Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Educational Day

I   was recently invited to be a guest at a medical conference that was held here in Jeddah at the Intercontinental Hotel which is located on the Corniche – the long and winding boardwalk running along the Red Sea coastline. I know, I know - I am not, nor have I ever been, in the medical field. So what was I doing there? 
My friend "Amber," another American woman who is married to a Saudi and who has lived in this country for nearly forty years, asked me to come to take photos for her. She was a moderator of the event and her daughter was one of the speakers. I was happy to oblige and excited at the prospect of seeing the hotel and actually attending an event that wasn’t a family get together!
The medical profession is one of the very few fields in Saudi Arabia where men and women are allowed to work side by side with one another. There are not many Saudi women who work outside the home, even though many of them may have attained university degrees. Saudi men still largely feel that a woman’s place is in the home, taking care of the family and running the household. Another problem with Saudi women working is transportation since women are not allowed to drive here and must rely on their husbands or hire a driver. There is no public mass transit, and even if there were, women would probably be restricted from using it.
The annual conference is organized by a female Saudi pediatrician. Over 800 were registered to attend, but those attending numbered in the 600s. There were speakers lined up from all over the world. The session of the conference that Amber and her daughter were involved in dealt with problem solving and encouraging the breastfeeding of premature infants, which can be a dilemma when the babies are kept in an incubator, may not learn how to suckle, and are not taken home for the first couple of months to bond with the mothers. The main speakers events were set up in a huge meeting room with hundreds of chairs facing the stage at one end of the room.
Running right down the center of the room were several large screens serving as a room divider to separate the women’s seating area from the men’s section. There were spaces in between the screens so one could actually see members of the opposite sex over into the other section if one dared! So even though men and women are allowed to work side by side in hospitals and clinics throughout the country, they are separated from sitting beside one another at this medical conference. After all, there's no telling what lurid behaviors might happen if men and women are close enough to sniff at each other when the topic being discussed is something so overtly sexual as breastfeeding!

The Intercontinental Hotel is lovely. It has a beautiful lobby and more than adequate meeting facilities. The lobby’s focal point is a beautiful tiled fountain surrounded by wide columns topped with fanned palm fronds. There are many gift shops offering everything from toiletry necessities to traditional Arabic art. The restaurant was very elegant and well-staffed. There were separate dining rooms for men and women and there were even separate buffet lines. But since we were with the conference speakers, we were allowed to sit at a mixed table in a corner of the men’s dining room. The center of the table was overflowing with dozens of dishes filled with yummy items like hummus, shrimp, and potato salad. Waiters continually came around offering shish kebab, fish, chicken, tabouleh, and many other mouth watering foods. It was a delicious luncheon.

At the end of the day as the sun was setting over the Red Sea, we exited the Intercontinental Hotel and from the parking lot we could see the King Fahd Fountain which rises from the sea in a spray to a height of over 1000 feet. You can see a night-time photo and learn more about this remarkable fountain by reading a recent post I did about it on my other blog, Jeddah Daily Photo Journal. JUST CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Still She Smiles

We first saw her at Burger King. She was sitting alone at a table in the family section, with no family in sight. We sat down at the table right next to her. We smiled at each other and she chomped a tiny mouthful of her giant Whopper sandwich which was almost too big for her to hold, much less bite. We watched her as she nonchalantly sat there, flirting with us with her twinkling chocolate brown eyes. But no family member ever came to be with her or to fetch her. And she didn't appear scared or concerned at all. She actually seemed quite confident and at ease. When the service manager from behind the counter brought our order to the table, he walked by the little girl and said something kind to her in Arabic which made her smile yet again. As he put our food down on the table, he told us that she was his most loyal and regular customer. She always comes to the restaurant. She comes to eat there every single day, he told us. Another random customer will usually buy her a sandwich, and then the manager himself throws in the fries and a drink for her.

Her name is Sahba, which in Arabic means "friend." She is six years old and cute as a button. Sahba is a refugee from Afghanistan. Like most six-year-olds, she has an eager and ready smile, missing a tooth or two. But unlike most other kids her age, she works every day to help support her family. Next to her on the table were four cartons of mint gum. Each carton has twenty packs of gum in it. She sells a carton for 10 riyals ($2.50 US). She told my husband that she works until about midnight and then she walks for an hour or so to meet up with her parents to go home. Did you get that? AT MIDNIGHT SHE STOPS SELLING GUM AND WALKS BY HERSELF FOR AN HOUR TO GO HOME, AND SHE IS ONLY SIX YEARS OLD. She does this every day. The district she told us she lives in is several miles away from the Burger King we were at, in this busy city of about four million people. There is no school for this little girl. There is no playtime. There may be no dolls or other toys waiting for her at her "home." Selling gum is her life for now. Yet she smiles.

Sahba finished her burger and my husband called her over to our table. He teased her, jokingly bargaining with her over the price of a carton of her gum. And she gave it right back to him, with a smile. She seemingly has the savvy of an experienced business woman. She had more maturity than any six-year-old I have ever seen. At her tender age, she already possessed street smarts. Sahba happily obliged when I asked to take her picture and posed for me, flashing her heart-melting smile. She was so pleased when I showed her the images of her sweet little face on the screen of the camera. Another big smile. She wore an open abaya over an ill-fitting shiny purple dress. I noticed that one of her cheeks had a little cut on it and her arms had several little cuts as well. She picked up the remaining three cartons of gum, said goodbye to us, and walked out the restaurant door into the night.

My son Adam and I looked at each other. Clearly Sahba had touched our hearts. At the same time we both blurted out, “I wish we could take her home with us!” But she is not a stray cat or an abandoned puppy. She is not an orphan. She is a little six year old girl who helps to support her displaced family. We couldn’t stop talking or thinking about her as we finished our meal. Several minutes later the restaurant door opened, and there she was again. She approached our table and boldly used one of the oldest pick-up lines in the book on my infatuated husband. In Arabic she asked, “Would you like to buy me a drink?” Hubby smiled at her and I noticed that his eyes even teared up a little bit. He got up and gently put his hand on the back of her shoulder to guide her as they walked up to the counter together where he bought her a drink. It was undeniable that she was a favorite of the grinning Burger King employees, who all seemed to stop what they were doing to look over fondly at the sight of precious little Sahba, beaming as though they were all her doting uncles. Hubby asked the little child if she wanted some dessert too, but she politely declined. His reward was her pretty little gapped tooth smile.

And then she was gone again. We got into our car and as we were driving away, we saw her on the sidewalk at the edge of the busy plaza holding her cartons of gum, looking for a sale. I wondered how she managed to keep smiling and spreading her sunshine every day like she did, and I knew then that I wouldn't ever be able to forget about this charming little girl. I realized that she still had three more hours left to work, when most kids her age were already tucked into bed for the night. And to think, she’s just six years old… and still she smiles.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hair Do or Hair Don't?

Yesterday our family was invited for dinner to the home of a Lebanese family whose son is friends with our son Adam. They live in a residential compound where women can walk around the grounds without an abaya or having to cover their hair. I was very excited because I would get to meet the boy's mom (a new potential friend - yay!), plus another couple from South Africa. I had already met the South African lady through my blog and I was looking forward to seeing her again. I made a salad to take with us as our contribution for the meal, took a shower, and got dressed.

About an hour before we left the house, I told my husband that there was a possibility that both of the other women we would be visiting with that evening may not have their hair covered. If that was the case, I went on, I would prefer not to be the only woman there with my hair covered. Well, basically my hubby told me that if I wanted to uncover my hair there, that he would not be going with us. So I had two choices: (A) I could agree to keep my hair covered and have him be there with us; or (B) I could uncover my hair and make up some lame excuse for why he suddenly wasn't able to come with us.

The arguments for his position included that we are in Saudi Arabia, it is a Muslim country, and that Allah requires women to cover their hair. He feels now that a woman's beauty, including her hair, should be revealed only to her husband. He says that he is a Muslim man and his wife should cover and he should be respected by everyone else for feeling that way. I, as his wife, should obey and please my husband, and to a certain extent I agree, but what about MY feelings and my comfort?

My hubby does not regularly read my blog, but he has seen it. A photo of me showing my hair for the entire world to see is posted on my blog, and he has not asked me to remove it. What is the difference, then, if I uncover my hair in a private setting with two other non-Saudi couples present? And, if the other women at this dinner party weren't covered, why must I? I told my hubby that I like to feel good about myself and I honestly feel ugly wearing the hijab (head and neck covering). I feel plain and invisible and I don't like feeling that way. I find it uncomfortable and it makes me hot. It makes my neck itch. I know that there are many Muslim women out there who feel beautiful wearing the hijab, but I personally don't. I know that there are many Muslim women out there who feel empowered wearing the hijab and the abaya, but I feel the opposite way. I know also that there are many Western women married to Saudis who love to cover and may even veil, but I’m not one of them. Do I resent them or fault them for it? No! If it suits them and they like it, good for them. It's just not my thing.

There are many Muslim women around the world who do NOT cover their hair and do not wear a black abaya. So definitely, this is a cultural issue here. But the problem for me lies in the fact that ALL the reasons I’ve ever been given for WHY women have to dress like that here ARE religious! To me this boils down to man’s interpretations on imposing THEIR personal beliefs on women. I have asked my husband many times to show me any passages where Allah has instructed that women specifically must cover their hair and neck or dress up like a nun, and he has yet to show me anything. I believe that all religions here on earth are manmade and this is the root of my problems with religions. Since religions are made by man, as a woman I have a problem especially with those teachings in religions that seem to be directed only to women and are not applied equally to men. For example in Islam, how women should dress, how women should act (lowering our gaze, not letting other men hear our voices), and that men are allowed four wives, etc. I find these religious rules unfair to women. I am not putting anyone down for believing whole-heartedly in these values. I just don’t buy into it myself. Honestly I wouldn’t have a problem with it if these rules were applied equally to men.

All my life before we moved here I was fine without shielding my hair from men – over 50 years – and I don’t recall having any problems from men because of my hair. So I asked hubby why he didn't make an issue out of me not covering my hair for the 30 years we spent together in the states? His answer was that he was stupid then! If it’s because he didn’t want other men seeing my “beauty,” I could better understand that if I were still younger, cuter, and thinner. But the truth is, I just don’t FEEL as attractive as I once did – let’s face it – I’m pushing 60! Covering now at this point in my life when I didn’t when I WAS cute blows that "beauty theory" out the window as far as I’m concerned. It makes no sense to me.

You'll be glad if you click on the links below to check out some other really interesting posts about Islamic women’s dress that have cropped up recently by some of my favorite fellow bloggers. There are also some amazing photos, interesting history, and great comments too. Don't miss these must-see posts:

Aafke of Clouddragon entertains with a post called "Women, Dress, Undress and Religions."

American Bedu pens a provocative post titled "Saudi Arabia – I Dared to Go Out Without An Abaya."

And Achelois looks at history in her post called "Uniforming the Muslim Woman."

Also check out Saudi Woman's post about "Confiscated Abayas!"

Oh, and FYI, Adam and I went to the dinner party WITH my husband, and I wore the hijab the whole time. The other two women did not cover their hair. My husband and I set aside our differences and we all had a lovely time. The food was fantastic and our new friends were delightful. But deep down inside, I was not happy about having to wear the hijab!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Search of ... Turkey!

M y husband took me out in search of a turkey for Thanksgiving since I had been very disappointed that we hadn't had one the year before, shortly after I first arrived in Saudi Arabia.

First we went to an enormous brand new immaculate and stunning super market with the widest aisles I have ever seen. Surely they must have a turkey here. After checking the fresh meat department and the frozen section, my husband decided to ask an employee - who was cleaning the floor of this spic-and-span establishment and who apparently spoke neither Arabic nor English - if he knew where the turkey (in English) or "deek roomy" (turkey in Arabic) might be. The guy happily pointed us over to the Bakery Department (!?!), saying, "Turkey! Turkey!" Miffed, we walked over to the Bakery Department where we were greeted by the Manager of the Bakery, whose name badge introduced him to us as "Mr. Al-Turki."

The second huge super market we tried to find turkey in did actually have turkey, but it was precooked ready to eat deli turkey in those huge rolls that you can have the butcher slice off a kilo or two for you to take home and make sandwiches out of. Well, I'd really rather have a real turkey, but I guess this would do if we couldn't find anything else ...

The third place we went to is also a fancy super store - they call them "hyper markets" here. In the frozen section in the far corner of one of the chests tucked away between some frozen ducks was a single 4.11 kg frozen turkey! Yay! At this store, we also got the fixings for a homemade pumpkin pie and my famous jellied cranberry salad with celery, pineapple and walnuts.

Adam and I were so happy to have the traditional Thanksgiving meal, complete with mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing. It was quite a mission finding a turkey in a country where many of the natives I have talked to about it claim to not LIKE the taste of turkey. The funny thing is that in the months following, we have seen several stores with an abundant supply of frozen turkeys! Next holiday, we'll get an earlier start ...