Serendipity

Serendipity

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

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

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

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

1. The man must know English and Arabic.

2. He must not smoke cigarettes.

3. He must not already be married.

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

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

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

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

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

I Looked for a Husband

I  Looked for a Husband

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

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

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

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

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

I do not call men. They call me.

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

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

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

July 14, 2009

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

 

Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

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

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

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

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

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

Split Personality, or Double?

Split Personality, or Double?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

Most Hajj stories focus upon the sense of awe and inspiration that arise upon gathering in Mecca with thousands of Muslims from around the world, to perform one of the five pillars of Islam. I felt those emotions, too, but something else stands at the forefront of my memories.

Dhul-Hijja  in 1996 corresponded to April, when full summer already blazed across  Saudi Arabia, hot enough to kill a person. My husband and I decided to make Hajj, before the calendar advanced Dhul-Hijja into an even hotter season. Transportation would be easy; we would take a bus across the country, from Riyadh to Mecca.

I was not worried about the heat, however. I was worried about crowds. Every year, returning pilgrims came with stories of stampedes resulting in death by the hundreds. An average of two million people converge and move together from place to place along a twelve mile tract of desert from Mecca to the Plain of Arafat and back again.

Everyone told me the Hajj would be difficult. Now, years later, memories of my Hajj experience float through my mind as if I’m watching someone else’s film. Certain scenes are frozen, but most are lost in the maze and flash of the changing shapes, colors of Mecca, the desert, and the flowing clothes of the pilgrims. Sometimes I wonder whether I was really as sick as I felt, but I no longer need to know.

********************************

I was still worried about crowds when we stopped on the Plain of Arafat, where we stayed all afternoon, in prayer and contemplation. Neither the men’s nor the women’s tent was air-conditioned, and as the afternoon progressed, my heart rate increased dramatically and I could feel my cheeks throb with blood.

The other ladies noticed how red I’d become. They encouraged me to persevere. The day would be over soon.  We sat in the tent, prayed and read the Qur’an. Allah would reward my suffering.

My head ached with every blink of my eyes; I feared I’d faint from dizziness, or suffocate from lack of air; my heart beat so fast that my respirations became shallow. I had planned to say prayers for each of the dear people in my life, as well as for my worries and hopes, but I forgot them all. I couldn’t pray for anything except a quick end to that day, and the stamina to endure the rest of it. Toward evening, my husband came to check on me, and seeing my condition, fetched a magnificent block of ice, for which I wept in relief and thanksgiving. One of the ladies told me to put the ice in the barrel for community use, but I didn’t. I used it to rub myself from head to foot, over and over until the ice had melted. I felt ashamed, imagining the other women regarding me as stingy, but  the instinct to self-preservation had taken hold. I believe I might have died that day, had I not rubbed myself with ice. I was a fair-skinned Westerner, out of my element, physiologically unprepared to endure long hours of extreme heat.

That evening, I moved with the crowd to Mina, to prepare for the next ritual.

This time, we stayed in air-conditioned tents, the men in one huge tent and the women in another. My tent housed forty women—I counted them— each of us entitled to space sufficient to roll out just one smaller-than-twin-size pad. I rushed into the corner spot, with the tent skin on my left side and the air conditioner at my feet. It was the coolest location in the tent, yet the air never became cool. The air-conditioner churned twenty-four hours a day, except for sudden five-minute power outages during which all of our movements froze in mid-air, as we waited impotently for the box to re-start itself.

I suffered from too much heat that week during the Hajj—heat exhaustion or heat stroke, I don’t know, because I had been too sick to shuffle over to the doctor’s tent, that day on the Plain of Arafat where my husband saved my life with a block of ice. I’d been too embarrassed to ask the doctor to come to me, where he’d have had to invade the privacy of Muslim feminine living quarters. The other women had been hot, too, but none of them actually fell sick, as I had. They were Egyptian women, all except me and one other American ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than me. They appeared to tolerate the heat well, but I did not. The temperature those last few days of April 1996 ran between 40 and 50◦C, maybe higher (104◦F–122◦F).

I could not perform the ritual of stoning the pillars, not only because of heat but because of crowds; my husband did it for me. During that unit of the Hajj, I sat inside the tent during daylight, afraid to go outside. I would emerge gratefully at dusk, and at 3AM I would walk between the tents to the portable showers. Even then, I was hot. The heavens dealt out relief in stingy little puffs of hot air, which never brought comfort, just a momentary lessening of the heat. In the tent, the air-conditioner labored, and I listened to it intently, as if by listening, I could keep it functioning. Even though I was lying with my feet at its base, the cool air dissipated before reaching my head. Only my feet remained comfortable. I didn’t know how I’d survive if the air-conditioner stopped working entirely. This possibility seemed imminent, as the wiring didn’t appear neatly or deliberately connected. In idle moments, I studied the paths of the various wires, in case I’d be called upon to re-establish connections. The five minute power outages which occurred several times each day scared us all, because the machine had to work that much harder to make up for the brief outages. Temperature rises by the minute in the desert.

One night, falling asleep after my 3AM shower, I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. Yes, desert rainstorms do occur, with forceful bursts of water rushing down from the sky all at once. Rain doesn’t usually fall in April, though, so I was sure Allah took pity on my suffering and sent that rain just for me. I opened my eyes slowly, savoring the comfort of the now cool air. The other ladies must have all been sleeping; I didn’t hear a single voice or whisper. I wanted to lift the bottom of the tent and peer out, just to verify that my other senses weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted the water seep into my side of the tent. I rolled over, opened my eyes and gingerly lifted the bottom of the tent skin. Dawn had infused the night. No water trickled forth. I lifted further. No water danced and curled into sandy rivulets along the edge of the tent. Where had it gone so quickly?

Full consciousness spiraled up, and with it the oppressive, pervasive heat. Could the water have dried up already, in a matter of minutes? Had I fallen back to sleep after the cloudburst? The sand should have borne telltale darkening of not quite evaporated wetness, but I saw no such evidence, and now the air carried not a single discernable molecule of moisture. All forty women seemed to awaken together, for I heard many voices going about the routine of the morning. The air-conditioner droned on and on, like a steady, heavy downpour.

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One never knows what awaits. I had feared crowds, yet nearly died of heat.  From then on, I knew in my gut –not only in my head– that the future is unknown, and that one’s imagined fears can collapse into irrelevance before they materialize.

The opposite is true, too. One’s imagined joys can fizzle into hazy retreat, while totally unexpected blessings flood in, bringing immense happiness, but that is another story.

Of Eggs and Brains

Of Eggs and Brains

Egg whites burst with protein, and yolks carry fats and cholesterol. All my life, I’ve loved eating eggs, but recently I’ve taken to tossing the yolks, reluctantly, on the advice of my doctor. I started to think about all the foods that use eggs in their preparation, and how certain dishes wouldn’t even exist without eggs-  soufflés and quiches, for example. Baked goods use eggs, meatballs need eggs to bind them together, and children adore soft boiled eggs, with their bright and creamy yolk against the firm whites.

While preparing an egg-white omelette for myself, a memory popped up, a memory of eggs and a certain taxi driver in Saudi Arabia.

We single women living in compounds loved to go out for dinner. It was a popular way to get out of the compound. Riyadh was known for its five-star hotels with elegant restaurants catering to the expatriate population. Nearly every weekend, I’d be out with a group of women, at one of these hotels, eating scrumptious food from all parts of the world, exchanging stories of our encounters with Saudi culture.

That night, after one of these dinners, my friend Lois and I took a taxi- yes, from the street! – back to our compound. The driver was particularly chatty, wanting to practice his English and ask questions about our experience as Westerners in Riyadh. The conversation naturally focused on food, and he asked whether we’d ever tried “kgidjlewrisldhfklsd;fskjdfk;sljdf.”

What? We didn’t even know what language he was speaking, much less what he was talking about. No, we’d never tried it. Oh, it is sooooo delicious!

“You eat some now?” he asked, and we laughed. “No! We’re so full.”

“Please, eat now, we are near the restaurant.”

Lois and I looked at each other, full of high spirits and mischief from a lively gathering. “OK!” we said, and the car made a turn we weren’t expecting.

The taxi stopped in front of one of those small, busy restaurants that serve men only, and he went in. I’d always wanted to know what kind of food they cooked in there, so now I’d find out.

“We can always scream and run, if we have to,” I said, after our driver had walked into the restaurant.

Soon he came out carrying a paper plate covered with foil. He handed the plate to Lois through the back window, and she lifted the foil.

Steam from scrambled eggs filled our noses, eggs ready to eat with two pieces of flat bread! Relieved, and not wanting to offend our generous driver, we forced ourselves to taste the egg dish. Yes, he was right, it was delicious. Eggs had been scrambled and seasoned with some other ingredient, and only after we ate most of the serving did we ask, “What is mixed in with the eggs?”

“BRAINS!” said our driver, with a big, white smile.

 

 

 

Of Rosewater and Perfume

Of Rosewater and Perfume

When I first arrived in the Kingdom in 1986 (as a hospital worker), I was afraid to leave the hospital grounds, for fear of getting into trouble with the local culture and the dreaded mutawah. The first two weeks, I went to work, walked around the campus, and made friends with my roommates. Each of them had lived there several years already, and invited me to go out with them, so they could show me how to do things outside the sanctuary of hospital property. “Maybe later,” I said, feeling very much the foreigner.

The hospital provided shopping buses for women, and I finally got my courage up to get on the bus for Al-Azizia grocery store, dubbed the A&P after a well-known American supermarket chain. The ten minute ride gave me a glimpse of real Saudi houses, called “villas.” Their sleek architecture, sweeping walls, and ornately designed gates fascinated me, and I wondered whether I’d ever get a chance to enter one.

Al-Azizia lived up to its reputation. I found a mid-sized store set up the same way as our American stores, and many of the same products I used to buy at home. Next to those familiar, imported cans and boxes, I discovered local fare, much of which I could not imagine how to use. I was surprised to find large bottles of rosewater in the grocery aisle, next to other ingredients one would use in cooking and baking. “That’s odd,” I thought, as I put a bottle of rosewater in my cart. I loved the scent of roses, and was delighted to find rosewater perfume so cheap and plentiful. Never mind that I found it in the grocery aisle; things were different in this part of the world.

Back in the apartment, I opened the bottle of rosewater, splashed some on my neck, and put it on top of my bureau. I was surprised to find the liquid sticky, unlike the cologne I’d used back in the States. Never mind, I’d have to learn new ways of doing things.

One day, I invited my roommate Lois into my room to show her some books I’d brought from the States. She said, “Why do you have a bottle of rosewater on your dresser?” and I said, “Because I love the scent of rose perfume.”

She laughed. “Do you use that for perfume?”

“Of course!”

She laughed even more, but I didn’t know why. Finally, she said, “Don’t you know that they use rosewater for cooking?”

“Cooking!” I exclaimed. “They put that in FOOD?”

“Yes,” she said, still laughing. “They use it for sweets.”

I could only imagine how Lois would go to work the next day and tell all her colleagues about the new roommate who thought rosewater was perfume.

Several years later, I grew to like the taste of rosewater as well as the scent, and I learned how to use it in sweets. I got several chances to enter Saudi villas, and I learned where to buy proper rose oil perfume, which I use to this day, twenty years later.

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Multi-Lingual Family Life

Multi-Lingual Family Life

An Entreaty From One Who Learned (the Hard Way)

When a Western woman marries a Saudi man, and moves to Saudi Arabia, she is faced with a language barrier. Her MIL  likely will not speak much English. Even if she does, the Western wife will find herself an object of curiosity and conversation within the family. Her world will both narrow and expand in ways she never thought possible.  In fact, her whole life will close in on itself or blossom out, to the extent that she learns Arabic.

Her husband will be the main person- the only person, at first- she’ll be able to talk with, unless we can count the maid, who might know a few words of English.  The family will help her a bit, but they’ll always run off and leave her, conversationally, and she’ll end up sidelined, finding more meaningful social contact with pre-lingual nieces and nephews.

When her kids start school, she will be unable to communicate with the teachers. The kids will have learned Arabic from Baba, of course, and guess what language they’ll use when they don’t want Mama to understand?

The common Arabic phrases are easy enough to learn. Foreigners cannot help but learn them by osmosis, but permanent residents need to learn more. They need to apply much effort. The language is difficult, and the multi-cultural, multi-lingual atmosphere of Saudi Arabia can lull a person into laziness. An ex-pat worker need not speak a word of Arabic, but a permanent resident needs to do everything she can to get a good grasp of it.

Without a working knowledge of the language of your own family, you put yourself at risk for all kinds of misunderstanding, if not worse.  Please, if you live in a multi-lingual family, do not trust them with a language you do not speak. Learn it, no matter how hard, no matter how long it takes. Consider it an insurance policy of sorts. Consider it your right and your responsibility. Make your husband aware of this stance. If you do not, you remain in a compromised position within the family, even if mutual love and respect suggest otherwise.