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.

A Difference of Degree, not Substance?

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are seeing many programs on TV, on the Internet, and in print media, programs that honor the lost lives as well as try to heal the residual emotional trauma felt as a nation and as individuals. We see programs outlining the museum and park that has been built on ground zero,and also programs that underscore the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America.

This last focus– upon the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America, concerns me.

I was laying on an acupuncture table when the planes hit the towers. The partitioner did not know I was Muslim– I do not cover. My gut reaction was that “Muslims” did it, and that I did not want to be associated with those who had caused the catastrophe. I did not want to belong to same religion they belonged to, especially after they’d used that religion to justify their heinous, megalomaniac cruelty.  From that day forward, I stopped efforts to practice Islam here in America, where the practice of Islam is a challenge, to say the least. This was not an active decision on my part. I merely stopped. If I had not embraced Islam years before 9/11, I would not have done so afterwards.

As the chain of events leading to the catastrophe unfolded, two words were heard repeatedly: extremists and fundamentalists. I cringed, as I still cringe, every time I hear these words. They imply that those who fit the definitions are indeed Muslims, just like the rest of the Muslim community, with the exception that their ideology had taken on an “extreme” character. Their ideology is one of degree, not substance.

That means that the entire Muslim community holds similar views, but stop short of committing murder. First-hand accounts from Middle Eastern countries support this idea. Muslims were seen celebrating, smiling, cheering, as the images of the falling towers dominated the screens and headlines. Those Muslims, surely, endorsed the ideology of the terrorists, and were maybe too cowardly to act upon those convictions, therefore cheered the handful of brave souls who gave their lives for their ideals.  Books have been written to prove that Islam is a religion of force, misogyny, and oppression of all.

Over the years, Muslims groups have denounced the terrorists and tried to convince the greater society that Islam does not condone terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Qur’anic ayahs have been dug up to testify to Islam’s peaceful nature. Why has that message not prevailed? Why, for instance, does the opposition to the New York Mosque project still chug along?

Well, Muslims themselves have not eradicated these two words: extremism and fundamentalism.

They have never said, “There is not such thing as extremism. There is no such thing as fundamentalism. The majority Muslims practice Islam using the customs and rituals into which they have been born, and much diversity flourishes. Men and women who murder in the name of Allah are not Muslims. The constellation of ideals and acts that are commonly referred to as extremism and fundamentalism do not embody the spirit of Islam, nor illustrate its teachings. People who subscribe to them are not Muslims. They may have been born into Muslim families, or they may have embraced ideals of terror and murder as a result of mental illness or severe political oppression that have nothing to do with Islam, but they are not Muslims.”

As long as the Muslim community cannot say the above, it implies that extremism and fundamentalism are indeed, part of Islam, and that the difference between peaceful Muslims and terrorist Muslims is one of degree, not substance.

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.”

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. 

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.