Posts Tagged Saudi Arabia

The Girl with the Black Mole

IMG_2509“Wake up, Mama. It’s your appointment today. Should I open the drapes?” Laila could see the luminescent figure of her son glide across the room as he reached for the curtains. She rolled in bed and rubbed her eyes, trying to cover them from the expected sunlight, but no sun came through the room. The drapes were still shut.

She struggled to sit up, slid her feet into her slippers, staggered to the bathroom and stood at the sink. She avoided her face in the mirror and focused on the water slithering through the protruding veins of her hands. In her mind, the older she got the more useless she felt. She longed for the time when she worked as a primary school teacher back in the seventies. At that time she felt invincible, a feeling that was fed with the trembling insides of her students. Each time she walked into the classroom she could almost hear their little heartbeats racing. It was like a farmer walking into the barn to pick out the next animal for slaughter. It always exhilarated her, but only until she had to look that particular little girl in the eye; a girl that used to sit at the back of the classroom.

That girl was the quietest of the students; she never tried to appeal to Laila with flowers or candy like the others. She was shy and frail and her hair was pulled back with a long braid that always seemed to have been done the night before. Her large features seemed to crowd each other on her small face, and on her left cheek was a black mole visible from a distance. Laila had no tolerance for her silence, it made her feel observed, watched. Each time she walked into the classroom she commanded the girl to come sit at the front, and the higher Laila’s voice became with the succession of commands to the girl the wider the girl’s black eyes opened and the longer she stared back. There was a terrified innocence in the little girl’s eyes that threw Laila’s brutality right back at her.

“I know what she is,” she had told Akram, her son, one day as they were having dinner, “she’s that demon that breathes in my neck every night. I know he takes possession of her whenever I walk into the classroom. He tries to defy me through her.” Akram had breathed a sigh of frustration and looked at his mother with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. “That demon again, Mama? Why do you let your mind wander to those things?” He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. “It’s just bad thoughts and mind tricks.“ Laila became cross at her son’s words, but when she turned to reprimand him his gentle smile crushed all the negativity within her and she crumpled into a smile. At the age of seventeen he had already grown into a man, with a radiating confidence that made him assume a larger sense of responsibility than most young men his age. Encouraged by her ease, he presented his plea once more: “How about if I come with you to the psychiatrist? I promise you no one will have to know.”

As Syrians living in Riyadh, Laila felt constrained by the closely tied, conservative Levantine community even though she was far from home. What would they think? That she had gone mad?

On the day of her first appointment with the psychiatrist Laila went into Akram’s room to wake him up. The appointment was less than an hour away and she was surprised that he hadn’t woken up or prepared breakfast before her the way he always did. As she stepped into his room she was unsettled by its heavy stillness. He was lying on his side with his back to door, so she called his name twice as she walked towards him, but the cold touch of his stiff shoulder was the only answer she got.

Laila refused to accept the loss of her son; he became the only luminescence in her otherwise dark apartment. “You never believed me when I told you about those demons,” she told his figure one day as it slid past her while she was making her tea. “They didn’t kill me, Mama,” he repeated, “It was my time.” But she was never convinced. On the first day she went back to teaching after her son’s death she walked into the classroom and scanned the back row for the girl with the black mole. As usual she signaled for her to sit at the front, and for the rest of the class she was on a vengeful engagement with the demon who killed her son, firing questions at the little girl – a sly pretender in Laila’s eyes – tapping violently on her desk when she hesitated with an answer, until her golden moment came when the girl failed to present her homework. Her palm struck the girl’s cheek so violently she threw her off balance and dislocated her jaw.

Laila was very lucky to have just been laid off work, her colleagues later said. Had the girl been the daughter of some prince Laila’s residence permit would have been withdrawn and she would have been forced to leave the country.

For the decades that followed Laila turned to private tutoring for adults. She had grown accustomed to her life in Riyadh and bit by bit lost all connection to her family at home. Her dark apartment became her abode of familiar loneliness, lifted only by her son’s visits, except that not all the visits she got were from her son. Over the last two years she had exhausted all her efforts to get rid of the sinister presence she felt. She had recited the Quran numerous times and burned as much incense as she could. The sounds only became louder, the breathing in the night closer. Eventually she decided to fulfill her son’s wish and see a specialist. Perhaps it really was just her mind.

On the morning of her appointment she arrived at the building a few minutes early, and just as the elevator was closing another woman rushed in. The woman’s face was almost hidden behind the burqa she was wearing, but Laila could see the woman’s eyes. Wide, black, compassionate. She could tell through the eyes that the woman was smiling at her. Laila didn’t return the smile and quickly turned her gaze to where Akram had been standing, but he had vanished. She kept the stiff expression on her face as she stepped into the clinic. “Have a seat, madam, the doctor will see you in a minute,” said the receptionist.

When it was finally her turn to go in she wiped her sweaty palms on her abaya and walked towards the consulting room door. Akram was standing ahead of her, smiling reassuringly.

“Madam Laila, pleased to meet you,” the psychiatrist greeted her as she was closing the door behind her. Laila could see that the psychiatrist’s eyes were the same eyes that had greeted her in the elevator. And without the burqa, she saw the black mole on her left cheek.

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Four Random Scenes From My Life

There was nowhere the cat could go but under the sofa. This was tremendous progress in its character. The pool man’s pole was so high and creepy thin the cat was convinced it was going to get it. It had been lying down on its favorite chair when the giant pole began to rise and dip itself into the mysteries of the blue water. It was a lot of restraint for the cat not to rush inside and to wait it out under a nearby sofa. And that amazing feat of courage paid off. The pole monster didn’t go much farther; it soon retreated. And the cat, forty-five minutes later, began to relax again, and the fur on its arched back and tail began to lay back in place, reverting the cat to its original size.

The cat had intellect and it was using it. The balance between instinct and intellect in its little head got the upper hand. Danger subsided. All was alright.

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She’d been dreaming of this all her life. Since the age of sixteen she decided that she wanted to learn Italian. Because she was not the one paying for the lessons, her father insisted that she learned Spanish instead, said he would only pay for Spanish, and Spanish it was. She enjoyed it nevertheless but it didn’t seem to satisfy the thirst for linguistic music inside her head. In her mind she could speak and understand every word. She could read it well. When she was old enough to pay for her own Italian classes she couldn’t keep them up. She allowed work and politics and “faithful sisters” to define her life’s purpose. Suddenly, rallying for bearded men who spoke shiny words became more important to her than speaking Italian. And she let the years go by.

Then one day she woke up from her slumber and decided it was time to get her life back. What was that language she so wanted to speak? She thought with a smile in her head. The moment finally came for her final stretch with it. She sat in front of the teacher, dumbfounded. Words were racing each other inside her head but none of them were the ones she wanted to use. Everything came up to her throat and choked in there while her teacher looked at her with a compassionate smile. The silence was murderous. But she would not let it kill her dream. She was listening to Italian, the teacher was promising her Italian, and all was alright.

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She was in white, standing in a crowd of eager women from different parts of the world. There was a wall separating them from a destination they had traveled thousands of miles to reach. It was now only a few short steps away once the door opens through that wall. The talking and the chattering echoed in the vastness of the mosque. White marble pillars stood eternally around them, cloaked in gold carvings, perfumed with Oud – the time old Arabian incense. The coolness of the powerful air conditioners and the lingering scent of Oud elevated her. The crowd was suddenly a part of the divine experience. All those women, barred from his blessed presence by the misogynistic sheikhs that have come to take his place despite their false claims to be his humble followers. All those women, standing patiently, waiting for the male ego to subside so that they could be with him at last, and tell him how the men have broken their promise to him to treat them well.

Then all at once the door opened and the women flooded into the forbidden quarters of the grand mosque. Joy filled them as some of them began to ululate, allowing their instinct to challenge the sin-minded conservatism of the men around them. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed towards the shrine of the prophet. She walked into the sunlit platform where she used to chase the pigeons when she was only seven as her mother sat quietly in a corner and prayed. Back then women were allowed this proximity to the prophet at all times. Back then the entire mosque was her playground. She kept walking, enjoying the sound of the pigeons’ fluttering wings, stepping once again into her childhood, until she finally reached him. She stood there with a smile on her face, and all was alright.

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She stared longingly at the wedding cake. She had been to a wedding in that hotel before and she knew how well they made those cakes. Most people she knew were chocolate cravers, she never was. Chocolate always came in handy to her on difficult times, but she was never a chocolate seeker. To her, the whiter the cake the stronger the lure, and if frosting was included her mouth would fill with saliva no matter what important event she was in. The wedding was coming to an end and she was worried they might forget to cut up the cake for the guests. Soon everyone began to leave and her heart began to sink when suddenly, her aunt came to her with a piece of the cake. She grinned and held it like an archaeologist would hold an ancient treasure. She took the first bite and peace drifted into her veins. And the world disappeared. And all was alright.

 

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The Kingdom and I: My Plight With Saudi Arabia

Good morning new day in Jeddah. It’s my last week here on this seasonal trip and, as usual, I’m getting anxious about my passport and my return visa. I always get anxious near the end of my trips to Saudi Arabia. Should I make that call and find out if it’s been issued and if I can have my passport back? Does that really speed it up or does it only aggravate? Sheer helplessness is my share as a woman, and as a “foreign” woman, whenever I visit.

What’s a return visa? That’s a long, twofold story. One part me, one part Saudi Arabian laws. Let me start with me.

My mother’s hometown was Medina, Saudi Arabia. Like many Medinans and other inhabitants of the hijaz area (the western coast of Saudi Arabia along the mountains) she was of immigrant descent. Many Saudis living along the Hijaz have Eastern European, Turkish, Central and South Asian, and even African roots. They’ve been living for generations in Saudi Arabia and are full citizens, yet their cultures, family names, and even accents, are an interesting hybrid you’ll find especially conglomerated in Medina. They always find themselves different from the rest of the peninsula because of the way many of them are brought up but, most importantly, because the Najd Saudis (indigenous inhabitants of the vast Arabian desert of the center and the north, covering Riyadh, and from which the royal family descends) see to it that they’re constantly reminded of their “unArabianness,” for lack of a better word. Stereotypes are exchanged between Hijazis and Najdis. The former call the latter “primitive bedouins” who mutilated the land of the Prophet and the latter call the former “pilgrim remnants,” like abandoned, unwanted leftovers from foreign pilgrims who don’t understand Islam the way God intended it. The real Saudi Arabia on the ground is in fact rich in its variation and multicultural society.

But that’s for a whole different post with lots of complicated details and I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. What I’m actually trying to tell you is simple: My mother was from Saudi Arabia.

Yet somehow, ironically, I’m still a foreigner by law. I’m still not entitled to citizenship even though there’s been lots of official talk that people like me, born to Saudi mothers, should be.

Fine. Where does that leave me?

Foreigners should get visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Woman foreigner? Woman foreigner must have either pilgrimage visa where she must enter with a group of pilgrims (this visa is seasonal, open only on certain months in a year, and confines the trip to certain cities within Saudi Arabia) or a regular visit visa in which a male guardian has to be involved; either as the person sending her the invitation from inside Saudi Arabia – in which case he would have to be present at the airport to meet her – or as a travel companion with his own visit visa (which by the way can be a multiple entry business permit lasting up to six months). Apart from the whole male guardian complication, if the male guardian is there and is available, the process should be pretty much straightforward, but in reality it can quite unpredictably take well more than a month.

I’ve had all kinds of interesting incidents on my trips to Saudi Arabia. On one occasion I was held at the airport even though my passport’s been stamped. I wasn’t allowed into the city because my uncle had to physically show up at the airport and show himself to the authorities. I was placed in a room full of women from Asia and Africa who had just arrived for work, waiting for their custodians to pick them up from the airport. Some were curled up by their things and sleeping, some appeared to have been in that room for very long hours – if not overnight – and certainly all of them were very, very exhausted. I was the only one fuming. The family fixer back then did his usual magic tricks and got me out.

As a way to get past all of this I decided that I would work on getting a residence permit based on my mother’s custody. This process ended all trouble for me for almost ten years. I only had to show up in the country twice a year to keep my residence going and, upon leaving, a return visa had to be issued each time. I’d be getting a piece of paper, stamp it at the airport, and it would be my means of reentering the country.

Complicated to many, but still pretty much straightforward. Believe me! Until then no action had started yet.

Then one morning my mother decided not to wake up again, and everything became a huge deal since. For the past four years I have been trying to move my visa custody from my mother to my uncle and it’s been proving to be more than an uphill task. You see, I happen to have an older brother, and according to custom, my brother gets priority in my guardianship. Never mind the fact that he is an Egyptian living in Cairo. Never mind the whole idea that the guardian needs to be a Saudi national living in Saudi Arabia so that I could actually get his custody for my residence permit in the same country he is in. I have a brother living in Egypt and my Saudi mother died, so as a “foreigner,” I should pack and leave. I have no privileges being the daughter of a deceased national. None at all.

The Saudi person who is helping me with my papers has been going here and there and checking in every direction he could to find out if there’s anyway we could still move that custody. He was presented with two solutions: Either my brother accompanies me to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo and writes an official renunciation of my guardianship, thereby officially moving it to my maternal uncles (I do have Egyptian paternal uncles but SHHHH!!) or I get my permit as a nanny in my own uncle’s household.

It may raise a few eyebrows, but red tape, tardiness, turtle speed and the occasional bumps on the road to any official paper work have actually made the nanny option quite appealing to me. As long as it doesn’t involve the embassy as well, which could mean more and more papers back and forth and officials taking vacations and locking papers up in their desk drawers, then at least I’m still only dealing with the ministry inside Saudi Arabia.

But a voice inside me tells me that something would be very, very wrong if I ended up with this option. So I’m going to go ahead and see if the embassy procedure in Cairo is in anyway doable, like if somehow miraculously the embassy is less tedious to deal with. They do have a whole new headquarters near my home now with a huge helicopter platform at the roof, so they should feel pretty fresh, eh? It actually took some five or more years to finish and lots of harassment to me by their Egyptian construction workers each time I walked to the gym, but I’ll try not to think too much of that when I walk in. The harassment part is a Cairo problem really, so let’s not confuse culprits.

I’ll just play it by ear till my residence expires. Until then, and in the coming few days, I need to restrain myself from thinking too much about whether or not my return visa has been issued yet and whether or not I can actually fly back to Cairo on the date scheduled. This is my predicament each and every time I come here. I have men doing this on my behalf (since it would be virtually impossible for me to do it for myself) and I really appreciate the help so I hate to push, but I never quite understand why they don’t get me out of their way from the very beginning by getting my shit done instead of leaving it till the last minute.

Apart from that, I have a little confession to make. I think a lot each time I go back to Cairo whether the whole experience is worth it. I think a lot about losing that permit and just not bothering with Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s hard. I have family here. I have childhood memories. I care about the old places and the old cities. I care about the time old, authentic beauty and spirit in the little bazaars and the aromatic alleys and the holy places. I can’t let ugliness win, can I?

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Mournful Ghosts or Uncovered Meat? The “Saudi Woman” Effect

By Arwa Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Ahmad Al Amoudi – Jeddah
(First published in 2007 by IslamOnline.net)

“Stop! Stop it NOW!”

“I don’t know how to!!”

“Jump from it!!”

“I CAN’T!!”

The sound of a big splash combined with a loud engine overrode the girl’s screams as teenage Hoda, dressed in a T-shirt and swimming suit, drove into the Red Sea with her brother’s motorcycle in a public seashore in Jeddah.

Today, Hoda is 41 years old, married to an imam, and runs a self-development center specialized for women and children.

“Jeddah’s sea resorts have always attracted young men and women from different nationalities. Back in the late ’70s, it was never an uncommon thing to see a foreign woman on a boat in her swimming suit. Today, many girls continue to find their ways around these places,” said Hoda.

Saudi Arabia is a place that surely challenges a journalist’s professional ego. The common image of it being a desert with rich princes and women in black cloaks covering them from head to toe often tempts a writer to write about it with a great deal of sensationalism. Some of the Western literature on Saudi Arabia gives the immediate impression to an insider that the author has chosen the easy way: entering the country with a previously established idea, being guided throughout with selective perception, and eventually writing what sells.

BBC correspondent Rachel Reid’s recent reflection on Saudi, initially titled “The First Woman to Swim in Saudi,” and then changed to “Making a Public Splash in Saudi,” is reminiscent of such literature.

“Reading through Reid’s article, it was as if she wrote about Saudi some 50 or more years ago… women are depicted as subjects, recipients. Expressions such as ‘folded away’ and ‘ushered’ draw a dim picture of oppressed women beaten around like cattle,” commented Hoda. I listened to her as I looked back into the article, up to the third paragraph, where I reread her description of Gulf women in abaya as “mournful ghosts.”

As a half-Egyptian, half-Saudi woman, my life has always been divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, I drive and I wear whatever I want. In Saudi Arabia, I can’t drive and I have to wear an abaya on top of whatever I’m wearing. I switch between both modes naturally. I hardly give it a thought.

The black abaya that women wear in public places in Saudi has always been in my wardrobe. I put it on as I go to the airport to take my flight to Jeddah or Riyadh, always have it on as I walk in shopping malls or in the streets of Makkah and Madinah, and sometimes forget I have it on when I go visit a cousin and immediately start catching up with old conversations. Sometimes it gets in the way as I come out of a car, sometimes I trip over it when I come up or down the stairs, but I always attribute it to malpractice. As I try to hide my embarrassment, most of the women around me always seem to walk in it with grace and ease.

It never occurred to me once that I looked like a mournful ghost – no child ever screamed when they saw me.

You can never enforce a single uniform on people, let alone women. The Saudi abaya does appear to be a hassle to any foreign woman used to more overt expressions of her individuality. But many Saudi women still manage to find their ways around it. Walk in any fancy mall and you will be stunned by the variety of fabrics, designs, and decorated color appliques, not to mention the high heels, luxury bags, and full makeup that nearly always come with it. So even as the abaya is an enforced uniform on women, it never snatched away their personal taste or preference. Saudi women who do cover in plain black, head to toe, are culturally accustomed to it. In fact, some of them continue to wear it even outside the country.

The Private Public

Saudi women do not have to be escorted by men everywhere they go. Any visit to a “family” section in a restaurant shows it. Yes, they live segregated lives, but this has created a parallel public world with its own social codes and standards. It is also a world of ease and luxury that can easily get you into thinking that it is unsurpassed even by the Saudi man’s world.

There is very little that Saudi women cannot do in their own world. As a practicing Muslim wearing the hijab, I find my clothes nearly have no place in Saudi. I catch myself digging for jeans and dresses each time I have to travel there. Underneath the abayas, women there wear anything they please. It even gets competitive.

The busier women are always caught in their work, and in their leisure time they practice a wide variety of sports ranging from martial arts to horseback riding, the latter often taught by a male trainer.

“Saudi Arabia is loaded with a number of social and sports clubs that offer special services for women, and swimming is no exception,” commented Maida Zaazou, a Saudi poet and writer who takes swimming as a primary sport.

“My best friend goes swimming with her children every week in Al-Bilad Hotel. It has a certain number of hours for ladies. Most hotels here do,” added Hoda. “What the hotel provided for Reid was a private hour. This wasn’t so public. They just gave her another private public space, something normally offered in many other hotels.”

Reid created a catchy story from a single incident in one of the hotels, and she fit it perfectly at home with what many readers want to read about Saudi.

Saudi women’s roles are not necessarily confined to the “private public” sphere. An increasing number have joined the workforce, and many of them can be seen in less “scary” abayas, smiling, and joining male counterparts in meetings and discussions.

Currently, there is a large number of women members in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There are four women in the board of directors,” added Salih Al Turki, the chairman of the board.

Segregated life in Saudi is still not easy. Especially as a woman who does not live in the country, I sometimes find it frustrating to constantly be interrupted by figuring out where to sit, or having to rely on someone else to drive me to the place I’m going. Also, Saudi society has started to develop its own list of problems and complications that many Saudi youth are now trying to find solutions to. However, the problem is far from being the old cliché of a suppressed, covered woman always in the shadow of a ruthless, selfish man. A closer look at the society exposes a whole new set of issues that are by far more real and more pressing.

The Controversial Vote

With the image of the covered Saudi woman and her imaginary male escort still fresh in Reid’s mind, she concluded her piece with a reflection on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with special attention to voting. She commented that if women were allowed to vote in the 2009 elections, it would be a “revolution.”

“What revolution? We have an existing problem with the voting system itself! Even men suffer from inequality in this regard,” Hoda giggled. “Did everyone forget that we live under the most tyrannical monarchy in the region? Focusing on voting as the sign of women’s liberation is laughable. It simply does not apply.”

She added, “This country needs serious human development, good education, more social awareness and cohesion, and professional training in order to reach a phase in which voting is actually efficient and effective.”

How Far Can Labels Go?

Reid’s reflection story promises problematic reporting. Because it is an opinion piece, Reid has unknowingly given her prejudice so much liberty that she easily used terms and labels that are culturally offensive. She equaled herself to Australian imam Taj Din Al-Hilali when he labeled women who did not wear the hijab as “uncovered meat,” which was equally offensive.

“It’s about what people are culturally used to and how they conduct their lives accordingly,” said Nadia El-Awady, a half-Egyptian, half-American journalist. “In some beaches I see topless European women tanning or having cocktails with great ease, an uncomfortable scene for any person who is not used to nudity. It’s the same feeling others get when they see women covered head to toe, which is an opposite extreme. In the end it is what each of those women is culturally used to.”

One of the key skills journalists often feel compelled to learn at the very beginning of their career is the ability to detach themselves from their personal prejudices and cultural standards, to be able to take a clear and pure look at everything new a foreign society has to offer them. The further journalists manage to go down that path, the more they will be able to mirror what they find as accurately and as credibly as possible.

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