In Defense of Visible Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Moving to the USA with my Arab Husband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Accomplishments by Saudi Women

(Susie published a lovely post on her blog, Susie’s Big Adventure:  susie’s big adventure: Saudi Women: Changing Reality, Making History. I tried to post a comment, but had trouble getting recognized, as usual, so I’ve decided to post my comment here.)

I was happy to read about so many accomplishments by Saudi women– genuine accomplishments, not acts of defiant behavior leading to the jail. I know I am in a minority by believing that Manal Al-Sharif’s day of driving did not help the cause.

It’s interesting that women have been permitted to do the things you’ve mentioned, yet not drive cars. I was in the Kingdom when the first driving episode occurred, resulting in severe censure for the women drivers as well as their husbands.

Driving is still a frontier for Saudi women, maybe because of these episodes and not in spite of them.

 

Progress in Photography

Well, six months have passed since my last post. I guess I’m in hibernation from blogging, but only because I delved more deeply into other interests, among them photography.

Following my last post– in which I related my discomfort with the local photography group– I studied their images of that railroad station, and I gained a decent respect for their knowledge and talent. I learned from them, without having to speak a word. Just studying their images taught me so much that I decided to walk with them again.

I not only walked with them again, I actually volunteered to organize one of the walks, which attracted quite a few people and yielded a wonderful variety of images. I met many new people, as each walk attracts people that did not attend the previous walk, and they accepted me as part of the group.

I still learn from them by studying their images, and my own work has improved as a result. I haven’t formed any new friendships, however– perhaps that’s asking too much– but I am eager to continue the activity.

Photography is a passion I couldn’t indulge when I lived in Riyadh. Back in the eighties, photography was considered “haraam”– forbidden!– and may still be considered forbidden by many Muslims. I didn’t dare take pictures of buildings or even landscapes, much less people, and I miss those photos I never took. We didn’t even have cell phones that could take the surreptitious image, and no Interenet on which to post the nonexistent pictures.

Bloggers, however, have taken up the slack, and have enhanced their blogs with lovely images of the places and people of the Middle East. I can only surmise that photography is somewhat allowed these days. Even Flickr offers quite a few groups dedicated to Middle Eastern and Muslim photography. I adore perusing these sights, and I send a silent, “Thank you,” to all people who are now allowed to photograph the scenes I was not allowed to photograph when I lived there.

My bucket list includes another trip to the Middle East, next time with my camera.

 

Are You Fasting?

“Are you fasting?”

I hate that question. My friends in Riyadh used to ask each other that question all the time. The appropriate answer was, “Yes.”  An answer of, “No,” meant that the woman was menstruating or that she was sinning by not fasting. No one wanted to admit either of those two conditions.

Nevertheless, “Are you fasting?” was asked repeatedly, and I always said, “Yes.”

Many years ago in Riyadh, one of my close friends invited me to go with her to an iftar at a Saudi home. Both of us qualified to say, “No,” to The Question, and I asked her, “What shall we do? What shall we say? How can we go to an iftar when we are not fasting?”

“Pretend,” she said.

“Well, what about the prayer? Everyone prays Maghrib after breaking fast, so what shall we do?”

“Pretend,” she said again. “Just go through the motions without really praying.”

“Are you kidding? Isn’t that a sin?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but what can we do? We are excused from fasting today, and we want to attend this gathering, but we don’t want the other ladies to look down their noses at us. Allah will forgive us.”

So we pretended, and I felt like a fraud, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the food and friendship of that rare night out on the town. I still say, “Yes,” to The Question, regardless of the correct answer, but I never again pretended anything beyond that.

Gaining Weight During Ramadan

Oh-oh! I’m about to suggest something no one wants to admit— that it’s easier to gain weight in Ramadan than during any other month of the year. Perhaps I should qualify that statement, for those readers who are quick to say, “Not ALL of us gain weight in Ramadan!”

OK, not all of us gain weight in Ramadan, but maybe more of us do than don’t. Anyway, let’s get on with it. 

I’ll admit straightaway that I gain weight easily.  Ramadan has never taught me control. It’s taught me postponement. I can postpone. I can fast and fast, but by Maghrib, I am like a cat ready to pounce.  I used to follow the Sunnah, which is to break the fast with dates and water, juice  or soup, then pray. That’s because one cannot pray comfortably on a gorged stomach, so, the serious eating had to wait until after dates and liquids.

I’d eat a full meal, including dessert. That would have been fine, except that another meal (and maybe  dessert) followed during the night, after Tarawih, followed by yet a third meal, Suhoor, just before Fajr. Between meals, I’d sleep a few hours, if I was not visiting someone or having guests at home.  Days passed in a groggy haze, similar to jet lag. The hospital in which I worked during my fist six years of fasting allowed Muslims to reduce their shifts from eight hours to six. That was nice. 

I worked in Riyadh, at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. We Musims would stagger our shifts; one worked from 7AM to 1PM, another from 8 to 2, and another from 9 to 3, etc. I was committed to maintaining as close to normal a daily schedule as possible, because I believed I was supposed to do that. I criticized the Saudi practice of switching days and nights.  I accused them of sleeping all day because they did not want to feel the discomfort of fasting. Their focus on food, food, food, both in the grocery stores and in homes, seemed inappropriate and somehow sacreligious, especially when they slept during the day and never felt hunger. 

Well, at the end of each Ramadan, I’d find myself tired and fatter, and finally had to accuse myself of the same fault I’d attributed to the Saudis. Something was wrong.  One is not supposed to gain weight during Ramadan, I thought.

Then I got married, quit my job, and joined the Saudi liftestyle, especially in switching my day and night activities during Ramadan. From the first year I did that, I no longer gained weight, and the whole twenty-four cycle proceeded more smoothly, productively and comfortably.  I slept from fajr til just before Asr, prayed, then read the Qur’an and cooked. I’d stay up all night, going to the
mosque for all twenty rakat of tarawih, and using the rest of the night for household duties usually done during the day— laundry, vauuming, cleaning bathrooms, etc. (I didn’t have a housekeeper). Many evenings I’d have an invitation, or extend one.  Then I’d eat Suhoor, pray Fajr, and go to bed.

Only then did I understand why the Saudis switched their days and nights
during Ramadan. It was a matter of physiology. The body gets tired without food and water; it wakes up after having been nourished. Switching days and nights was the most natural thing in the world during Ramadan, and I no longer criticized anyone for doing it. I found no evidence in the Qur’an or Sunnah to contradict the practice. We are enjoined to fast from fajr to maghrib, but we are not forbidden from sleeping during the day and becoming active at night. I am convinced that switching days and night in Ramadan is not only natural, but more healthy than trying to force the body to behave as if if were nourished during the day, and then force the body to sleep when it is no longer ready to sleep. That practice effectively produces ‘jet lag”, and I see no need for it. As one who is always severely effected by jet lag or any other disturbance in my circadian rhythm, I recommend the Saudi  style of observing Ramadan.

The problem is that the rest of the world is not ready to follow it. When we live outside the Kingdom, we cannot “do what comes naturally.”  That means that here in the United States, if one wants to observe Ramadan, one must remain active while fasting, and try to sleep while not fasting. 

 Ramadan Kareem!

Internet Book Club for Middle-Eastern Literature in English

Blogs can be profoundly enlightening, properly educational, and/or entertaining for both readers and writers. After reading a number of them focusing on topics of Muslim and Middle Eastern concern, I asked myself, “What did I read before I read blogs? How did I deepen my understanding of Middle-Eastern culture?”

Well, I read books, of course!

Life in Saudi Arabia guaranteed lots of free time for women, time spent at home. For readers and writers, the lifestyle offered plenty of opportunity to indulge those interests. Riyadh had two wonderful bookstores, Obeikan, and Jareer. Each offered decent English language sections, in which my friend Sharon and I would browse until we spent several hundred riyals each. Then we’d go home and read for two or three months, after which we’d make our pilgrimage to the other bookstore. In between major book buying excursions, we’d buy magazines at the mall or grocery store.
Trips abroad rounded out our book collections because we got books we couldn’t buy in Saudi Arabia, and I don’t mean books of a “haram” nature. Those types of books we read while abroad, but we always found plenty of material perfectly safe to bring into the Kingdom.

During my first trip to Egypt, in 1986, I visited the AUC bookstore, and I still remember how thrilled I felt to be amidst such a wonderful selection of Middle-Eastern literature in translation. I still have the books I brought back from that trip.

This week I once again felt thrilled to discover a great collection of Middle-Eastern literature, some in translation, at a site called Good Reads. I found this site via Arabic Literature (in English): http://arablit.wordpress.com/book-clubs/. I inquired about an Internet book club focusing on Middle Eastern literature, and I was referred to this group on Good Reads:

http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/413.Middle_East_North_African_Lit

which I joined immediately. If you’ve read this post until now, you might as well go right over to Good Reads and check out this book club. I’ve got lots more books choices, now, plus lots of people with whom to exchange ideas and recommendations re: what to read next. Good Reads also offers dozens of groups for dozens of categories, but I’m looking forward to renewing my interest in Middle-Eastern literature in translation.

The “Bismillah”

One of the joys of living in Saudi Arabia was seeing Arabic calligraphy, especially the “bismillah” and other  renditions of  verses  from the Qur’an,  expressed artistically  in various media.  “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” is a key phrase in Islam. It prefaces ritual prayer, and is said often throughout the day, to oneself or out loud, when embarking  upon a task.

I remember an outing to the desert with a group expats from  King Faisal Specialist Hospital, in which I worked. Our Saudi driver said it before starting the bus. He said it quietly, almost to himself.  After that, I noticed other Muslims saying it, often before doing something new or something that involved the well-being of others. I liked the phrase. It encompassed the best of intention, the realization that we act in faith, without  the assurance of  the consequences of our actions, and in the acceptance of whatever result followed.

I began seeing calligraphy everywhere, especially the bismillah, which always graced the letterhead of official stationery. In the suq, I saw wonderful wall hangings, some painted, some inked, some sewn with gold letters on black velvet.  Book covers in the Arabic section of bookstores showed dramatic, often shiny gold calligraphy, and I never could decipher the titles, even after I learned how to read Arabic. In the women’s cafeteria of the hospital hung a large panel painted in bold brush strokes of mauve, purple, blue, yellow, green, with flecks of gold and diamond-like textures that caught the ambient light.

I know nothing of the art or science of calligraphy. All I know is that seeing it pleases me immensely, fascinates my eye and  engages my heart. I won’t mind learning how to do it. Until and if I ever do, I’ll remain content with looking at it, especially at the bismillah.

More to the Kingdom and to Me

Monday, September 13, 2010
There is More to the Kingdom, and More to Me

Judging from many comments made on English language blogs about Saudi Arabia, one might conclude that the Kingdom is nothing but a hell-hole– a prison for women, a women’s prison in a cage that confines men, too, men who beat the women but do not beat the keepers of the cage. A prison in a cage, surrounded by the nourishing waters of freedom, but never cranking open sealed doors…

I’m not going to deny the social problems relating to women, the political danger to those who speak against the established regime, or the academic weakness of the educational curriculum. Real as they are, these issues coexist with other qualities. There is more to the Kingdom than female oppression, etc.

I am also not going to make lists of everything good and desirable in the Kingdom; I am not an apologist.

However, I do wonder of those who live there, or have lived there, is there anything right about this place? Have the Saudis any decent thing to offer each other or the rest of the world? If not, what are you doing there, or what are you doing spouting off on the blogs about the lack of freedom and Western-style choice in a country that doesn’t claim to offer it?

Emotional diatribes do not enrich my understanding of Saudi Arabia, Islam, the world, or my enthusiasm for participation, therefore I need to rein in my energies.  I started this blog mainly to collect my Riyadh memories, and to explore my relationship with Saudi Arabia and Islam as the years have passed.

I’m satisfied with my efforts so far, but I feel the urge to expand my purpose. I’ll be revising my blogroll on a continuous basis. Certain blogs have been informative, entertaining, and enriching, but the abundance of bitching and bashing in the comments sections have blunted my interest in those blogs. I’ll be adding blogs to the list, blogs that I read and that reflect my interest in diverse subjects— Italian language, Depth Psychology, Digital Imaging, Journal and Memoir Writing. If I lose readers, I’ll attract others.  I don’t have many I haven’t already lost, anyway. Though I write this blog primarily for myself, I do want readers; they inspire me and connect me in a way that writing cannot. Writing is completed by reading.

This blog is different from the essays I write  for publication elsewhere. It’s not more personal, but more spontaneous, of the moment, perhaps.

Future posts will bring more of the rest of my life into my blog.  I look forward to sharing aspects of my life that blossomed before I ever boarded my first flight to Riyadh, or my last flight out.