Learning Tajweed– Again

The Internet is awash in web sites for learning tajweed. I am amazed and impressed, but not tempted to use them. I first learned tajweed the old-fashioned way, by sitting at the foot of a master. Now, I have returned to that method.

My local mosque has begun a tajweed class that meets once a week for two hours.  The Egyptian teacher knows her subject and how to teach it. I look forward to that class. It’s better than nothing but I admit to craving more, needing more.

In Riyadh, I walked to a local madrassa every weekday to attend  a class that began promptly after Asr and ended at Maghreb. The teacher, also Egyptian, taught us not only by explanation but by beautiful example. She would recite, to illustrate the technique she wanted us to learn. She would explain in Arabic. I loved her velvet voice and her determination to teach well. Tajweed needs intensive practice over time. My life in Riyadh offered the perfect milieu in which to learn. Every morning before class, I would review and practice. I learned well.

Twenty years has passed since those golden days of sitting at the foot of a master, and I’ve fallen away from the practice of tajweed. The reasons are many and banal; you can imagine them and you won’t be wrong. Now, however, retired from the necessity of working for money, I’ve decided to resurrect the inspiring and enriching practice of reading the Qur’an with tajweed.

Surprisingly, I have not forgotten all of what I’d learned. I am rusty, to be sure, but the foundation is well-entrenched in my brain and heart. It’s like riding a bike, or swimming. Once you learn thoroughly, you can revive the skill after a hiatus. I look forward to reviving my practice and my skill.

Too Much of a Good Thing

When I was a child, and I wanted something, and asked my mother for it, she would invariable refuse, with the admonition, “You know what will happen when you have too much of a good thing.”

This admonition was most frequently applied to my desire for sweets and second helpings of regular meals, but she also said it in response to my desires for non-edible delights.  She said it so often, she shortened it, saying, “Too much of a good thing…” as a standard response.

My mom is most comfortable in controlled circumstances. She lives according to schedules and duties, and she does everything according to the directions. She was the perfect adjunct to my father’s extremely controlling nature, and reinforced his repeated,  “Not no, but HELL, no!” attitude towards all the activities and behaviors– normal, I might add– in which I wanted to participate as a young adolescent.

Having two such controlling and restrictive parents, I eventually stopped asking, but I vowed that, “When I grow up, I will never…” (apply any restriction whatsoever on whatever I wished to do, feel, think, eat, accept or reject.)

I grew up with what they called, in those days, “a weight problem.” In the beginning, I might have been a fat kid for several reasons, but as an adult, I kept myself fat, partly because of my childhood vow— so strong and well-entrenched– never to deny myself, restrict myself, hold myself back, for fear of reliving my childhood sadness of having been denied the experiences of peers. My adherence to this attitude towards food has been obvious, but only now, during my sixty-seventh year, do I understand that I have  applied the principle to all areas of life. When younger, I applied the principle of permission to experiences, risks, and limits. As I got older, and more financially able, I applied the principle to the acquisition of possessions.

Now retired, and looking around with an eye towards the down-sizing that all older people must attempt, I see before me the evidence of my self-indulgence.

In the attic is a long, low bookcase of two shelves, packed with books I’ve accumulated over the years and haven’t yet read. In my closet, several dozen shoes are stacked and line up, but I only wear six or seven pair of them. Also in my closet hang clothes I haven’t worn for years and never will. On a tall bookshelf in the hall, I’ve set two dozen packs of audio courses in all the subjects that interest me, yet I haven’t listened to more than several of them. As for music and film, I don’t know how many DVDs, CDs, and even cassettes from before the CD era are packed into corners of shelves and closets. Even the hard drives of all my computers are filled with music I haven’t yet screened.

Images take more space than music; that’s one reason I bought an iMac with the biggest hard drive available. My Flickr header says I now have more than 6,ooo images in my photostream.  While I’m on the subject, I confess that I’ve also accumulated a large assortment of frames, having planned to print and mount some of these images, but I’ve done so for only ten or twelve.

I usually own three to four swimming suits, ten to fifteen handbags, and three dozen scarves at one time. My latest example of profligate accumulation has been in the enrichment of my yarn stash. I now have enough wonderful yarn in all colors and natural fibers to feed my knitting frenzy for the rest of my life and the lives of those who come after me.

You get the idea. I’m not a genuine hoarder, however. I hoard objects in only the aforementioned categories, and maybe several more that have escaped my attention. I don’t hoard empty containers or knick-knacks or anything for which I have no use or care or no foreseeable function in the future. I throw-out garbage and empty waste baskets before they get very full, and I’m good about shredding old financial statements.

This behavior, I’ve now realized, reeks of my entrenched attitude of not denying myself anything I desire, if I am able to get what I want. If I cannot get what I want, I find a way or I forget about it, but I focus on that which is in my control.

Last week, a friend of mine confessed to a common anxiety. He said, “I often feel guilty about enjoying myself when I have tasks to complete.”

Without missing a beat, I replied, “Not me. I have the opposite affliction. I enjoy myself, and let everything else go.”

Even my political persuasions run counter to those in which I was instructed while growing up. I’m a left-of-center liberal, and Mom always thought I adopted that stance in rebellion to my father’s Tea Party position before the Tea Party existed, but she’s wrong. I did not rebel against anything, I merely let myself go, intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. I wandered far, and I’m still going.

Perhaps this vow, to never restrict myself in any way, if I can possibly avoid restriction, is  partially at  root of my being able to convert from Christianity to Islam. Surely, it is at the root of my bristling in front of all the behavioral imperatives that most Muslims adopt as part of Islam.

While living in Saudi Arabia, I tried to adapt myself. I set my mind towards acceptance of performing the five daily prayers, as well as the myriad little behaviors everyone else did as matter of sunnah (the example of the Prophet). I willingly covered myself completely, even my face when appropriate. I successfully fasted the months of Ramadan.

As a person who makes a determined effort not to restrict myself when I don’t have to by force of law or social pressure (and even to chuck those imperatives when I can get away with it), I easily pulled off the headscarf when I travelled outside the Kingdom, and I’ve never, to this day, been able to make all those daily prayers.

Even the dietary rules have gone out my window when not convenient, I confess. No, I do not restrict myself unless I choose to do so, and I rarely choose to do so. This year, I am hoping I qualify for a medical exemption so I can withdraw with impunity from the fast of Ramadan. As you can imagine, my lifelong commitment to immoderation has not always enhanced my health or well-being.

Now, however, in my second year of retirement, I am realizing for the first time how profoundly my principle of hedonism has infiltrated my entire existence, not just my dietary practices and religious track-jumping. It has exceeded its capacity for satisfaction, and has actually hindered me from enjoying its promises.

I must re-evaluate the adherence to excess that has marked my life in many ways. Actually, re-evaluation takes only a moment. What lies before me, practically, is the effort to voluntarily restrict myself, to appreciate and make use of what I already have, and to not add to the collections. I must now rein in, whether I like it or not.

I’ve taken steps, not easily, not thoroughly, not with pleasure but with an unfamiliar sense of obligation. As Mom says, “Who wants to sort through all of this stuff when I’m gone?”

She is right. I have an obligation now to face this lifelong commitment to extravagant living, and to atone for it.

I’ve given as many clothes to others and to Good Will as I still have unworn in my closet. I’ve weeded the book collection and parted with those I’ve read, giving up the intention to read them again, but adopting the intention to read those I haven’t. I’ve contributed to Mom’s rummage sale. I feel lightened, and I don’t miss what I’ve sent out into the world. I still have such a large pile of possessions to sort,  and I’m not looking forward to the task.

The amount of money I’ve wasted on possessions that have not benefitted me makes my stomach turn. Recently I gave away a lovely jacket that had cost $60 even back fifteen years ago. I’d never worn the jacket because I’d never lost enough weight to fit into it. The only way I could give it away was to regard it as a sort of charity.

As far as my mental and emotional excesses, I’ve already suffered and benefited by many of them, but the bill has not yet been paid in full. The most difficult habit to change will be eating too much. I don’t know if I’ll succeed or even if I’ll make a prolonged attempt to do so. Maybe, as I practice restraint in the more outward areas of my life, I will strengthen my capability to restrain in inner aspect.  Maybe, as I get comfortable with not increasing my yarn stash, I will learn how to get comfortable saying no to dietary excess. The rest of my life promises to be longer and more comfortable by reversing the guiding principle by which I lived since I left my father’s house forty-five years ago. Can I, will I, do it?

We’ll see.



Return to Riyadh?

As soon as I retired on New Year’s Eve of 2015, I knew I was free to travel. I could buy a ticket to any place for any day of the week, stay as long as I wanted, and return on any day of some other week in the future. What a relief! Anyone who knew me expected me to take flight rather promptly, but I have remained earthbound, and happily so.

Strangely, as soon as I became free of having to work, I also became free of the strong desire to travel. I am happy, and content, sitting in my chair, or outside when the weather is nice, knitting, reading, listening to music, watching Italian movies and writing to Internet friends. Settled in  this new situation, I received an invitation from my friend S. to come to Riyadh with her this year. Her (Saudi) husband could get a visa for me.

We’ve been talking about it for months, now, reminiscing about the days when we both lived there as younger women, studying Arabic together at the Ladies Community College in Riyadh. Wouldn’t it be lovely to go back together, visit our favorite bookstores, markets, and traditional suqs, see old friends who still live there, and even to go Mecca for Umra? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see the fancy new malls we never imagined could exist there?

I sent her a copy of my passport so she can pass it to her husband.

We are intending to go during the latter months of this year. Ironically, I feel neutral towards the potential fulfillment of my twenty-year longing to see Riyadh one more time. Sure, I would like to go, and I will go, inshaAllah, providing my health and finances permit, but the desire no longer burns, because I’ve gotten old rather quickly, and I’ve learned one of the secrets of being old, a secret that old people never talk about but young people perceive as a certain fading of enthusiasm for life, a decrease in desires, an indifference to appetites that once demanded fulfillment. Young people eschew what they perceive as the withdrawal from vibrant life, but old people know– if they are healthy and secure enough to know– that the last years of life need nothing more than a continuation and indulgence of the comforts one has built during the preceding years. These last years need only a move toward reconciliation with the foibles of years past, maybe a correction of unhealthy habits that gripped one during those early years but now serve no purpose. These last years need also to remain open for opportunities to fulfill intentions that never got satisfied earlier because of the obligations of vocation. Nothing new, exciting or drastically different needs to infuse a life already as secure and content as is possible within the confines of the human condition.

If I get the visa, and my life situation still permits me to go to Riyadh, I will go, but if not, if I or my mom or any one of my family suffers blows that need my support, I will give up the dream of this trip, and I will not lament. After all, my memories of those twelve years between 1986 and 1998 are far sweeter than any new ones I might create.



Another Hallmark Occasion

Today is Mother’s Day. I am blessed to still have a healthy, in-her-right-mind, ninety-one year old mother with whom I live and share household duties and expenses. For many years now she has refused gifts, citing her plethora of possessions, richness of blessings, and lack of need for anything beyond continued good health.  At first, I resisted not giving her a gift on Mother’s Day, but as I have grown older, I have arrived at the same place. I, too, do not want to receive gifts, for the same reasons. All I want is good health, the good health and happiness of the rest of my family, and especially, a good life for my girls and grandchildren.

However, I do buy a nice card for Mom on Mother’s Day. I go to Walgreen’s and peruse the cards, reading sometimes a dozen before finding the perfect verse in the most pleasing pastel colors. Yesterday I went to Walgreen’s. The parking lot was full, and the card aisle crowded with adults on the same mission– to find a perfect card, or even just a card, for Mom. I was lucky. The first card I saw was perfect, and I took it to the cashier.

These beautiful cards are always no less than five dollars. I resent paying that much, not because I resent buying a card but because I resent the stranglehold that card companies have thrown and tightened around the necks of consumers. Not just Mother’s Day requires a card, but birthdays for Mom, Dad, kids, grandkids, spouses, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even good friends, if they are lucky.

These cards are expensive; they give a moment of pleasure and elicit a grateful smile. They are placed on a shelf for a week or two, or maybe even a month, then stuck into a drawer until the drawer gets full and the space is needed for more cards or other important papers. The message of the cards wears off, and they are tossed into the recycle bin long before the next year’s occasion rolls around and the giver is obliged to buy another card.

My mom keeps her cards. I will probably put them in her casket. Nevertheless, my irritation with the expense grew considerably when I heard the cashier ask me for $7.59.

I groaned.

At that moment, I felt like a rat in a maze, slave to inherently hard-wired responses that get activated instantly to stimuli designed to energize those responses. Corporate America has constructed a revolving door, the elements of which are monetary greed propelled by the soft spots in human character. This combination creates a perfect storm of consumer spending on an artificially constructed occasions custom made for their purpose.

Mother’s Day is only one such occasion. Father’s Day occurs in June, along with the aforementioned occasions for which perfect greeting cards cost more and more each year.

Living in Saudi Arabia all those years pulled me off the greeting card merry-go-round.

In the Middle East, birthdays, in particular, are not celebrated with the vigor and expense that characterizes American culture. I knew many Muslims who did not make birthday parties for their children, citing precedent in Sunnah, if I remember correctly, and lack of indication for the permissibility of such celebrations within the pages of the Qur’an. At first, I thought their attitudes rather stiff, as I remembered my own birthday parties as a child, and how much I enjoyed the attention and the gifts.

Now, however, I understand birthdays, and all other occasions for which one might buy greeting cards and/or gifts, as artificially created occasions promoted by Big Business in order to suck more money out of consumers.

Once I admitted this, I easily gave up the habit of participating. I have long felt no need to buy a greeting card for any person, for any occasion, as a matter of habit or obligation, and I feel quite free of this particular noose. I passed that attitude on the my girls, who easily accepted it because they’d been raised in the Middle East.

We do celebrate birthdays, as an act of thankfulness for having been allowed by Allah to complete another year of life on Earth, but we celebrate quietly, and we do not make shows of spending money on cards, cakes and unneeded presents.

The only card I buy during the entire year is  Mother’s Day card. I buy it not because she expects it (she doesn’t) but because I enjoy the opportunity to tell Mom how much I love and appreciate her. The card is certainly worth the expense from that point of view. When she passes, I will feel sad that I will no longer be able to buy these wonderful, expensive cards, just like I feel sad on Father’s Day that my father is no longer with us.

I also buy sympathy cards when someone I know has suffered the loss of a loved one. Sympathy cards serve a purpose. When Pop died, we received dozens of cards, and each one gave us comfort.

What I will not buy, ever again, is a card simply because another holiday approaches, and I see advertisements for cards or gifts. I will not participate in customs designed to play upon the loving bonds between people in order to enrich the accounts of people whose accounts are already large. I thank my residence in the Middle East for this maturation of attitude, and I salute the teaching of Islam, which directs us to be thankful for the blessings of Allah, and to show our thankfulness in prayer, kind actions towards others, helping those who need our help, and forgiveness of their offenses against us.

Mom understands all of this perfectly, and she’s not even a Muslim.









Again, I’ve rediscovered my own blog. It happened as I was perusing my files for an essay I want to send to my cousin. Since I’ve changed computers three times since writing that essay, I turned to the blog. I didn’t find the essay, but I discovered an essential part of myself that I do not share in real life with anyone. I’d forgotten that I used to share that part on this blog.

As the years rolled over, and my life settled into the routine of a stable but demanding job, and I became a grandmother four times (alhumdullilah!) I fell away from writing.

Perhaps I will come back to it, because the grandkids are growing, and I might want to leave them this blog. They might not be interested, though. Would I have read the diaries of my grandmothers?

Writing used to validate me to myself. Sharing the work on the blog enriched me. Do I no longer need this means to strive toward Maslow’s pinnacle of development– self-actualization? Do I still care?

I’m sixty-six years old already, in my second year of retirement.

I still have much to say. I should probably get busy.



A Few Surprises

Nearly one year has passed since I’ve retired, and I haven’t travelled. I’d imagined that I would have gone at least to Italy by now, if not Riyadh, but I’ve become settled and even complacent.  Sharon and I still talk about going back to Riyadh together. Last year we talked about doing it this year, and this year we’re talking about doing it next year.

Another surprise is that I’ve become physically lazy. Instead of going to the gym daily, as I’d intended, I have not even increased my frequency of going two or three times a week, and I’ve certainly not increased the intensity with which I exercise. My body displays this neglect.

One good habit I’ve picked up is going to the masjid for jummah most Fridays. Our new mosque is lovely and clean, and our imam impresses me with wisdom, depth, passion and dedication based upon common sense and thought as well as education.  I’m not much of a Muslim in this country, weak as I am in faith and subject to the influences of non-Muslims around me. This blog has always been a place for me to explore my relationship with religion in general and Islam in particular. I’ve remained somewhat anonymous in order to protect my freedom to explore ideas that would not be appreciated by family members or friends. Now, I’m going to admit that I’ve started to learn about Buddhism.

I’ve always wanted to learn about diverse systems of religious thought, not necessarily to practice but to draw lines of consistency from one to the other. I’ve never abandoned the hope that the best religion is that which espouses whatever runs as a common thread throughout all religions. That would mean something like a Ten Commandments faith system.

Now that I’m retired, I have the time to study all of those Great Courses I’ve accumulated over the years, most of which focus on religion and psychology. I’ve got courses in Buddhism, Judaism,  and Axial Age religions. I’ve got courses on the “great minds” of the Eastern traditions as well as philosophies and psychologies. I chose to begin with the Buddhism course because I’ve been corresponding with a Buddhist who is open and willing to share the experience of that faith, and can answer my questions in a personal way.

Another retirement goal– of returning to the study of Jungian theory and practice– is just now starting to get activated. I once asked my friend Ellen if Depth Psychology could be a religion, because if so, I would join up. She said no.

I met Ellen in Ireland, at the annual Jung in Ireland seminar. I’ve always wanted to go there again. Two days ago I received the brochure for the 2017 seminar, and noticed immediately that it will be conducted at the same place in which it was conducted when I attended back in…2002? I would love to go. Can I afford it? I don’t know yet.

That reminds me of another surprise: I have not resumed studying to become a leader for Progoff’s Intensive Journal. That was to be my post-retirement vocation. I was quite devoted, and spent lots of time and money preparing myself.

Falling away from Journal work occurred organically, in 2007, when several circumstances combined to draw me away. The grandkids started getting born, and my father got ill. Then, Jon Progoff deemed me ready to start leading workshops, even though I hadn’t quite finished the preparatory work. I tried to organize a workshop.

I tried hard, contacting at least four potential sponsors, having meetings, spending time and money courting them, all while still working in the laboratory, and not a single one of them agreed to help me sponsor a workshop. I became discouraged.

Granted, I disliked the public contact, the salesmanship involved, the effort I expended without guarantee of pay-off. I’ve never been a successful salesperson, not from lack of ability or lack of opportunity but for distaste of the process. I’ve tried, even before the Intensive Journal effort. I’ve tried real estate, cars sales, and Shaklee products. Always enthusiastic about the preparatory work, the intellectual effort and the logistics of these activities, I consistently slowed down as I approached the meat and potatoes of salesmanship– interacting with the public.

I thought I’d be successful with the Journal because leading workshops is not about salesmanship. What I learned fast, however, was that organizing workshops was about nothing if not salesmanship, Jon Progoff’s comments notwithstanding. I once told him I disliked sales, and he adamantly asserted that the Journal was not about sales. How many workshops has he organized? I don’t mean sitting at his desk and putting together workshops that other people have started. I mean pavement-pounding.

What my failure to lead workshops means is that I cannot deduct an Ireland trip from taxes because it would not be a continuing education function. It is expensive, and maybe more than necessary because most participants are professionals who deduct the expense.

I’ve achieved yet another failure this year in developing a nice activity that relies upon public content. I’ve opened an on-line store as a sales outlet for my knitwear. I loved the work of establishing the store, but I haven’t sold anything because I haven’t followed through with the tasks necessary to reach the proper customer base, and guess what?

I don’t care. I don’t care if I never sell a single item. The knitting itself has been a joy. One hope remains, and that is in developing my own patterns that I can offer for online purchase. I can set things up so that I don’t ever have to contact with anyone. I simply post the patterns on line and offer them for sale on the appropriate web sites, and wait for sales. I will pursue this line.

My return to knitting in such a big way has been yet another surprise, even though I always knew I’d return to knitting, after retirement. I will also return to sewing, though not until the knitting energy has been dissipated.  I intended only to start knitting items here and there for myself and the kids, but I started looking at patterns and yarns, and realized that knitting can become another art form for me, especially in the designing of patterns. That’s what I’ve been doing all year, and I my first published pattern will come out in December. After this first one, the others are developing nicely and more quickly.

Another surprise is that I haven’t increased my study of my languages, nor have I kept up this blog or any other personal writing. Though I’ve, “got my life back”, as I like to describe retirement, I’ve been somewhat absent from it. Maybe I’m simply on an extended vacation. Maybe I’m still indulging in the decompressive process called retirement.

In any event, I find myself content, and sometimes downright happy.



In Retirement, Finally

I’ve retired! I’ve quit my job and do not expect to get another one! I’ve saved enough money, with the blessings of Allah, to support myself. Of course, I need Social Security as well, and one can never predict the future with respect to one’s financial affairs, health, or vagaries of circumstance. I am prepared as much as possible, and I am very happy.

The most important aspect of retirement for me is that I’ve got my life back, in a sense. Now is the time I can Return to Riyadh in actuality, not only metaphorically or symbolically.

The possibility does present itself, and I do not know whether I will go or not. Sixteen years has passed since I lived in Riyadh. The city and the country has changed, according to people I’ve talked with who come and go regularly. It will never be the Riyadh I knew, the Riyadh of before 9/11, before terrorism, and the exacerbations of political conflict. On the other hand, if I go to the apartment building in which I lived, and look at it from the outside, and look at the TV tower across the street, I expect the views will be the same. I expect I’ll find the same dust puddles, the same big, green dumpsters from which cats and odors emerge. I expect I’ll see the same salmon colored sky. I expect I’d still enjoy shopping for produce at Otayga suq, or buying Canad at a local fish market. I expect I’d find the same shawarma stands where they’ve always been. I expect Obeikan and Jareer bookstore still operate, and I’d love to buy books in those places again.

Two of my good friends– Asmaa and Taghreed– still live there, and I would love to see them.

Mecca still beckons, of course, even though it has become marked (some would say “marred”) by that enormous commercial enterprise that now casts shadows over the Kaaba.

Apart from considerations of reminiscence and a reawakening of that important period of my life, there are considerations of practicality. I would go with Sharon, of course, and stay with her in her home there. Her husband could get me the visa. I would have to dust off my long dresses, and dig my abaya out of the attic. I could then buy new, modern ones when I arrived.

I’m not worried about safety. I never did worry about safety while traveling the Middle East, though now, the matter does warrant some attention. Safety is definitely a relative concept, and unpredictable, minimally controllable, so I will still not worry about it.

Shall I go?

We’ll see… InshaAllah. I will pray Istikarah.

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.