftar at a Saudi home. Both of us qualified to say, “No,” to The Question, and I asked her, “What shall we do? What shall we say? How can we go to an iftar when we are not fasting?”

“Pretend,” she said.

“Well, what about the prayer? Everyone prays Maghrib after breaking fast, so what shall we do?”

“Pretend,” she said again. “Just go through the motions without really praying.”

“Are you kidding? Isn’t that a sin?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but what can we do? We are excused from fasting today, and we want to attend this gathering, but we don’t want the other ladies to look down their noses at us. Allah will forgive us.”

So we pretended, and I felt like a fraud, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the food and friendship of that rare night out on the town. I still say, “Yes,” to The Question, regardless of the correct answer, but I never again pretended anything beyond that.

Gaining Weight During Ramadan

Oh-oh! I’m about to suggest something no one wants to admit— that it’s easier to gain weight in Ramadan than during any other month of the year. Perhaps I should qualify that statement, for those readers who are quick to say, “Not ALL of us gain weight in Ramadan!”

OK, not all of us gain weight in Ramadan, but maybe more of us do than don’t. Anyway, let’s get on with it. 

I’ll admit straightaway that I gain weight easily.  Ramadan has never taught me control. It’s taught me postponement. I can postpone. I can fast and fast, but by Maghrib, I am like a cat ready to pounce.  I used to follow the Sunnah, which is to break the fast with dates and water, juice  or soup, then pray. That’s because one cannot pray comfortably on a gorged stomach, so, the serious eating had to wait until after dates and liquids.

I’d eat a full meal, including dessert. That would have been fine, except that another meal (and maybe  dessert) followed during the night, after Tarawih, followed by yet a third meal, Suhoor, just before Fajr. Between meals, I’d sleep a few hours, if I was not visiting someone or having guests at home.  Days passed in a groggy haze, similar to jet lag. The hospital in which I worked during my fist six years of fasting allowed Muslims to reduce their shifts from eight hours to six. That was nice. 

I worked in Riyadh, at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. We Musims would stagger our shifts; one worked from 7AM to 1PM, another from 8 to 2, and another from 9 to 3, etc. I was committed to maintaining as close to normal a daily schedule as possible, because I believed I was supposed to do that. I criticized the Saudi practice of switching days and nights.  I accused them of sleeping all day because they did not want to feel the discomfort of fasting. Their focus on food, food, food, both in the grocery stores and in homes, seemed inappropriate and somehow sacreligious, especially when they slept during the day and never felt hunger. 

Well, at the end of each Ramadan, I’d find myself tired and fatter, and finally had to accuse myself of the same fault I’d attributed to the Saudis. Something was wrong.  One is not supposed to gain weight during Ramadan, I thought.

Then I got married, quit my job, and joined the Saudi liftestyle, especially in switching my day and night activities during Ramadan. From the first year I did that, I no longer gained weight, and the whole twenty-four cycle proceeded more smoothly, productively and comfortably.  I slept from fajr til just before Asr, prayed, then read the Qur’an and cooked. I’d stay up all night, going to the
mosque for all twenty rakat of tarawih, and using the rest of the night for household duties usually done during the day— laundry, vauuming, cleaning bathrooms, etc. (I didn’t have a housekeeper). Many evenings I’d have an invitation, or extend one.  Then I’d eat Suhoor, pray Fajr, and go to bed.

Only then did I understand why the Saudis switched their days and nights
during Ramadan. It was a matter of physiology. The body gets tired without food and water; it wakes up after having been nourished. Switching days and nights was the most natural thing in the world during Ramadan, and I no longer criticized anyone for doing it. I found no evidence in the Qur’an or Sunnah to contradict the practice. We are enjoined to fast from fajr to maghrib, but we are not forbidden from sleeping during the day and becoming active at night. I am convinced that switching days and night in Ramadan is not only natural, but more healthy than trying to force the body to behave as if if were nourished during the day, and then force the body to sleep when it is no longer ready to sleep. That practice effectively produces ‘jet lag”, and I see no need for it. As one who is always severely effected by jet lag or any other disturbance in my circadian rhythm, I recommend the Saudi  style of observing Ramadan.

The problem is that the rest of the world is not ready to follow it. When we live outside the Kingdom, we cannot “do what comes naturally.”  That means that here in the United States, if one wants to observe Ramadan, one must remain active while fasting, and try to sleep while not fasting. 

 Ramadan Kareem!

Internet Book Club for Middle-Eastern Literature in English

Blogs can be profoundly enlightening, properly educational, and/or entertaining for both readers and writers. After reading a number of them focusing on topics of Muslim and Middle Eastern concern, I asked myself, “What did I read before I read blogs? How did I deepen my understanding of Middle-Eastern culture?”

Well, I read books, of course!

Life in Saudi Arabia guaranteed lots of free time for women, time spent at home. For readers and writers, the lifestyle offered plenty of opportunity to indulge those interests. Riyadh had two wonderful bookstores, Obeikan, and Jareer. Each offered decent English language sections, in which my friend Sharon and I would browse until we spent several hundred riyals each. Then we’d go home and read for two or three months, after which we’d make our pilgrimage to the other bookstore. In between major book buying excursions, we’d buy magazines at the mall or grocery store.
Trips abroad rounded out our book collections because we got books we couldn’t buy in Saudi Arabia, and I don’t mean books of a “haram” nature. Those types of books we read while abroad, but we always found plenty of material perfectly safe to bring into the Kingdom.

During my first trip to Egypt, in 1986, I visited the AUC bookstore, and I still remember how thrilled I felt to be amidst such a wonderful selection of Middle-Eastern literature in translation. I still have the books I brought back from that trip.

This week I once again felt thrilled to discover a great collection of Middle-Eastern literature, some in translation, at a site called Good Reads. I found this site via Arabic Literature (in English): http://arablit.wordpress.com/book-clubs/. I inquired about an Internet book club focusing on Middle Eastern literature, and I was referred to this group on Good Reads:

http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/413.Middle_East_North_African_Lit

which I joined immediately. If you’ve read this post until now, you might as well go right over to Good Reads and check out this book club. I’ve got lots more books choices, now, plus lots of people with whom to exchange ideas and recommendations re: what to read next. Good Reads also offers dozens of groups for dozens of categories, but I’m looking forward to renewing my interest in Middle-Eastern literature in translation.

The “Bismillah”

One of the joys of living in Saudi Arabia was seeing Arabic calligraphy, especially the “bismillah” and other  renditions of  verses  from the Qur’an,  expressed artistically  in various media.  “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” is a key phrase in Islam. It prefaces ritual prayer, and is said often throughout the day, to oneself or out loud, when embarking  upon a task.

I remember an outing to the desert with a group expats from  King Faisal Specialist Hospital, in which I worked. Our Saudi driver said it before starting the bus. He said it quietly, almost to himself.  After that, I noticed other Muslims saying it, often before doing something new or something that involved the well-being of others. I liked the phrase. It encompassed the best of intention, the realization that we act in faith, without  the assurance of  the consequences of our actions, and in the acceptance of whatever result followed.

I began seeing calligraphy everywhere, especially the bismillah, which always graced the letterhead of official stationery. In the suq, I saw wonderful wall hangings, some painted, some inked, some sewn with gold letters on black velvet.  Book covers in the Arabic section of bookstores showed dramatic, often shiny gold calligraphy, and I never could decipher the titles, even after I learned how to read Arabic. In the women’s cafeteria of the hospital hung a large panel painted in bold brush strokes of mauve, purple, blue, yellow, green, with flecks of gold and diamond-like textures that caught the ambient light.

I know nothing of the art or science of calligraphy. All I know is that seeing it pleases me immensely, fascinates my eye and  engages my heart. I won’t mind learning how to do it. Until and if I ever do, I’ll remain content with looking at it, especially at the bismillah.

More to the Kingdom and to Me

Monday, September 13, 2010
There is More to the Kingdom, and More to Me

Judging from many comments made on English language blogs about Saudi Arabia, one might conclude that the Kingdom is nothing but a hell-hole– a prison for women, a women’s prison in a cage that confines men, too, men who beat the women but do not beat the keepers of the cage. A prison in a cage, surrounded by the nourishing waters of freedom, but never cranking open sealed doors…

I’m not going to deny the social problems relating to women, the political danger to those who speak against the established regime, or the academic weakness of the educational curriculum. Real as they are, these issues coexist with other qualities. There is more to the Kingdom than female oppression, etc.

I am also not going to make lists of everything good and desirable in the Kingdom; I am not an apologist.

However, I do wonder of those who live there, or have lived there, is there anything right about this place? Have the Saudis any decent thing to offer each other or the rest of the world? If not, what are you doing there, or what are you doing spouting off on the blogs about the lack of freedom and Western-style choice in a country that doesn’t claim to offer it?

Emotional diatribes do not enrich my understanding of Saudi Arabia, Islam, the world, or my enthusiasm for participation, therefore I need to rein in my energies.  I started this blog mainly to collect my Riyadh memories, and to explore my relationship with Saudi Arabia and Islam as the years have passed.

I’m satisfied with my efforts so far, but I feel the urge to expand my purpose. I’ll be revising my blogroll on a continuous basis. Certain blogs have been informative, entertaining, and enriching, but the abundance of bitching and bashing in the comments sections have blunted my interest in those blogs. I’ll be adding blogs to the list, blogs that I read and that reflect my interest in diverse subjects— Italian language, Depth Psychology, Digital Imaging, Journal and Memoir Writing. If I lose readers, I’ll attract others.  I don’t have many I haven’t already lost, anyway. Though I write this blog primarily for myself, I do want readers; they inspire me and connect me in a way that writing cannot. Writing is completed by reading.

This blog is different from the essays I write  for publication elsewhere. It’s not more personal, but more spontaneous, of the moment, perhaps.

Future posts will bring more of the rest of my life into my blog.  I look forward to sharing aspects of my life that blossomed before I ever boarded my first flight to Riyadh, or my last flight out.




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

Return

My blogging break has lasted more than a year. I’m not sure it’s completely over yet, but tonight an urge stirred, an urge to reconnect with my readers, the blog world, and ultimately to an aspect of myself that wants to reemerge.

This blog began as a method to chronicle my Riyadh memories, to keep them alive, share them, and draw inspiration from others who’ve built a few Riyadh memories of their own.

I also needed to explore the series of recurrent dreams I’d had for years– dreams in which I was supposed to return to Riyadh, or tried to return, or needed to return. The dreams always ended in frustration. I’d miss the airplane, or board a wrong one, or forget my passport, or… you get the idea.

During my blogging break, my dreams changed character. They no longer ended in the frustration of my failure to return to Riyadh. In this new series of dreams, I actually did return to Riyadh, but upon arriving, was never able to find my place. No one met me at the airport or took me to where I was supposed to go. I’d wander around, but I’d get lost because the city had continued to grow and develop during my absence, so I did not recognize the landmarks I’d used previously.

Occasionally, I’d find the neighborhood in which I was supposed to live, or the job I was supposed to perform at the hospital, but various factors prevented me from achieving the seamless reintegration I’d expected. Once in awhile, a man (faceless, without distinct identity) would enter the dream and point me in the correct direction, but I was never able to understand him or follow his instructions.

Then, I’d remember that I’d left my daughters behind in the United States, and I wondered why I’d returned to Riyadh without them. I’d feel sad in reverse, so to speak, sad that I’d returned to Riyadh without the pulse of my life which now resides in the States.

I didn’t need psychoanalysis to tell me the meaning of all these recurrent Riyadh dreams. My dream Riyadh symbolized the psychological and spiritual state of mind that prevailed when I lived in the actual Riyadh. For me, Riyadh afforded an atmosphere of exploration, discovery, enlargement, development and transformation, an atmosphere I’ve craved all my life.

The actual Riyadh, with all its restrictions and prohibitions, gave me more freedom than I’ve ever had here in the States. That theme needs further elaboration, perhaps here in my blog.

In May of 1986, during an orientation session for new expats to Saudi Arabia, a psychologist explained Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

He said, “People become expatriates for two reasons. They are either running away from something or running to something.”

Even then, I knew I was running in both directions.