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.


Things Are Not the Same

My metaphorical Riyadh retains its character as the years pass, while the actual Riyadh evolves. My friend of many years still goes back and forth. She tells me about the ongoing construction, the ever-increasing concern with security, and the simple conclusion that, “Things are not the same.” We’ve always planned that I will go back with her after I retire. Her Saudi husband can get me a visa, and we will revisit our friends who still live there, and our favorite places– Obeikan and Jareer Bookstore, the Diplomatic Quarter, Batha souq, Ateeqa fruit and vegetable souq in Riyadh, the new and expansive malls, and then, of course, Makkah…markers of the vibrant life we lived there, the life of children, husbands, homemaking, friendships, intellectual curiosity  and religious observances, all  swirling around yearly travels to the United States and other countries.

No, things are not the same. We regarded the first Gulf war as a terrible anomaly, never to be repeated and certainly not extended. We were there during that war, at least part of the time. We gave profuse thanks when it was over, when our lives resumed the order we’d constructed, when we could replace the cozy blanket of security over ourselves and our families. We were not oblivious to the greater social and political consequences of historical developments, but as two Western women– wives and mothers– we knew where our personal strength belonged, and we knew our limitations.

By the date of 9/11, I’d been repatriated to the US already for several years, somewhat settled again, and yet, that day showed me that “things” would never be the same again, not only in the United States but in the Middle East, as well. America would reel, then heal, somewhat, and surely take its revenge.   Another country– Iraq– would be blown apart. I didn’t know, then, that Iraq would come close to my heart, that I would become Grandma to two little kids who have an Iraqi father.  A third country– Egypt– would unravel to the extent that my ex-husband is still afraid to go visit his own mother there. My discomfort is personal, yet not even intimate as the discomfort–no, the torment–of those whose lives have been shattered, whose dear ones have been massacred.

I visited Syria in the late 1980s, stayed with the family of a Syrian colleague, and enjoyed a wonderful two weeks, during which they showed my all over Damascus in-between family meals that were more like celebrations than meals. I pray they are still safe and together, though I do not know, and I’m too cowardly to find out.

I visited Jordan, too, and a handful of other countries in the region, in good health and safety, not as a tourist but as a visitor to people who lived in those places. An acquaintance here tells me that Jordan is still safe, but I don’t know.

No, things are not the same. The distance between my metaphorical Riyadh and the actual Riyadh of my experience– and the Middle East, by extension–  has evolved into a chasm. If I look into it, I’ll see an abyss from which I’ll expect the fangs of Shaytan to rush up and tear my heart out.

The Hiatus Ends

This blog has been inactive for nearly two years. I’m surprised and pleased that no one or nothing has deleted it in my absence. I don’t know why I’ve decided to post again, and I don’t care. Such is my peculiar bent of personality; I abandon my passions for other passions and return to them sooner or later.

In addition to neglecting this blog, I have neglected all my personal writing. Instead, I’ve been doing photography as my preferred means of creative expression. I offer no explanation other than that I am still chained to a job, from which I will be rid by the end of the year, inshaAllah. Well, enough of commenting upon my hiatus…I want to dig in.

I still have “Return to Riyadh” dreams. They occur less frequently, but follow the same pattern. I begin the dream knowing I am going back to Riyadh. I pack my suitcase, buy my ticket and get on the plane, but I don’t pack correctly, I buy the wrong ticket or get on the wrong plane, or I get on the right plane but it goes to the wrong country. Complex variations on these themes weave in and out of the dreams. None of it feels unreasonable, just perplexing. Sometimes the dream begins after I’ve landed in Riyadh, having gotten myself there properly. However, I wander the streets looking for where I am supposed to live, and I look for my friends who still live there, and the hospital at which I worked and maybe am supposed to work at again. Naturally, the plots of dreams include ridiculous feelings and events. I cannot find the necessary phone numbers. I run into strange men who want to help me, and I don’t know whether they will help me or hurt me. I do find a nice swimming pool and take a marvelous dip, but then get lost again and don’t know where I am supposed to go, or I know, but don’t recognize the place, even if I arrive there. I find myself in public without an abaya. I go to a souq and try to buy some Arabic foods, but I don’t have riyals. I remember that I never told my family I was going to Riyadh, and I need to phone them, but I my cell phone is still connected to a US network. All these dreams are distressing, but I am so accustomed to them, I merely wake up  and turn over.

Long ago, I realized that my dreams are nothing more than an expression of discontent with my life here in the United States. I’ve necessarily had to re-enter (and remain in) the workforce– a fate I tried to avoid. My marriage ended in divorce– a fate I never imagined would occur. The practice of Islam here in my community is anemic compared to what I had lived in Riyadh. I’ve pushed Islam into a form that fits into the slots between my other forms, and I don’t like that.

Wonderful events have also blessed my life. I am now a grandmother to four magnificent children– a glorious position I never imagined I would occupy, but for which I am infinitely thankful.

This is enough for my first entry after a near two-year hiatus. If anyone reads it, I thank you! I wouldn’t blame any of my handful of readers for abandoning my blog as I have abandoned it. At the same time, I will be thankful and responsible to those who come back or to those who find my blog by happenstance. Maybe I will keep posting for another concentrated period. The concept of Riyadh as place, and Riyadh as metaphor, still guides me. I will never lose it, as one loses distant memories and feelings that no longer hold currency. Its character remains vivid, its personal significance does not pale as I travel further from it along the trajectory of my life. I am on a path returning to Riyadh, and I haven’t arrived.

Further Adventures in Anatomy (For a Five-Year-Old)

Hasan came to spend the night with me again. He said,”Grandma, will you please tell me more about the body? I’m not confused anymore.”

“No, I think we’ll not study tonight,” I replied, remembering his emotional upset after we’d “studied” last week.

“Where’s the book?” he asked, ran to my room and found the illustrated atlas of anatomy. “Tell me about breathing,” he demanded.

I opened the pages illustrating respiratory anatomy, and told him about how the air goes into the lungs from the nose and/or mouth. I wanted to tell him about oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange in the capillaries, but he interrupted me.

“That’s creepy!” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s creepy, I think it’s beautiful.”

“Why is everything red?” he asked.

“The lung is a vascular organ, full of blood vessels.”

“EEWWWEE! That’s soooooo creepy. I don’t want to learn anything more about breathing.”

“OK,” I said, and closed the book.

“Wait!” he said. “If air goes into the throat, how does the body know the difference between air and food?”

That kid amazes me. 

“Well,” I said,”there are two pipes in your neck, one for air and one for food. There’s a door between them, and the body knows when to shut the door, according to whether food or air is coming down.” 

He bent his leg at the knee, and pressed on the joint from the sides. Then he extended the leg and pressed his kneecap. 

“Why does this top part pop up when my leg is straight, but disappears when my leg is bent?”

I showed him the cross-section of the knee joint, and  how the kneecap  appears to slide between the leg bones as the leg is moved. He found that picture fascinating– not too vascular. 

He then said, “Grandma, I need a folder, and some paper. I’m going to learn you how to read and write Arabic.”  

Physiology for a Five-Year-Old

My grandson Hasan wanted to spend the night with me, so I picked him up on my way home from work. We played on the computer,  constructed a model car together, watched a little television,  brushed our teeth and put on our pajamas. Then he asked me, “What color is our brain?”

“Pink,” I said.

“What color is a very young brain?”


“What color is a very old brain?”

“Pink,” I said, “I’ll show you.” I dug out my beautifully illustrated atlas of anatomy and flipped to the section on the nervous system. I showed him the pink brain, with its packed convolutions, and I showed him where the spinal cord enters the lower part of the brain. Then I ran my fingers down his spinal cord. He stared.

“How do the five senses work?” he asked.

I flipped to the eye picture and told him about how light enters the pupil and how the optic nerve is connected to the brain.

“How do we hear?” he asked.

I flipped to the ear pictures, and showed him the inner anatomy of the ear, which conveniently looks like musical instruments (if you apply a little imagination).

“How does burping work?”

To the digestive system…

“How does the pee pee get made?”

To the kidneys, ureters and bladder pages…

“The poopies?” Back to the digestive system…

“How does our hair get white when we get old?”

To the section on aging…He stared at the drawings of people at various ages,  their hair becoming white and their flesh becoming  loose. He wanted to know where each of his family members stood in the lineup.

We sat with that book for nearly an hour, he asking questions and  me flipping the pages to show him pictorial answers.

Finally I saw his eyelids droop, so we went to bed. I was relieved he hadn’t asked me about death.

He turned from side to side, unable to fall asleep in spite that he was tired and it was nearly midnight.

“I can’t fall asleep,” he said. “I want my mommy!” He became agitated and I wasn’t able to help him recover his usual good mood. I  had to phone his mommy, waking her,  and ask her to unlock the door for us. I took him home, feeling sorry that he had suddenly felt so unhappy.

Next morning, he phoned me early and said, “Grandma! Don’t tell me anything more about the body at night time. I just get so confused! I get sooooo confused!”

Another Friday Khutbah

The musullah I go to on Fridays is just a large room in the basement of a nearby hospital in which approximately three dozen Muslims work. The designated imam doesn’t always attend– it’s a hospital, and staff members are often required to work through prayer times for the welfare of critically ill patients– and therefore men from the community take turns making khutaba, calling azan, and leading prayer. 

Yesterday I arrived late, and missed most of the khutbah. He talked about five things that would be taken away from us prior to death. The fifth thing was wealth. No matter how much or little of it we have, it is but a loan from Allah. We can’t take it with us. Everybody knows that, but most people feel it only intermittently,  after they’ve lost or profited from an investment, for example.  The goal, however, is to feel this fact more often, often enough to inspire the use of wealth more wisely, in service to the well-being of people  as opposed to frivolous and exaggerated desires for entertainment.

He also said that entertainment is necessary, and that we needn’t become overly critical of our need for it, but that a balance must be sought, a balance that will satisfy all legitimate needs. 

He then asked us, “What would you do today if you knew today would be your last?” 

The answer was not necessarily that we should start  praying and reading the Qur’an for the duration, but that we should feel secure in our decisions of habit, the decisions and practices by which we lived and performed daily activities.  Because we never know when our last day will arrive,  we must  live every day mindful of that fact, mindful of our relative brevity of physical existence, and our responsibility to enrich the lives of others.  

Some of you might say, “I did everything for my family; I will spend the last day doing for myself.”  The self has requirements. Those who exaggerate selfless generosity do so to their own deprivation. That is not required nor desired. 

I don’t  always attend Friday jummah prayer because, I, too, work in a hospital and cannot always take the time off, but I am now committed to attending whenever I can, and passing along what I have heard. That is one of the goals of the khutbah– for those who have heard it to share it with those who have not heard it.


A Disturbing Khutbah

Last Friday, the imam gave a  twenty-minute khutbah that can be reduced to just one sentence: “Those who use their brains will know that Islam is the true religion.”

Well, I am surprised he doesn’t know that millions of intelligent people have used their brains, and have decided that religions other than Islam are “true.”  He doesn’t know that Christians have constructed a complex and convincing theory for their trinitarian god. Hindus and Buddhists have used texts more ancient than the Bible for informing their concepts about ultimate reality. All religions provide an intellectual framework  through which followers can navigate, contemplate and reaffirm basic tenets.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is no less convincing than Mohammed’s journey through the heavens. Both religions maintain belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, and who can reaffirm that by using their brains?

My brain tells me that babies don’t get started without sexual intercourse, and that the live body does not levitate through the sky except by way of an airplane. My brain tells me that the body stays dead after death.  To believe otherwise requires a leap of faith which inactivates  the brain rather than uses it. Indeed, believers who wonder about religious  “facts”, or dare to question them, are taught that their faith needs strengthening.

That is absolutely true. One’s faith, not one’s brain, must take the lead in deciding which religion is “true”.  Once you are there, your brain must remain inert. Faith and Intellect are mutually exclusive, at least with regard to the daily lives of ordinary people.

One reads nowadays that certain scientists are finding ways to meld — not merely reconcile– their intellectual development with  faith. Quantum physics shows us that  matter and non-material reality exist as a continuum, not an absolute, and that previously illogical concepts can actually become logical, under certain conditions.

This is where using one’s brain will reaffirm religion. Until science can establish the possibility that religious “facts” could have indeed occurred as taught by religion, my brain will not be in use with regard to faith. My brain and my faith live in different realities. I daresay I speak for the majority of “believers”. The imam would do well to address his next khutbah on the necessity of suspending intellectual function, rather than using it, as a means to decide which religion is “true.”

A Sacred Trust


Yesterday was Friday, and I went to jummah prayer with my grandson. The khutbah was about children as trusts from Allah. My heart squeezed a little when the imam said that children are Allah’s trust to us, but that they can be taken from us at any time. In fact, they are supposed to leave our care when they get old enough to start  their vocations and new families.  My five year old grandson was cuddled in my lap as I listened. I hated to imagine that he could ever be separated from me, but I also knew my relationship with him was nothing if not a sacred trust. My actions today and every day will put their mark upon him.

The imam continued. The point is that we must love our children and be active in their lives as they grow, and give them our wisdom, especially about matters of Islam.  This advice is nothing new.  Suddenly I was very thankful I’d come to jummah prayer.  I nearly stayed home. In going to jummah, and bringing my grandson, I showed him what I believe, and showed him what is expected of him.

When the khutbah ended, and we rose for prayer, I nudged my grandson to join his grandfather in the men’s rows, and he balked. He  knows he’s supposed to pray with the men, but I could not force him. Maybe the other sisters found fault with me; maybe they didn’t. My grandson jumped on my back as I made sujuud, and I nearly laughed, astaghfirullah, but I continued my prayer and ignored his antics. He’ll grow up soon enough , and face difficult choices as he carves his path. I need to give him the best of myself to take with him. I need to teach him many more things, including our religion.  Some people would say especially our religion. 


The Saint Movies

Even before I became a Muslim, I was never Catholic. I knew very little about Catholicism or the lives of the saints, nor was I interested. Now, I am interested.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a movie entitled, “Papa Luciani.” This movie was available on-line via http://www.rai.it/, the Italian network. It was one of a handful of Italian language movies I could watch on-line as an exercise in improving my Italian. This biography of Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I, engaged my heart and mind. The acting and photography was so excellent I watched the movie repeatedly. Not only did I improve my comprehension of Italian, but I learned about a most remarkable man who continued to inspire, years after he died under mysterious circumstances in 1978 the age of sixty-five years.

After digesting this film, I discovered another film biography of a Catholic saint, this one called, “St. Giuseppe Moscati,  Doctor to the Poor”.  Moscati was a physician whose compassion and bravery made an indelible mark upon the subsequent development of medical care. Many people have never heard of this man, who was declared a saint in 1987.                   

After seeing these two films, my motives for watching them expanded. Not only was I interested in improving my Italian, but also now interested in exposing my spirit to the examples of human beings whose lives of love and sacrifice transcended religious constructs. These saints lived using Roman Catholicism as a matrix because that’s what they knew. The ultimate verity of Catholicism, Islam, or even Buddhism, for that matter, does not matter. The messages in these films transcend the incompatibility of theologies. In fact, most of these saints endured harsh criticism and even torture because they did not adhere to the decreed set of contemporary (for their day) Catholic rules.

As a Muslim, I can appreciate these saints and take lessons from them, apart from ideological dogma that drags upon all organized religions. I am not interested in leaving Islam or embracing Catholicism, but I am always interested in the lives of people who exemplify the most simple and universal of religious truths:  Love each other.

I’ve since watched other “saint” films— all extremely well done artistically and philosophically– documenting the lives of the saints. Among my favorites are:



From Slave to Saint


Padre Pio, Miracle Man, starring Sergio Castellito, one of Italy’s most respected actors.


Saint Francis

(of Assisi)


Saint Philip Neri, I Prefer Heaven

This one made me cry.



St. Giuseppe Moscati

Doctor to the Poor

(and one of the most handsome actors!)


All are available at http://www.ignatius.com and http://www.amazon.com.

If any reader happens to see one of these movies, please let me know your thoughts about what you saw.

Hyphenated Names– for Women Only?

I’ve wanted to write this rant for months, and now I’ve succumbed to the urge.


Hyphenated names for non-Muslim  women make no sense to me.  They are long, phonetically awkward, and cumersome to write. They suggest that the poor woman didn’t know what name to call herself after marriage, so she simply tacked the married name on to the maiden name, much like one would add blond extensions to a full head of auburn hair.


I work in a hospital. Hyphenated names cause no end of confusion. They don’t fit on forms, they don’t get entered correctly in certain computer programs, they get mixed up, reversed,  exchanged with first names, and ulitmately abbreviated when expedient.


Some women hyphenate their names because both names consist of one syllable, and the two together sound better. Why don’t they finish combining the two into one,  forming a new name altogether, similar to the way in which John’s Son became Johnson? 


Why don’t they ask their husband to take the second name, as well? It seems ridiculous that a man has a single name, and his wife sticks  his name behind her maiden name, and what about the children? If the hyphenated name is given to the children, what names will their spouses use when they grow up and get married? 


Some women use a hyphenated name because one of the names has social recognition, but why not simply drop the obscure name and use the name that carries social weight?


Some women want to keep the maiden name, in a salute to feminism and the maintainance of identity, an awkward attempt  to exert themselves as equals, but it doesn’t work. When was the last time you heard that a husband tacked his wife’s maiden name onto his own, because he wanted to preserve his identity?


Ah, but we still live in a somewhat patriarchal society, feminism and working women notwithstanding. All family members should use the same name, the father’s name, no? In the olden days of my childhood, fathers were the “heads of family”, working outside the home,  carrying the entire financial responsibility for the well-being of the family, making all the important decisions. They were also the disciplinarians. Most people as old as I am remember their mother’s chilling words, “Wait til your father gets home!”


Now, however, most mothers work outside the home, too, many full-time, just like the father, and therefore feel entitled to share in the decision-making as well as  the  financial responsibility. Hyphenating their names may point to women’s desires to fully participate in the two major life roles most people embrace– working and having a family.


In Islam, women do not stick their husband’s names behind their own. The children carry the father’s last name. While this might suggest gender inequality, it recognizes the father as the head of the family.  Gender inequality, if you could call it that, does exist in Islam, in the sense that the father is supposed to work and bring home money, while the mother works inside the home, providing the kind of nurturing and domestic organization that is never paid its worth in currency. The deal for women is that they give up their earning power to gain financial security from the husband, and the right to stay home and raise their own children (rather then having to take them to day care).  The fact always remains, however, that he who pays the piper calls the tune.


Naming customs reflect the social, economic, and religious realities of families.  If hyphenated names for  non-Muslim women are meant to suggest  gender equality, then all family members must carry the hypenated names. Multiple  names are awkward, however, and suggest nothing but indecision or equivocation on the part of the woman. I don’t know how women are going to evolve in the future, with respect to “balancing” major life roles such as working and child-bearing.  


While I’m at it, let me add that I hate the word, “balance.” It suggests that two or more quantities can be manipulated so that their weights become equal. This is not the reality with regard to women who work and bear children during a twelve week maternity leave. Instead of  talking about balancing, let’s talk about  dividing. How does a woman divide herself so that both work and family get an equal share? Why must work and family get equal shares, anyway? In reality, they don’t, yet women keep trying,  whether they want to or not.  Hyphenated names are the objective correlative to the reality of Western women’s lives– cumbersome, awkward, and suggestive of division rather than unity.