For years, I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo– the annual challenge for fiction writers to produce a fifty-thousand word manuscript during the month of November.
I’ve always wanted to participate, except that I don’t write fiction. I encouraged Brandy Chase (of American Muslimah Writer) to participate.
Actually, I suggested that if she took up the challenge, I would, as well, so she took up the challenge, and I am left with the fact that I am not a fiction writer.
Enter Jung’s concept of Synchronicity. Just this morning, while looking for something unrelated, I discovered the nonfiction equivalent to NaNoWriMo– WNFIN, Writing Nonfiction in November:
So, off I go to begin the challenge!
How shall I approach the task? I’ll need to produce about two-thousand words a day to complete the challenge. That’s a lot of writing, especially for someone like me, who hates to babble. I write deliberately. Free writing and verbal effluvience are not my strong suits, nevertheless, they will have to become so in order to meet this challenge.
I think I will make a list of subjects having to do with the events of my life, and the attitudes that have shaped my choices. Each day I’ll take up a new heading. Hopefully, some of this work will find its way to my blog. In that way, I’ll infuse some fresh material into it. I’m getting kind of saturated with writing and thinking about religion. I need a diversion.
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!
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.”
Where is Your Husband?
During the second year of my residence in Riyadh, I made friends with an American woman married to a Saudi. She invited me to her home, and I was thrilled. Finally! I’d get a chance to see inside one of those vast, cubic villas surrounding by walls and gates.
I took a taxi, and of course got lost. I found myself telling the driver, “Stop here! No, here! Turn left, turn right!” Sure that I was in the correct neighborhood, I paid the taxi driver and took my chances on foot, rather than embarrass myself further.
I wandered between villas, and admired their various shades of salmon, gray, ochre, and straight, sweeping walls that overlapped, creating clean, geometric images I wished I could have photographed. In those days, however, photography was really haram. Each of the villas somehow fit the description she gave me. Naturally, nobody else walked around outside; the neighborhood seemed like a ghost town. Eventually I saw a young Saudi male on the street, and in my as yet unmodified American way, asked him, in English, “Do you know where Asma lives?” (LOL)
He looked at me as if I were crazy, this bare-headed Western woman wandering around between villas. No, of course he did not know. I pressed a few door buzzers, and then hit the right one. Asma answered the intercom, and buzzed open the gate.
She showed me into a large living room, the size of which amazed me. We sat on a formal blue sofa, with carved trim and matching curved legs. I admired the crystal chandelier, and the gold-framed calligraphy, with its swirls of gold Arabic letters I could not yet read, against its velvet black background.
We sat there and chatted for awhile, about being Westerners in Saudi Arabia, about our lives in America, about how she met her husband, how she became Muslim, and the all-important question: Are you happy here?
Yes, she was happy there.
We talked about Islam, as by that time I was interested in it from a personal perspective. She allowed me to watch her pray; Isha had fallen due.
She took me to the kitchen, where my eyes widened at the sight of long counter tops, large cabinets, and American style stove and refrigerator. It might have been a modern American kitchen, except for the harsh fluorescent light, which, I noticed, had also lit the living room.
We talked about recipes, family, and all manner of domestic affairs. . She then served me kabsa she’d made earlier; it was the first time I’d tasted that magnificent dish. Another surprise greeted me when I asked whether I could help clean up. A housekeeper emerged, from where I didn’t know, and Asma and I retired to the living room.
After several hours of visiting as if we were already close friends, I thought I’d better go home. I lived in the hospital compound. Her driver would take me. Suddenly I remembered that she had two young sons and a husband.
“Where are they?” I asked. The children were in their rooms, and the husband was in “another part of the house.” What? What other part of the house?
“You mean, your husband has been home all this time, and stayed in another part of the house?” I asked incredulously. I would have wanted to meet him.
That was how I learned about segregation in a most practical way. I was appalled at first. “Won’t he become angry?” I asked, suddenly feeling like an intruder. “We’ve sat here all night and he’s been cooped up elsewhere?”
“Oh,no,” Asma said, “he’s in the men’s room. He has an office and a TV and plenty of things to keep him busy.”
During the next six years, Asma and I became dear friends. We got together whenever we could, and chatted on the phone nearly everyday. I never did set eyes on her husband, not even a far off glimpse, and when I married, she never saw mine. I overcame the desire to meet her husband. As our friendship solidified, I reveled in the fact that it belonged to us, and only us. Husbands could not have added anything. In fact, with them out of the picture, we got to know each other more deeply than we would have, had our meetings been mixed.
I developed several other friendships over the years, and in each one, I found much freedom, and a satisfaction that could not have blossomed had husbands been in the picture. Those female friendships in Saudi Arabia were the best I’d ever had, because of, not in spite of, gender segregation.
I do not segregate here in the United States, but I’m thankful for having discovered a hidden blessing in the custom. Most of us get lost in the “should” or “shouldn’t” of gender segregation. I do not say should or shouldn’t. I say that I’ve tasted a way of life most people will never experience, let alone appreciate, and I’ve found some good in it.