This photo started out as my infant grandson in the bathtub. It was a cute photo but with one major flaw —his pose did not conform to Islamic standards of modesty. I had to camoflauge things.
I was talking to my cousin in Italy recently. He is an atheist. He says he cannot believe in a god who allows the pervasive suffering that lies inherent in the lives of human beings. The God who is called “good” allows suffering disproportionately and arbitrarily, maybe even inflicts it, in no relationship to the commonly regarded virtues of any society or individual. What kind of god is this? According to my cousin, no god worthy of the position would insult his creation with such perversity. Disbelief in God makes life easier, more understandable. Ironically, this is the exact opposite position of believers, but he’s got a point.
The religions have explained suffering well enough, and have justified it through their teachings. I won’t challenge any of that; it’s an essential part of the glue that keeps religion vibrant. What interests me is not the evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of god, let alone a good god, but the fact that people who have led agnostic lives will turn to God in times of suffering.
Everyone knows someone who found him/herself in danger or illness, and implored God to save them, sometimes even making deals with God: “Oh, God, if you save me from this, I will…” I, myself, offered God such a deal. Thirty years ago, during an unobservant period of my life, I ended up in an unfortunate personal situation. I prayed to God, telling him that if he’d protect me, I’d look for a religion in which I could comfortably participate. What is the source of such a plea from a scientist who does not believe in any sort of phenomenon that could fall qualify for the definition of superstition?
It wasn’t until twenty years later, while studying Islam, that I learned about Islam’s claim that Allah has placed an instinctual yearning for the Divine within each human being. I accepted that claim more because I wanted to accept it than because I was convinced.
Ten years after that, while I was studying Progoff’s Intensive Journal, I encountered the ideas of Pierre Tiehard du Chardin. His concept of the evolution of spirit, and the noosphere, resonated with me, because it offered a bridge between the poles of unbelief and devotion.
Now, I’ve seen hints of a similar concept in some Sufi writings that have found me. In my characteristic way of detached evaluation, I will examine them. Maybe I will yet meet with a way to reconcile my scientific training with my (inborn?) yearning for the reality of God. Between my Italian cousin’s reasonable, evidence-based atheism, and my perennial spiritual agitation that borders on agnosticism, I will find a way to “hold the tension of the opposites” (as Jung taught). Perhaps Allah will bless me with secure faith even before I meet him.
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.
In July of 2013, I spent three weeks in Italy visiting relatives and attending the wedding of my cousin’s daughter. Again, for the third time, I felt so much at home there that I was loathe to leave, except for the fact that I missed my family, and had to return to work.
The lifestyle of Southern Italy echoes the lifestyle I lived in Riyadh. The sidewalks, stores and apartments also resemble those of Riyadh, with their concrete construction and vines clinging to gates, pointing towards flat roofs. Even the weather pattern resembles that of Riyadh albeit less extreme. In Italy, I awoke early in the mornings, took my coffee, read and wrote, just like I did in Riyadh. Mid-morning, I walked to my relative’s apartment, and we shopped, ran errands, and even went to the beach (something I could never do in Riyadh).
Rosa cooked the midday meal, which was always the larger meal of the day, again like my lifestyle in Riyadh. I wish she would have let me cook, but the kitchen in the new apartment is small, and she is the queen of it. The entire apartment is small; in fact, there is no guest room.
I stayed in their old apartment, the one I stayed in during my previous visits. It is located on the third floor– we in the States would call it the fourth floor– accessible after a sixty-step trek up a gray marble staircase exactly like the gray marble staircases of Riyadh apartment buildings. Hard and noisy, also like the Riyadh steps, the Italian steps did not accumulate triangles of sand in their corners. Franco and Rosa had lived in that apartment many years, and raised their three children there. The only reason they moved is that the building has no lift, and they have became too fat to ascend those stairs.
I walked back and forth between the old apartment and their new one– on the ground floor—twice a day. They always wanted to drive me back and forth but I refused, because I love to walk when I travel. Walking is the best way to explore and get some exercise for mitigating the effects of an uncontrolled diet.
I walked along sidewalks that changed width and sometimes disappeared altogether, sidewalks that dipped, curbs that crumbled, and potholes in the middle of everything, all the while keeping one eye up and one eye down.
The down eye scanned my footing and warned my feet when to adjust their steps.
The up eye devoured the grace and singularity of the doors that separated streets from living quarters. Italians live much closer together, and closer to the street, than Arabs. Italians do not demonstrate an exaggerated sense of privacy. On the contrary, they are constantly mingling in public places, chatting, sitting outside their doors along the street when the air turns mild in late afternoon.
Southern Italy provides the best of both my worlds, gives me the freedom I need to wander, and the flexibility I need to be myself. Then, there is the language. I speak Italian now, not fluently, but well enough to take care of myself and interact with the relatives, most of whom do not speak English. Their delight at my efforts, and their encouragement, reinforced me in ways they cannot perceive.
My ex-husband never allowed me to speak Arabic. Every time I tried, he walked around the house whining, “Speak English! Speak English!” He never understood, or cared, that his rejection of my desire to speak Arabic figured prominently in our divorce. At least, he did not object to me going to the madrassa to learn tajweed, nor to the community college to study classical Arabic grammar. No, those skills would not have threatened the linguistic gap he wished to remain between us.
Of course, I was thankful for those learning experiences. I studied intensely, and learned more academic Arabic than most Westerners, yet my heart wanted more than anything to speak freely with my husband in his own Egyptian dialect. He never let down his guard, and never spoke to me in Arabic, and never let me speak Arabic with him, even by mistake.
Now, after having learned Italian, and spending time in Italy with my relatives, speaking Italian only, I am vindicated for the pain I felt from my ex-husband’s disdain towards my efforts with Arabic. I intend to speak Italian with near-native fluency, sooner or later. Already, I have read several books in the language, and continue to read, study, and watch Italian films without subtitles, and I take immense delight in my progress.
In spite of my success with Italian, however, I still feel a hole where the Arabic should have been planted.
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.
Several recent articles describe the Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev as having become, “…a fervent Muslim…” and “…increasingly religious…” I want to scream, “NO! He was NOT becoming a fervent Muslim! He was becoming a fervent KAAFIR (unbeliever) and increasingly IRRELIGIOUS! He took SATAN as a guide instead of ALLAH!” Those articles were written by non-Muslims, while imams across the nation condemned the tragedy and even dared to say what they should have been saying loud and clear: These men are not brother Muslims, but heretics.
Instead of preaching to the choir, imams and Muslim writers need to clean up our language. There is no such thing as “radical” Islam. There is Islam, and there is other than Islam. There is no such thing as “fundamentalism” in the sense that one goes back to the founding (fundamental) principles of Islam to concoct justifications for terrorism. There is no such thing as “extremism” which condones violence, and “non-extremism”, which does not. Do I need to cite Qur’anic ayahs regarding malicious killing and all manner of violent behavior that wrecks havoc and brings suffering instead of peace? I think not.
In addition to disowning terrorists, we Muslims really need to change how we describe our religion and its associated perversions. WE know what is meant by “radicalism”, but the non-Muslim rightly thinks that “radicalism” is simply an exaggeration of established guidelines. “Fundamentalism”, with regard to Islam, is not actually fundamental; it does not go to the founding principles, and cannot claim right guidance. “Extremism” is not the outer edge of acceptable practice; it is not the purified, rarified essence of what we ordinary Muslims accept as Islam.
It’s bad enough that groups of Muslims in many countries learn corrupted ideas that subvert Islam, commandeer its theology and hijack its purpose, but even worse that the majority of Muslims are not finding more effective ways to counter the development.
One way, one small but important way, is to change how we describe our religion and the people who arose from our religion but who’ve stolen it, used it in service to the most heinous of evil acts. This post is my contribution to that goal. If you agree with me, speak up. Talk about this, especially to imams and Muslim leaders. If nothing else, post something on another blog, an article, a letter to the editor.
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.”
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!”
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.
(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.
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