Book Review: Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.

This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.

Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.

At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.

One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.

The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted

Claiming a Religion— an Active Choice?

images bismillah Who is a Muslim? Who is a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc? Is it enough to call oneself by any one of these names, or must we actually observe the distinguishing rituals?

No one has a problem with taking someone’s word for it, when the statement is heard. “I am a Christian (Jew, Buddhist, etc…).” That’s the end of it, but when someone says, “I am a Muslim,” we don’t always know what that means.

Before 9/11, we knew. We may have known nothing about Islam, yet had we heard, “I am a Muslim,” we would have said, “Oh, OK.”

After 9/11, we didn’t know. Now, when we hear, “I am a Muslim,” we want to know what kind of Muslim— Fundamentalist, Moderate, Reform, Observant, Non-Observant, Born, Convert, Revert, Muhajibah, Beard, no beard, drinking, not drinking, praying, not praying, Arab, non-Arab… you get the idea.

What’s going on here?

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.

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.”

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

When I read Bedu’s recent post, Saudi Arabia- Understanding Umm’s and Abu’s, I became inspired for this post. I suppose I should say it is a rant, but I am genuinely curious about how the following custom got started and what it means.

I’ve noticed that many Arab parents address their very young children as ya Mamma and ya Babba. Both parents will address their daughter as ya Mama and their son as ya Babba, but I’ve also heard mothers saying ya Mamma to both sons and daughters, and fathers addressing both sons and daughters as ya Babba.

I understand the “ya” part, as a sort of a polite equivalent to, “Hey, so-and-so”, for people of any age,  I’ve picked up that custom myself, but the Mamma and Babba part still stumps me when I hear it addressed to children.

In fact, it grates my ears, and I was mortified to hear one of my daughters begin addressing both her kids as ya Mamma and ya Babba, right from the cradle. The poor little girl still thinks her name is Mamma, and the boy is too small to know his own name, much less anyone else’s.

I would never criticize my daughter or anyone for following a harmless cultural custom, but I wish she would realize how ridiculous it sounds when she says it here in the States, especially in public.  I’ve asked various Arabs about this custom, and I’ve heard various answers, none of which make sense.

One Arab father said, “Because I want my kids to know that their babba is talking to them.”

An Arab mother said, “Because my kids will grow up and becomes mammas and babbas.”

Can anyone enlighten me further, or agree with me or disagree that the expressions sound silly? Has anyone addressed a child as ya Mamma and ya Babba? If so, why, and what does it mean to you?

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930′s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Cabin Fever in Riyadh

Cabin Fever in Riyadh

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Living in Riyadh Before the Internet

My daughters have near-native fluency in English, but sometimes they ask me about phrases they’ve never heard, like “cabin fever”.  Last week, one of them asked me about this phrase; all I had to do was remind her of how we lived in Riyadh, how we used to wait for her father to come home from work, and beg him to take us out. We didn’t care where, we just wanted to get out of the house.

Here in the States, during a particularly snowy winter, we might be afflicted with a touch of cabin fever, but in Riyadh we suffered from it year round.

The high point of certain Riyadh days occurred when my husband walked in, and decided to take us out. From the degree of our excitement we showed, one would think we were headed for a wonderful place, full of stimulation  and activity. No. We would go to the post office, and sit in the car while my husband went inside to retrieve the mail. That was a lovely outing for us, occurring with  the satisfying frequency of once a week!

After the post office, and if my husband felt energetic, we’d get shawarmas. All of us had a say in where we would get these shawarmas, but it didn’t matter as much as we pretended it did; shawarmas are like hamburgers– they all taste good, but slightly different from shop to shop. Our favorite shawarma shop was Yelah Al Sham (spelling?) because of its creamy, rich garlic sauce over fat portions of meat.

Two or three times a month we’d go  grocery shopping. All of us would walk up and down all the isles, examining labels and prices, comparing deals, choosing, rejecting, and tossing into the cart, sometimes when one of us was not looking, or returning something to shelf, also when one of us wasn’t looking.

Once a month, if we were lucky, we could persuade the man of the house to take us to Shoala shopping mall, or Al-Akkaria. Those were the only two malls in Riyadh at the time. Even my husband enjoyed going to the mall, not to buy things, but to sit and watch people, read the newspaper, and daydream. The mall provided much entertainment in that form, especially during hot summers when the HVAC in the apartment made us either too cold or too hot.

After Asr, on nice weekends– that means not too hot, and you know how many days like that come around in Riyadh!– we’d go to one of several public gardens in Riyadh. First, though, my husband would buy kofta, mango juice, taboulah, and/or whatever else smelled fresh in the restaurant. We’d spread a blanket under an inviting palm tree, and remain there until Isha or later, or until the kids got bored with the playground or the other kids. I’d write letters, read and study Arabic, while my husband read the Arabic newspapers cover to cover.

I have to admit, my husband was good at taking us with him to mosques that offered areas for ladies. We prayed in large mosques, small mosques, popular ones, clean ones, shabby ones, elegant ones and simple ones. I miss all those mosques. Here in America, we have only two mosques, both twenty minutes away by car, which seems unnatural.

Several times a month, on a weekend morning after Fajr, my husband and I would leave the girls in bed and go to the Oteyga fruit and vegetable suq. That experience always thrilled me. I loved seeing hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of fruits and vegetables. I loved that the suq was so large we had to drive from the fruit side to the vegetable side. I loved the aromas of the green herbs, mountains of onions, boxes of ripening mangoes. We would fill the car with produce, and I’d spend days, literally, cooking, freezing, sharing, and, of course, eating.

During the week, I rarely felt the desire or need to go out, but when I did, I’d walk two blocks to the pharmacy or the small grocery store, more for a walk than for need of a purchase.  That little habit came to an abrupt end one morning when I was followed by a man who wouldn’t give up, but that is another post.

Two of my friends had drivers. Occasionally, one of them would send her driver for me, and we’d spend time together at our favorite bookstore, Obeikan. The other friend would send her driver for me, too, and we’d spend time at her house, or we’d visit other friends, or go to the zoo, or go to the DQ  (that’s the Diplomatic Quarter, not Dairy Queen) or go to a women’s Islamic study circle.

At home, while my husband was at work and the girls were at school, I stayed happy drinking Turkish coffee, studying Arabic and Qur’an, and later Italian language, and cooking and doing housework. Every morning, I would spend several hours on the telephone talking to friends. No one had cell phones, of course. No one needed them. The housewife connection thrived from house to house on nothing but a single land line. Our husbands never knew how much time we spent gabbing on the phone, but those talks sufficed us and lessened the occasions on which we’d beg our husbands to take us out.

I loved being a housewife. Those were the happiest years of my life, and I must confess that I did not suffer from “cabin fever” as much as my daughters, who, in their youth, were hungry for new experiences. What bothered me was having to wait for my husband to feel like taking me out, or wait for a driver, or wait for a taxi, and then wait for the destination to be open, or ready to receive me.

None of us had computers, let alone the Internet. Eventually, one of my technologically advanced friends got connected, and became enamored of e-mail. She tried to tell me about it, how she could write to her family in the States every day, and they would receive the letter within hours, if not minutes. That concept was far over my head at the time, too good to be true, so I continued to write my letters in long hand, mail them a week later, and wait not only two weeks for them to reach my family in the States, but wait another two weeks for someone to reply.

I did miss television, I mean Western style television, with its high quality production and abundance of channel choices. In Riyadh, we had two stations, One and Two, for Arabic and English. They began their daily broadcasting after Asr and signed off close to midnight, except on the weekends, when a movie might last until one o’clock AM. Most of the programs bored me, in both languages, but I enjoyed watching the prayers from Mecca, especially during Ramadan, and I enjoyed the rare American serial, like Law and Order, or the British game show where the contestants accumulated points by entering the pyramid and grasping at flying bits of paper. I forget its name, maybe it was called Crystal Maze. The other show I liked was also British; people would have to perform certain difficult tasks in a short period of time. I forget its name, also. There was a hilarious Japanese game show, in which people would also perform silly tasks; most contestants got an unexpected dunking, or falling, or rolling as they failed the task.

No one had DVDs or even video players. I suppose I belonged to the sector of population that found no need or imperative to become sophisticated in methods of mass media. Our home was both a sanctuary and a prison, as it shielded us from all activity outside of it.  I did not suffer from “cabin fever” nearly as much as my girls. My husband did not suffer from it at all, but  from the opposite condition– having to take us out when he wanted nothing more than to sit on the sofa and vegetate after a long workday.

I’d be happier today if I didn’t have to work, if I could pass my days the same way I passed them in Riyadh. In fact, my having to return to the workforce after we came to the States contributed to my divorce. I would love to “have my cake and eat it.” I would love to be able to stay home, not worry about work or money, not have to parcel myself out to various family members, and yet have my car at the ready, and be able to go to any store, day or night, whenever I felt like it or needed something.

I guess that condition is called “retirement”, and I won’t be able to reach it for more years than I’d like to remember. Maybe at that time, I’ll be able to return to Riyadh, at least for a visit, and marvel at all the changes that continue to take place as I write. However, I would not like to see Riyadh, or Jeddah, or any city of Saudi Arabia, become a carbon copy of all other big cities in the world. The charms and curses of life in the Kingdom can be perceived clearly  in juxtaposition, and appreciated best from a distance, perhaps after the fact. 

A Walk on the Wild Side

 Before I went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I bought a small book of Arabic phrases. The language, with its strange guttural sounds not made in English, and its curvy script read from right to left, fascinated me. I memorized the usual first phrases: min fadlak, shukran, marhabah, and ma’asalama— please, thank you, hello, and good bye.  Easy enough.  I would be ready.  I would know something about this exotic language.

Six weeks after my arrival in Riyadh, I got the courage to walk out of the housing compound to the neighborhood grocery store. I covered myself properly with my new black abaya, and threw a scarf across my shoulders.  As a Westerner, I was not obligated to cover my hair, but my bare head marked me as a foreign woman, and we all know what some Arabs think of foreign females. 

Halfway to the store, in the middle of a long block of residential villas, with walls surrounding them to hide the women, a small pick- up truck pulled up beside me. I noticed a bale of hay in back, half covered with canvas, but no animals.  The driver, an Arab dressed in a white thobe and checkered headdress, rolled down the window and said, “Marhabah.” 

I returned his greeting, “Marhabah!”  That was my first mistake.  I knew he’d ask me to get in, and sure enough, the next word– in English– was, “Ride? Ride?”  As I wanted to show off my acquisition of Arabic phrases, and be polite at the same time, I said, “La, shukran.” No thank you, with a smile. That was my second mistake. 

Suddenly, the truck pulled in close to the curb. I noticed no other person walking. In that neighborhood, only crazy foreigners walk in the broad daylight of desert heat.  No other car passed in either direction. I secured the flaps of my abaya across my body, and set my gaze straight ahead.  He jumped out, and rushed up in front of me, tripping and holding his manhood through the skirt of his thobe. His eyes narrowed, marbles embedded in the leathered creases of an old desert dweller. He smiled across a stubbly beard, unashamed of the gaps between his teeth, or what he was doing, and made grunting noises much like the noises made by the goats and lambs that he surely carried in his pick-up truck from time to time. 

I shrieked, and ran across the street.  He ran after me, hiking up his thobe to get a better grip and show me what he thought I wanted.  I shrieked again, picked up the bottom of my abaya, and ran fast in the heat until my lungs burned and I reached the main street, where six lanes of traffic whizzed back and forth, and he couldn’t possibly keep hanging on. 

The next day, I was told by my laughing Arab colleague that my polite American response had been more of an invitation than a refusal!

 

Walls

taquastruction.jpg  I squinted at white marble walls everywhere, as they reflected the brilliance of a Riyadh morning sun. Set at various angles, they somehow joined five separate buildings together in one geometrically shaped compound. Each building gave access to its tenants by marble steps, cleverly constructed so that no entrance could be seen from its neighbor. I would have loved to photograph those angles, but photography in public was socially taboo in Riyadh, except for civic purposes such as newscasts or education.In the lobby, protected from the intensity of the sun, I found relief. My husband knocked on the door of the ground floor apartment. The door opened just wide enough to let us in.

Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into the bottom of a swimming pool. Glossy, turquoise walls enveloped me and floated me down the hall, like the cushion of water that suspends one at the bottom of a dive into the deep end. I stared at those walls as I drifted inside, fascinated. I would have never dared to paint walls the color of a nine foot surge of water, and I had never seen such a color in other Riyadh apartments.

We rented it on the spot. My husband did not object to the walls or the royal blue carpet that joined each other at the floor.

Most interior walls in Riyadh apartments are painted white, as were the other four rooms in our apartment. The previous tenants must have had turquoise paint left over, because the fifth room had two turquoise walls that glowed when the morning sunlight fell upon them. That room had been a child’s room. Crayon marks remained, and I tried to remove them from the glossy surface, but ordinary soap and water did not do the job. As a temporary measure that lasted the entire six years of our tenancy, I placed two beds and dressers to block the sight of the previous tenant’s excesses.

Riyadh walls are made of thick concrete, rendering them cold in winter and hot in summer, but wonderfully soundproof. I never hung anything on ours, unfortunately, because I didn’t know how to pound nails into concrete. Sending my husband out for a concrete drill was too much trouble in a city that didn’t have yellow pages or numerical addresses on buildings. At first, I tried to find other ways to hang things on walls, but gave up. Our walls, like the sands of the deep desert, remained unmarked except for the shadows that fell on them as afternoon sunk into evening.

One wall of each room, including kitchen and bathroom, gave to the outside. This architectural device allowed for two important elements to be built into the larger rooms—a small window for light, and a rectangular opening into which tenants installed combination air conditioners/ heaters– – industrial strength. These dark rectangles dotted the sides of all walls in all apartments of all residential buildings in Riyadh. I never learned why central air hadn’t caught on except in hospitals and shopping malls.

Our kitchen window faced our bathroom window, because the apartment wrapped around an open space, and enclosure extending three stories up to the roof, allowing for natural light and air to permeate the rooms while protecting tenants from street intrusions. The second and third floor kitchen windows above ours also faced the bathroom windows above ours. During the change of seasons, when the air neither scorched nor froze the skin of anyone in those rooms, all tenants opened their windows. The odors and noises generated in those rooms—heard by all— wafted up and down the enclosure, but the rare luxury of gentle breezes, enjoyed just several weeks a year, inspired us all to tolerance.

This is what I remember about that apartment– its luminous exterior walls, its cool blue interior walls, and the lovely breezes carrying testimony to all our lives, the breezes that knocked down the other kinds of walls so firmly erected in Saudi Arabia–the walls of privacy and insularity by now well known, ironically, throughout the world. These walls are more difficult to penetrate than the concrete walls of the apartment buildings. The windows through which a foreigner can understand the life of a Saudi in Saudi Arabia are narrow, few, and far between.

There are walls keeping men away from women, Saudis away from foreigners, and Muslims away from non-Muslims. These walls are visible in the black drapes of the women and the white caftans of the men, in the gated compounds housing foreigners and the fortressed villas housing Saudi families.

These walls started to crumble under the influx of foreign workers, satellite media, war, and the inundation of everything Western and anathema to half the Saudi population. By the time I arrived in 1986, the walls of Saudi seclusion had already started to erode, but the erosion revealed a framework of steel. Who was it that said, “East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”?

The twain has met, but East is still East, and West is still West. It’s a matter of identity.