That Small, Brown Bottle

tquinomen.jpg   Maryam spent the first eight years of her life shuttling between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. When she was nine, I married her father– her birth mom was not active in our lives– thus becoming her step-mom, and so she added the United States to her yearly route.  The wonders of the West included cats that lived in people’s houses, yard rats with bushy tails, dozens of TV channels, her first bicycle, and chocolate chip cookies.

She had never tasted real, homemade chocolate chip cookies until my mother made them for her during our second annual visit to the United States.  She adored those tawny discs of sweetness spotted  with velvet peas of chocolate, and she helped me make them in our own Riyadh kitchen later that year. One cool, January day, when she was twelve, she said, “Let’s make chocolate chip cookies today!” 

 “I’m sorry, honey I’ve got to go out. Sharon’s driver is coming for me —no  time to bake.” 

“I’ll make them myself!” She had never done so. alone.  “I can read the recipe, Mom. I can read it!” 

Maryam grew up speaking Arabic, not English. When I became her step-mom, I did not set out to teach her English. She simply listened to her father and me, and began repeating our greetings and everyday words.   Her knowledge of spoken English grew exponentially, but her reading knowledge developed at a more leisurely pace,  by picking out letters on signs, labels, doors, boxes and bottles— the same way I started reading Arabic. 

When I returned, I was relieved to smell fresh, lovely cookies. “Look, Mom!” She had just pulled them out of the oven, and hadn’t cleaned up the mess yet. I complimented  her success, and together we began cleaning the kitchen.  I noticed the soy sauce on the counter, and asked, “Oh, Sweetie, why is the soy sauce out?” 

She looked at me quizzically.  “I put it in the cookies!” 

“What?” I shrieked. 

Her face dropped. “Well, don’t you put that?  I’ve seen you!  It’s in the recipe.  Isn’t that the vanilla?” Then I understood, and laughed.

That small, brown soy sauce bottle resembled the vanilla bottle. Even the English  labels on both bottles were yellow, and the bottles sat on the same shelf.   Maryam had concentrated so hard on deciphering the recipe, letter by letter, that she forgot to read the label on the bottle.  She grabbed the bottle she thought she had seen me use.

The cookies tasted wonderful, without the slightest hint of either soy sauce or vanilla!

Revert or Convert?

294841945.jpg  In the early 1990s, I belonged a group of Muslim women, both ex-pats and Arabs, who gathered regularly to learn more about Islam and to socialize.  Several such groups existed, a few of which had been established formally in lovely villas for the express purpose of giving women a “public” place in which to meet other women, study Islam, and freely express themselves.  Once inside the high walls, women threw off their black wraps, exposed colorful clothing and bright make-up, chatted and laughed together, discovered new friendships and recipes, shared stories of adjustment and maladjustment, attended Arabic and Tafseer classes, and renewed their spirit for life in one of the most socially controlled environments in the world.

Kids ran and played, babies cried, voices rose up in babbles of conversation and cross- conversation, sometimes in mixed languages, though Enlgish was the most common language.  We looked forward to hearing speakers who would come from other countries specifically to meet us, make Hajj or Umra, and share news from abroad. Sometimes the speakers were well known throughout the Muslim world. I looked forward to meeting Aminah Assilmi, an American who had been raised Baptist, now president of the International Union of Muslim Women. The day she was to speak, I arrived early, so as to meet her personally.

I am thankful for women like Aminah, who are passionate and full of fire, able to ignite the spirits of those who fall under her sphere.  I don’t remember many details of Aminah’s lecture that day, but I’ll never forget a conversation we had before the crowd arrived.

She asked me how and when I came to Islam. I said, “I converted in 1988.”

She said, “REVERTED! You REverted!”

“Huh?” I hadn’t heard the term before, in the context of joining the Muslim fold. I’ve heard it a lot since then.

Aminah then explained that all humans are born in a natural state of Islam, that is, in a state of submssion to the will of God. Only by upbringing, and by no fault of their own, are children taught religions other than Islam. A person who leaves the religion of his/her birth and embraces Islam is said to have “reverted” to the natural state.

“Oh,” I said.

Obviously, all humans are born in a state of infantile dependency, ready to be molded into that which their parents and society try to mold them. I refrained from saying that I had been truly a Christian, and that becoming a Muslim was not at all an exercise in backtracking, but in expanding my consciousness, and learning to appreciate the depth, the complexity, the steadfast devotion, and ultimately the sincerity of the human search for transcendence. Accepting Islam opened my spirit in ways that Christianity never did, but I do not fault Christianity.  The Christian path expanded for me, not contracted, as I studied Islam and learned how to pray and read the Qur’an.

I am not a revert; I am a convert, and maybe not even that. I am a builder, a developer, and still a seeker.

A Muttawa Story

3772183960.jpg  Sometimes the most repressive of circumstances call for the most creative ways of thinking. As an American woman, who had never heard of religious police, much less ever met one,  I hoped I’d never have the opportunity to tell the kind of story I’d been hearing from some of my Western compatriots in the Kingdom.

One of my acquaintances ended up in jail for twenty-four hours, having been caught at a party where men and women were mixing and drinking.  After she was rescued by the American Embassy, she told us the repulsive details. I won’t bother recountng a second-hand story, especially when I’ve got a good one of my own.

A  muttawa confrontation is an expatriot rite of passage, though not a very pleasant one. No one seeks such an experience, but after it’s over, the story makes for a wonderful narrative in years to come. My own episodes occurred nearly twenty years ago, but judging from recent news from the Kingdom, they might still be appreciated.

I was engaged to an Egyptian man during the summer of 1991. One day, while he was at work, I spent the afternoon in his apartment on Khazan Street, getting to know his nine year and twelve year old daughters. After Asr prayer, we decided to walk down the block to the grocery store. No sooner had we left the building than we became aware of three muttaween– without a policeman– following us. We ducked into the store and examined items on the shelves. They came into the store and said something to me in Arabic. I did not understand, but I decided not to respond at all. Someone had told me not to talk to them.

The girls and I were covered, but the older girl’s abaya fell open to reveal her short skirt underneath. That was bad. The muttaween repeated whatever it was they said. I was afraid to speak English to the girls, and I couldn’t speak much Arabic at that time, so I went about my business in the store, but the muttaween wouldn’t leave. The girls whispered, “Talk to them,” and I whispered, “No.” There I was, with a young girl who allowed her abaya to fall open in front of muttaween, and I was not yet married to their father.

We left the store, and they left, too, following us. Then we noticed their car, driven by yet another one of them. It held up traffic, crawling along, following us as we walked down the busy street. I whispered to the girls to jump into the closest taxi, and we did. The muttawa car speeded up and blocked the path of the taxi, and the taxi driver shouted, “Out! Out! I no want trouble!”

We got out from the other side of the taxi and ran across the street, thinking that the muttawa car would not be able to turn around and follow us. It did. That girl’s headscarf then started to slip, and we had to stop so she could fix it. They stopped too, and started yelling in Arabic over their loudspeaker. I continued to ignore them. As long as we remained on the sidewalk, in public, we’d be safe, I reasoned, but I did notice that the muttawa car was more like an SUV, with plenty of room for prisoners.

We walked and walked, and became exhausted in the heat, but I was afraid to go back into a store. I didn’t know what to do. The muttawa car was undoubtedly air conditioned, and we had been walking for half an hour. The younger girl started to cry. The older girl said, “My friend lives in the next block, in the white building.”

“Is she home now?” I asked. “What’s her apartment number?”

Yes, she’d be home, and she lived on the third floor.

 “OK,” I said, “Walk normally until we get to the entrance. Then run as fast as you can up the stairs to her apartment. Whoever gets there first, pound on the door.”

We ran as fast as we could up three flights of stairs, with three muttaween on our heels. We pounded on the door. As it opened, I pushed it wide, and the three of us tumbled in. I slammed the door shut behind us and leaned on it, not an instant too soon. The muttaween, too, pounded on the door, yelled, pushed and rattled the handle, while I fumbled to engage the lock and lean on the door with all my strength.

Eventually they gave up, but we were trapped. Now I had five kids and no adult in the house; the mother had gone shopping. The phone rang. I told the kids, “Don’t answer it.” They said, “OK,” and went into a bedroom to answer it. The muttaween were calling from the office of the “bawaab”– the doorman–on the first floor. I repeated, “Don’t talk to them!”

By the time Maghreb prayer fell due,  the phone calls had stopped, and the mother returned from shopping. The kids all talked at once, telling the story. I phoned the girls’ father, told him the story, and he agreed to come and get us after Isha prayer. 

Later that night, we learned that the muttaween had trashed the office of the bawaab, tearing down posters he’d hung on the wall, and overturning drawers. They left, but kept phoning the apartment until the mother talked to them, and told them that I was an American Muslim convert who didn’t know Arabic, and that they should be happy for my conversion, and leave me alone.

Several years later, I realized that the muttaween had probably been watching the building in which my future husband lived. They knew that young Arab girls lived in those apartments. They did not harrass us again, probably because I never went out alone with the girls after that incident.  I also realized that the older girl was a bit of a flirt. This was not the first time she drew unwanted attention, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Introduction to Arabic

117.jpg  Before going to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1986, I bought an Arabic phrase book with a cassette. The words to be learned were written in  both transliteration and Arabic script. Even then, I ignored the transliteration. What kind of language was this that was written from right to left, with curls and curves, decorated above and below with dots and double dots, and sometimes dashes? I tried to learn the alphabet, but could not figure out why the words did not look like the letters of the alphabet. I listened to the clear, slow enunciation on the cassette, and I mimiced the sounds I’d never heard before, but couldn’t figure out how to put those sounds in the middle of a word. Much mystery resided in this language.

I didn’t hear the language in its perfection and beauty until the evening I boarded the airplane for my first flight to the Kingdom.  I’d heard snatches of conversation by the Arab passengers, but I wasn’t able to listen well until everyone had been seated, and the airplane was about to  accelerate down the runway. The pilot announced that we’d listen to a recording of Mohammed’s travel prayer.

I did not understand the travel prayer, of course, but I felt its meaning, and its sounds touched my heart. I loved the idea of public prayer, of prayer on an ariplane as it hurtled toward the dark horizon at the end of the runway.

During my first months in the Kingdom, I quickly discerned the difference between conversational dialect and Fusha– the formal language of the Qur’an and news announcers, the overarching language of the entire Arab world, understood by all, superseding every dialect. This was the language I loved to hear, but no one spoke it.

“No one speaks like that,” I was told repeatedly. Conversational Arabic unfolded in the dialects of  speakers.  I wasn’t able to differentiate dialects for several years.

“Why does no one speak in Fusha?” I asked my first Arabic teacher, an Egyptian woman.

“It would sound odd,” she told me.  

So, I’d have to learn two languages?

Unfortunately, I never learned even one. Oh, I studied, formally and informally, for years. I achieved a fluency of sorts, in kitchen talk and market matters. I learned grammar, reading,writing, and how to recite the Qur’an with tajweed, but I never achieved the kind of fluency that carried me out of the kitchen or the suq. Maybe I asked for too much. Westerners are notoriously challenged with respect to learning Arabic. I attribute this difficulty to the respective structures of English and Arabic.

English is like a geometric plane, extending as far as the user’s vocabulary and imagination, but Arabic is like a cube, multi-dimensional, deep with shades and colors. It is qualitatively more difficult than any Western language, yet oh, so beautiful to the ear. I can only imagine the subtley and depth of meaning as perceived by one who has mastered it.

When I repatriated in 1998, I gave up studying Arabic, because I was ashamed of myself for not achieving fluency, and I knew my opportunities would be severely curtailed in the United States. I put my Arabic textbooks at the bottom of my storage box, and I turned to the tasks of repatriation.  I wouldn’t feel the pull of Arabic language again until 2006, the year my father started running serpentines between good health and critical illness.

Jet Lag

desert_81.jpg  The trip from my home in Riyadh to my home in the United States lasted nearly twenty-four hours, provided that none of the flights were delayed. Over the years, the number of connections decreased from four to two, but the hours of travel time remained the same.

I never dreaded the trip, and I never minded traveling alone. The hours between worlds served to cushion the shock of transition.

Seeing my mother and father waiting for me as I glided stiff-legged into the gate obliterated the instant realization that I’d missed another entire year of family life.  None of that mattered, since we were all still alive, still healthy, still a family, and still smiling.

That first night, all my siblings and their spouses would come to welcome me. I’d give gifts I’d brought from the Kingdom, and everyone would talk at once, and I’d fight to stay awake  past six in the evening.  By eight, I’d be sleeping, whether I wanted to or not.

Then,  I’d pop up fully awake the next morning at three o’clock. Jet engines still roaring in my ears, I’d get up, sort through a year’s worth of mail,  reaquaint myself with my library, wardrobe and cable TV, then make a cup of strong American coffee and sit outside on the patio, surrounded by trees, grass, flowers and the lemon sun of a Mid-Western morning.

Surely those days offered a taste of Paradise.

Jet lag isn’t bad from east to west. It’s the other way around that causes problems. After spending the month of July in the States, I’d board an evening flight back to Riyadh, a flight that would last approximately the same number of hours as the flight from Riyadh to the States. Even after I’d learned how to sleep on airplanes, I never felt refreshed or even light-hearted upon arrival in Riyadh. Landing always occurred late in the afternoon. By the time I’d get through customs, and travel from the airport to my apartment, the Isha prayer had come and gone.

Exhausted, but never able to sleep, I’d unpack. As the night became darker and more still, my lethargy crossed the midpoint, and began an ascent into energy.  Fajr prayer would approach, and I’d make plans for the day. I always tried to overcome jet lag from the first day back, but never had much luck. After Fajr prayer, I’d make a cup of strong Turkish coffee, then sit in front of the east window and stare into the light of a lovely Riyadh morning. By eight a.m., I’d be deep in sleep.

The confusion between day, night, sleep and wakefulness turned into a confusion of identity. What was I doing in Riyadh, anyway? Oh, yes… Each day I’d reconnect with a bit more of the life I’d built for myself in the Kingdom, and I’d discover that my friends Sharon and Asma also suffered similar adjustment problems. They were married to Saudis, so I supposed that west-east jet lag was more physical than psychological. Going west, we’d gain time, but going east, we’d lose eight hours. Amazingly, we’d feel those lost hours as an organic part of ourselves, lost to oblivion, irrecoverable.  Jet lag from west to east always resolved slowly, sometimes needing several months, not merely days or a few weeks.

Eventually, however, I’d become fully reintegrated into my life, and I’d recover my enthusiasm for the activities I’d grown to love—  taking care of  my home, studying Arabic and Tajweed, and later Italian, sewing, reading, writing, and connecting with other Western women who had built lives for themselves along a similar path.

I suppose I will return to Riyadh sooner or later, if not to the actual Riyadh, then surely the metaphorical city. My father will pass into what lies beyond bodily death, and I’ll have to learn how to reconnect with my own life, just as I had to reconnect with my life while overcoming jet lag from west to east. The lost part of myself will comprise more than just a chunk of hours from a day, but the same principle applies. I’ll have to remind myself why I’m alive, and  remember what I’ve built, and work my way back into it.


tn_floating.png    Thanks, Aafke, for encouraging me to have a little fun in spite of what is happening to my family.  Here is the meme:

1. Post these rules before presenting your list.

2. List 6 actions or achievements you think every person should accomplish before turning 18.

3. There are no conditions on what can be included on the list.

4. At the end of your blog, choose 6 people to get tagged and list their names.

5. People who are tagged write their own blog entry with their 6 suggestions.

6. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged.

7. Optional: You can include the image of the ridiculous Reese’s Puffs list in your post as a reference.

What should every person accomplish before the age of eighteen?  Hm….

1. Become fluent in at least one foreign language, and visit a country in which most people speak it.

2. Become skilled at a craft, or learn how to build something using hands and heart.

3. Learn a religion that is prominant on the other side of the world, and understand why it works.

4. Learn how to manage money, and plan for how to earn what you’ll need to take care of yourself as you enter maturity.

5. Learn basic physiology, first aid, nutrition, and the mechansims of common diseases.

6. Volunteer to provide a social service to people less fortunate.

Now, as for tagging six others, that’s a little difficult at this point because I don’t “know” six people that haven’t already been tagged! Maybe next time…

Passing the Torch

manta1.jpg My father is dying. The dying process began May 17, 2006– his first trip to the ER– and has accelerated during the last three months.

My memories of Riyadh have grown insistent as his body has grown weak. Many an evening, after having cooked, washed dishes, dispensed meds, walked my father to and from the bathroom, and made sure both he and my mother were comfortable for the night, I would ascend to my second story “loft” where I live and write. I would surf the net for photos from the Kingdom, and I’d seek out sites from which I could hear a bit of Arabic.

I’d work on my series of essays called “Vignettes from the Kingdom”, and I’d restrain myself from thinking I could ever study Arabic again, after all this time. Then I discovered, and I could no longer restrain myself. As the title suggests, the site brought me back to Arabic just as naturally as if I’d never strayed.

I found myself smiling, renewing my spirit for life, daring to hope that my life could absorb the blow of my father’s passing, and that I would recover after awhile. I found myself fully absorbed in the stories, the audio, the learning tools, and ultimately the ability of the human spirit to rally, to cling to shreds of meaning that can later be coaxed into the completion of essential life tasks.

This blog is not really about Arabic, Islam, Saudi Arabia or my experiences there. We already have many blogs and books written by people who are in a better position than me to provide that information. This blog is about tending gardens, nurturing connections, harvesting jewels and setting them into the shape of wholeness.

My Arabic adventure forms a matrix of sorts. By drawing the pearls of my past into the dynamics of the present, I shall craft a future through which the meaning of my life can express itself. I don’t know what that meaning is, exactly, but it’s about loving. It’s about my parents, my children and now grandchildren, my writing, my readers, and offering myself as a conduit through which others can discover what they need to discover, what will bring the meaning of their lives into focus, what will open their own channels, and strengthen them on the journey. It’s about passing the torch.

My father has already passed a mighty torch to me and all the others he has mentored and loved over the eighty-seven years of his earthly life. He has given everything he’s had to give, and is nearly empty of resources even to maintain his own body. For him, myself, my family, and my place in this universe, I must now grasp the torch with both hands, to keep it blazing, and learn how to pass it to whomever is worthy of holding it.

Living Authentically

eye_var2_f_tb.jpg  “Living authentically” is a catchphrase these days, but do you know what it means? I did not, until I pondered my friend’s comments regarding my “Return to Riyadh” dreams. She suggested that I had not been living authentically. What, exactly, did my years in Riyadh mean to me?

Did I miss having to swathe myself in black wraps? Did I miss having to keep an eye out for the mutaween? Did I miss not being able to drive? No, no, and no.

What I did miss, and still do, are the supportive friendships that nourished me there. I miss staying home to take care of my house and family, cooking lamb and camel with spices like mistika and dried lemon. I miss my daily chats on the phone, and reading the Qur’an in Arabic out loud, practicing tajweed, all by myself. I miss sunny days and quiet evenings. I miss the salmon colored sky of summer. I miss praying in mosques, especially during Ramadan.  I miss hearing Arabic all around me, every day. I miss the international atmosphere that is superimposed, and sometimes in conflict with, the Islamic basis upon which the country was established.

Most of all, I miss the sense of autonomy I developed there. That’s right– autonomy. In Riyadh, I was free to indulge my passions for reading, writing, travel, cooking, studying languages, and taking care of my family properly, without having to carve up my energy and allocate most of it to a job that did not promote the development of my spirit. 

Riyadh offered me a garden in which I blossomed.

My task now is to cultivate my own private garden, and keep it in bloom no matter where I live or what I do.

Return to Riyadh

800x600_pulsate1.pngAfter I repatriated to the United States in 1998, I began dreaming about returning to Riyadh. These were night dreams, and they all had the same plot. In the dreams, I wanted– needed– to get back to Riyadh, but I couldn’t. I’d forget my passport, or forget to pack  my bags, or pack too many bags, or miss the airplane, or get on the wrong airplane, or get on the right airplane but land in the wrong country.

My dreams progressed over the years. I’d actually land in Riyadh, but then lose my way through the city. I’d get lost in the neighborhood I used to live in; I’d encounter new construction that confused my knowledge of where I was supposed to go. I’d finally find my apartment building but could not find my apartment. I’d find the hospital in which I was supposed to work, but could not find the laboratory to which I was assigned. I’d worry that my supervisor would think I hadn’t arrived, and give my job to someone else.

I’d find myself in Battha without an abaya. I’d want to buy food but had no riyals, only US dollars. I’d want to phone my friends Asma and Sharon, but I’d left their phone numbers in the United States, or if I had the numbers, could not remember how to use the public phone.

You get the idea.

I recorded these dreams in my journal, and named the series Return to Riyadh.  

This summer, I described the recurrent dreams to a friend of mine who is a psychologist. She suggested that the dreams were trying to tell me something  important, and I wasn’t listening.  I didn’t believe her, because I could indeed go back to Riyadh any time, as a worker or a visitor. My repatriation was deliberate. Consciously, I was committed to rebuilding my life in my own country, but unconsciously, discontent churned, and it was all about Riyadh. Why?

Why a Blog?

800x600_floatingheart.pngDoes the Internet need one more blog? No, but I do, and so does whoever wants to read what I write. Having developed a near addiction to other people’s blogs, I realized how deep and far the blogosphere extends. I want to jump in. I want to meet people on the other side of the world, who– were they my neighbors– would become my friends. I want to know that in another state or country, a few people smile when they read my work, as I smile when I read theirs.

This blog shall be a place in which to publish  memoirs from the twelve years I lived in Riyadh, 1986-1998. Those were my years of romance and adventure. I miss them.