Of Rosewater and Perfume

Of Rosewater and Perfume

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

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

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

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


Multi-Lingual Family Life

Multi-Lingual Family Life

An Entreaty From One Who Learned (the Hard Way)

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

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

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

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

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

"Average Folks"

Average Folks”

A Commentary on the Candidacy of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin and her supporters think she represents “average folks.”  She tries hard to behave like “average folks”, as if being average were a desirable quality for a vice presidential candidate.  Supporters think she understands “average folks” and has their best interests at heart. Sarah Palin is fooling them.

She  is not average, and never has been average. Throughout her life, she has demonstrated an intensely competitive spirit  (look at her devotion to winning at sports), coupled with notable personal charm (when did a VP candidate get away with winking into the camera?), and traditional female beauty (evidenced in her successful participation in pageants). She has been blessed– or afflicted– with tremendous self-confidence, energy, and an ability to look beyond what many people would consider limitations.

She has a house-husband who manages the home and takes care of a Down Syndrome baby. How “average” is that?

Sarah Palin’s vocabulary, perpetual smile, and breathy voice (when expounding upon her patriotism and plans for the country), are transparent attempts to portray herself as “average.”  Her greetings from the podium to school kids  are not greetings; they are carefully crafted verbal techniques. Her mispronunciation of “nuclear” is nothing more than a not-so-subtle reassurance that she walks to the right of G.W. Bush.

The concept of “average” implies “majority”, and that is the sense in which Palin wants us to believe she represents Americans. Things aren’t so simple here in America, where “average” has no real meaning, and “majority” applies not to most Americans  in the country (as well as out of it!)  but to the people within any one person’s immediate circle.

Let us abandon the notion that Sarah Palin somehow represents the “average” and therefore the “majority” of the American citizenry. Let us recognize that her efforts to use casual language and to display the tiresome American tendency towards extreme friendliness will not be well received on the international front. Let us acknowledge that style does not always indicate substance, and cannot substitute for it, especially when the direction of entire countries need nothing if not substance.

Let us strike the word “average” from our description of Sarah Palin. Who, then, do we have in her?