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

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.

Return to Riyadh in Southern Italy

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.



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.

Apples for Eating, Apples for Cooking

When leaves turn yellow, red and orange, and the temperature dips, I look forward to buying apples from one of the area orchards. I love eating apples, but only if they are crisp, sweet and juicy; my favorites are organic Fujis.

Whenever I bite into an apple, I remember my Egyptian mother-in-law, whose ideas about eating apples are different from mine.

She came to stay with us in Riyadh for awhile. I was happy, because she did not speak English, and I’d finally get my chance to learn Arabic.

The first few days, neither one of us said much. She took control of the kitchen, and there we found some common ground to focus on, linguistically, other than  my husband. I would begin by asking her, “Eh da?” and she’d tell me the Egyptian words for the various foods and utensils in the kitchen. I’d repeat the words, and eventually, she taught me enough so that we could converse about anything having to do with the kitchen, but not much else.

One day, my husband brought home a huge box of apples. We couldn’t possibly eat them all, so my mother-in-law and I decided that we’d separate the apples into to piles– one for cooking, and the other for eating. Each of us would pick up an apple, squeeze it gently, and put it either in the cooking pile or the eating pile.

After we’d made some progress, I noticed that each of the apple piles included both hard-fleshed apples and soft ones. I assumed I’d misunderstood, so I said to her, in Arabic, “Eating apples here, and cooking apples there?” and I indicated with my hand the directions we had agreed upon.

“Aiwah” she said, and we continued sorting. Still, the hard-fleshed apples ended up with the soft-fleshed apples, and I repeated, “Apples for eating HERE, and apples for cooking THERE?” Again, she said, “Aiwah.”

This time, however, she picked up an apple, squeezed it and said, “Shoofi, nashfa,” and tossed it into the cooking pile. Then I realized that she thought the “dry” apples, that is, the hard-fleshed apples, were for cooking, and the soft ones were for eating!

I was designating the hard-fleshed apples for eating, and the soft ones for cooking.

I realized this was probably another one of the ways in which Easterners did everything opposite of Westerners. We laughed a bit, and l pulled out some choice specimens I hoarded for my own eating pleasure, and by that time, we reached the end of the box.

I don’t remember what we made with the pile of “cooking” apples, but I avoided the “eating” apples. She fed them to the kids. I managed to show the kids that hard-fleshed apples tasted very good, indeed (preferable, actually). I don’t remember their reactions, but I am satisfied that I opened their tastes a bit, even with respect to the simple apple. I hoped the lesson would be applied to the larger choices in life, and, in fact, it did.



I liked the concept of arranged meetings for the purpose of evaluating potential marriage partners. Even though the meetings were stressful, they cut through a lot of crap that the American system of dating ensures before getting down to business. The flip side was that partners did not have much time to evaluate situations or personalities. They couldn’t really get to know each other before marriage.

“Oh, no! If people got to know each other before marriage, NO ONE would get married!” said an Egyptian friend, during a lively discussion comparing the cultural practices of finding a mate. I laughed, but lived long enough to learn the wisdom of her words.

My American friend– the one married to the Egyptian shiekh who had an Egyptian first wife –asked me to write a letter explaining what I needed in a husband. Her husband wanted to start a project to bring couples together for marriage.

I wrote the letter, indicating that these were my requirements:

1. The man must know English and Arabic.

2. He must not smoke cigarettes.

3. He must not already be married.

4. He must be educated with at least a bachelor’s degree.

5. He must want to move with me to the United States.

Somehow, my letter ended up with a Saudi man, a smoker, the owner of a small vegetable market who had a wife and children, and did not know English. He was looking for a second wife. The sheikh gave him my letter. I have seldom felt more discounted as a woman, or insulted as a person.

The grocer couldn’t read my letter, of course, but he remembered a loyal customer, an Egyptian man who bought fruits and vegetables every week, and who knew English. He asked this man to translate the letter.

Both men knew instantly that I was not a suitable candidate for becoming anyone’s second wife, but the Egyptian man recognized that he did possess the qualities I was looking for, so he contacted me, and we married after five months of whatever kind of courtship we could manage in Riyadh at the time. We moved to the United States after six years of marriage, and stayed married for six more years.

I Looked for a Husband

I  Looked for a Husband

During  my first year in Riyadh, I fell under the charm of an Egyptian man. We got engaged. I converted to Islam and expected him to fulfill his promise to marry me, but he took up with another woman– an American, besides — and I never learned why. He married her and moved to the USA. She didn’t have anything I didn’t have— even less, from the looks of her.

I still wanted to get married, and I let my girlfriends know. As a Muslim, I would not be able to date, but as an American, I couldn’t imagine marrying a man without a period of dating. Well, first I’d have to meet someone…

One girlfriend, a Syrian pharmacist, took on the project of finding me a husband. She would come to me and say, “I’ve found someone!” I’d ask a few questions, and the answers always caught my attention.

The first man she introduced me to was a Syrian businessman. The three of us met in the family section of a nice restaurant, where we chatted, and sized up the potential. He had been widowed– a story I was to hear too often — and he had two little kids. He spoke well, dressed nicely and would have interested me had he not been six inches shorter than me. I am not tall, at five feet four inches, and I could not work up an  attraction to a man shorter than that.

The second man she introduced me to was a Saudi businessman. We visited his home, as she assured me that all his kids would be there. He was also a widower, and had six girls of various ages. I met them all, and was charmed by all except the father. He was skinny, and I was fat, sort of, and his face was not attractive to me. Nevertheless, he seemed nice enough, and the situation was tempting. He drove me home in a Mercedes Benz, and I would have agreed to see him again, had he not handed me his business card and asked me to call him when I wanted to see him.

I do not call men. They call me.

The next man was an Egyptian who smoked cigarettes. On that fact alone, I wanted to reject him, but he and his sister both bothered me for days, begging me to meet with them and consider the man. I invited the sister to my apartment. but when she pulled out her cigarettes and wanted to smoke in my home, that was the end of it.

Another girlfriend showed me a nice photo of an American man, a convert like me, but I was not interested in Americans. Besides, he was too young for me.

The next man my Syrian friend brought was another Saudi  businessman, a wonderful man who I grew to love after many phone conversations and several clandestine dates. We considered getting formally engaged, and breaking the news to our families, when the first Gulf war broke out. Suddenly he stopped phoning me. The tensions of the war caused me distress, and I left Riyadh until the war ended. Afterwards, I never heard from him again, and I still don’t know why. What is it with these Arab guys when they want to break up with a woman?

July 14, 2009

During the three months since this post was published, I’ve received responses from men who are looking for wives. I thank them for their interest, but I must emphasis that this post refers to a time in my life that is now past. I am not currently looking for a husband, nor do I anticipate doing so. I am too much in love with my grandkids to admit any new man into  my life!


Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

A few days ago, my cousin paid me a compliment. She said,”I think your years in the Middle East have caused you to lose touch with mainstream America.”

I had been worried that I had slipped further back into the American mainstream than is healthy for me. Repatriation had its challenges.The completion of tasks to re-establish a working relationship with my culture of origin needed several years. Now that I’ve lived in the States nearly as long as I lived in Riyadh, I look back at the early years of repatriation. I was definitely living a “double” life, if only in my mind. I smile now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so good. Here are the salient points of my readjustment process during those first awkward years “home”:  

Hair: Though I did not cover, I felt irritated by the sight of all the other women in public who naturally did not cover. I drew mental scarves over every one of them, for months, yet did not cover myself. Maybe I merely disliked the hairstyles, which had become less arranged, less sculpted, and less styled over the years. Eventually I got used to seeing all that hair, but I still don’t like the contemporary American hair styles.

I also realized that the messy hairstyles reflected the fact that most women work (in addition to caring for families), and therefore do not have time to style their hair.

Language: I got very sick of hearing everyone speak English with an American accent. Every time I caught the drift of a foreign language or accent, I had to check out who had spoken. My own English had become inflected, talking to so many Arabs and other assorted non-native-English speakers. Several people in the US asked me where I was from. Eventually, I lost the Arabic accented speech, but I still love to hear other languages. I still get sick of hearing English all the time.

Driving: It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, except for the changes that had taken place in carsways in which cars had evolved. The first car I bought after repatriation was six years old, and ten years newer than the last car I’d owned. While most people were enjoying CD players, I was thrilled with a tape deck and air conditioning. Electric windows seemed like the height of technological advancement. 

I was a bit befuddled with all the bells and buzzers. One afternoon, I drove downtown  to visit a Muslim family we’d just met. The bell sounded when I opened the door. I thought it meant the door was open. Later, I discovered– the hard way– that the bell was supposed to alert me that the headlights were on. I hadn’t known they were on in the first place.

Shopping: I scolded a young clerk in a convenience store for overcharging me for a can of soda. He asked for  fifty cents, and I said, “Are you kidding? It’s twenty-five cents!!” His face fell, and I realized that the last time I’d bought a can of soda at a convenience store, it was indeed twenty-five cents, and some years back.

Grocery shopping was an adventure. The big warehouse stores had grown up while I was gone, and I loved wandering up and down the aisles. I still do. Meat became an issue, of course. Pork popped up everywhere, but worse than seeing it was having to leave the smoked pork hocks in the grocery store. I used to adore eating smoked hocks and beans! It’s the one pork dish I really miss, all the more because it is now in front of me.

Conversation: This was difficult, because my speech had become so mixed up with Arabic injections that I sometimes let slip an, “Insha Allah,” or “Humdullilah,” or even a,”Yellah!” I had to stop prefacing people’s names with, “Ya.” Eventually I learned to add those lovely Arabic phrases in my mind only, and to stop them before they settled on my tongue.

Much of the new slang sounded odd to me, and excessive. I dislike slang in any event, but I was especially irritated hearing it during the first years after repatriation. I also dislike the regional accent with which my fellow citizens speak. I have consciously tried kept my speech free of it.

Dealing with Men: At first, I could hardly look a man in the eye, and certainly did not care to prolong conversation with one. I must have appeared rude. I disliked shaking hands, and still do. Before living in the Kingdom, I didn’t mind casual physical greetings, but I do now. Eventually, I relearned how to interact with men, and in the process realized that I had became very comfortable with gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Culture: I did not know the new TV shows, movies, or actors, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was embarrassing though, when people would talk about some show or movie I did not know about. I remember the evening I spent with a group of Americans at a game of Trivia. Someone asked me if I liked Jonnie Depp. I replied, “Who is Johnnie Depp?” Everyone fell silent and stared at me.

That was OK, though. I still don’t care much about American entertainments, but I know who Johnnie Depp is, and I think he’s handsome..

Dress: No problem there. Since I became middle-aged, I stopped dressing in anything but the most modest styles and colors. Head covering never posed a problem  because I never believed in it, anyway.

Friends: I’ve made one friend in the entire ten years I’ve been back. My Riyadh years, coupled with my conversion to Islam, formed a barrier between me and most Americans, beyond which I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want to go. I have no interest in the things that engage them, and have no interest in my concerns, either.

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

Work: I did not know how to use a computer when I repatriated in 1998. I had no idea that “Windows” was a sort of system that allowed you to use other programs. That lack of knowledge hurt both me and my husband in the job market. My husband then bought a home computer, to the tune of $2300- the same model today costs $399.

A friend connected all the wires and plugged everything into the correct holes. Later that evening, I cultivated the courage to poke around on a few keys. I nearly fell off the chair when the computer emitted a sort of melody. I didn’t even know it could make sound.

I picked up enough skill to fool people into thinking I knew how to use Windows, and I got hired. Learning the specific applications really challenged me, and I tried to poke around the keyboard and figure things out for myself, but I’d frequently have to ask someone how to do something. Since everyone thought I knew basic Windows, they’d rattle off a series of finger maneuvers that would magically pull up the desired “page”. Then, the person would vanish, leaving me sitting like a lump, no further along and still wondering how I was going to do it.

Now, I’m addicted to my computer. My family refers to it as my “husband,” since I am so devoted.

I learned not to talk about my expat experiences while at work. People in my community think a seven day Caribbean cruise is a big deal, and a two week European tour the epitome of travel. Their lives are filled with work, families, ball games and plans for the next holiday or ball game. I’ve learned, over the years, how to talk to them, without having to to join them. They  bore me silly.  Some people think I am a snob. I wouldn’t deny the possibility.

Split Personality, or Double?

Split Personality, or Double?

I stayed in Riyadh an entire year before returning to the States for a vacation. As the day of departure approached, time seemed to slow down; I was so eager not only to see my family again, but to immerse myself in ordinary American culture. I wanted to go outside without an abaya, I wanted to drive, I wanted to see a movie, I wanted to eat  a McDonald’s fish sandwich.

Finally, the day arrived. Since I no longer possessed ordinary American clothes, I wore a comfortable cotton galabiya, and I wrapped my hair turban-style in a gauzy black scarf. The outfit combined the requirements of the Saudi dress code with the my family’s expectations of what I might look like after living in the Kingdom for a year. The head covering was more for practicality than religion; I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to style my hair before getting off the plane.

The plane would be full, as usual for a June departure. I was surprised at the large number of Saudis who were waiting at the gate with me. I hadn’t realized that the US was such a popular destination for them. I wondered where they would visit, and what they would wear.

I knew they were Saudis because the men wore white thobes and the woman wore black abayas with face covers, and after a year in Riyadh, I was able to recognize the Saudi dialect.

That particular flight was the longest and most uncomfortable flight I’ve ever had, but that’s another story. After a complete, delicious dinner,  I took another Dramamine, flipped the ends of my black scarf over my face, and tried to become unconscious. All I wanted was to zone out until we landed in New York, the sooner the better; I didn’t care about making friends on the plane, or walking up and down the isles. The interior lights of the plane were dimmed, and I lost myself in the anticipation of seeing my family and visiting my native country.

About ten hours later, the passengers were roused for breakfast, and the NY arrival soon thereafter. I looked out my window– across an unwelcome seat mate, I might add– the entire time, marveling at the early morning view over the ocean. I paid no attention to the other passengers, until the plane landed, and everyone popped out of their seats at once to grab their belongings from the overhead bins.

“Where did all these Americans come from?” I thought. The white thobes had vanished, and most of the black abayas had disappeared, too. An occasional face cover still did its job, and but for those random remnants of Saudi wardrobes, I  might have imagined that  we were all Americans. Plenty of blue jeans, in all hues and degrees of fit, clung to most of the legs, male and female alike. Colorful shirts and blouses, some of them short sleeved, also draped the torsos of men and women alike. I saw more female hair on public display amongst those passengers than I’d seen during the entire year I’d been in Riyadh– long hair, short hair, curled and straight hair, up, down, and caught in decorative clips. I had never seen Saudis dressed in anything but their national garments; I was amazed.

At that point, there I stood, waiting in line to get off the plane, and I became self-conscious about my galabiya and gauzy turban scarf. I felt as though I were the only person who looked like an Arab; I hadn’t changed clothes.

How were we all going to behave while in America, apart from a drastic and immediate change of wardrobe? There would be no adhan, no midday meal followed by a nice nap. There would be twenty-four TV, shopping all day long, plenty of pork, and people having too much to drink. There’d be women all over the place, alone and uncovered, and couples holding hands in public. There’d even be dogs, not only on the street but in people’s houses.

There’d be street festivals, musicians, animals, and free mixing of all manner of people, especially men and women together– young and old, black and white, thin and fat, beautiful and not so beautiful. How would we who were Muslims, or almost Muslims, we who lived in Saudi Arabia eleven months of the year, react and respond to all of that?

I suppose the answer suggested itself before we got off the airplane. When in Rome…

In that first year, the question did not disturb me, as I had not yet become fully committed to Islam, but in subsequent years, I become more preoccupied with how to live in the United States and be a Muslim at the same time.

A certain, small sliver of the Muslim population will maintain their prayers, wardrobe, and related behavior no matter where they go. Another segment, a bit larger, will abandon Islamic and Arabic cultural behavior altogether. One is tempted to judge the first group as committed, religious, and the second group as superficial or worse.

The majority, into which I found myself, will make compromises.

I’ve experimented, over the years, by putting myself into each of the categories. I can do this easily because I am a native born American, and no one expects me to be anything but that– free to conform, free to be eccentric, free to behave as I please. What I learned was not that I am a good or a bad Muslim, not that I am an incorrigible hypocrite, or a big sinner, but only that I am subject to the ordinary qualities and tendencies of human behavior. I learned how behavior  can change, and change genuinely, depending upon the culture in which one finds oneself. I learned how attitudes can subtlely shift until the anchor moves out into a different sea, no matter whether one is pulling the rope or not.

I also learned that sometimes one must cultivate a split personality, or perhaps a double personality, and change it with the change of clothes on the airplane or soon after landing. This compromise, the easiest, quickest, most efficient, and least satisfying, cannot be explained or justified in ordinary terms. I suppose a sociologist or psychologist would have something to say on the matter.

When I hear a Western wife of a Saudi lament that, “He has changed completely since we got here! He’s acting more and more like his brothers!” I understand completely, not from her point of view, but from his. This perceived change  is a surprise to the wife who hasn’t lived in the Middle East prior to her marriage. What she may not realize is that her husband has not changed at all; he’s simply reactivated the part of his personality that had gone underground while abroad.

Upon returning to Riyadh at the end of the summer, I would be asked straightaway, “Did you cover? Did you pray?” The questioners would wait expectantly for my reply.  Their animated expressions, coupled with the immediacy of the question, revealed that they, too, wondered how it was done.

Sometimes I’d say, “Yes,” and sometimes I’d say,”No.”

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.