Wearing my Faith on my Head

Women were not allowed to choose whether to cover or not in Saudi Arabia. In other countries, however, the practice became a personal choice. As such, women needed to give some thought to whether or not they would cover when outside the Kingdom, and why or why not. I always envied the women who accepted, without question, that hijab was required in Islam and that they would do it, no matter where they travelled.  I am not of that mentality.

My rejection of mandatory head-covering opened up all kinds of possibilities for how I would continue the practice outside of the Kingdom. I daresay every woman should consider that hijab is not required in Islam. Then, she will need to examine the issue from many perspectives, as I have done, and her decision will carry the weight of conviction instead of the automatic response of obedience to external authority.

I knew I would not wear hijab in the United States because it would bring me trouble within my family and work situation.  Also, hijab is uncomfortable at times, and it destroys my hairstyles. Hijab has nothing to do with Allah, but everything to do with society (in my private, humanistic way of thinking). Where and why would I wear it at all, outside the Kingdom?

The obvious reason would be to announce to the world that I am a Muslim woman. That motive attracted me, as I was pleased to be a Muslim and wanted to be recognized as such, so I decided to wear hijab voluntarily during a three week vacation to the Far East.

I went on this vacation with another American woman who believed in wearing hijab all the time, so I knew she would be a good support in my effort. In Thailand, the first leg of the trip, I felt uncomfortable because of the humidity, but apart from that, I was amused because fellow travelers and hotel employees did not recognize me or my friend as Americans, or even English speakers.You see, with our Arabic clothes, our hijab and our physical appearance– my friend was black and my face could pass for Arab in those days– no one pegged us as Americans, even fellow Americans, unless they heard us speak. One of the bellhops even said to us, “MashaAllah, you two ladies speak such good English!”

We enjoyed Thailand immensely. Hijab did not interfere in the least with my  delight in our activities and places we visited. In fact, announcing to the world we were Muslim had the effect of changing our relationships with everyone with whom we came into contact. Fellow Muslim travelers said, “Salaalmu Aleikum,” which was nice, and fellow Western travelers ignored us. Those who recognized our American accents gave us quizzical glances, and one person engaged us in a lengthy diatribe about the superiority of Jesus over Mohammad. We listened politely, defended our choices, and left in peace. I completed that leg of trip satisfied with the experiment, and open to the possibility that I would wear hijab voluntarily, sometimes, to show that I am a Muslim woman.

However, the next two stops– Malaysia and Singapore– gave no respite from the discomfort of heat and humidity. My headscarf, with my long sleeves and skirt, started to make me nauseated.  I have always suffered from nausea, headaches and even dizziness when overheated, so I took off the scarf. My physical relief was immediate, and my psychological relief followed. My appearance no longer announced anything to the world except that I was a female– an ordinary, middle-aged female of dubious nationality, traveling with with a black Muslim friend.

I had felt like an imposter while wearing hijab outside the Kingdom. I was not wearing it for the same reason others wore it. Muslim women wear it because they feel it is required. I was wearing it as an experiment, not because I believed in the practice as a religious requirement, but because I wanted other people to see that I was Muslim. I was wearing my faith on my head.

When not wearing hijab, no one would guess that I was Muslim. No one said, “Assalaamu Aleikum.” In fact, fellow Western travelers in the tour groups did not ignore me as they had when I wore hijab. They chatted with me easily, as if I were one of them, but I was not one of them.

At the conclusion of the experiment, I learned that I was just as much an imposter wearing my faith on my head as when not wearing it at all. Whether I wore hijab or not, I was presenting myself as someone other than who I was on the inside. Hijab really is the defining exterior identifier of a Muslim woman. Without it, a woman is simply not Muslim while in public. With it, she is not anything else.

The important criterion, then, for women like me, is how we want to present ourselves to the world outside our homes. I confess: most of the time, I do not want to present myself as a Muslim woman in any Western country. I want to appear nondescript, ordinary, unremarkable, forgettable, maybe invisible. That is the real reason I do not wear hijab in the United States, and the reason I liked wearing it in Saudi Arabia.

However, when I go to the mosque, I want nothing more than to present myself as a Muslim, so from now on, I will wear hijab when going to the mosque.

Many Muslims will see me as hypocritical. I’ve noticed a peculiar attitude towards hijab. Some of us think it is difficult to wear, but that once we bridge the personal reluctance, and place that scarf over our heads, we must never, ever take it off. I once knew a woman who wouldn’t wear hijab until after she’d made Haj, because she “knew” she’d never be able to remove it after that. I worked with a woman who wore hijab only during Ramadan. She endured all sorts of comments and questions about why she’d wear it then but not during the rest of the year. Her response was that Ramadan was a time of renewing one’s religious commitment, and the hijab reminded her to do so every day.

I thought she was brave and sincere, maybe more so than the women who wore hijab as tight as underwear but painted their eyes and lips, and powdered their skin.

On the other hand, who am I to judge another woman’s sincerity with regard to religion? I am one of the eye-and-lip painters. I am one who puts on scarves and takes them off, and gives them much more importance than they are worth. Because hijab is the exterior banner of Islam, it gets the attention from everyone, yet one’s observance of the five pillars are much more important than wearing hijab. How many of us conflicted women obsess over hijab, yet let prayer times slip away unobserved?

After all, who pays attention to whether or not a woman prays, let alone prays five times a day? Who sees whether a woman has paid her zakat, or made her Haj, or fasted Ramadan? Who cares? No one cares because no one can see these more important aspects of being a Muslim woman. I’ve concluded that hijab carries exaggerated importance only because it is visible.  My experiment proved that one’s reception in society is drastically altered by whether or not one wears it, regardless of the invisible, personal reasons for doing so. I’ve concluded that the practice of wearing hijab must necessarily combine personal considerations and impersonal, psychological and the sociological, religious and the secular. A woman who is conflicted about wearing it must realize that all of these aspects come together in it. She must define her position first within herself, and then find a way to comfortably practice or not practice hijab, or do it some of the time but not always, or never, except for prayer.

Most of us make peace with ourselves and hijab, and this is why we see so many variations in how women wear it. I’ve now realized how and why so many of us wear hijab in so many styles, and why some of us paint our eyes and lips, and others do not, and some of us wear belts and some of us wear loose skirts, and some of us wear bright colors, and others wear subdued colors. Outside the Kingdom, a woman is free to define hijab for herself, to wear it in combination with the rest of her demeanor, to present herself as a person who includes Islam as part of her identity.

Perhaps I have been too severely affected by my experience of hijab in Saudi Arabia. There, hijab comprised more than covering one’s head. Head-covering and abaya-wearing was law– all of us had to do it, whether we wanted to or not– but it was considered only a first step in the development of religiosity. The next step would be complete omission of cosmetics. The step after that would be face-covering. These steps were to be adopted as one became more and more devout. The covering materials would become more and more opaque. The degree to which a woman covered her body would signal the degree to which she had become devoted to Allah and all the myriad recommendations for the faithful observance of Islam. The final stage in covering would be to wear black gloves and black socks, so that no part of the woman’s body or clothing would be visible. She would even keep her mouth shut, speaking only when absolutely necessarily, and then, in a low voice. The most “religious” of women wore this costume even in the presence of non-Muslim women, on the off-chance that the non-Muslim women would criticize an aspect of the Muslim woman’s appearance.  I was raised, Islamically speaking, in this environment, so you can imagine my surprise and confusion when I repatriated to the United States and saw so many different styles and presentations of the head scarf. I spent years thinking about it, trying to reconcile the Saudi model of hijab, with its connection to religiosity, and the Western model, with its mark of individual expression. I now conclude that one’s style of hijab (in the West, anyway)  is not about religiosity except in the most superficial of ways. It announces to the world that one is a Muslim.

It says nothing about one’s degree of religiosity, devotion to Allah, observance of the five pillars– nothing at all. As such, its style is irrelevant. Therefore, I will never again criticize a woman who covers incompletely, provocatively, or colorfully. I will never again assume that a woman who is unrecognizable due to black coverings is a devout Muslim. Most importantly, I will no longer question myself when I wear hijab to the mosque but nowhere else, and I will continue to paint my eyes and lips, with or without hijab. I’ve finally made my personal peace with hijab.

 

 

Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed

I read this book not so much to learn about Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s experience, but to recall my own. I wanted to say, “Yes! Yes! That’s the way it was!” at every turn of the page, and I was able to do so. Her descriptions of sights, scents, sounds, clothing, surroundings and people are spot-on accurate. Perhaps I might have found those details excessive, had I not lived in Riyadh for twelve years, worked in a hospital, and experienced much of what she experienced. Her narrative portrays objective truth, for her and for me and for many women like us– Westernized Muslims who have lived and worked in a Riyadh hospital during the 1980s and 90s.

It also portrays an internal truth that rings true for me. In many ways, her story is an ordinary story, in that she progressed through the same adjustments we all experienced during our stay in Riyadh, yet nothing in Riyadh was ordinary. We single women who formed an esoteric group of medical professionals, both expatriate and Arab, shared a path– a wonderful, exciting path that is portrayed beautifully in this book.

A single woman could hardly spend any time in Riyadh without enduring her own Muttawa story, the elements of which are identical for all us us, though the details differ. We did not ride in cars too many times before being pursued by eager males, who sometimes latched onto our vehicles and didn’t give up until our nervous drivers reached our combination havens/prisons behind gates and guards.

We endured the uncertainty and confusion of how to relate to male colleagues from different areas of the world. We often fell in love with one or more of them. The term “Riyadh Romance” carried a specific meaning, referring to an attraction that blossomed there, but maybe withered when transplanted.

We could hardly seek to understand anything without making peace with wearing the the abaya, and discovering that it, along with the scarf and sometimes face veil, let us glide comfortably through the same spaces our uncovered colleagues found awkward.

We discovered the depths of emotion, talent, and ambition present in women who previously seemed insipid under their black wraps. We entered the lush world of Saudi femininity and saw– literally– what men are not allowed to see. We reclaimed the state of sisterhood we may have felt as prepubescent girls.

We ended up in Mecca sooner or later, if we were Muslim, and we opened our hearts to God wider than they’d been opened before.

We also learned that some ugly national stereotypes held up well under observation, just as those we carried with us from our countries of origin.

We opened our eyes to complex political situations that showed us unequivocally that the poles of East and West really do intend to destroy each other on the glorified backdrop of justice. We learned to pray that those poles be dissolved, if not brought into the fold on a realistic backdrop of justice. We realized that the most we can achieve is a mitigation, not a restoration, of rights inherent to the state of human existence, rights that some people enjoy from birth, and others are denied.

This memoir is, after all, a memoir, and should be read as such. For those of us who’ve lived in the Kingdom, it will bring memories into close focus. For others of us, it should inspire investigation into the subjects it addresses. I cannot imagine that this book could disappoint anyone who holds even a superficial interest in memoir, East-West relations, Islam, Saudi Arabia, or the expatriate experience in Riyadh

Warning– Graphic Video

No, I am not going to post a graphic video. I am going to tell you my reactions to seeing two. I know you are not interested in my reactions, but you might be interested in my conclusions.

I am one who can tolerate seeing all kinds of blood and guts. Years of working in hospitals has trained the queasiness out of me, but I’ll never forget the day, thirty-five years ago, I saw my first autopsy and nearly fainted.  I became a vegetarian afterwards, until the effect wore off. The second autopsy didn’t impact me so much; I actually assisted on it, but I became a vegetarian again afterwards. I now believe that people should be trained– from childhood– to see and appreciate the innards of the body, and not just the shell. To that end, I periodically show my grandkids my nice color atlas of anatomy. What’s important here is context.

The medical context has grown out of our intuitive conclusion that the body’s inner workings belong to our desires, efforts, and responsibilities to take care of ourselves, to appreciate our gift of earthly life, and to bond with others in their experience of the physical processes of life.

Graphic videos–the euphemistic term for torture and dramatic suffering followed by the murder of one person at the hands of another–  depict what should never, ever occur to any human being in any culture or circumstance.

Graphic videos are not new, but in recent years have become easily accessible via the Internet. Sometimes I worry that my grandson will see one of them, despite the parental controls we’ve placed on his computer. I worry because I know first-hand that viewing graphic videos can result in a sort of post-traumatic stress that is neither necessary nor desirable for proper growth and development– no matter what the viewer’s age.

Remember, I am a medical person, accustomed to viewing the innards. My curiosity about graphic videos was more clinical the emotional. Does the carotid artery spray blood in all directions when a person is decapitated? Do brains really fly out of the skull when a person is shot in the head? Are murder scenes in movie representative of murder scenes in real life? Thinking to satisfy my clinical curiosity, I watched two graphic videos.

The first showed ISIS members cutting the head off a victim.  As the video began, I felt that old queasiness, present at my first autopsy, arise. My heart speeded up. This death would not be the accidental or premature death of an autopsy patient. This death would show the ultimate violation of a human being, the depth of possibility for human degeneracy, all the more traumatic because its victim could never have earned such a fate, ever, and indeed, might have been an angel in disguise.

Suddenly, my clinical curiosity lost all relevance in the face of the  spiritual, moral, religious, sociological, psychological, economic and developmental factors that had come to bear upon people who would partake of such depravity.  How does a soul travel from the innocence of birth to its ruination at the gates of Hell on Earth? This question is the real one we need to focus upon as a global society, but my concern here is with my own responses to the matter.

After seeing the head-cutting video, I couldn’t eject from  my mind’s eye the eyes of the victim, focused, during those last moments of his short life, upon the scene around him, in which a group of ISIS members shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” repeatedly, as if they had performed an act of worship.

A few weeks later, I watched a video of a young Palestinian boy being shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. The boy resembled my grandson, and I knew I would regret watching this demise. Indeed, I grieved for that dear, beautiful boy almost as if I had known him. A month later, I still see his mutilated head in my mind’s eye, and I become nauseous.

I do not think graphic videos should be strictly banned. They serve a purpose opposite the purpose intended by their photographers. They inspire viewers to  face the reality of which is happening again and again in the Middle East and elsewhere. They cause the viewer to consider  the tremendous chain of circumstance, insult and injury, suffered by both perpetrator and victim, that resulted in them coming together for this ultimate degradation.

One can easily pronounce perpetrators as evil, devoid of soul, beyond redemption. That may be true, but what has happened to them? Surely, they were born and cared for, even loved, by their mothers and fathers, or substitute caregivers. Surely, they played childhood games with their friends and siblings. Some of them might have gone to school and excelled academically. Others may have reached full maturity and started families of their own. What happened? How did they end up in a killing field, voluntarily, even happily, performing acts of savage barbarism, calling out, “Allahu Akbar,” believing they had the right to pronounce takbeer as they completed the most hideous act possible against another of Allah’s servants?

I will not watch any more graphic videos, but I will certainly pay attention to the complex series of events that brought the global community face to face with the reality of these videos. I hope other viewers come away with an increased awareness  that historical, political, sociological and psychological realities preceded such videos. I hope and pray that the victims of these videos now sit in the shadow of the Throne, and that those of us who still possess earthly resources will use them to craft developmental means by which the likes of ISIS  may never emerge again.

As for my clinical curiosity, I am now ashamed of it.

 

In Defense of Visible Hair

My conversion and early years as a Muslim occurred in Saudi Arabia, where hijab was mandatory for everyone, whether we believed in it or not. Even non-Muslim women were well-advised to wear hijab while visiting certain neighborhoods of Riyadh. Scarves and abayas were always black, with maybe some nice black embroidery along the edges. Non-Saudi women could get away with wearing colored scarves,  pale shades and pastels only, with matching embroidery.  I wore hijab willingly, because I wanted to comply with local customs, and to be recognized as a Muslim woman; I wanted to move around the city inconspicuously, drawing no attention from anyone.

I’d studied the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the English translation, and I was not convinced that head covering was required. On the contrary, I was convinced that women were free to interpret those verses according to their personal conclusion. Living in the Kingdom, however, called for conformity above personal expression, so I covered everything, sometimes face and eyes. I even wore black gloves and black socks on occasion, when I knew I’d be encountering women who’d scold me, were they to see my white hands and ankles. Yes, women did scold me, usually at the mosque or at the madrassa. They believed that every inch of a woman’s skin must be covered in black while outside the home.

My Arabic was never fluent enough to challenge those reproaches, but who was I to challenge them, anyway? According to my own understanding, those women were entitled to their interpretations as I was entitled to mine.

Hijab never gave me any cause for psychological stress while in the Kingdom. I even got used to the physical discomfort from wrapping my head in black when the temperature rose so high you could fry an egg on the hood of a car.

Hijab never gave me distress while in the United States, either. I simply didn’t wear it (except for prayer) and still don’t. Though I never doubted the permissibility of going about bare-headed, I still give thought to the reasoning behind the practice. In fact, the reasoning behind the practice holds more importance for me than whether or not it is required in Islam. Living outside the Kingdom, personal choice becomes an important variable in whether a woman covers or not. Personal choice in any matter necessitates careful examination of the options.

Head-covering served to brand women as Muslim, and therefore unavailable for flirtatious activity or harassment of any sort. The idea is to downplay the “adornments” of women. Hair, boobs, curves, eyes, lips, hands, legs, skin… all of those can be categorized as “adornments,” and therefore, the glove-and-sock wearers are as justified in their practice as the head-coverers are in theirs.

Should cultural attitudes regarding modesty factor into a woman’s decision as to which parts of her body are the “adornments” to be covered and withheld from the gaze of men? Obviously yes, if you subscribe to the flexible interpretation of the texts, as I do. In the Kingdom, cultural attitudes prevailed; the woman who covered even her eyes, hands and ankles caused no stir on the streets of Riyadh. If she’d walk around like that in my American community, someone would call the police.

Here in the United States, boobs and crotch are the ultimate private parts, with curves coming in next, but hair? I don’t think so. Do you think so? OK, so cover it, but don’t ask me when I’m going to start covering mine.

As for curves, I don’t have them anymore, but my body is still draped in clothing so loose you cannot see where one part stops and the next part starts. My gray hair poses no distraction for anyone. I’m modest, I’m safe, and my appearance does not invite attention from anyone. What’s not Islamic about that?

I know I am in the minority. Most Muslim women in the United States cover their hair voluntarily, even proudly. In fact, the hair-covering seems more important than any other kind of covering. I’ve seen many women who would’t let even a strand of hair fall out, yet their faces are enhanced with cosmetics, their jeans are form-fitting and they might even wear belts. Scarves in this country are brightly colored, patterned and layered. I daresay my bare-headed appearance qualifies as more modest than most of the Muslim women whose hijab screams, “Look at me!” I conclude that hair-covering carries multiple meanings, and modesty is not one of them.

Herein lies the difficulty with understanding head-covering as it is practiced in different cultures. It is rarely about modesty, and only superficially about religious requirement. Mostly, it is about announcing to the world that, “I am a Muslim woman.” It’s a public display of faith, and as such, it makes perfect sense. I understand myself and others much better from this perspective. I am not comfortable with public announcement of my attributes, be they physical or spiritual. I do not like to advertise for anyone or any position.  That means I don’t put bumper stickers on my cars, I don’t wear clothes with logos stitched to  pockets, and I don’t cover my hair. 

 

 

Moving to the USA with my Arab Husband

Cross-cultural marriages have increased during the last fifty years, and so has the ability to move between those cultures. Logic suggests that a stable such marriage should flourish regardless of which culture the couple chooses to establish their home.  Haven’t they both proven their ability for adjustment and compromise,  and welcomed aspects of the other culture into their lives?

Many years ago, while I was living in Saudi Arabia, cross-cultural marriages were the norm, at least in my circle. My women friends had come to Saudi Arabia from various countries, as had their husbands. Some of us met and married while in the Kingdom, like me and my husband. The common thread between us all was that we were all Muslims, content to have landed in Saudi Arabia for a time.

As foreigners in the Kingdom, we were welcomed for our labor, but not allowed to establish Saudi citizenship. Sooner or later, we’d have to go home.  Therefore, we came and went. Those who went reported back to those who remained.  I paid particular attention to the stories involving Arab husbands and American wives. I was always surprised to hear that some of these marriages collapsed upon relocation to the United States. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.

My Egyptian husband and I enjoyed a quiet, content and orderly life in Riyadh for six years. He worked as an engineer and I stayed home, indulging in all the domestic activities I’d postponed during my years of working in hospitals. We believed in this model of marriage, we were happy, and didn’t want to change it in the United States.

When we came to the US, he could not find a job  as an engineer because he did not have the required engineering credentials, despite a college degree and twenty-five years of experience for which he’d been well-paid in Saudi Arabia. In the US, he was unwilling to update his academic knowledge, and therefore became unemployable in his field. He then worked at a series of minimum-wage jobs. He did not perform well, mostly because he’d never set foot in a Western country before coming here, and his English was not perfect. Also, many American cultural behaviors confused and offended him, while he, in turn, did not endear himself to many Americans, except those in the Muslim community, who understood him.

While he suffered demotion and ultimate failure in the workplace, I had to return to my profession. Our roles became reversed, and neither of us liked it. In fact, we hated it. He hated staying home, and I hated working. He was not a good house-husband, and I always had to do the cooking, laundry, and cleaning in addition to my full-time job. We could no longer help or support one another. The tension eventually came to a head– I’ll save the juicy details for my memoirs–and I left him.

Oh, other factors put stress on us, factors that all Muslim cross-cultural couples face with respect to daily living.  Language is different, driving laws are different, house construction is different, holidays are different, clothing is different, and eating can be problematic with respect to pork, if not alcohol. America is full of pork, and you can’t always avoid it if you don’t know, for instance, the “sausage” is pork, and “hamburger” is beef.  Prayers are not easy to keep. In addition to never hearing an azan, work duties  interfere with prayers times.  On top of that, men and women mix and work freely together, giving everyone really good chances to become attracted to people other than their spouses. Even if each partner is firmly committed, he or she knows that the spouse may become the object of another person’s interest.

Speaking of “interest”, you can hardly buy a home in this country without using the usurious monetary system based on interest.

Another disappointment of living in the United States is that the Muslim community is spread apart. You have to drive a bit before finding a mosque or another Muslim family with which to establish social ties. This felt odd, because from our home in Riyadh, where we lived in a 100% Muslim neighborhood, we could walk to not one, but several mosques for evening prayer. In America, we felt like an island.

In spite of  those and other unpleasant adjustments that Muslim couples must make upon relocating to the United States after having lived in the Middle East, some families survive and thrive. I have noticed that the families remaining intact after moving to the United States are those in which the husband is employed in a satisfying profession, and the wife either stays home, or works at a profession she loves, and they both agree on her employment. Additionally, they have found ways to incorporate their Islamic practice into the flow of American society.

We couldn’t do any of that. We made mistakes. We fell subject to cultural and economic forces that worked against us, and we couldn’t find ways to situate ourselves comfortably. Now, more than ten years after those events, we are friends, we phone each other daily and maintain our family structure somewhat (with respect to the kids and now grandkids). Neither of us has remarried. He has never worked except part-time in low-paying jobs. I have worked continuously, to my chagrin. I now look forward to retirement, which should occur at the end of this year, inshaAllah.

The Muslim community around us has grown, and I feel encouraged that I’ll enter into community again. My ex-husband and I still go to jummah prayer together sometimes, and we reminisce about our happier days. We’ve returned to equilibrium, and take much pleasure in watching our grandkids grow and in helping our daughters care for them when we can. I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out any other way. If I had it do over again, I might not change a thing. If I were young enough to consider another marriage, I’d prefer another cross-cultural one, but I sure would like to give some advice to those who are considering it for the first time!

 

 

 

I Did Not Revert

When I meet Muslim people for the first time, they invariably ask me, “When and how did you revert to Islam?”

I answer, “I did not revert. I converted many years ago while living in Saudi Arabia.”

I wish Muslims would stop using the word, “revert” in reference to someone who comes to Islam from a non-Islamic background. Oh, I get the idea…a baby is born in submission to Allah. The root word of Islam means, “submission” in Arabic, and therefore, new babies are born Muslim. Their parents intervene and put other religions into them until they grow up and “revert” to their original state of submission to Allah– Islam.

That’s like saying a lump of dough is a loaf of bread before it gets baked, but a  lump of dough is a lump of dough. It has the potential to become bread, rolls, cake, pie, cookies, or biscuits. If baked incorrectly, it can burn. If left alone, it will spoil. Babies are not Muslims. The logic is faulty and the linguistic sleight-of-hand is disrespectful to believers who follow religions other than Islam.

It’s an insult to their intelligence, and to the intelligence of those of us who convert to Islam after having been raised in other religions. I did not become Muslim because someone told me I was born “in submission to Allah” and therefore I was Muslim from the start, and now lucky enough to have discovered my true nature. That’s ridiculous. Any thinking person knows that babies are born through no will or effort of their own, therefore they’re born in response to the will of God (if you even believe in God). To imply that their parents divert them from the path to which they had been born is nothing but hubris on the part of Muslims who espouse the idea.

 

Contemplating the Roller Coaster

Over the years, I have kept in touch with a friend I met in Riyadh. She is also an American woman, married to a Saudi (I was married to an Egyptian). We met at the Riyadh community college for ladies. We were both studying Arabic and we became friends. In addition to seeing each other at class, we talked on the telephone nearly every morning, after husbands went to work and children went to school.

 

We talked about everything–  Islam, marrying Arabs, living in Riyadh, cultural differences between Americans, Saudis and Egyptians. Every few weeks, she’d come with her driver and we’d go to Obeikan or Jareer bookstore, where we wandered around the aisles containing books on Arabic and Islam. We were happy with our husbands and our lives, in the 1990s.

 

Now, we are all in the United States. I am divorced and she is clashing with her husband about vital life concerns. Suddenly I remember conversations I heard long ago from other women, conversations that went like this:

 

“My friend was married to an Arab here in the Kingdom. As soon as they went to the States, they started fighting and now they are divorced.”

 

“Yes, I heard the same thing about a Western woman who used to live here, married to an Arab. Their marriage unravelled when they went to live in the States.”

 

I’d heard this conversation often enough to realize the truth of it. Cross-cultural marriages that flourished in the Kingdom tended to fall apart in the States, even when both parties belonged to the same religion. I knew that the challenge of repatriation, and adjustment to differing social and economic conditions, could put a strain on any marriage, but I never imagined my own marriage would follow the same pattern. It did, only two years after we left Riyadh.

 

Now, my friend and I talk about how and why our marriages became unsatisfactory. Neither one of us is happy with our situations, yet we do not regret our choices, and neither do our husbands, so what has happened? Sometimes I feel as though my entire Riyadh experience was a merry-go-round I’d been riding. I got on willingly, enjoyed the initial ups and the downs, and sat through multiple rides, next to the man who became my husband.

 

Then, the merry-go-round stopped, and we had to get off. We moved on to the roller-coaster. It made us both sick and dizzy.

 

I don’t think I can carry this metaphor any further, but you get the idea.

 

We’ve recovered our equilibrium, with feet back on the ground, somewhat the worse for wear. Do all marriages, and all lives, include a merry-go-round, a roller-coaster, and a grounded walk away from both of them? I don’t know. I am content, at least, thankful to Allah for everything, and so is my friend, and so is my  ex-husband.

 

الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ عَلَى كُلِّ حَالٍ 

“Alhumdulillah ‘alaa kuli haal,” we now like to say. “Praise God in every situation.”

 

 

A Visit to the New Mosque, Uncovered

The community in which I live has just completed the construction of a new mosque, alhumdullilah. It was many years in the planning– from raising the funds to finding the site, then getting permission from the local government, followed by the complexity of design, architecture, contracts, construction, weather, fittings, appointments, etc. This mosque marks a victory for nearly one hundred Muslim families who formerly drove thirty-five minutes to the main mosque in another part of the city.

I attended an Open House there last weekend. I knew there’d be displays, good food, talks, plenty of interaction with Muslims and non-Muslims, and maybe a renewal of spirit for me as well as other attendees.

I didn’t cover my head, out of a desire to remain non-hypocritical. I don’t cover, except for prayer, so why should I cover to go to the mosque for a social event? I don’t believe covering is a requirement of Islam, and I’m not going to argue the point.  My relationship with the practice holds more meaning for me than delving into the minutiae of Islamic law. Besides, even if covering is required, I’m still not going to do it in the United States–period.

Well, my old ambivalence about covering has not evaporated despite years of living in the United States, where covering is not enforced by a CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice). My ambivalence has nothing to do with the religious legality of the issue, however. It’s about being recognized– or not– as a Muslima. Quite frankly, there are times when I want to be recognized for my faith, and times when I don’t. As for modesty, that’s a non-issue these days; I’m a gray-haired senior citizen.

The Open House featured question and answer sessions with community leaders. Most in the audience were non-Muslims, and naturally, head covering interested them. The speaker, a woman who devotes much of her time to community outreach and education, said that yes, head covering is required. I didn’t contradict her– there’s no point debating the issue–  but she gave a good argument in favor of the practice.

She said that because the head cover immediately identifies the woman as a Muslim, her behavior is always on display as a reflection of her faith. It gives the woman constant opportunities to behave as best she can according to the manners, beliefs, and practices of Islam both with respect to herself and with her interactions in society.

I liked this explanation better than any other I’ve heard. It trumps the  Qur’an and Sunnah based interpretations, at least for me. I felt sorry I had not covered, because people greeted me with, “Hello,” and not, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” to which I responded, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” which brings me to a situation that I find irritating: women who are not covered are assumed to be non-Muslims. For the record, it ain’t always so!

Besides, I bristle at the idea that Muslim women should be recognized in public as Muslims, while Muslim men wear no such badge on their heads. I wonder how long the practice would remain relevant if men had to wear a cap with an “M” stamped front and back.

Anyway, the new mosque is beautiful and just a fifteen minute drive from my house. I renewed acquaintance with several women I hadn’t seen for quite awhile, and I met some new ones whom I’d love to see again. I’ll be attending programs and prayers at this mosque– the sooner the better–and I’ll do so covered.

Between the Opposites

I was talking to my cousin in Italy recently. He is an atheist. He says he cannot believe in a god who allows the pervasive suffering that lies inherent in the lives of human beings.  The God who is called “good”  allows suffering disproportionately and arbitrarily, maybe even inflicts it, in no relationship to the commonly regarded virtues of any society or individual.  What kind of god is this? According to my cousin, no god worthy of the position would insult his creation with such perversity. Disbelief in God makes life easier, more understandable.  Ironically, this is the exact opposite position of believers, but he’s got a point.

The religions have explained suffering well enough, and have justified it through their teachings. I won’t challenge any of that; it’s an essential part of the glue that keeps religion vibrant. What interests me is not the evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of god, let alone a good god, but the fact that people who have led agnostic lives will turn to God in times of suffering.

Everyone knows someone who found him/herself in danger or illness, and implored God to save them, sometimes even making deals with God: “Oh, God, if you save me from this, I will…” I, myself, offered God such a deal. Thirty years ago,  during an unobservant period of my life, I  ended up in an unfortunate personal situation. I prayed to God, telling him that if he’d protect me, I’d look for a religion in which I could comfortably participate. What is the source of such a plea from a scientist who does not believe in any sort of phenomenon that could fall qualify for the definition of superstition?

It wasn’t until twenty years later, while studying Islam, that I learned about Islam’s claim that Allah has placed an instinctual yearning for the Divine within each human being.  I accepted that claim more because I wanted to accept it than because I was convinced. 

Ten years after that, while I was studying Progoff’s Intensive Journal, I encountered the ideas of Pierre Tiehard du Chardin. His concept of the evolution of spirit, and the noosphere, resonated with me, because it offered a bridge between the poles of unbelief and devotion.

Now, I’ve seen hints of a similar concept in some Sufi writings that have found me. In my characteristic way of detached evaluation, I will examine them. Maybe I will yet meet with a way to reconcile my scientific training with my (inborn?) yearning for the reality of God. Between my Italian cousin’s reasonable, evidence-based atheism, and my perennial  spiritual agitation that borders on agnosticism, I will find a way to “hold the tension of the opposites” (as Jung taught). Perhaps Allah will bless me with secure faith even before I meet him.