Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed

I read this book not so much to learn about Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s experience, but to recall my own. I wanted to say, “Yes! Yes! That’s the way it was!” at every turn of the page, and I was able to do so. Her descriptions of sights, scents, sounds, clothing, surroundings and people are spot-on accurate. Perhaps I might have found those details excessive, had I not lived in Riyadh for twelve years, worked in a hospital, and experienced much of what she experienced. Her narrative portrays objective truth, for her and for me and for many women like us– Westernized Muslims who have lived and worked in a Riyadh hospital during the 1980s and 90s.

It also portrays an internal truth that rings true for me. In many ways, her story is an ordinary story, in that she progressed through the same adjustments we all experienced during our stay in Riyadh, yet nothing in Riyadh was ordinary. We single women who formed an esoteric group of medical professionals, both expatriate and Arab, shared a path– a wonderful, exciting path that is portrayed beautifully in this book.

A single woman could hardly spend any time in Riyadh without enduring her own Muttawa story, the elements of which are identical for all us us, though the details differ. We did not ride in cars too many times before being pursued by eager males, who sometimes latched onto our vehicles and didn’t give up until our nervous drivers reached our combination havens/prisons behind gates and guards.

We endured the uncertainty and confusion of how to relate to male colleagues from different areas of the world. We often fell in love with one or more of them. The term “Riyadh Romance” carried a specific meaning, referring to an attraction that blossomed there, but maybe withered when transplanted.

We could hardly seek to understand anything without making peace with wearing the the abaya, and discovering that it, along with the scarf and sometimes face veil, let us glide comfortably through the same spaces our uncovered colleagues found awkward.

We discovered the depths of emotion, talent, and ambition present in women who previously seemed insipid under their black wraps. We entered the lush world of Saudi femininity and saw– literally– what men are not allowed to see. We reclaimed the state of sisterhood we may have felt as prepubescent girls.

We ended up in Mecca sooner or later, if we were Muslim, and we opened our hearts to God wider than they’d been opened before.

We also learned that some ugly national stereotypes held up well under observation, just as those we carried with us from our countries of origin.

We opened our eyes to complex political situations that showed us unequivocally that the poles of East and West really do intend to destroy each other on the glorified backdrop of justice. We learned to pray that those poles be dissolved, if not brought into the fold on a realistic backdrop of justice. We realized that the most we can achieve is a mitigation, not a restoration, of rights inherent to the state of human existence, rights that some people enjoy from birth, and others are denied.

This memoir is, after all, a memoir, and should be read as such. For those of us who’ve lived in the Kingdom, it will bring memories into close focus. For others of us, it should inspire investigation into the subjects it addresses. I cannot imagine that this book could disappoint anyone who holds even a superficial interest in memoir, East-West relations, Islam, Saudi Arabia, or the expatriate experience in Riyadh

I Did Not Revert

When I meet Muslim people for the first time, they invariably ask me, “When and how did you revert to Islam?”

I answer, “I did not revert. I converted many years ago while living in Saudi Arabia.”

I wish Muslims would stop using the word, “revert” in reference to someone who comes to Islam from a non-Islamic background. Oh, I get the idea…a baby is born in submission to Allah. The root word of Islam means, “submission” in Arabic, and therefore, new babies are born Muslim. Their parents intervene and put other religions into them until they grow up and “revert” to their original state of submission to Allah– Islam.

That’s like saying a lump of dough is a loaf of bread before it gets baked, but a  lump of dough is a lump of dough. It has the potential to become bread, rolls, cake, pie, cookies, or biscuits. If baked incorrectly, it can burn. If left alone, it will spoil. Babies are not Muslims. The logic is faulty and the linguistic sleight-of-hand is disrespectful to believers who follow religions other than Islam.

It’s an insult to their intelligence, and to the intelligence of those of us who convert to Islam after having been raised in other religions. I did not become Muslim because someone told me I was born “in submission to Allah” and therefore I was Muslim from the start, and now lucky enough to have discovered my true nature. That’s ridiculous. Any thinking person knows that babies are born through no will or effort of their own, therefore they’re born in response to the will of God (if you even believe in God). To imply that their parents divert them from the path to which they had been born is nothing but hubris on the part of Muslims who espouse the idea.


A Visit to the New Mosque, Uncovered

The community in which I live has just completed the construction of a new mosque, alhumdullilah. It was many years in the planning– from raising the funds to finding the site, then getting permission from the local government, followed by the complexity of design, architecture, contracts, construction, weather, fittings, appointments, etc. This mosque marks a victory for nearly one hundred Muslim families who formerly drove thirty-five minutes to the main mosque in another part of the city.

I attended an Open House there last weekend. I knew there’d be displays, good food, talks, plenty of interaction with Muslims and non-Muslims, and maybe a renewal of spirit for me as well as other attendees.

I didn’t cover my head, out of a desire to remain non-hypocritical. I don’t cover, except for prayer, so why should I cover to go to the mosque for a social event? I don’t believe covering is a requirement of Islam, and I’m not going to argue the point.  My relationship with the practice holds more meaning for me than delving into the minutiae of Islamic law. Besides, even if covering is required, I’m still not going to do it in the United States–period.

Well, my old ambivalence about covering has not evaporated despite years of living in the United States, where covering is not enforced by a CPVPV (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice). My ambivalence has nothing to do with the religious legality of the issue, however. It’s about being recognized– or not– as a Muslima. Quite frankly, there are times when I want to be recognized for my faith, and times when I don’t. As for modesty, that’s a non-issue these days; I’m a gray-haired senior citizen.

The Open House featured question and answer sessions with community leaders. Most in the audience were non-Muslims, and naturally, head covering interested them. The speaker, a woman who devotes much of her time to community outreach and education, said that yes, head covering is required. I didn’t contradict her– there’s no point debating the issue–  but she gave a good argument in favor of the practice.

She said that because the head cover immediately identifies the woman as a Muslim, her behavior is always on display as a reflection of her faith. It gives the woman constant opportunities to behave as best she can according to the manners, beliefs, and practices of Islam both with respect to herself and with her interactions in society.

I liked this explanation better than any other I’ve heard. It trumps the  Qur’an and Sunnah based interpretations, at least for me. I felt sorry I had not covered, because people greeted me with, “Hello,” and not, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” to which I responded, “Assalaamu Aleikum,” which brings me to a situation that I find irritating: women who are not covered are assumed to be non-Muslims. For the record, it ain’t always so!

Besides, I bristle at the idea that Muslim women should be recognized in public as Muslims, while Muslim men wear no such badge on their heads. I wonder how long the practice would remain relevant if men had to wear a cap with an “M” stamped front and back.

Anyway, the new mosque is beautiful and just a fifteen minute drive from my house. I renewed acquaintance with several women I hadn’t seen for quite awhile, and I met some new ones whom I’d love to see again. I’ll be attending programs and prayers at this mosque– the sooner the better–and I’ll do so covered.

Between the Opposites

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. 

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Though Islam is growing in America, one bumps up constantly against ubiquitous incompatibilities between Islam and Western culture. Nowhere is this incompatibility more prominent than in an American Muslim woman’s search for a mate.

The stories in this book reveal the problematic position of American Muslim women who would like to get married. They must either make compromises, or take a hard line with respect to their religion, further limiting their chances for finding a mate in a society that is still composed of mostly non-Muslim residents. Some of these writers have shaved the edges off Islamic teachings , even to the extent of doing haram behavior, knowingly, deliberately. The instinct to find a mate and establish a family often takes precedence over familial and religious dictates regarding how to do so.

Islamic customs, which relied heavily on community relationships, now operate in an anemic facsimile of their original effectiveness. American customs for dating, sex and marriage, are not officially available to these women.To make matters worse, Muslim communities in the United States are composed of people from varying cultural and linguistic traditions. American Muslim women sit between a rock and a hard place; even men tiptoe across a loose tightrope when courting them.

When the Abrahamic religions were being codified, the human life span was much shorter. Young people did not have to navigate a prolonged period (named adolescence) between childhood and adulthood.  Mating occurred at  physical maturation. These days, physical maturation plays second fiddle to religious mores that were not written for adolescence or homosexuality. Add to that the economic and educational demands of today that also postpone marriage well beyond the best physical stage for it.

At least one of my readers will remind me that Islam is applicable to all peoples for all times, and to that reader I say, “Then it will have to find a way to reconcile human nature with the unnatural frustration arising out of modern  adolescence. It will also have to accommodate an increasing incidence of homosexuality.”

Homosexuality, by the way, does not recede when it manifests in a Muslim, and several of these writers are brave enough to talk about it. One would think that if Allah hated homosexuality enough to forbid it, He would give us better tools for coping with it in a halal manner, but this is not the case. Homosexuality will prove to arise from physiological  and genetic predispositions, and therefore will never be responsive to blame or volition on the part of those who find themselves claimed by it.

I respect the women who’ve told their stories, and I admire their courage in trying to find a third way, a way to live as Muslims and as Americans, partaking in the blessings of both identities and navigating the inherent troubles. Some women have tossed Islamic teachings out the window, while others have have cut themselves off from the benefits for which people choose to live in America.  None, however, have turned their backs on Islam, itself, and most have become stronger in faith as a result of their trials, regardless of whether they succeeded in finding a mate.

Not all the essays are marked by conflict or frustration. Several of the women met their husbands in the traditional Islamic way, through the help of parents and relatives, without having to date and sift through a succession of boyfriends. These women are the lucky minority. Several others met their husbands by means unconventional in either American or Islamic cultures; their stories prove that finding a mate need not conform to a strict prescription.

The women represented in this book are pioneers, and through them, especially with respect to how they raise their children, a stable American Islam will develop.  Oh, I know. There’s no such thing as “American Islam” or “Saudi Islam” or, or… Well, yes there is. How do you suppose Islam, or any other religion, survives over the centuries, migrates to different continents, and serves populations that have never have heard of one another? An Islam that thrives in the West is still evolving.  This book forms a link in the process, and will eventually be regarded as an historical document. I hope the children of this book’s authors will read their mothers’ stories with a sense of relief because they will not have to blast through the moral and social difficulties endured by their parents.

A Difference of Degree, not Substance?

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are seeing many programs on TV, on the Internet, and in print media, programs that honor the lost lives as well as try to heal the residual emotional trauma felt as a nation and as individuals. We see programs outlining the museum and park that has been built on ground zero,and also programs that underscore the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America.

This last focus– upon the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America, concerns me.

I was laying on an acupuncture table when the planes hit the towers. The partitioner did not know I was Muslim– I do not cover. My gut reaction was that “Muslims” did it, and that I did not want to be associated with those who had caused the catastrophe. I did not want to belong to same religion they belonged to, especially after they’d used that religion to justify their heinous, megalomaniac cruelty.  From that day forward, I stopped efforts to practice Islam here in America, where the practice of Islam is a challenge, to say the least. This was not an active decision on my part. I merely stopped. If I had not embraced Islam years before 9/11, I would not have done so afterwards.

As the chain of events leading to the catastrophe unfolded, two words were heard repeatedly: extremists and fundamentalists. I cringed, as I still cringe, every time I hear these words. They imply that those who fit the definitions are indeed Muslims, just like the rest of the Muslim community, with the exception that their ideology had taken on an “extreme” character. Their ideology is one of degree, not substance.

That means that the entire Muslim community holds similar views, but stop short of committing murder. First-hand accounts from Middle Eastern countries support this idea. Muslims were seen celebrating, smiling, cheering, as the images of the falling towers dominated the screens and headlines. Those Muslims, surely, endorsed the ideology of the terrorists, and were maybe too cowardly to act upon those convictions, therefore cheered the handful of brave souls who gave their lives for their ideals.  Books have been written to prove that Islam is a religion of force, misogyny, and oppression of all.

Over the years, Muslims groups have denounced the terrorists and tried to convince the greater society that Islam does not condone terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Qur’anic ayahs have been dug up to testify to Islam’s peaceful nature. Why has that message not prevailed? Why, for instance, does the opposition to the New York Mosque project still chug along?

Well, Muslims themselves have not eradicated these two words: extremism and fundamentalism.

They have never said, “There is not such thing as extremism. There is no such thing as fundamentalism. The majority Muslims practice Islam using the customs and rituals into which they have been born, and much diversity flourishes. Men and women who murder in the name of Allah are not Muslims. The constellation of ideals and acts that are commonly referred to as extremism and fundamentalism do not embody the spirit of Islam, nor illustrate its teachings. People who subscribe to them are not Muslims. They may have been born into Muslim families, or they may have embraced ideals of terror and murder as a result of mental illness or severe political oppression that have nothing to do with Islam, but they are not Muslims.”

As long as the Muslim community cannot say the above, it implies that extremism and fundamentalism are indeed, part of Islam, and that the difference between peaceful Muslims and terrorist Muslims is one of degree, not substance.

Claiming a Religion— an Active Choice?

images bismillah Who is a Muslim? Who is a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc? Is it enough to call oneself by any one of these names, or must we actually observe the distinguishing rituals?

No one has a problem with taking someone’s word for it, when the statement is heard. “I am a Christian (Jew, Buddhist, etc…).” That’s the end of it, but when someone says, “I am a Muslim,” we don’t always know what that means.

Before 9/11, we knew. We may have known nothing about Islam, yet had we heard, “I am a Muslim,” we would have said, “Oh, OK.”

After 9/11, we didn’t know. Now, when we hear, “I am a Muslim,” we want to know what kind of Muslim— Fundamentalist, Moderate, Reform, Observant, Non-Observant, Born, Convert, Revert, Muhajibah, Beard, no beard, drinking, not drinking, praying, not praying, Arab, non-Arab… you get the idea.

What’s going on here?

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930’s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble:

and Amazon:

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Cabin Fever in Riyadh

Cabin Fever in Riyadh


Living in Riyadh Before the Internet

My daughters have near-native fluency in English, but sometimes they ask me about phrases they’ve never heard, like “cabin fever”.  Last week, one of them asked me about this phrase; all I had to do was remind her of how we lived in Riyadh, how we used to wait for her father to come home from work, and beg him to take us out. We didn’t care where, we just wanted to get out of the house.

Here in the States, during a particularly snowy winter, we might be afflicted with a touch of cabin fever, but in Riyadh we suffered from it year round.

The high point of certain Riyadh days occurred when my husband walked in, and decided to take us out. From the degree of our excitement we showed, one would think we were headed for a wonderful place, full of stimulation  and activity. No. We would go to the post office, and sit in the car while my husband went inside to retrieve the mail. That was a lovely outing for us, occurring with  the satisfying frequency of once a week!

After the post office, and if my husband felt energetic, we’d get shawarmas. All of us had a say in where we would get these shawarmas, but it didn’t matter as much as we pretended it did; shawarmas are like hamburgers– they all taste good, but slightly different from shop to shop. Our favorite shawarma shop was Yelah Al Sham (spelling?) because of its creamy, rich garlic sauce over fat portions of meat.

Two or three times a month we’d go  grocery shopping. All of us would walk up and down all the isles, examining labels and prices, comparing deals, choosing, rejecting, and tossing into the cart, sometimes when one of us was not looking, or returning something to shelf, also when one of us wasn’t looking.

Once a month, if we were lucky, we could persuade the man of the house to take us to Shoala shopping mall, or Al-Akkaria. Those were the only two malls in Riyadh at the time. Even my husband enjoyed going to the mall, not to buy things, but to sit and watch people, read the newspaper, and daydream. The mall provided much entertainment in that form, especially during hot summers when the HVAC in the apartment made us either too cold or too hot.

After Asr, on nice weekends– that means not too hot, and you know how many days like that come around in Riyadh!– we’d go to one of several public gardens in Riyadh. First, though, my husband would buy kofta, mango juice, taboulah, and/or whatever else smelled fresh in the restaurant. We’d spread a blanket under an inviting palm tree, and remain there until Isha or later, or until the kids got bored with the playground or the other kids. I’d write letters, read and study Arabic, while my husband read the Arabic newspapers cover to cover.

I have to admit, my husband was good at taking us with him to mosques that offered areas for ladies. We prayed in large mosques, small mosques, popular ones, clean ones, shabby ones, elegant ones and simple ones. I miss all those mosques. Here in America, we have only two mosques, both twenty minutes away by car, which seems unnatural.

Several times a month, on a weekend morning after Fajr, my husband and I would leave the girls in bed and go to the Oteyga fruit and vegetable suq. That experience always thrilled me. I loved seeing hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of fruits and vegetables. I loved that the suq was so large we had to drive from the fruit side to the vegetable side. I loved the aromas of the green herbs, mountains of onions, boxes of ripening mangoes. We would fill the car with produce, and I’d spend days, literally, cooking, freezing, sharing, and, of course, eating.

During the week, I rarely felt the desire or need to go out, but when I did, I’d walk two blocks to the pharmacy or the small grocery store, more for a walk than for need of a purchase.  That little habit came to an abrupt end one morning when I was followed by a man who wouldn’t give up, but that is another post.

Two of my friends had drivers. Occasionally, one of them would send her driver for me, and we’d spend time together at our favorite bookstore, Obeikan. The other friend would send her driver for me, too, and we’d spend time at her house, or we’d visit other friends, or go to the zoo, or go to the DQ  (that’s the Diplomatic Quarter, not Dairy Queen) or go to a women’s Islamic study circle.

At home, while my husband was at work and the girls were at school, I stayed happy drinking Turkish coffee, studying Arabic and Qur’an, and later Italian language, and cooking and doing housework. Every morning, I would spend several hours on the telephone talking to friends. No one had cell phones, of course. No one needed them. The housewife connection thrived from house to house on nothing but a single land line. Our husbands never knew how much time we spent gabbing on the phone, but those talks sufficed us and lessened the occasions on which we’d beg our husbands to take us out.

I loved being a housewife. Those were the happiest years of my life, and I must confess that I did not suffer from “cabin fever” as much as my daughters, who, in their youth, were hungry for new experiences. What bothered me was having to wait for my husband to feel like taking me out, or wait for a driver, or wait for a taxi, and then wait for the destination to be open, or ready to receive me.

None of us had computers, let alone the Internet. Eventually, one of my technologically advanced friends got connected, and became enamored of e-mail. She tried to tell me about it, how she could write to her family in the States every day, and they would receive the letter within hours, if not minutes. That concept was far over my head at the time, too good to be true, so I continued to write my letters in long hand, mail them a week later, and wait not only two weeks for them to reach my family in the States, but wait another two weeks for someone to reply.

I did miss television, I mean Western style television, with its high quality production and abundance of channel choices. In Riyadh, we had two stations, One and Two, for Arabic and English. They began their daily broadcasting after Asr and signed off close to midnight, except on the weekends, when a movie might last until one o’clock AM. Most of the programs bored me, in both languages, but I enjoyed watching the prayers from Mecca, especially during Ramadan, and I enjoyed the rare American serial, like Law and Order, or the British game show where the contestants accumulated points by entering the pyramid and grasping at flying bits of paper. I forget its name, maybe it was called Crystal Maze. The other show I liked was also British; people would have to perform certain difficult tasks in a short period of time. I forget its name, also. There was a hilarious Japanese game show, in which people would also perform silly tasks; most contestants got an unexpected dunking, or falling, or rolling as they failed the task.

No one had DVDs or even video players. I suppose I belonged to the sector of population that found no need or imperative to become sophisticated in methods of mass media. Our home was both a sanctuary and a prison, as it shielded us from all activity outside of it.  I did not suffer from “cabin fever” nearly as much as my girls. My husband did not suffer from it at all, but  from the opposite condition– having to take us out when he wanted nothing more than to sit on the sofa and vegetate after a long workday.

I’d be happier today if I didn’t have to work, if I could pass my days the same way I passed them in Riyadh. In fact, my having to return to the workforce after we came to the States contributed to my divorce. I would love to “have my cake and eat it.” I would love to be able to stay home, not worry about work or money, not have to parcel myself out to various family members, and yet have my car at the ready, and be able to go to any store, day or night, whenever I felt like it or needed something.

I guess that condition is called “retirement”, and I won’t be able to reach it for more years than I’d like to remember. Maybe at that time, I’ll be able to return to Riyadh, at least for a visit, and marvel at all the changes that continue to take place as I write. However, I would not like to see Riyadh, or Jeddah, or any city of Saudi Arabia, become a carbon copy of all other big cities in the world. The charms and curses of life in the Kingdom can be perceived clearly  in juxtaposition, and appreciated best from a distance, perhaps after the fact. 

Where is Your Husband?

Where is Your Husband?

During the second year of my residence in Riyadh, I made friends with an American woman married to a Saudi. She invited me to her home, and I was thrilled. Finally! I’d get a chance to see inside one of those vast, cubic villas surrounding by walls and gates.

I took a taxi, and of course got lost. I found myself telling the driver, “Stop here! No, here! Turn left, turn right!” Sure that I was in the correct neighborhood, I paid the taxi driver and took my chances on foot, rather than embarrass myself further.

I wandered between villas, and admired their various shades of salmon, gray, ochre, and straight, sweeping walls that overlapped, creating clean, geometric images I wished I could have photographed. In those days, however, photography was really haram. Each of the villas somehow fit the description she gave me. Naturally, nobody else walked around outside; the neighborhood seemed like a ghost town. Eventually I saw a young Saudi male on the street, and in my as yet unmodified American way, asked him, in English, “Do you know where Asma lives?” (LOL)

He looked at me as if I were crazy, this bare-headed Western woman wandering around between villas. No, of course he did not know. I pressed a few door buzzers, and then hit the right one. Asma answered the intercom, and buzzed open the gate.

She showed me into a large living room, the size of which amazed me. We sat on a formal blue sofa, with carved trim and matching curved legs. I admired the crystal chandelier, and the gold-framed calligraphy, with its swirls of gold Arabic letters I could not yet read, against its velvet black background.

We sat there and chatted for awhile, about being Westerners in Saudi Arabia, about our lives in America, about how she met her husband, how she became Muslim, and the all-important question: Are you happy here?

Yes, she was happy there.

We talked about Islam, as by that time I was interested in it from a personal perspective. She allowed me to watch her pray; Isha had fallen due.

She took me to the kitchen, where my eyes widened at the sight of long counter tops, large cabinets, and American style stove and refrigerator. It might have been a modern American kitchen, except for the harsh fluorescent light, which, I noticed, had also lit the living room.

We talked about recipes, family, and all manner of domestic affairs. . She then served me kabsa she’d made earlier; it was the first time I’d tasted that magnificent dish. Another surprise greeted me when I asked whether I could help clean up. A housekeeper emerged, from where I didn’t know, and Asma and I retired to the living room.

After several hours of visiting as if we were already close friends, I thought I’d better go home. I lived in the hospital compound. Her driver would take me. Suddenly I remembered that she had two young sons and a husband.

“Where are they?” I asked. The children were in their rooms, and the husband was in “another part of the house.” What? What other part of the house?

“You mean, your husband has been home all this time, and stayed in another part of the house?” I asked incredulously. I would have wanted to meet him.

That was how I learned about segregation in a most practical way. I was appalled at first. “Won’t he become angry?” I asked, suddenly feeling like an intruder. “We’ve sat here all night and he’s been cooped up elsewhere?”

“Oh,no,” Asma said, “he’s in the men’s room. He has an office and a TV and plenty of things to keep him busy.”

During the next six years, Asma and I became dear friends. We got together whenever we could, and chatted on the phone nearly everyday. I never did set eyes on her husband, not even a far off glimpse, and when I married, she never saw mine. I overcame the desire to meet her husband. As our friendship solidified, I reveled in the fact that it belonged to us, and only us. Husbands could not have added anything. In fact, with them out of the picture, we got to know each other more deeply than we would have, had our meetings been mixed.

I developed several other friendships over the years, and in each one, I found much freedom, and a satisfaction that could not have blossomed had husbands been in the picture. Those female friendships in Saudi Arabia were the best I’d ever had, because of, not in spite of, gender segregation.

I do not segregate here in the United States, but I’m thankful for having discovered a hidden blessing in the custom. Most of us get lost in the “should” or “shouldn’t” of gender segregation. I do not say should or shouldn’t. I say that I’ve tasted a way of life most people will never experience, let alone appreciate, and I’ve found some good in it.