Wearing my Faith on my Head

Women were not allowed to choose whether to cover or not in Saudi Arabia. In other countries, however, the practice became a personal choice. As such, women needed to give some thought to whether or not they would cover when outside the Kingdom, and why or why not. I always envied the women who accepted, without question, that hijab was required in Islam and that they would do it, no matter where they travelled.  I am not of that mentality.

My rejection of mandatory head-covering opened up all kinds of possibilities for how I would continue the practice outside of the Kingdom. I daresay every woman should consider that hijab is not required in Islam. Then, she will need to examine the issue from many perspectives, as I have done, and her decision will carry the weight of conviction instead of the automatic response of obedience to external authority.

I knew I would not wear hijab in the United States because it would bring me trouble within my family and work situation.  Also, hijab is uncomfortable at times, and it destroys my hairstyles. Hijab has nothing to do with Allah, but everything to do with society (in my private, humanistic way of thinking). Where and why would I wear it at all, outside the Kingdom?

The obvious reason would be to announce to the world that I am a Muslim woman. That motive attracted me, as I was pleased to be a Muslim and wanted to be recognized as such, so I decided to wear hijab voluntarily during a three week vacation to the Far East.

I went on this vacation with another American woman who believed in wearing hijab all the time, so I knew she would be a good support in my effort. In Thailand, the first leg of the trip, I felt uncomfortable because of the humidity, but apart from that, I was amused because fellow travelers and hotel employees did not recognize me or my friend as Americans, or even English speakers.You see, with our Arabic clothes, our hijab and our physical appearance– my friend was black and my face could pass for Arab in those days– no one pegged us as Americans, even fellow Americans, unless they heard us speak. One of the bellhops even said to us, “MashaAllah, you two ladies speak such good English!”

We enjoyed Thailand immensely. Hijab did not interfere in the least with my  delight in our activities and places we visited. In fact, announcing to the world we were Muslim had the effect of changing our relationships with everyone with whom we came into contact. Fellow Muslim travelers said, “Salaalmu Aleikum,” which was nice, and fellow Western travelers ignored us. Those who recognized our American accents gave us quizzical glances, and one person engaged us in a lengthy diatribe about the superiority of Jesus over Mohammad. We listened politely, defended our choices, and left in peace. I completed that leg of trip satisfied with the experiment, and open to the possibility that I would wear hijab voluntarily, sometimes, to show that I am a Muslim woman.

However, the next two stops– Malaysia and Singapore– gave no respite from the discomfort of heat and humidity. My headscarf, with my long sleeves and skirt, started to make me nauseated.  I have always suffered from nausea, headaches and even dizziness when overheated, so I took off the scarf. My physical relief was immediate, and my psychological relief followed. My appearance no longer announced anything to the world except that I was a female– an ordinary, middle-aged female of dubious nationality, traveling with with a black Muslim friend.

I had felt like an imposter while wearing hijab outside the Kingdom. I was not wearing it for the same reason others wore it. Muslim women wear it because they feel it is required. I was wearing it as an experiment, not because I believed in the practice as a religious requirement, but because I wanted other people to see that I was Muslim. I was wearing my faith on my head.

When not wearing hijab, no one would guess that I was Muslim. No one said, “Assalaamu Aleikum.” In fact, fellow Western travelers in the tour groups did not ignore me as they had when I wore hijab. They chatted with me easily, as if I were one of them, but I was not one of them.

At the conclusion of the experiment, I learned that I was just as much an imposter wearing my faith on my head as when not wearing it at all. Whether I wore hijab or not, I was presenting myself as someone other than who I was on the inside. Hijab really is the defining exterior identifier of a Muslim woman. Without it, a woman is simply not Muslim while in public. With it, she is not anything else.

The important criterion, then, for women like me, is how we want to present ourselves to the world outside our homes. I confess: most of the time, I do not want to present myself as a Muslim woman in any Western country. I want to appear nondescript, ordinary, unremarkable, forgettable, maybe invisible. That is the real reason I do not wear hijab in the United States, and the reason I liked wearing it in Saudi Arabia.

However, when I go to the mosque, I want nothing more than to present myself as a Muslim, so from now on, I will wear hijab when going to the mosque.

Many Muslims will see me as hypocritical. I’ve noticed a peculiar attitude towards hijab. Some of us think it is difficult to wear, but that once we bridge the personal reluctance, and place that scarf over our heads, we must never, ever take it off. I once knew a woman who wouldn’t wear hijab until after she’d made Haj, because she “knew” she’d never be able to remove it after that. I worked with a woman who wore hijab only during Ramadan. She endured all sorts of comments and questions about why she’d wear it then but not during the rest of the year. Her response was that Ramadan was a time of renewing one’s religious commitment, and the hijab reminded her to do so every day.

I thought she was brave and sincere, maybe more so than the women who wore hijab as tight as underwear but painted their eyes and lips, and powdered their skin.

On the other hand, who am I to judge another woman’s sincerity with regard to religion? I am one of the eye-and-lip painters. I am one who puts on scarves and takes them off, and gives them much more importance than they are worth. Because hijab is the exterior banner of Islam, it gets the attention from everyone, yet one’s observance of the five pillars are much more important than wearing hijab. How many of us conflicted women obsess over hijab, yet let prayer times slip away unobserved?

After all, who pays attention to whether or not a woman prays, let alone prays five times a day? Who sees whether a woman has paid her zakat, or made her Haj, or fasted Ramadan? Who cares? No one cares because no one can see these more important aspects of being a Muslim woman. I’ve concluded that hijab carries exaggerated importance only because it is visible.  My experiment proved that one’s reception in society is drastically altered by whether or not one wears it, regardless of the invisible, personal reasons for doing so. I’ve concluded that the practice of wearing hijab must necessarily combine personal considerations and impersonal, psychological and the sociological, religious and the secular. A woman who is conflicted about wearing it must realize that all of these aspects come together in it. She must define her position first within herself, and then find a way to comfortably practice or not practice hijab, or do it some of the time but not always, or never, except for prayer.

Most of us make peace with ourselves and hijab, and this is why we see so many variations in how women wear it. I’ve now realized how and why so many of us wear hijab in so many styles, and why some of us paint our eyes and lips, and others do not, and some of us wear belts and some of us wear loose skirts, and some of us wear bright colors, and others wear subdued colors. Outside the Kingdom, a woman is free to define hijab for herself, to wear it in combination with the rest of her demeanor, to present herself as a person who includes Islam as part of her identity.

Perhaps I have been too severely affected by my experience of hijab in Saudi Arabia. There, hijab comprised more than covering one’s head. Head-covering and abaya-wearing was law– all of us had to do it, whether we wanted to or not– but it was considered only a first step in the development of religiosity. The next step would be complete omission of cosmetics. The step after that would be face-covering. These steps were to be adopted as one became more and more devout. The covering materials would become more and more opaque. The degree to which a woman covered her body would signal the degree to which she had become devoted to Allah and all the myriad recommendations for the faithful observance of Islam. The final stage in covering would be to wear black gloves and black socks, so that no part of the woman’s body or clothing would be visible. She would even keep her mouth shut, speaking only when absolutely necessarily, and then, in a low voice. The most “religious” of women wore this costume even in the presence of non-Muslim women, on the off-chance that the non-Muslim women would criticize an aspect of the Muslim woman’s appearance.  I was raised, Islamically speaking, in this environment, so you can imagine my surprise and confusion when I repatriated to the United States and saw so many different styles and presentations of the head scarf. I spent years thinking about it, trying to reconcile the Saudi model of hijab, with its connection to religiosity, and the Western model, with its mark of individual expression. I now conclude that one’s style of hijab (in the West, anyway)  is not about religiosity except in the most superficial of ways. It announces to the world that one is a Muslim.

It says nothing about one’s degree of religiosity, devotion to Allah, observance of the five pillars– nothing at all. As such, its style is irrelevant. Therefore, I will never again criticize a woman who covers incompletely, provocatively, or colorfully. I will never again assume that a woman who is unrecognizable due to black coverings is a devout Muslim. Most importantly, I will no longer question myself when I wear hijab to the mosque but nowhere else, and I will continue to paint my eyes and lips, with or without hijab. I’ve finally made my personal peace with hijab.

 

 

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.

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: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

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.

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

Most Hajj stories focus upon the sense of awe and inspiration that arise upon gathering in Mecca with thousands of Muslims from around the world, to perform one of the five pillars of Islam. I felt those emotions, too, but something else stands at the forefront of my memories.

Dhul-Hijja  in 1996 corresponded to April, when full summer already blazed across  Saudi Arabia, hot enough to kill a person. My husband and I decided to make Hajj, before the calendar advanced Dhul-Hijja into an even hotter season. Transportation would be easy; we would take a bus across the country, from Riyadh to Mecca.

I was not worried about the heat, however. I was worried about crowds. Every year, returning pilgrims came with stories of stampedes resulting in death by the hundreds. An average of two million people converge and move together from place to place along a twelve mile tract of desert from Mecca to the Plain of Arafat and back again.

Everyone told me the Hajj would be difficult. Now, years later, memories of my Hajj experience float through my mind as if I’m watching someone else’s film. Certain scenes are frozen, but most are lost in the maze and flash of the changing shapes, colors of Mecca, the desert, and the flowing clothes of the pilgrims. Sometimes I wonder whether I was really as sick as I felt, but I no longer need to know.

********************************

I was still worried about crowds when we stopped on the Plain of Arafat, where we stayed all afternoon, in prayer and contemplation. Neither the men’s nor the women’s tent was air-conditioned, and as the afternoon progressed, my heart rate increased dramatically and I could feel my cheeks throb with blood.

The other ladies noticed how red I’d become. They encouraged me to persevere. The day would be over soon.  We sat in the tent, prayed and read the Qur’an. Allah would reward my suffering.

My head ached with every blink of my eyes; I feared I’d faint from dizziness, or suffocate from lack of air; my heart beat so fast that my respirations became shallow. I had planned to say prayers for each of the dear people in my life, as well as for my worries and hopes, but I forgot them all. I couldn’t pray for anything except a quick end to that day, and the stamina to endure the rest of it. Toward evening, my husband came to check on me, and seeing my condition, fetched a magnificent block of ice, for which I wept in relief and thanksgiving. One of the ladies told me to put the ice in the barrel for community use, but I didn’t. I used it to rub myself from head to foot, over and over until the ice had melted. I felt ashamed, imagining the other women regarding me as stingy, but  the instinct to self-preservation had taken hold. I believe I might have died that day, had I not rubbed myself with ice. I was a fair-skinned Westerner, out of my element, physiologically unprepared to endure long hours of extreme heat.

That evening, I moved with the crowd to Mina, to prepare for the next ritual.

This time, we stayed in air-conditioned tents, the men in one huge tent and the women in another. My tent housed forty women—I counted them— each of us entitled to space sufficient to roll out just one smaller-than-twin-size pad. I rushed into the corner spot, with the tent skin on my left side and the air conditioner at my feet. It was the coolest location in the tent, yet the air never became cool. The air-conditioner churned twenty-four hours a day, except for sudden five-minute power outages during which all of our movements froze in mid-air, as we waited impotently for the box to re-start itself.

I suffered from too much heat that week during the Hajj—heat exhaustion or heat stroke, I don’t know, because I had been too sick to shuffle over to the doctor’s tent, that day on the Plain of Arafat where my husband saved my life with a block of ice. I’d been too embarrassed to ask the doctor to come to me, where he’d have had to invade the privacy of Muslim feminine living quarters. The other women had been hot, too, but none of them actually fell sick, as I had. They were Egyptian women, all except me and one other American ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than me. They appeared to tolerate the heat well, but I did not. The temperature those last few days of April 1996 ran between 40 and 50◦C, maybe higher (104◦F–122◦F).

I could not perform the ritual of stoning the pillars, not only because of heat but because of crowds; my husband did it for me. During that unit of the Hajj, I sat inside the tent during daylight, afraid to go outside. I would emerge gratefully at dusk, and at 3AM I would walk between the tents to the portable showers. Even then, I was hot. The heavens dealt out relief in stingy little puffs of hot air, which never brought comfort, just a momentary lessening of the heat. In the tent, the air-conditioner labored, and I listened to it intently, as if by listening, I could keep it functioning. Even though I was lying with my feet at its base, the cool air dissipated before reaching my head. Only my feet remained comfortable. I didn’t know how I’d survive if the air-conditioner stopped working entirely. This possibility seemed imminent, as the wiring didn’t appear neatly or deliberately connected. In idle moments, I studied the paths of the various wires, in case I’d be called upon to re-establish connections. The five minute power outages which occurred several times each day scared us all, because the machine had to work that much harder to make up for the brief outages. Temperature rises by the minute in the desert.

One night, falling asleep after my 3AM shower, I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. Yes, desert rainstorms do occur, with forceful bursts of water rushing down from the sky all at once. Rain doesn’t usually fall in April, though, so I was sure Allah took pity on my suffering and sent that rain just for me. I opened my eyes slowly, savoring the comfort of the now cool air. The other ladies must have all been sleeping; I didn’t hear a single voice or whisper. I wanted to lift the bottom of the tent and peer out, just to verify that my other senses weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted the water seep into my side of the tent. I rolled over, opened my eyes and gingerly lifted the bottom of the tent skin. Dawn had infused the night. No water trickled forth. I lifted further. No water danced and curled into sandy rivulets along the edge of the tent. Where had it gone so quickly?

Full consciousness spiraled up, and with it the oppressive, pervasive heat. Could the water have dried up already, in a matter of minutes? Had I fallen back to sleep after the cloudburst? The sand should have borne telltale darkening of not quite evaporated wetness, but I saw no such evidence, and now the air carried not a single discernable molecule of moisture. All forty women seemed to awaken together, for I heard many voices going about the routine of the morning. The air-conditioner droned on and on, like a steady, heavy downpour.

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One never knows what awaits. I had feared crowds, yet nearly died of heat.  From then on, I knew in my gut –not only in my head– that the future is unknown, and that one’s imagined fears can collapse into irrelevance before they materialize.

The opposite is true, too. One’s imagined joys can fizzle into hazy retreat, while totally unexpected blessings flood in, bringing immense happiness, but that is another story.

A Travel Secret

You go to the museums and the tombs and the ruins and the statues because everyone else does, because these places are famous, because you’ve seen pictures of them all your life, because the tours focus upon them, because these are the places you can get to easily and you don’t know where else to go until you’ve been there awhile. You know these places are impressive and important, and you expect to feel enriched after you’ve seen them.

Now that you’ve have made your pilgrimage to the various shrines and wonders of the world, you can say for sure that the tombs and the temples are no more than ruins, suggestions of shapes with crumbling corners, useful now as a focal point only, an excuse to go to a place and wander through new worlds for a while, to pretend you are someone else, to imagine you have been reincarnated, to twirl around with your eyes wide open, to fantasize, to play, to revel in the freedom of the foreigner, to wish upon stars that have witnessed all of earthly history, and to know that you belong to it all.