Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

I’ve wanted to write this rant for months, and now I’ve succumbed to the urge.

 

Hyphenated names for non-Muslim  women make no sense to me.  They are long, phonetically awkward, and cumersome to write. They suggest that the poor woman didn’t know what name to call herself after marriage, so she simply tacked the married name on to the maiden name, much like one would add blond extensions to a full head of auburn hair.

 

I work in a hospital. Hyphenated names cause no end of confusion. They don’t fit on forms, they don’t get entered correctly in certain computer programs, they get mixed up, reversed,  exchanged with first names, and ulitmately abbreviated when expedient.

 

Some women hyphenate their names because both names consist of one syllable, and the two together sound better. Why don’t they finish combining the two into one,  forming a new name altogether, similar to the way in which John’s Son became Johnson? 

 

Why don’t they ask their husband to take the second name, as well? It seems ridiculous that a man has a single name, and his wife sticks  his name behind her maiden name, and what about the children? If the hyphenated name is given to the children, what names will their spouses use when they grow up and get married? 

 

Some women use a hyphenated name because one of the names has social recognition, but why not simply drop the obscure name and use the name that carries social weight?

 

Some women want to keep the maiden name, in a salute to feminism and the maintainance of identity, an awkward attempt  to exert themselves as equals, but it doesn’t work. When was the last time you heard that a husband tacked his wife’s maiden name onto his own, because he wanted to preserve his identity?

 

Ah, but we still live in a somewhat patriarchal society, feminism and working women notwithstanding. All family members should use the same name, the father’s name, no? In the olden days of my childhood, fathers were the “heads of family”, working outside the home,  carrying the entire financial responsibility for the well-being of the family, making all the important decisions. They were also the disciplinarians. Most people as old as I am remember their mother’s chilling words, “Wait til your father gets home!”

 

Now, however, most mothers work outside the home, too, many full-time, just like the father, and therefore feel entitled to share in the decision-making as well as  the  financial responsibility. Hyphenating their names may point to women’s desires to fully participate in the two major life roles most people embrace– working and having a family.

 

In Islam, women do not stick their husband’s names behind their own. The children carry the father’s last name. While this might suggest gender inequality, it recognizes the father as the head of the family.  Gender inequality, if you could call it that, does exist in Islam, in the sense that the father is supposed to work and bring home money, while the mother works inside the home, providing the kind of nurturing and domestic organization that is never paid its worth in currency. The deal for women is that they give up their earning power to gain financial security from the husband, and the right to stay home and raise their own children (rather then having to take them to day care).  The fact always remains, however, that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

 

Naming customs reflect the social, economic, and religious realities of families.  If hyphenated names for  non-Muslim women are meant to suggest  gender equality, then all family members must carry the hypenated names. Multiple  names are awkward, however, and suggest nothing but indecision or equivocation on the part of the woman. I don’t know how women are going to evolve in the future, with respect to “balancing” major life roles such as working and child-bearing.  

 

While I’m at it, let me add that I hate the word, “balance.” It suggests that two or more quantities can be manipulated so that their weights become equal. This is not the reality with regard to women who work and bear children during a twelve week maternity leave. Instead of  talking about balancing, let’s talk about  dividing. How does a woman divide herself so that both work and family get an equal share? Why must work and family get equal shares, anyway? In reality, they don’t, yet women keep trying,  whether they want to or not.  Hyphenated names are the objective correlative to the reality of Western women’s lives– cumbersome, awkward, and suggestive of division rather than unity.

Sweet Hasan, and Why I Work

A few weeks ago, while visiting my grandson, he said, “Stay with me, Gramma. Don’t go to work tomorrow.”

“I have to go to work,” I replied. “I’d love to stay with you, but tomorrow is a work day, and I have to work tomorrow.”

“No! I don’t want you to go to work!” he cried, tears erupting from his eyes.

“I don’t want to go to work, either, Habibi, but I have to go.”

He pouted, with big, dreamy eyes and a poked out lip. “No more work,” he begged.

“I’m sorry, Hasan, but I have to go to work. That’s how I get my money. If I don’t work, I don’t get money. Without money, I can’t buy gas for my car, and I can’t come and see you, and I can’t take you places or buy toys for you.”

His eyebrows drew down as he thought about this. “Buy me toys?”

“Yes,” I replied, relieved that I’d touched a spot that would help him let me go.

He brightened. “OK! You can go to work tomorrow!”

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This morning, Hasan phoned me and asked, “Gramma, do you have to go to work today?”

“Yes, Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I have to go to work today.”

“No! I don’t want you to go to work!”

“I don’t want to go, either. I’d rather spend the day with you, but I need to get more money.”

“Why do you need money?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling the weight of work and the need for money, “I need money to pay for my food, my clothing, my electricity, my car… and to buy you toys! Remember? I need money to buy you toys.”

“Gramma,” he said slowly, “I don’t need any more toys.”

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As true as it is that I need to work, and as true as it is that thousands of people are now out of work and cannot earn money even for their basic needs, I felt resentful that I cannot spend the day with this lovely boy, this dear boy who is getting his first lesson in the necessity for work, and isn’t liking it.

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On second thought, I could have given him a more positive lesson. I should have said something about contributing to society, making myself useful to others by means of work, fulfilling my need to do productve activity, etc., but that would have been false, and he would have known it.

For me, work is nothing more than a means to make money, and I work no more than absolutely necessary to earn the absolute minimum needed to live comfortably. Ironically, my work was the sole reason I ended up in Riyadh, and that was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

Apples for Eating, Apples for Cooking

When leaves turn yellow, red and orange, and the temperature dips, I look forward to buying apples from one of the area orchards. I love eating apples, but only if they are crisp, sweet and juicy; my favorites are organic Fujis.

Whenever I bite into an apple, I remember my Egyptian mother-in-law, whose ideas about eating apples are different from mine.

She came to stay with us in Riyadh for awhile. I was happy, because she did not speak English, and I’d finally get my chance to learn Arabic.

The first few days, neither one of us said much. She took control of the kitchen, and there we found some common ground to focus on, linguistically, other than  my husband. I would begin by asking her, “Eh da?” and she’d tell me the Egyptian words for the various foods and utensils in the kitchen. I’d repeat the words, and eventually, she taught me enough so that we could converse about anything having to do with the kitchen, but not much else.

One day, my husband brought home a huge box of apples. We couldn’t possibly eat them all, so my mother-in-law and I decided that we’d separate the apples into to piles– one for cooking, and the other for eating. Each of us would pick up an apple, squeeze it gently, and put it either in the cooking pile or the eating pile.

After we’d made some progress, I noticed that each of the apple piles included both hard-fleshed apples and soft ones. I assumed I’d misunderstood, so I said to her, in Arabic, “Eating apples here, and cooking apples there?” and I indicated with my hand the directions we had agreed upon.

“Aiwah” she said, and we continued sorting. Still, the hard-fleshed apples ended up with the soft-fleshed apples, and I repeated, “Apples for eating HERE, and apples for cooking THERE?” Again, she said, “Aiwah.”

This time, however, she picked up an apple, squeezed it and said, “Shoofi, nashfa,” and tossed it into the cooking pile. Then I realized that she thought the “dry” apples, that is, the hard-fleshed apples, were for cooking, and the soft ones were for eating!

I was designating the hard-fleshed apples for eating, and the soft ones for cooking.

I realized this was probably another one of the ways in which Easterners did everything opposite of Westerners. We laughed a bit, and l pulled out some choice specimens I hoarded for my own eating pleasure, and by that time, we reached the end of the box.

I don’t remember what we made with the pile of “cooking” apples, but I avoided the “eating” apples. She fed them to the kids. I managed to show the kids that hard-fleshed apples tasted very good, indeed (preferable, actually). I don’t remember their reactions, but I am satisfied that I opened their tastes a bit, even with respect to the simple apple. I hoped the lesson would be applied to the larger choices in life, and, in fact, it did.

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?

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. 

Christmas Commentary

copy-of-img_0980_edited-1-copy_edited-3Christmas Commentary

Many of us grew up celebrating Christmas, and some of us still celebrate. I often wonder how people feel about Christmas, once they have discovered its antithesis– loss, despair, alienation, anxiety, and grief. Yesterday my family celebrated Christmas without our dear patriarch, our leader, husband, and dear Papa. I was lucky. I got violently ill, with a severe flu, which put me in bed for forty-eight hours, thus exempting me from the affair.

Everyone knows that I ceased celebrating the religious aspect of Christmas twenty years ago, but I continued to enjoy the family gift exchange on Christmas Eve. None of us needs gifts at this stage in our lives, but the tradition evokes nostalgic memories of childhood, when Santa Claus came every year, wiggled down our chimney, quietly laid an abundance of gifts around the tree, and climbed back up the chimney so quietly that we never woke up to catch him in the act. If I could bring back any single day of my childhood, it would be Christmas morning.

We never knew anything of hunger, economic deprivation, abuse, crime or natural disaster in those days. We were blessed even more richly than we knew.

This year, I announced that I would no longer participate in the gift exchange.

My father loved Christmas. He would sing Christmas carols; his joy in the season inspired everyone to join in the song. Volume meant more  than melody; we wailed out the ancient tunes, ending up in tears of happiness and gratitude for another year that had passed with all of us still alive and well. My father was not religious, in the Christian sense of the word. Christmas for him, as for me, was an exercise in family bonding more than anything else, and it worked. It was a time for putting away problems, overlooking faults, and giving thanks for our blessings.  It was a time for indulging the sweet tooth, for baking special cookies and rich breads.  It was a time for adding sparkle and color to our home, with ribbons and wreaths and candles and cookies.

Choosing a Christmas present for someone in those days required a process of elimination, rather than a search for needle in a haystack. We all knew what each other wanted or needed. We didn’t have enough money to satisfy every desire all year round, so at Christmas time, our gift giving sounded like this:

Me: Mom really wants a new sweater for Christmas, but she won’t say so.
Sister: She’s been wanting a new blender for months.
Me: What about a purse? I know she’s been looking at purses lately.
Sister: OK, you buy the purse, and I’ll buy the blender. We’ll ask Pop to buy the sweater.

Now days, any one of us can buy anything anyone wants, and buy it better than anyone else. Now days, all the women are working, and no one has time for shopping, even though the selection and sales are better and better each year, such that one becomes dizzy from looking here and there, trying to take it all in. Christmas has become a time of stress and excess. For some of us, Christmas pokes at wounds that never fully heal. Christmas emphasizes our holes, where it once emphasized our unity.

It’s time to turn the clock way back on Christmas, back to indifference, back to the oblivion of infancy. This year I did it.

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The Season Changes

 

Finally, after a long and unpleasant winter, the first flowers of spring are up, and we are able to plant the small impatiens seedlings that will grow into large globes of blossoms by the end of August.  My mother has planted these flowers around our house each spring for the past thirty years, but this year, my father will not be with us to enjoy them.

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The season change causes us to weep. Why should we weep any more during the season change than on any other day ?

Unfortunately, I know the answer.

A friend, who lost both parents more than five years ago, said recently, “I’m beginning to forget what they looked liked.”

So, that’s what happens? You forget what they looked like? Insult is added to injury, and the beauty fades away with the pain? No! I prefer the pain, with its clear image of my father as he reclines in his easy chair in front of the TV, as he jokes with his grandchildren, as he sits at the dinner table, or at a restaurant, or behind the wheel of his car, or as he walks in the mall for his daily exercise.  

The change of seasons takes us a little further from the days my father was with us. The budding leaves put a soft cloak over not only the branches, but over those last days of winter and my father’s life, those bitter, awkward and awful days.  The greening of the vegetation forms a magic carpet, an undulating cushion upon which we sit and must stay as it transports us into a new season, whether we want to go or not.

So we weep, knowing that soon we, too, will begin to forget, whether we want to or not. Oh, we’ll have photographs– those flat, frozen, scraps that somehow serve as potent time travel devices.  We’ll have the tangible proof of his existence– ourselves, his accomplishments both tangible and intangible–and we’ll have each other’s prompts that will reassure us that we have not become totally unhinged from our own lives.

Soon, the season will change again, and peak summer will splash intense colors in front of us, such that we’ll not have much room for looking at other things, and then we’ll remember other summers, other changes of seasons.  We’ll smile, and recount stories of family  affairs, and then we’ll know something we do not yet know now.

This summer won’t really be so much different from the others, will it?

 

Left Behind

The house is large, very large. My mom and I hear each other’s every movement,  sometimes each other’s breathing.  I never noticed echoes before, but now, dishes echo, books thud, floors sing under footsteps, and closing doors startle the senses.

Such is life, now that my father is gone.

My father has been the hub and focus of the family for nearly sixty years, and now, in his absence, he is still at the center of things, and we reluctantly reposition everything and everyone in the family to accomodate his loss. We still cry, Mom every day.

Everything reminds us of him, of course, and we feel as if he’s still with us, as if he’ll emerge from the bedroom every morning, happy, ready for coffee and newspaper, planning the activities of the day.

We know he’s gone forever, at least his body is gone– Allah alone knows about the rest– but we still feel him, see him just around the corner, hear his voice as he wonders what’s for dinner. His favorite after shave lotion is still sitting on the bathroom sink. Sometimes I smell it, just to bring him back, and then I cry.

Now that spring is here, and the leaves are emerging, I look outside and see him sitting on the patio late in the afternoon, contemplating nature, worrying about the kids, or simply resigning himself to the inevitable. Mom and I brought out the patio furniture two days ago, but I redistributed all of it in a new pattern. Mom didn’t object. The memory of him sitting is his chair is enough; we need not look at the empty chair in its usual position.

It’s as if we’ve been left behind. He is gone, to be sure, and gone where? He is, “…in Heaven with his Lord,” as my mom says, but I still worry about that sort of thing, being educated in the medical model of life, and lacking the depth of spirituality that gives certainty. Death of a loved one, however, is one way of reinforcing a belief in life after death, if not of Heaven itself,  because I cannot bear to think he is anywhere else right how.

So we are left behind. We’ll join him someday, and that thought gives us courage if not confidence, acceptance if not the eagerness of anticipation. After all, what does life prepare us for, if not for more life?