The “Lebanese Look”

“Look at those tight pants, the eye makeup, and long curly hair!”  My husband, Bishara, could hardly contain himself as we walked along the wide and well-traveled corridor of the main wing of King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh.  “She must be Lebanese,” he continued.  Although decidedly less observant than my husband, I angled my eyes in the young woman’s direction and nodded my head, “Yes, she really does look Lebanese.”  Because I knew he just had to know, I mumbled under my breath, “Let’s go find out!”  We picked up our pace and were soon alongside the young woman, and her two companions.  “Hello,” I started, “we saw you walking with your friends and had the feeling you might be Lebanese.”  The woman idled towards me, looked me directly in the eyes, and with a hint of exasperation disclosed, “Yes, I’m Saudi on my father’s side, and Lebanese on my mother’s side.  How did you know?”

Haifa Wehbe (Singer & Model) – The “Lebanese Look” [Wikipedia]

Bishara’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly.  A native Lebanese, himself, Bishara definitely knew the “Lebanese look.”  However, this was a curious fusion of lineages; one side representing the traditional Arab world where women are required to wear abayes and headscarves, and the other characterized by a more contemporary lifestyle shaped by western influences.  Although the flying time between Riyadh and Beirut is only two and a half hours, the proximity of these two capital cities belies unusually disparate ways of life and customs.

My husband and I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as expatriates for several years (from 2000 to 2004), and while I was the one who felt compelled to explore this enigmatic land and was rewarded with a phenomenal and life-changing experience, it became apparent the Kingdom was the most conservative of the more traditional Gulf nations.  Although the unwritten dress code on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) grounds (where I worked as an Economist and Bishara as a Civil Engineer), and in the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located, and where we lived, was somewhat more relaxed for females due to the large numbers of western expatriates, Saudi women were expected to be arrayed in a black abaye, including a face covering, niqab, when in public.  Women, in general, were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, and limited to employment in three sectors – academia, hospitals, and banks.

Conversely, in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Beirut, women sport perfectly coiffed hair, fully made-up faces, and pricey nose jobs.  I was definitely taken aback on a visit to Lebanon in 1996, my first trip to the Middle East, when I saw an amalgam of women on the streets of Beirut with colorful headscarves or no headscarves, tight jeans, designer handbags and shoes, erect postures, and determined gaits.  Cafes overlooking the azure Mediterranean Sea were brimming with women, some with male companions and others in collections, many in oversized sunglasses sipping Turkish coffee, chattering, and people watching.  Sheesha, prevalent in Beirut seaside cafes, is often the diversion of choice on weekends and in the evenings, with women going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts on mustering the largest smoke rings.

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Sahbah (Lebanese Singer & Actress)

And Lebanese women may be found in all sectors of employment, from the service sector and retail arena, to the armed forces.  There seem to be no limits for Lebanese women, who are nothing if not bold and direct.  In the early 2000s, Bishara and I were having breakfast in a sweet little café on the outskirts of Beirut, and I had special ordered my favorite – a western omelet, a little known breakfast selection in Bishara’s native country.  As I savored my omelet, I noticed a group of women at a nearby table shooting sideways glances at Bishara and me from time to time, not an uncommon occurrence, as Lebanese women tend to be a very curious lot with a tendency towards flirtation.  When the women, each immaculately dressed and dripping with confidence, paid their check and got up to leave, they sashayed right up to me and just inches away, peered unabashedly at my eggs soaked in bacon, onion, and green pepper as I moved my forkfuls from plate to mouth.  Although I had become conditioned to the audacious ways of Lebanese women having traveled with Bishara to his homeland on many occasions, I was startled by how very upfront and personal these women were being.  “Here would you like a taste,” just sort of slipped out, as I lifted my fork filled with omelet in their direction.  “Oh, no, thank you!” came the swift response, as the women scurried out of the restaurant on their Louboutin heels.

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Mona Abou Hamze – TV Presenter (Sammy Said, “Beauty”)

The confidence and fashion forward nature of Lebanese women is strongly influenced by the inundation of western Europeans into Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s for fun-filled holidays; mountain skiing in the winters, and summer days spent lazing by the Mediterranean Sea and shopping, with evenings spent partying at trendy nightclubs.  Before the civil war in the mid-70s, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East,” and Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

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Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon)

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Mountain View Outside of Beirut

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The Mediterranean

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Beirut

Lebanese women not only want to look their best, but often feel compelled to help others do the same.  On the trip Bishara and I took to Lebanon in 1996, after a prerequisite feast of grape leaves, molkhia, bamieh, kibbe, moutabel, and falafel, Bishara’s sisters and a couple of neighbor ladies were kind enough to offer to style my hair.  Having coarse and generally unmanageable hair, I jumped at the opportunity.  After washing my hair, I was seated in front of a mirror in one of the bedrooms in Bishara’s old family residence, and out came the hairdryers, hair straighteners, hairsprays, and mousse.  Like professional salon hairstylists, the women effortlessly dried, straightened, fluffed, moussed, and finished off their creation with a heavy mist of hair spray.

Since our plan for later that night was to have an evening out at an exclusive mountain-side restaurant outside of Beirut that featured belly dancing, my styling team decided my new look would not be complete without a heavy dose of eyeliner to create “Cleopatra eyes” with multi-colored eye shadows applied to achieve the ultimate effect.  I had never worn so much makeup in my life, but I had to draw the line when I heard whispers of plucking and shaping my eyebrows – I had always prided myself in maintaining a more “natural look.”  And, of course, my choice of attire was not immune from evaluation and enhancement.  The ladies chose the shortest skirt I had packed, a white flouncy blouse under a black jacket, and a sparkly black and gold scarf.  Like my eyebrows, I would not negotiate on the shoes – no spiked heels.

So, there I was in the middle of the mountainside restaurant, feeling out of place, completely outside my “comfort zone,” yet somehow satisfied (based on Bishara’s reaction) having affected “the Lebanese look.”

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The Feigned “Lebanese Look”

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The Real “Lebanese Look”

Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

I write this tribute in honor of my friend, Sherifa, a young woman who taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar.  My hope is that Sherifa’s voice and sentiments live on in the dreams of other young Qatari women.  This article recounts several interviews I had with Sherifa. 

Sherifa died in a tragic car accident on November 22, 2013 on the precarious, and sometimes perilous, streets of Doha.  She had turned 23 just a week prior to her car accident.  Sherifa, who received her law degree from Swansea University in Wales only months ago, had a dream to become one of the first female judges in Qatar.  This young rising star was the eldest of five children, and was cherished by family and friends.  Short in stature, Sherifa’s candid charm, infectious spirit, and commanding manner always filled a room.  Sherifa loved her Smart Phone, texting, and shopping at Doha’s malls for designer jeans, handbags, and shoes, yet regularly stood up for those less fortunate than herself.  I was frequently disconcerted when Sherifa routinely ordered for the entire table when my husband and I joined her and her family for dinner – a highly unusual action for a young woman in the Gulf region.  Sherifa’s forthright actions say not only a lot about her own nature, but the unique environment in which her parents raised her.  Sherifa, who defied all stereotypes, was bold and resolute, yet compassionate and a realist.

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Sherifa

I first met Sherifa in February of 2009 when I was looking for female Qatari university students to interview for a series of articles focusing on the role of women in the Arabian Peninsula, the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of young Gulf Arab women, and concerns around balancing career/marriage/family in a changing region.  Five young women, three of whom attended Northwestern University-Qatar and one at Virginia Commonwealth-Qatar, graciously agreed to be interviewed, Sherifa (who attended Swansea) among them.  Immediately following our initial interview, Sherifa insisted I go to her home to meet her family and experience some “real Qatari hospitality.”  That very evening I found myself seated on a bright red overstuffed loveseat being served cardamom coffee and Arabic sweets on a silver platter by Sherifa herself in the luxurious sitting room of her home.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sherifa’s mother, father, as well as a younger sister and brother.  Later in the evening, my husband, Bishara, and I met Sherifa and her parents at Villagio (an upscale mall) for coffee, the beginning of a deepening friendship between Sherifa and her family, and Bishara and me.  We had an instant “cellular” connection.

After several interviews with Sherifa, it became apparent that her views and outlook reflected a deeply ingrained need to adhere to her traditional Gulf lifestyle, tinged with an attentiveness to the “creep of westernization” that had infiltrated her world holding open the possibility of new opportunities.  Around a year ago, Sherifa and her family most graciously invited me and Bishara to a day-long fete at their desert family farm, around an hour outside of Doha, which included a sumptuous traditional meal and a healthy dose of Gulf hospitality.  I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherifa during this occasion.  We started our session seated atop colorful cushions outside the women’s tent where chatter and Gulf music permeated the night air; in the distance laughter from Sherifa’s male relatives and my husband arose over the din of the crackling grill where lamb kabobs roasted.  Poised and leaning forward, casting the light from her phone over my interview notes, Sherifa divulged that she was “not comfortable” when asked if she was being encouraged to get married and settle down.  Sherifa went on to declare, “My family wants me to get married as soon as possible. I don’t know, I just feel that I like my freedom. I’m not even trying to meet any one.  And, I don’t know, I’m not going to say I agree 100% with arranged marriage. I know it is my culture and all, but I want to actually meet the person I’m going to marry before getting married.”  Sherifa’s family’s concerns were understandable in the more conservative Gulf region where an unmarried woman in her late 20s is considered an “old maid.”  How did Sherifa think she would meet that special person?  “I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe a workshop, or travelling. I thought maybe while studying, but I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not one of my biggest missions. My focus is about my education. And my education comes first.”

Sherifa revealed that attending Swansea University in Wales had been a life-changing time for her.  Taking a deep breath and crossing her legs across the cushion, Sherifa maintained, “When I first went to Swansea I was 18 years old. I learned how to be independent. I learned a lot of things. When I’m there at Swansea, I’m not going to say I’m alone, but you know, I need to take care of myself. I need to figure everything out myself. I can’t just go and cry and tell my Mom to help me. Because my life here (in Qatar), we are so spoiled. Everything is done for us by our household staff–maids, cooks, and drivers. We don’t have to think about anything; everything is just casual and everything is organized for us. When I went to the United Kingdom, it became a very different journey for me. I knew since I was a kid I wanted to study abroad. I had dreams about it.”

I inquired how Sherifa was treated as a young Arab woman in the UK.  She took a sip of her Turkish coffee and replied, “I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahoma as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, ‘Who’s she?’  ‘Where is she from?’  And they think that because we’re wearing a scarf, or because we’re Arabs, we come from a really restrictive place. I know a girl in the UK who cannot even smoke in front of me, because she thinks it’s disrespectful of me. I told her ‘You can smoke, I don’t mind.’  And even some people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. It’s their right to speak as they wish. You know, when I’m with my friends and we’re chilling, who cares. Like seriously, why are you putting boundaries?”

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Sherifa’s family farm in the desert. (Men’s Tent)

When asked about her plans for the future, Sherifa, surveying the desert horizon, responded, “A few months from now I’ll be graduating, hopefully by June.  So I’m thinking of working in the Ministry of Justice in Qatar, a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back in the afternoon and work at the company that sponsors me, since I need to work for them for the same number of years I’ve been away at university. They sponsored me for four years, so I need to work for them for four years.”

Given her impressive academic credentials and career aspirations, I wondered if eligible young men might be intimated by Sherifa.  Always the realist, Sherifa announced, “This has already happened, and I think this will happen in the future. I do want to marry a man who has an even stronger background than me, so he can lead the family, as I know that otherwise it would always be a problem.”

I knew Sherifa would also face expectations that she have children once married.  Large families are a staple in the Arabian Peninsula where it is not uncommon to have six or more children under one roof.  According to Sherifa, “People [in the Gulf] believe that children will bring more joy and happiness than getting married.”  What were Sherifa’s own personal thoughts on having a family, especially given her lofty ambitions?  Had she thought about how many children she would like to have?  Sherifa fixed her eyes on mine, and related, “It’s hard to say. I want to give them the best education they can have. I want them to live the best life they can have, so if I have money it’s okay. I’ll have to think about it financially. I’m a planner. I want to look at the future. In the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, no, I have to think about how I am going to feed them; am I going to be able to be there for them. They need not only financial support, they need emotional support, my support.  Time management is a big issue, and in my type of career it’s going to be a helluva lot of work. I’m going to be a lawyer, and if I want to have a lot of kids I want to know I’m going to have time to be there for them. Both at school, after school, even on the weekends and all, I need to plan everything. If it’s up to me, two to three children, max.”

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Feast at desert family farm.

Several years earlier when discussing children and marriage I asked Sherifa if she would need the permission of her father before she married.  Sherifa affirmed, “If I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Steadfast, Sherifa emphasized, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

When speaking of family, Sherifa often became animated.  “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life,” pronounced Sherifa.  “We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”  Families, immediate and extended, gather often in the Gulf States, and cousins are particularly close, meeting often on weekends at a family home where they might dance to Khaleeji music, watch movies, divulge secrets, or decide to go out to a mall.  Sherifa highlighted the value placed on family connections and Fridays, in particular, that are “like a holy day for us, when we get together to see our parents and other relatives.  Like we go to my grandfather’s house.  Sometimes we eat lunch there, and all the males in the family go to the Mosque together, and the females go to my grandfather’s house where my aunts prepare lunch together, and then we sit together and eat.”  Sherifa added that her family sits “on the floor, on the carpet, the traditional way,” eating from large communal trays.

I was curious if Sherifa had to wear an abaye (long black robe) during family gatherings.  Brushing a wisp of hair from her forehead, Sherifa explained, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins I have to cover around.  In my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, brother, [uncle], or your husband.”  In other words, the Shayla is only worn around men you could potentially marry.  Sherifa continued, “If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  You become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

How did Sherifa feel about the cause of women in Qatar?  Her hands folded on her lap, Sherifa responded,  “I feel that we used to be a bit restricted, but now I feel we have more freedom and rights, and individuals are realizing that if you want to do something for women, it’s easier now. We have the basic right for women to drive, which is not the case, for instance, in Saudi Arabia. I think we’ve changed a lot in Qatar. Even the way we think, about co-eduation. There are many more co-educational schools than in the past. Even my Dad, I believe, has changed in his outlook over time. The views of the older generation, like my grandfather, though, are much the same as in the past.  If I see my grandfather, and I sit with him, his mentality and the way he thinks about Qatar’s development is very different from my Dad’s view. I can’t really use my Dad as an example, though, because he went to the U.S. and, actually, has been around Western society and has, therefore, been influenced, I could say, a bit, which does make a difference.”

When asked about her grandfather, Sherifa disclosed, “He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya when my grandfather is around, because he thinks it’s ‘shame.’  I can’t just be like this (in a t-shirt, jeans, and jacket) like I am now in the desert. If I’m downtown in Doha and dressed like this it is like ‘shame’ on me.  So, yes, I think my grandfather wouldn’t approve of how I’m dressed right now. Even driving. I can’t just go to my grandfather and say, “Well, Granddad, I drive.”  He wouldn’t understand; he would be like ‘Why? I’ll go and get you a driver, your own personal chauffeur, you don’t have to drive,’ because he’s that old fashioned. He thinks women should be treated differently. Women shouldn’t do anything, women should be spoiled. A woman’s job is to be at home, that’s it. Like nowadays, women want to work. I, myself, want to be something. I might be a judge, I don’t know. Like 10 years from now, no one knows.”

So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down?  According to Sherifa, her black opals flaring, “No, it’s not about keeping women down. Even in our religion, we should respect women. Our Prophet respected women, and everything about women. Women have rights, it doesn’t mean we don’t have rights, but the idea is men should take care of us. We are not supposed to do anything on our part; we just need to be handling the house and children. That’s the woman’s job, that’s the mentality of the older generation.”

Sherifa persisted, “Yes, but nowadays our society knows that women need to work. Because society is different, now we need to help our husbands, like for the future. I don’t only want to support my husband emotionally; I also want to be there for him financially. So, it’s different. If I’m going to follow the same ‘old’ mentality, then I’m going to sit at home and leave my husband with all the debt and everything. No, I’m not that kind of person, I want to help him. Back in the ‘old days’ you didn’t even have the right to think about helping, because it was like the husband would think he’s less of a man if he accepted money from a woman, which is not the case now. Because the idea of equality has entered our society, people are trying to understand that we are equal, as men and women. It’s not like we’re 100% equal, because it’s not going to happen.  Logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.  So, the idea now is we’re just trying to actually make it all work. You see it’s different now; women have more rights, and men are more understanding.”

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Women’s tent.

What were Sherifa’s thoughts on how Arab countries outside Qatar and the Arabian Gulf differ in their thinking on women’s roles, as well as in culture and outlook?  My husband was from Lebanon, which is like being on a completely different planet than being in Qatar.  Readjusting her headscarf, Sherifa asserted, “Exactly. Lebanese have more freedom. Their culture is more open. Okay, we, in Qatar have freedom. Like you see, I have freedom and everything, but at the end of the day, our culture comes first. Like what we have, our traditions and everything, comes first. But you see, like downtown, I can’t be dressed like this, in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not the same here in Qatar; we still need to appreciate our traditions. In Lebanon, you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.”

I mentioned to Sherifa how much I appreciated the traditional Gulf hospitality her mother showed my husband and me when we visited Sherifa’s home.  I particularly enjoyed the custom of bringing female guests bakhour (incense) after a meal, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces.  Sherifa expounded, “Usually this is the way of saying you are welcome to our house, and that we have the pleasure to have you here. And sometimes if it’s getting too late and you want to say it’s getting too late, in a polite manner, so you just give your guests bakhour and it’s like a signal that was used in the old days.  We have a saying in Arabic that means when people give you perfume, it’s not that you have to leave, but that things are winding down, in a nice and polite way.”  When I imparted that Bishara and I were astounded by, and grateful for, the generosity we were shown when at her family’s desert farm, Sherifa smiled, her eyes flashing, “It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.”

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

Sherifa’s own compassion, and interest in improving the well-being of others, was remarkable for one so young.  When only 18 years-old, and a student at the Academic Bridge Program at Education City (Qatar Foundation), for instance, Sherifa worked closely with a human rights conference in which domestic abuse in Qatar, as well as poor migrant workers’ conditions were discussed, and potential solutions developed.  While serious-minded, though, Sherifa balanced her focus on improving community concerns, and an interest in regional and global issues, with a wonderful sense of humor.  During an interview, when I asked the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender for themselves, Sherifa, with her trademark toothy grin, blurted, “Of course, a man; I could marry four women.”

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Sherifa’s legacy lives on in the four other young women I interviewed alongside Sherifa, (including Fatma I., Mouza, Sarah, and Fatma A.), and others like them, as well as in Sherifa’s two younger sisters, all of whom are smart, courageous, forward-looking and undaunted.

#longreads

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

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Souk Al-Waqif

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Lunch-time at the souk!

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Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

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Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

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Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

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Graduation at American School of Doha

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Common sight in Qatar!

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Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

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American Women’s Association Bazaar

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Ready for some belly dancing!

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We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

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Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

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We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

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A Heart Divided

The Middle East is a tinderbox – Syrians being massacred by chemical weapons, Egypt in continuous turmoil, Lebanon being torn open by old and new wounds, not to mention Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya enduring a chronic state of flux.  This is the Arab world my husband, Bishara, and I were returning to after an extended peaceful and restful summer vacation in the U.S.  Just five weeks earlier I had felt wistful about leaving Qatar for America; I would miss meandering along the alleyways of Souk Al-Waqif, walks along the Arabian Gulf, gatherings with Qatari and expatriate friends, and our two miniature poodle pups who would be staying behind with friends.  I was a happy and content expatriate living a full and comfortable life in the tiny nation-state of Qatar.

Doha's Skyline

Doha’s Skyline

The Pearl-Qatar (Man-Made Island)

The Pearl-Qatar (man-made island)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

Fast forward five weeks to the end of August, and we are about to board a plane in Washington, DC for our flight back to Qatar.  CNN is reporting on defiance of the curfew in Cairo and Syria’s warning against outside involvement in its conflict on a big screen TV as we sit in an airport restaurant sipping iced tea.  We reminisce about family and friends in America who had inquired about our future safety in Qatar.  “Are you guys going to be okay over there?”, “Isn’t it time you came back to the States?”, “You’ve been in the Middle East how long?”

The Middle East has experienced years, decades, centuries of conflict, but the new rounds of strife across the region were hitting close to home.  As we waited in the Washington Dulles airport gate area, I thought back to bike riding through the streets of the small island town off the Virginia coast, our home of eight years, the sea breezes and salt air fresh in our faces and playing havoc with my curly hair.  The many walks on the protected beaches, Bishara bodysurfing and frolicking in the ocean swells.  And the heartwarming time spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.  In Qatar, and the larger Gulf region, the incautious driving precludes relaxed weekend bike rides, and while “beaching it” or sitting poolside in the winter months is superb, sunbathing in the summer months is synonymous with being trapped in a sauna.  Our ties to the East, though, had Bishara bringing his tablah (Arabic drum) to the Blue Dog restaurant in Snow Hill, MD over the summer where he was hopeful that his drum beats just might synchronize with the World War II music and singing pulsating throughout the intimate surroundings.  To Bishara’s dismay, the opportunity never materialized.

From biking and bodysurfing along the eastern coast, our summer travels brought us to crisp, refreshing mountain air and a most special family reunion in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Bishara and I made it a point to go horseback riding with a bronco-riding cousin, our trek taking us alongside babbling streams and through mountain pastures filled with wildflowers.  As my cousin hopped off his horse to show us a wild anise-type root and explain its medicinal purpose, Bishara, again, brought us thousands of miles eastward, remarking that our horse ride reminded him of riding camels in southern Lebanon as a child with his grandfather in summers past.

As many good memories that we have of the Arab world, from Bishara’s sentimentality surrounding his childhood in Lebanon and Jordan to my blossoming from an introvert to a committed belly dancer and chatter at “women only” fetes in Arab friends’ homes, we have had our share of scares while in the Middle East region.  In 2004, we had to make a quick exit from Saudi Arabia due to bombings of western expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which ultimately prompted our move to Qatar.  And then there are the horrific stories of abuse, and other atrocities, that appear in newspapers and other media, like the recent 8 year-old Yemeni child-bride who tragically died on her wedding night.

When friends and family ask how we can live in an area where this sort of thing happens, I am often left feeling some level of unease, even embarrassment, and at a loss for words.  At these times, I find myself going back to conversations I have had with Bishara and my own conscience.  While my initial interest in living in the Middle East was centered on a singular cultural experience, my years in the Arab world have given way to an enriched life with a healthy balance between work and private time, as well as the opportunity to experience time, and time again, the hospitality and generosity of the average Arab – my friends, my workmates, my community.

I remember quite clearly my consternation over Bishara admonishing me for admiring a Saudi friend’s handbag when we lived in Riyadh, and the friend insisting that I accept the several hundred dollar handbag as a gift.  (It would have been an insult had I not accepted the handbag.)  Or the bedraggled desert Bedouin who needed our help to start his truck, later pressing us to join his family for a camel feast.  And visits to Arab friends’ homes that begin with “Come in, my brother and sister” tend to continue with extended conversation over cardamom coffee and sumptuous meals of lamb and rice.  This magnanimity, based in tradition and religion, first became apparent to me in 1996 when we had a stopover in Lebanon, Bishara’s homeland, during which Bishara’s mother and sister could not feed us enough molkiha, stuffed grape leaves, and kibbe; it was a point of honor and privilege that we be well fed and properly tended to.

It is this focus on the “human factor” and family, known as tribalism in the broader sense, which drew me to the Arab culture and renewed my spirit.  But it is this very concept of strong familial ties, which makes the region rife for disputes and conflict between tribes, sects, and factions when the steadfast sense of loyalty, love and passion that exists within a household leads to a fierce need to protect the reputation and dignity of the family or tribe.

Regardless of the multitude of events occurring in this region, our hearts remain divided between the west and the Arab world.

Related article:

Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East (Planet Bell: A Travel and Photo Blog by Jeff Bell)

 

Rules of Gender Socializing

I originally published this article in Woman Today (Qatari Magazine), October 2008.

My first foray into the Arabian Peninsula began with my arrival at Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia in early 2000.  I had accompanied my husband, a Lebanese native, along with a contingency of U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, on an 18 hour flight from Washington, D.C. to explore potential joint venture opportunities between U.S.and Saudi companies.  While our delegationsipped mint tea andwaited for our luggage in a room overflowing with colorful, sumptuous furniture, a swellof activity rose around us; I was startled bya seaof black abayes and white thobes ebbing and flowing throughoutthe hall.  Even morepeculiar and unfamiliar, was the sight of Saudi men enthusiasticallygreeting each other with a kiss to each cheek. Some even lightly touched the tips of their noses together.  Trying not to stare rudely, I watched two other gentlemen welcome one another; locked in a convivial embrace, they strolled side by side through the terminal.  Many pairs walked away, hand in hand, gleefully swinging their arms in the air like schoolyard chums.  I found myself stifling my astonishment at such outward and physical signs of affection between men.  Ironically, the Saudi women seemed less emotional in their interactions with each other; their greetings were barely audible or visible and more somber.  The corner of the hall, however, hummed with vigorous, yet controlled, chatter from clusters of women, surrounded by the incessant motion of children.  Backdrops such as these would unfurl throughout my incomparable and intriguing time in the Middle East.

In November 2000, my husband, our two pooches and I relocated to Riyadh from Washington, D.C., our home of 17 years, and settled into the unique rhythmic pace of the Kingdom.  Whether at work or socializing, I found the same closeness between both my male colleagues and our Arab male friends.  Even casual greetings among men would begin with busses to the cheeks and lead to protracted conversations that oftenincluded cardamom or Turkish coffee, or sweet mint tea.  Four years later, we moved to Qatar where despite the booming pace of the economy the socializing patterns moved at a distinctly slower and more deliberate stride as had been the case in Saudi Arabia.  As I sauntered through Doha’s City Center Mall or Souk Al-Waqif, I was continually surprised by, and in awe of, the close and intense relationships between Arab males: groups of men sharing sheesha and Turkish coffee while speaking in hushed tones or throwing their heads back in laughter.

Smoking Sheesha in Doha

Relationships between males in the U.S. are generally not as public in expression or exhibition. In Western culture, men are typically characterized as less openly emotional, preferring to bond over topics and interests such as sports, work, popular news, or finances.  Our American male friends were usually caught off guard when my husband, born and raised in Jordan, reverted to his natural customs, greeting his friends with a hearty hug and familial kiss on the cheek. Invariably, our friends might laugh anxiously, slightly confused, politely saying, “Please don’t do that, it’s not really the way we do things.”  In time, however, many of our male friends became comfortable with my husband’s overtures of amity, even reciprocating his warm salutations.

Marie-Josee Bedard

Marie-Josee Bedard

 

Marie-Josée, a Canadian expat friend, who has traveled all over the world, discussed her own perception of the cultural differences between how Arab mensocialize:Although two men kissing on the cheeks, rubbing noses, and holding hands may be seen as bizarre in culturally conservative countries (like Japan, UK, USA and Canada), in European countries (like France, Italy, and numerous African and central American cultures), men greet each other with kisses on the cheeks and view the ‘non-compliant’ cultures as ‘cold’. We are all different and should not judge and assume our way is the best and only way.”

Social segregation is a very natural part of Arab culture, and forms the tapestry of much of the larger community.  My husband has had the singular opportunity to experience this distinctive form of socializing when he attended several formal male only events, including a wedding ceremony in Riyadh and an engagement celebration in Doha.  Although he was politely greeted as a “brother” and encouraged to feel comfortable,he found the sober nature of each event rather bewildering. Unlike informal gatherings of Arab males at cafes and restaurants where collectives of men seem intimate and jovial, traditional functions for men are typically marked by more subdued pursuits.  Music and flowers were absent from the wedding ceremony in Riyadh; controlled whispering permeated the air.  After an hour and a half a feast was served, and shortly thereafter the men departed the wedding hall.  The engagement ritual was similarly understated, marked by muted conversation during which servers offered cardamom coffee, mint tea, and soda, followed by kanafeh after which the men dispersed.  These occasions and men’s conduct when attending them differ greatly from what happens at the famed sporting event.  As football or baseball does for the American male, soccer matches in large stadiums in the Middle East bring out the vibrant and competitive spirit in the Arab man.

Men congregating in Souk Al-Waqif. (Doha, Qatar)

In contrast to formal gatherings of men, “women only” events give Arab women the opportunity to cultivate a certain freedom to simply be themselves and appreciate their femininity.  My first introduction to such functions found me awkward and self conscious not knowing exactly how to act or what was expected of me.  Adding to my discomfort was my anxiety at being viewed as an oddity, someone out of place.  I wondered if these women regarded me with suspicion: the American girl seeing this type of celebration as simply a novel or quaint experience.   I was initially surprised to find these women who in public were often silent, enveloped in black, here surprisingly open and joyous, transformed by their colorful clothing, ornate jewelry, and immaculately coiffed hair.

Loraine Barron

Loraine Barron

A friend of mine, Loraine, from the UK, shared her feelings regarding her own experiences with this type of social setting.  “It is easy to assume that the women from this part of the world who wear the abaye have no idea of, or interest in, fashionable clothes, but I have been a guest at a local wedding where the women celebrated separately from the men, and was surprised to see them beautifully attired in the latest up-to-the moment designer clothes.”  Loraine paused for a moment and then continued:  “The Qatari ladies I have met socially are also very knowledgeable and ‘switched on’ as to what is going on around the rest of the world and can easily discuss trends and social issues.  It is all too easy for us from the West to assume that because women wear the abaye, in which they look serene and demure, that they are shy and retiring ladies.  The exact opposite is the case.”

Western and Saudi Arabian women.

Arab and western women. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cautious observer in the beginning, in time I began to thoroughly enjoy the warmth, grace, and sociability that accompanied bonding with other women.  My Arab sisters taught me to completely let go and be comfortable in my own skin, enjoy the moment, and succumb to unbridled delight.  At such events lively discussions thrummed as the soaring strains of Nancy Ajram provided the backdrop for vibrant singing and enthusiastic, intimatedancing.   While in Doha I have had some remarkable evenings with Qatari families during which I might be one of a cluster of women settled on colorful red cushions on the floor enjoying palpable Arab hospitality and probing conversation while sipping cardamom coffee, eating dates and Lebanese mezzah, while my husband is huddled with the male members of the family in an adjacent tent in the front courtyard.

English: Nancy Ajram performing at a wedding i...

Nancy Ajram in Cairo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While single sex socializing is prevalent in the Arab world, in the U.S. it is a less explicit part of life.  These moments that allow for men and women to fraternize in their own groups are often relegated to special occurrences such as a bachelorette party, baby shower, or shopping excursion. Young women in the U.S. also assemble to partake in “girls’ night out” evenings where they might go to an assortment of dance clubs or restaurants over the course of the night.  Women in both the Arab world and the U.S. value these special moments spent together in sisterhood. For men in the U.S., bachelor parties, sporting events, or even weekends spent fishing, hunting, or camping allow for times where they might strengthen their unique relationships.

These instances might also arise within the context of Americans’ daily routines, cropping up rather organically amidst the business of everyday life. For example, western moms may meet each other at cafes, with their children, as a scheduled part of their busy day to chat with one another while their children are occupied, and both parents may use sporting and extramural interests to talk with and visit other families.  In this case, many times men will coalesce with one another to socialize around the given sport or activity.

Woman from Damascus, Muslim woman from Mecca, ...

Arab Women – Late 19th Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Living in the Middle East for the last eight years has afforded me not only the opportunity to become more aware of the rich Arab social culture, but has also opened my eyes to the wonderful and novel bonds men and women form with each other when the opportunity permits. Most importantly, my distinct socializing experiences in the Arab world have impacted the way I approach my own socializing habits.  I find myself much more at ease among my Arab and American sisters, united by the commonality of our gender.  Socializing is an integral part of both cultures and facilitates the celebration of commonalities amongst difference.

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The Highlands of Saudi Arabia: Unexpected Delights in Abha

I originally published this article in Romar Traveler, May 2011.

The city of Abha defies images of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one vast sand dune. The impressive Sarawat, or Al Soodah, mountain peaks, climbing nearly 10,000 feet, surround this lush region granting the visitor some unexpected delights.

Asir region in southwest Saudi Arabia.

Abha, the capital of Asir province, resides in the southwest corner of the Kingdom.  The Asir province is one of thirteen provinces in Saudi Arabia and shares a limited border with Yemen to the south.  The larger Arabian Peninsula lies between the Nile River and Tigris-Euphrates basins to the west and north, and, Asia, to the east; in ancient times this area was home to a network of caravan trading routes. Merchants transported almonds, dates, frankincense and myrrh from the Asir province and surrounding areas to trade with the people of Mesopotamia and the Nile River valley.  Spices from India were also born along the caravan arteries through Asir province by way of what is now Oman and Yemen before being transported to the more urbanized western and northern reaches.

Arriving at Abha hotel.

As a western woman making preparations for a trip to Abha and the Asir region I could not help wondering how I would be treated in the more remote parts of this land ruled exclusively by men since the ancient trading days of 3,000 BC.  At the time, I lived and worked in Riyadh where I was accustomed to wearing the abaya (long black cloak), and in some public places, a headscarf.  I assumed I would need to don the abaya for the length of my trip to Abha.  I was surprised to find out that despite the area’s rich and historic traditions I was only required to wear conservative western garb, and shortly after landing at the Abha airport from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport, I was encouraged to forgo the abaya completely.  It was a pleasant surprise, as well, to be greeted as a “sister” by the local population, which made me feel like the member of an extended family.  Due to the Kingdom’s traditional views on gender, it is recommended that a male escort (husband preferred), or fellow group of female companions accompany women intending to travel to the Abha area.  The Asir Province, which includes over one million acres allocated to Asir National Park for hiking, exploring, and other recreational pursuits,is a highly touted tourist destination within the Kingdom.

Most visitors take weekend tours of this unique destination. It is a welcome respite for Saudis and expatriates living in the country, especially due to the cooler temperatures in the summer months that range from 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the evenings to daytime highs of 88 degrees Fahrenheit.  The temperature in Riyadh regularly reaches 113 degrees Fahrenheit and higher in the summer.  In addition to offering a welcome reprieve from the oppressive Saudi heat, Abha and the surrounding area holds some fascinating discoveries for the curious traveler.  Cable car rides starting from Jabal Al Sooda, Saudi Arabia’s highest point atop the Sarawat mountain range, offer stunning vistas. As guests descend, they take in views of the rugged mountain peaks, dotted with green vegetation, dramatic escarpments, and clusters of baboons.

The mountains of Asir were formed through the geological movement of the Alps, giving way to the Great Rift Valley that runs along the Red Sea and much of the eastern coast of Africa.  Evidence of this fault makes itself seen in the mountainous southwest region of the Asir province as well as in the Hejaz region, in a series of escarpments along the western coast of Saudi Arabia alongside the Red Sea. The Tihama, a coastal plain bordering the Red Sea, extends from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the Hejaz region before moving southward towards the Gulf of Aden where it swells to meet the mountains of Asir and Yemen.  Some historians refer to the area surrounding the southernmost portion of this plain as the “birthplace of mankind.”

Mountains of Asir Province (Saudi Arabia)

Originally inhabitants of Yemen, a segment of the Tihama population migrated to, and eventually settled in,southern Saudi Arabia and the Asir area.  The Tihama people reside in the lowlands of the region and tend to live in thatched huts made of mud, palms and grasses.  Each hut contains its own functions; for example, one hut is used for sleeping, another for cooking, and another for living. As is the tradition throughout the Arabian Gulf, the Tihama people show visitors great generosity and hospitality with offers of cardamom coffee, and dates.

The Tihamas, tribal and independent, fish, farm, herd goats and sheep, and take great pride in their craftsmanship, most notably their elaborately made baskets and hats.  The basket souk, located outside of Abha, provides glimpses into a fading artisan culture.  Not only is it a prime locale where the visitor may practice their bargaining skills, an obligatory art form in this area of the world, but it also presents a rare look at a souk run solely by women.  Clad in black abayas with batoolas, gold colored masks covering the eyes and nose, the old women of Abha sit cross-legged on ragged red carpets. Speaking in gruff, throaty, almost unintelligible monosyllables, these women manage just enough English to sell their baskets.  As a western female, raised in a culture where women continue to strive for professional equality, I found myself appreciating this community of women and what they stand for in this society.

Abha Basket – (Woven in southwestern region of Saudi Arabia.)

The Miftaha Art Village at the King Fahad Cultural Village near Abha houses original paintings and sculptures from artists in the area. It even includes traditional Tihama garments that a visitor may try on. For men, black vests or simple cotton shirts, with red, blue, and gold-striped sarong-type skirts make up the customary outfit.  Classic Tihama gentlemen, or ‘flower men,’ may also wear headpieces sporting flowered wreaths with green sprigs, and sometimes dried herbs, green leaves, or grasses and a dagger, or jambiya, at the waist secured by a belt.  Reportedly, the reasons for these head decorations are to attract young brides and as a form of natural perfume.  ‘Flower men’ are said to descend from the original tribe of the Tihama and Asir region.  Women wear black robes, piped through with red and gold embroidery. For more formal occasions such as weddings, their headpiece may consist of an exotic silver band with long, thick silver beaded engravings hanging from the rim; a wide silver belt with lustrous sterling tassels pinching the waist.  Oversized ankle bracelets with large bells and an extravagant silver-layered necklace complete the ensemble.

Playing “dress up.”

Young flower man of Tihama

Young flower man of Tihama (Photo credit: CharlesFred)

 

The “Hanging Village,” or Al Habbalah (the rope), is a remarkable commune located in the Sarawat mountain range around 6,500 feet above sea level.  At one point in the region’s history, Al Habbalah was only accessible to its residents by ropes.  Researchers believe this unusual community was inhabited from the time of the last incursion of the Ottomans until the 1970s.  The turbulent history of this region unfolds in a series of political overthrows,starting in 1818, involving the Egyptians, Ottomans, and the Saudis, resulting in the Abha region’s assimilation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1933.  One can only imagine the extraordinary efforts involved in living everyday life in Al Habbalah, in which residents, livestock, goods and materials had to be hoisted along the width and depth of menacing escarpments by a series of ropes and pulleys.  These days, regularly scheduled cable car rides allow visitors extraordinary views of the ruins of the village: a network of primitive houses, built from mud and clay balanced perilously on treacherous cliffs.

Hanging Village in Asir Province

The nearby archeology museum contains artifacts of the region, including daggers, swords, rudimentary tools, and utensils. It also accommodates a five-story replication of the traditional house of the highland region, replete with multipletiers and tiny windows.  Adjacent to the museum is an open-air restaurant where one can enjoy a break from the day’s activities with fruit-flavored sheesha (water-based tobacco from a pipe).  The intrepid visitor may respectfully ask the staff to try their hand at drumming on a tablah (Arabic drum) or strumming on an ude (small Arabic guitar).  This is sure to bring smiles, as well as the odd stare, from the faces of the diners and restaurant staff alike.  Unlike restaurants in Riyadh where men and women dine in their own sections and women are prohibited from smoking sheesha, Abha restaurants allow mixed gender seating.  It was a welcome change for me to enjoy and relax in the restaurant, pleasantly smoking sheesha in my western clothes within full view of Saudi diners and other visitors.

Smoking sheesha in Asir Province, Saudi Arabia.

The Asir province provides many opportunities to view the prevalent and historic mud, stone, and clay multi-storied houses of the highland area.  Presumably, these structures, sometimes quite colorful, were built for the large number of immediate, and oftentimes extended, family members, which is a common trait of Arab communities.  The massive abodes brandish high windows and multiple, narrow abutments that run the length of the building to keep the rain out.  Each village includes a lookout tower at a higher elevation – protecting its inhabitants from tribal and other attacks that occurred in an earlier era.  In present day, the watchtowers are sometimes used to store food. 

Ruins of multi-tiered homes outside Abha. (Saudi Arabia)

A wide expanse of desert plateau borders the city of Abha.  At the edge of the sandy swath a precipice gives way to an old, crumbling Ottoman fort.  Evidence of rolling green mountains and alluring lush valleys lay along the horizon.  Ottoman graveyards, designated by misshapen sandstone burial markers, pervade the landscape.  The location affords ideal moments for travelers to decompress, relax, and take in the spiritual nature that permeates the ruins.

Ruins of Ottoman fort in background. (Asir Province, Saudi Arabia)

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Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia

Where did we live?  It was a simple enough question.  The taxi driver repeated the question with a hint of exasperation in his voice.  My husband, Bishara, and I had just been to the Faisaliyah, an impressive triangular tower in the heart of Riyadh that housed a luxury hotel and prominent shopping mall. The building, which rose nearly 900 feet, displayed a glass sphere balanced perilously on the summit that contained the hotel’s multi-leveled restaurant.  At the hotel, we had shared tea and Arabic pastries with a member of the American Businessmen’s Association, Riyadh chapter, a gentleman we had met on an earlier trip to the Kingdom in February 2000 in association with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.  It was now early November 2000 and we had been in Saudi Arabia for three days, which had passed in a frenzy of activities: filing endless administrative forms, signing a final official employment contract with King Faisal Specialist Hospital, (KFSH), making multiple visits to the Family Medicine offices for vaccinations, signing more forms, and meeting my co-workers in the Finance department and orientation sessions.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Where I worked.

Bishara and my eyes locked in desperation.  Where did we live?  We didn’t have a resident address.  Street addresses did not exist in Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh is a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island and, to us, seemed like a confusing hodgepodge of contemporary skyscrapers, Arab sweet pastry shops, cozy outdoor cafes, luxurioushaute couture shops, the ever- present McDonalds, and traditional souks with intricate cobblestone alleyways.  Later, Bishara and I found out the expatriate population used landmarks to define quadrants of the massive city. The roundabout area near a billboard advertising Pepsi Cola was coined the Pepsi Cola Roundabout. The ghoulish and infamous Death Roundabout named after the excessive number of deadly accidents that took place within its curves.  Family and friends back home found it odd that our mailing address included a departmental code associated with the individual’s place of employment.  Bishara eventually recalled that there was a high-end shoe shop on the ground floor of our apartment building.  Shoe shop, shoe shop, what is shoe shop? asked our taxi driver, a middle aged man with a deeply wrinkled face, an off-white tunic and white embroidered skull cap.“Qaser Al-Ahtheiah.”  Bishara exclaimed!  “Ahh, Qaser Al-Ahtheiah,” the taxi driver proudly yelled back.  Bishara leaned over and translated, “Remember the Shoe Palace?”  Yes, this sounded vaguely familiar.  I remembered seeing the marquee through my peripheral vision as we sped away in a taxi we had caught around the corner from the shoe store earlier in the day.

Arab Sweet Pastry Shop in Riyadh

Only three days prior we were met at the Riyadh airport by an official from the KFSH, after a nearly 20 hour flight from Washington, D.C. We greeted our contact with our nine pieces of luggage and two adorable miniature poodles, Mish Mish and Callie, who had traveled with us in the plane’s cabin to join in our adventure, and piled into a van.  We started our journey at Dulles airport, outside Washington D.C., with 43 pieces of luggage including suitcases, trunks, and boxes with every assortment of household item and clothes for every season that we naively felt compelled to lug halfway around the world.  Although we had notified the airlines that we would have excess baggage, the airline representatives took one look at us with our mounds of luggage and two pooches, and said “No way.”  It was one more obstacle to be overcome.  We rummaged through several trunks and suitcases to determine what we really needed for the next couple of weeks, decided we’d need to send 34 pieces separately by cargo, and in the process missed our plane.  Crazy, was the consensus from our friends in the U.S. and from the compatriots we met later in the Kingdom.  In contrast, a Canadian family with two young children who became fast friends within a month of our arrival, and who lived in an expatriate compound in Riyadh, had brought only eight pieces of luggage for an indefinite stay.

Me, Bishara, and the pups with our luggage. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

Prior to moving to Saudi Arabia, we had exchanged innumerable e-mail messages and phone calls with administrators and the Finance department at KFSH, where I would be working, to beseech them to sidestep the regulations that dogs would not be allowed in official KFSH residences.  We explained that our pooches were good natured and just like family to us.  There was much back and forth, and considerable resistance initially, however, it became increasingly clear that with continued persistence we just might be able to prevail.  To complicate matters we had been going through an exhaustive process of filling out paperwork that needed signatures and official stamps from the U.S. department of the Interior, Agriculture, and our vet.  With each successive e-mail we could feel the resolve of the KFSH administrator on the other end of the transmission softening.  An absolute “no,” became “let me check further into it,” later becoming “maybe we could house you in temporary quarters initially,” and finally becoming “okay bring your dogs and we’ll work something out.”

It was becoming increasingly clear that there were definite shades of gray in the Kingdom and that although there were rules and regulations there were many cases where the edges could be bent with sufficient determination.  Such was the case with our fixation on bringing our pooches with us to Riyadh.  We were willing to hold our breath for longer than the other side.  An hour before landing at Riyadh airport, I pondered all that could go wrong once we landed and began moving through immigration, a sense of apprehension rising within me.  After all, we had not one dog but two, and we knew that the Kingdom was not a particularly dog-friendly place.  In addition to gathering all of the immigration paperwork for me and my husband, I checked to make sure that Mish Mish and Callies’s documents were in order.  As we moved through immigration our youngest, Callie, slung over Bishara’s shoulder in a doggie carrier, let out a small yelp. The tall and officious looking immigration officer turned toward us, “For God’s sake, what was that?!?,” he screeched. Bishara replied sheepishly, “That’s just our dog.”  “How many dogs,” the official retorted with a menacing grimace as he eyed the dog carrier hanging off my shoulder.  Bishara answered even more sheepishly, “two.”  “Haraam, haraam, (forbidden, forbidden), we cannot touch them, let them go through,” was the officer’s clipped response.  With a fling of the official’s arm we were through immigration without so much as a peek at the carefully prepared paperwork for our cherished pups.

Hurtling along the modern causeway with its pristine medians cradling palm trees and colorful flowers, I was reminded of the unusual driving habits of our Saudi hosts, which I had experienced during our trip to the Kingdom nine months earlier. Many cars rode two abreast in a single lane. Others cruised along the white line of the lane divider itself, which we came to find out was a frequent occurrence. Even more alarming was the practice of cars switching lanes from far right to far lift to make a left-hand turn or vice versa, in one swift maneuver, a compulsion that we would find happened far too regularly.  The car horn surpassed all other signals as the driving sound of choice. It was not unusual to be stopped at a red light and hear car horns start to chorus from all sides. Saudi drivers made New York motorists seem sleepy in comparison.  Of course, I could snicker; women were prohibited from driving in the Kingdom.

We finally arrived at our new place of residence, Olaya 8, in the heart of the city and right across the street from the soon to be completed Kingdom Center with its nearly limitless haute couture shops.  As we approached a security guard near the entrance of our apartment building both pooches began whooping and hollering, as if they knew we were nearing the end of our journey.  The guard, a formidable looking man with furrowed brow and of stocky stature, practically fell off his feet with surprise. “What is that?” he asked in limited English.  “These are our dogs,” Bishara said, trying to remain calm and keep his voice friendly. “We are KFSH employees, and we have been approved to have the dogs live with us.”  “What are you saying?” the guard shot back.  Bishara repeated, “These are our dogs, and they have been approved to live with us.”  The guard looked skeptical. His face continued to cloud.  “Oh, no, no, no!!” he shouted, his voice rising with each syllable. “No dogs, no dogs!”  “Look, we have a document showing that we have been approved,” Bishara said.  Scowling, the guard grabbed the document out of Bishara’s hands. He stared so hard at the paper I expected a burnt hole to appear at any second. It was obvious he still did not understand.  “No dogs!” was the insistent reply.  It was time for Bishara to use his powers of persuasion.  Calmly, yet with conviction, Bishara began in Arabic, “We have just flown half around the world from America, and right now we are exhausted.”  Bishara continued, “I do think that this is something we can settle tomorrow.”  The guard’s shoulders relaxed; and he pointed us to the double glass doors of the building’s entrance.

Bishara and pups outside front door of Olaya 8 apartment.

The white marble floors of the apartment building sparkled, specks of brown and gray reflecting off the long fluorescent lamps strewn along the ceilings.  We crawled into a cramped elevator, one of those smallish European type elevators, to the seventh floor.  The KFSH representative led the way into our apartment. Piling our luggage in a corner and setting our pooches free, we began surveying our new home away from home.  The apartment was a cavernous place, nearly the size of our 3,000 square foot home outside of Washington, DC, and fully furnished. Colorful reds and greens threaded through the material on a supple couch, love seat, and two chairs in a very long and narrow living room.  A large dining room contained a hardwood table with chairs to seat eight and a matching armoire stocked with plates and glasses. The kitchen was ample, yet somewhat dated, but contained all the necessary utensils pots and pans, cooking sundries such as a microwave, blender and knife block, and even dry goods such as bread, peanut butter, granola bars, and cereal.  A washer and dryer occupied a side room off the kitchen.  A protracted hallway led to three expansive bedrooms with more than sufficient closet and cupboard space.  Two and a half bathrooms were strategically located in the apartment, with the half bath in the foyer looking like something out of “Homes and Gardens;” with finely curved golden fixtures.

View from our Olaya apartment of Kingdom Center construction. (November 2000)

As we approached our apartment building in the KFSH van, we had been happy to spy large balconies running the length and breadth of the imposing edifice; Bishara and I had lived in an apartment building in northern Virginia when we first married, and unlike many of our neighbors made very good use of our spacious balcony, barbecuing regularly and relishing weekend breakfasts in the early morning sun.  My heart skipped a beat as I tugged at the balcony door, and was unable to budge it open.  Even Bishara’s brute force was ineffective.  Peering behind the curtains of the pane glass window, I found a thick chain lock threaded through the door handle and another protruding piece of metal clamped to the outside wall.  I asked the KFSH official, who was about to depart for Riyadh airport to assist another group of incoming KFSH employees, about the lock.  “All of the balcony doors of the building are locked,” he said, matter-of-factly.  Bishara whispered in my ear, “That’s weird.”  My spine stiffened ever so slightly.

Although we had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of food on our Saudia airlines flights, by the early evening the effects of jet lag dictated that we brave the streets of downtown Riyadh on foot to pick up some more substantive nourishment.  Given the dubious driving conditions, we were certain this would be a daunting task. Our notions were confirmed when we tried to cross the street. Flagging down a policeman standing near the intersection outside our building, we expressed our concern with crossing the boulevard.  “If God wills, you will make it across.” The policeman deadpanned. “Good luck to you.”  On top of it all, I was still unaccustomed to my abaya, which I was regularly tripping over.  Bishara and I decided that we would hail a cab to cross the street.

Grocery store around the corner from our Olaya 8 apartment. (Riyadh, KSA)

We finally settled on a grocery shop around the corner where we encountered a wonder of freshly cut lamb and the freshest of vegetables. We found it a bit easier to communicate with the Pakistani and Nepali shopkeepers. After losing ourselves in the honeycombed aisles of the shop, Bishara reappeared with a broad smile, “They’ve got Budweiser. I can’t believe it, they’ve got Budweiser!”  “It’s non-alcoholic,” came a voice just over Bishara’s shoulder.  The curves of Bishara’s mouth straightened, a baffled look replaced the sparkle in his face.  The shop vendor continued, “There is no alcohol in Saudi.  Only non-alcoholic drinks.”  We had read about this in our information packets regarding Saudi culture and general “do’s and don’ts.” The promise of a tasty beer snatched from Bishara’s palate still left him nonplused.

As we left the store, the bag boy followed us out with our full cart.  We stepped out onto the sidewalk and Bishara turned to take hold of the shopping cart for the trip home.  The young man, with a slight build and mussed, thick dark hair hanging over his forehead, pulled the cart away and continued forward with an expression of steadfast purpose.  Bishara politely announced, “It’s okay, we’ll take it from here.”  Expressionless, the bag boy continued marching forward along the sidewalk.  Bishara repeated, “Thank you, you can give me the cart now.”  The bag boy appeared to not have heard or was ignoring us completely.  We gave up. We neared the corner and Bishara pointed the young man the way home.  Down the street of our apartment building, up the elevator, and into our apartment, the bag boy remained with us the entire way.  As we stepped through the doorway, our girls immediately began their ritual of zealously welcoming our visitor with leaps to the buttocks, nibbles to the hands, not to mention pitiful crying, garnering the first emotion from this goodhearted young man; sheer terror.  Cornering our pups, coaxing them out of the room and into a bedroom, we shut the door.  Returning to the front door, we told the panic-stricken young man that all was safe and under control.  His composure slowlyreturning, our compassionate attendant pulled the shopping cart into the kitchen and proceeded to empty the bags placing the items on the counters.  Bishara slipped our friend a hefty tip, and he evaporated into the night air.

Even before arriving home from our grocery shopping jaunt, we could hear our pooches’ high pitched yapping intruding upon the stillness of the night.  We had let our pups relieve themselves in enormous potted plants in a corner of Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and in the parking lot just outside the Riyadh airport terminal upon our arrival in the Kingdom.  It was apparent that nature was calling, once again, after a long night and day in the confined space of a doggie carrier.  This presented an unforeseen predicament.  We were in an apartment building in the middle of the capital city, and our query about grassy spots around town had been met with bewilderment and shoulder shrugs.  The only grass to be found in Riyadh was a park that was miles away, and the Diplomatic Quarter a three square mile quadrant of the city that housed many of the countries embassies, was even further away.

“Walk time” for the pups. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We needed to explore our neighborhood and determine what makeshift arrangements we could organize for “our girls.” It was time to don my abaya, once again.  Near the end of our previous stint in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year, I had begun to accept the abaya as a second skin.  Before coming to the Kingdom, I had several friends try to dissuade me from this crazy thinking about wanting to go to Saudi Arabia, and one of the dubious, and I would later find, flawed, arguments used was, “You’re going to have to wear one of those long black robes, and if you show your ankles the religious police are going to whack your leg with a stick.”  These types ofaccounts only served to make me more determined to follow through with my adventure, even more curious about what this unconventional place would be like.

One great thing about the abaya is that you can wear anything underneath it.  If you’re having a bad hair day, you can even wrap a scarf around your head, and still fit in perfectly.  Pajamas typically became my attire of choice under my abaya when Bishara and I walked the dogs before going to bed and first thing in the morning before breakfast.  On the first sojourn through our neighborhood, we wandered down through the ample streets with their stand-alone concrete homes and stone wall perimeters looking for a suitable place for the girls. We spotted an empty lot with beige sand and chunks of concrete with jagged edges.  It wasn’t the green grass of home, but seemed like our only alternative.  Mish Mish and Callie weren’t entirely receptive to squatting amongst twigs and an assortment of scattered brush and the occasional empty soda can, however, they soon realized that this was as good as it was going to get.  A middle aged Saudi gentleman with bright white thobe, carefully positioned ghuttra, and gracious heart who lived across the street from the empty lot spied us on this first night and asked if the dogs would like to come into his courtyard to consume some grass.  Evidently he thought our fluffy and curly haired companions were sheep.  Our girls are “people pooches” and were only too happy to pounce all over and apply licks to the tip of the nose of this unsuspecting benefactor, very un-sheep-like behavior, putting this kind man in a bit of a tizzy.  “Uh, oh,” Bishara exclaimed as our pups began eyeing the lush green grass just inside the courtyard, and not as an appetizer; with a yank on their leashes we were out of there, the kind gentleman waving us off with a crooked smiled plastered on his face muttering something unintelligible under his breath as we scampered off.

On that first night in Riyadh, Bishara and the pooches ensconced comfortably in bed, belying the fact that we were on the precipice of beginning our unusual new adventure, I wandered in the darkness to the bathroom, switched on the light and stared at my weary face.  “What have I done?  How could we have left two good jobs, our family and friends for this strange place?”  This was the first and last time that I would seriously question the judgment of my decision to live and work in the Kingdom.

The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Three)

Although we had only been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a matter of days, I was already captivated by this mystifying and exotic country where I had been cordially greeted by Saudi businessmen and government officials alike, and even had several job interviews lined up.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, was in Saudi Arabia with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council attending a series of meetings to explore joint venture possibilities between U.S. and Saudi firms.  I was an adjunct member of the team, only in the Kingdom as a result of the Herculean efforts of my husband who knew I just had to see, experience, and ultimately live and work in this enigmatic country.  Our adventure began with a nearly 20 hour journey from Washington, DC to Riyadh, where I had been surprised to find a modern city with skyscrapers, cafes, and upscale malls crisscrossing the city.  I had been even more astounded by the warm reception I received from members of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, venue for a preliminary meeting, where as the lone woman in the room I was offered a seat at the conference table, access to a microphone, and swayed to inaugurate the meeting by conveying my early impressions of Saudi Arabia.  I felt relieved, yet disconcerted, to experience similar receptions in the many meetings I attended in Riyadh with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.

Me & Bishara in Saudi Arabia. (February 2000)

After my enlightening and intriguing stint in the capital city of Riyadh, I was anxious to visit and experience our second destination within the Kingdom, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country. Dhahran sat alongside the iridescent, calm waters of the Arabian Gulf. There we visited several leading Saudi companies and governmental organizations that included the Tamimi Group, Chamber of Commerce, steel companies, and a high-tech hospital in Al Khobar. At each destination my confidence and sense of self became further fortified as my hosts encouraged me to openly express my thoughts and opinions.  On countless occasions, in rooms resplendent with lavish and colorful furniture, oversized paintings of Bedouin scenes encased in gold framing, I was stupefied to find myself surrounded by a cluster of gentlemen preoccupied with my unceasing impartial and frank discussion on our time in Saudi Arabia and our fervent desire to live in the Kingdom. These men, radiant and dignified in their impeccably white starched robes and colorful headscarves, typically kept a comfortable distance, but in these instances would often lean forward intently, hands clasped on their lap, or resting comfortably on the arms of their chair, their resolute eyes focused on me. Onlookers seemed drawn, although with noticeable reserve, to this ongoing repartee between the spirited American woman and the assemblage of their countrymen. One impassioned remark I heard from Saudi businessmenon a number of these occasions related to their concern over women not being permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.  As one distinguished gentleman rejoined, the growth of the Saudi economy would double if women were allowed to drive.

Bishara on beach in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Following our meeting at the Dammam Chamber of Commerce I requested to use the restroom. To my surprise, I was apologetically told that a women’s restroom did not exist in the building. One of the Saudi businessmen attending the meeting at the Chamber, whom I had very briefly met, rushed to my side. The gentleman graciously guided me to the men’s restroom, walked inside with me and pointed to a stall.  Although grateful, I was unsettled and perplexed. The businessman intimated that he would wait outside the stall until I was finished, assuring me that he was my brother.  My mind raced. Was I being foolish for being mindful of my safety in this quiet corner of the government building? I was particularly confounded by his repeated insistence that he was my brother, was this a ruse, or simply small talk?

I was even more astonished by Bishara’s response, or lack of a response. Bishara, normally quite protective of me in most situations, particularly when other men’s unwanted advances are involved, seemed to regard the whole matter quite calmly. Bishara explained that in the Arab world, particularly in professional and business settings, it was critically important for men to treat women as sisters with the utmost respect. This bucked against everything I had heard before going to Saudi Arabia. I was going to find out that there were many layers to the tapestry of the Saudi culture.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (February 2000)

Our third and final destination was Jeddah, located in the western provinces of the Kingdom, 150 miles west of Mecca, and adjacent to the radiant and impelling Red Sea. Jeddah was a beautiful and delightful city with an extraordinary amalgam of traditional Arabic and contemporary Western architecture, including a scattering of mirrored skyscrapers.  From the window of our chauffeured car, I strained my neck to get a better glimpse and gulped as we approached a roundabout that displayed magnificent and modernistic sculptures of life-size cars jutting out of concrete in incongruous directions. Another roundabout exhibited oversized Bedouin urns spewing water. Westerners seemed to appreciate Jeddah, where there were opportunities to swim, boat and dive in the Red Sea. The coral reefs of the Red Sea, I was told, rivaled those of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Jeddah also had fewer restrictions, particularly for women who frequented restaurants and sheesha cafes unaccompanied by men. Women were not afforded this privilege in Riyadh, nor in many other cities in the Kingdom.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

During a break in between meetings, Bishara and I ambled along the sparkling beach of the Red Sea that straddled the picturesque outline of the Jeddah skyline; our toes caressed by the fine white sand. We were told that there were sections of beach partitioned and earmarked for expatriates, allowing sun worshippers to strip down to as little as bikinis or Speedos. As Bishara pulled out our camera to take a picture of me against the backdrop of the dazzling sea, we were startled and alarmed to see a uniformed gentleman rushing over waving his hands and barking in a blended language of English and Arabic. He forbade us to take photographs; there were Saudi women in the background. Saudi women regularly swam in the sea clothed in their abayes, a sight that would always seem alien to me.  Further down the stretch of beach I stopped in my tracks; there was a camel decked out in a bright red and gold carpet with luxurious tassels over its back being led by a thick knotted rope through a vacant parking lot by a middle-aged man in an off-white tunic. I had hoped to see a camel on our trip to the desert kingdom, although in my daydreams it would be ankle deep in sand with a tent and Bedouin in the background. Bishara, always full of surprises, saw to it to make another fantasy of mine reality.  Arab bargaining is an art full of nuances.  The vendor starts high, you go low.  The vendor makes a slightly higher offer, the customer walks off in a huff, and the vendor eventually relents, calling you back to accept your offer.  Bishara, mindful of the intricate movements of this marketplace dance, approached the man with a proposition.  I watched as Bishara expertly entered into negotiations with the man and within several minutes I was helped aboard the motley quadruped.  Bishara eagerly snapped shots without a hint of opposition from the uniformed officer. I was on top of the world.

Me on camel in Jeddah. (February 2000)

Our last night in Jeddah our driver, most graciously, on his own time and without accepting payment, escorted us to the gold souk (traditional Arab marketplace) where Bishara hoped to buy me a ring to replace my wedding ring and to serve as a reminder of our time in Saudi Arabia. The souk was an intricate maze of small shops made of concrete slabs offering a multitude of goods from spices, Indian silk, pots and pans, and children’s toys, to women’s lingerie and 21 karat gold jewelry. The marketplace teemed with Saudis, other Arab nationals, and a sprinkling of expatriates.  The souk tickled all of the senses. The scent of incense and spices infiltrated the winding cobble stoned alleyways. Sauntering through the mystical hodgepodge we often had to dart from side to side or flatten ourselves against the side of walls to avoid the crush of wheel barrows propelled by decrepit men in turbans laden with every imaginable product or artifact or to dodge the oncoming charge of women and children.  An elderly Saudi man, a roadmap of wrinkles marking his face, tended to cardboard thin saj bread sizzling on a large flat half-dome heated element over a wood block in a corner of the souk. Across from him sat a group of Saudi men on aluminum chairs smoking sheesha. One man rested his bare foot on the edge of the seat of the chair, another stared off into nowhere in particular, plumes of smoke snaked from his nostrils and mouth, while the third companion spoke animatedly, his words peeling off his tongue like rocket fire. Down another maze-like alleyway an array of women in black stood clustered in a tiny shop fondling decadent frilly lingerie, children clutching the edges of their mother’s abayes; South Asian men tending to their queries and purchases.  Women were not allowed to work in the retail industry in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi men had little interest in menial jobs.  The souk was pure enchantment and a staggering assault on my physical and emotional being; the abundance of community and culture in this tangled patchwork was in stark contrast to my more sterile life in Washington.

Me & Bishara in Jeddah. (February 2000)

On the plane trip back home, I turned to Bishara, gushing about our trip and what it ignited in me. My yearning to go to Saudi Arabia had grown from an ember to a flame. Upon returning home, I resumed my daily routine, hoping that my tenure in the urban jungle would be short-lived. With each passing day I wondered how much longer I would be crisscrossing the gloomy subway platforms. Bishara and I endlessly discussed the possibility of starting a new life overseas, and these talks punctuated my drone-like reality. We spent many sleepless nights sharing our uncertainties about giving up our dream home, ending our stable employment with treasured health insurance and retirement plans, and leaving the nearness of our family and friends.

Within several weeks Bishara received a FAX from a sheikh from the Diwan of Saudi Arabia expressing an interest in Bishara’s company executing a joint venture with the sheikh’s company. At this point, Bishara’s boss, unfortunately, had decided against pursuing a partnership with a Saudi company; we were on our own. Bishara conveyed this to the sheikh, but stressed that we were both very interested in securing employment within the Kingdom. Given the employment restrictions that women faced in Saudi Arabia, Bishara asked the sheikh to help find a position for me. The sheikh was most gracious and amenable; two weeks later high level management from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a well regarded medical institution in Riyadh, contacted us to request my CV. Shortly after, I received an offer to manage a new department created within the hospital. In November 2000, Bishara and I were on a plane back to Saudi Arabia to begin our new adventure.

The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Two)

We had trekked nearly 7,000 miles from the comforts of home in the Washington, DC area to the exotic land of Saudi Arabia.  Our hosts guided us through restricted passageways at the Riyadh airport, eliminating the prerequisite searches and questioning, to a luxurious holding area with colorful, lavish overstuffed sofas atop golden legs where we were served fragrant mint tea and dates of many varieties.  The Riyadh airport had been an intriguing collage of constant sound and motion, a feast for the eyes and ears; men in white thobes greeting each other enthusiastically with a kiss to each cheek, clusters of women shrouded in ebony with intractable children milling about, and persistent chatter.  All against the backdrop of opulent multi-tiered chandeliers and languid fountains spewing plumes onto lush greenery.  I could only imagine what the city of Riyadh had in store.  I was primed for my new adventure.

My husband, Bishara, and I transited from the airport into the city of Riyadh on an immaculate, modern six-lane highway with palm trees lining the medians. We lunged to the center of the back car seat, our breathing halted, as the occasional Mercedes or BMW with tinted windows and gathered curtains on the passenger and rear windows hurtled past us on the shoulder at death defying speeds. Our driver remained undaunted. As we entered Riyadh, on that mild, sunny afternoon in mid-February 2000, I clutched the edge of my seat and let out an inaudible gasp. This was an ultramodern city with high-end couture shops, quaint outdoor coffee shops, skyscrapers that punctuated the skyline, five star western hotels, and the seemingly ever present McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. The stereotypical images in my mind of Saudi Arabia began to shatter.

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Kingdom Center in background) ~ [From: Wikimedia Commons]

Because Bishara’s boss was never really keen on my presence on this trip of scheduled meetings between U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, including entrepreneurs from northern Virginia and prominent Saudi businessmen and government officials, I was not involved in the early sessions between our group and the Saudis. Doggedly determined to secure a job, I spent our first day in the capital city in our Radisson hotel room on the phone with Saudi executives and government representatives.  The gentlemen I spoke with were all kind, gracious, straightforward, and apologetic. Due to the employment restrictions imposed upon women, occupations were limited to three sectors: academia, the medical field, and ladies’ banks; it would be a major challenge and nearly impossible to secure employment in Riyadh. Each gentleman assured me he would do his utmost to support me in my efforts. I was wary of the unfounded generosity, but I consistently encountered a listening ear and was given contact names and numbers, encouraged to call back if I needed further assistance. To my pleasant surprise, I found that these were not just empty words. Despite what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, I secured several promising interviews.

On our second day in Riyadh, I went to a breakfast meeting with the American delegation and later a meeting with the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce; on each occasion I was the lone woman in the room. On our journey through the heart of Riyadh, a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island, I was dazzled by the sight of the soon to be completed Faisaliyah, an imposing three dimensional triangular tower that rose to almost 900 feet. Horizontal sheets of steel running the length of the prodigious building would eventually house a five-star luxury hotel and principal shopping mall. The tower sported a precariously perched glass sphere near the tip, housing a three-level restaurant. The Faisaliyah would be the tallest building in Riyadh, only to be overshadowed by the Kingdom Center, a building that dominated the metropolis at almost 1,000 feet, aimed for completion in January 2001.

Faisaliah 2

Al-Faisaliyah Center (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We were cordially welcomed at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce by several commanding and majestic figures in crisp white thobes who bowed slightly, reverently sweeping their right hand to their chest as they delicately shook the edges of my fingers. The Chamber was accented with vaulted ceilings, crown molding anointed with complex circular designs, captivating colossal glass chandeliers, and mammoth windows with drawn dark blue curtains and gold sashes tied to the side. As papers shuffled and murmurs dulled, I fully expected to be seated in a corner or in the back of the room where I would remain fairly innocuous, content and honored to simply have the opportunity to observe the proceedingsI was, after all, only an auxiliary member of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, there in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia solely due to the relentless efforts of my husband, Bishara, who was insistent that I accompany him on this trip to witness some of the intricacies of this enigmatic place; this country where I was bound and determined to live and work.  Bishara, ever one of my staunchest supporters and allies, was going to make sure my unconventional yearning came to fruition.

I felt my pulse rise and an irrepressible rush as I was guided by one of the Saudi government envoys to a seat at the table with the American contingency next to Bishara, a microphone at my disposal. I sank into the luxuriant black leather seat; delighted and appreciative. Before the meeting began, each member of the American bloc, including myself, had the opportunity to address the Chamber and expound on their specific business interest. Following these introductions, the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce disclosed that he knew there were many misperceptions in the western world regarding Saudi Arabia.  The American group had been in the Kingdom for a couple of days, and he was curious to learn of their impressions.  I felt Bishara’s foot connect with my leg under the table, urging me to speak up.  A flash of irritation crossed through me; I was not an official member of the delegation. It would be highly inappropriate for me to speak.  Bishara’s encouragement proved unnecessary. The Secretary turned his magisterial gaze in my direction, declaring he wished to hear from the lady first. My face flushed, pools forming in my armpits, and in those moments of exaltation I decided to forget all my logic and composure and speak plainly from my heart, sensing that this was a place where everyone could understand my sentiments regardless of culture or background.

I stayed glued to my chair, surprisingly steady, intent on being candid and genuine in conveying my gratitude for this trip and this opportunity. The greater part of my hesitation and anxiety dissipated, only a hint of apprehension remaining. I began to articulate what it meant to me to be on the first leg of this sojourn.  I spoke for approximately seven minutes, though time seemed suspended and my physical body displaced, only my mind whirring. I shared that my desire to come to the Kingdom was born out of a longing to experience the Arabian Peninsula through new eyes and form my own impressions, cleanly. Emboldened by the invitation to speak, I talked about seeking employment in the Kingdom, telling the group that I had had many conversations with incredibly gracious Saudi gentlemen who were helpful and forthcoming regarding my objective.  Before I realized I had finished speaking, spontaneous applause broke out on the Saudi side of the table. My heart skipped a beat, and I reveled in the acclamation, feeling a renewed sense of energy, possibility, and power. I was beginning to think my innate desire to spend time in Saudi Arabia was justified.

Me and Bishara in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Me in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Each destination we visited, we were welcomed with hospitality and warmth.  Docile and subservient attendants, typically of south Asian origin, endlessly scurried in and out of our meeting rooms serving Arabic coffee, mint tea, and Arabic sweet pastries with crispy filo dough filled with honey and pistachio nuts on gold and silver platters. The pungent and delectable aroma of cardamom seed extract radiated from the Arabic coffee and filled every molecule in the room. The ritual serving of coffee, tea and sweet pastries is a salient element of all gatherings, whether of a personal or business nature, in the Kingdom. To my consternation I was cautioned repeatedly to move my cup from side to side with my right hand, signaling to the attendant that I was finished. Failing to do so meant receiving continuous refills, a “free refill” policy that, while appealing to many Americans, was not ideal in the Kingdom. One of the many lessons in Arab culture I would learn. In countless settings while sipping Arabic coffee or tea, or discussing various business strategies,I was disarmed to witness our Saudi counterparts periodically snap their neck to one side while grasping the end of their ghutra and tossing it over their shoulder only to perform the same ritual with the other end of their ghutra. It reminded me of the many women I knew back home who simulated this behavior, flinging their long hair from their face in an attempt to tantalize and garner male attention. At other times I witnessed our esteemed and benevolent hosts, unreservedly primping and preening in front of wall mirrors.

Our nighttime excursions, rushing from meeting to the next or traversing the city to settle into repose at our cushy and enchanting quarters, revealed a whole other world. Several hours after dusk, the city came alive with frenzied activity. The terraces of “male only” coffee shops opened their arms to young men with ghutras rakishly skewed to one side or in baseball caps turned backwards. They sipped Turkish coffee and smoked sheesha (water-based tobacco smoked from a large pipe), while speaking in hushed tones or whispering in each other’s ears. Gaggles of women of all shapes and sizes, concealed in black, indistinguishable from one to another, bearing uncanny resemblance to the “grim reaper,” exited from the backs of cars driven by Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi chauffeurs, mumbling, with their children spilling out behind them.  Gliding from the car, their abayes dancing and flapping to the melodies of the night air, skimming along the entranceways of upscale shopping malls and haute couture shops; they immersed themselves in the bowels of endless shopping, exiting in the wee hours of the morning.

After a couple of “eye-opening” days in Riyadh, and with my curiosity piqued, I looked forward to our next destination, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country.

. . . To be continued!

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

“We don’t have the freedom to choose our husband, you know,” eighteen year-old Sherifa said matter-of-factly. “When he comes, he knocks on the door, he comes to my dad, asks for my hand, and proposes.  My dad comes to consult me and then I get to see him like with the hijab on, and we sit together with his family and mine, and speak so I can understand him and he can understand me.  And if he’s the match, we get married and then that’s the end of the story.” She paused before punctuating her final pronouncement on the matter, “And then our children get married.”

Qataris and women from other Gulf Arab nations do not have the luxury of trolling for mates on popular dating sites such as Match.com. In a region where signs of progressive, western influence are everywhere, the dating game remains steeped in centuries of tradition.  My husband and I relocated to Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in 2000, and later to Qatar in 2004 to pursue a new life and career opportunities.  As a writer, I have made a concerted effort to become familiar with the region’s customs, trends, and most significantly, its people. In my venture to learn more about the young women of Qatar, in particular, and how they negotiate the creep of westernization with age-old Arab traditions, I interviewed a group of young female Qatari students.  Among the variety of topics we discussed, dating and marriage drew strong reactions.

Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

On any given night in most American cities, nervous and excited single men and women gather in boisterous sports bars and crowded restaurants.  Amidst the white noise of unyielding chatter or televised basketball games,people pass between one another, doing their best to crack jokes and make a great first impression in the hopes it may lead to that coveted first date. Little do they know that halfway around the world their Arab peers are experiencing their own, much different version of dating.

For most Arabs, courtship unfolds in a pragmatic, systematic manner. However, specific customs vary broadly by region.  For example, conservative Gulf region countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman follow conventional dictates of arranged marriage rituals in the Arab culture.  These six nations with ties going back to the ancient Najd Arab tribes of Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, ascribe to “khaleeji” culture: each country shares the same dialect, clothes, food, music, and the more traditional courting customs.

Even sophisticated young Qatari women like Sherifa, currently studying business and law at Swansea University in Wales, have strong beliefs regarding courtship and marital practices.  While moderating a school debate on courtship and arranged marriage, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, Sherifa voiced her resolute views.  One of the panelists, a young, Qatari male who argued in favor of Qataris dating in the same way that Westerners date, drew her ire. “He’s a Qatari, and he wants to date!” Sherifa recalled, her eyes flashing.  “I don’t know what he was thinking.  He really gave me a headache that day.”  I asked Sherifa to elaborate. Repositioning her headscarf, Sherifa continued, “It’s against our culture, and not everyone absorbs the idea that now we have the freedom to do everything. Like if I want to see Jassim, let’s say, like know him better, more than a friend but as a boyfriend, it’s like ‘A’ib’ (shame) on you to do that.”

Entertainment at Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

Gender segregation plays a role in this mindset.  Sherifa, like many young, unmarried Qataris, spent most of her formative, adolescent years with other girls before entering college and the world of co-ed campuses.  I asked the other women for their responses to Sherifa’s opinions, wondering if they shared her traditionalist notions.  Fatma, a twenty-two year-old, well-spoken Qatari woman studying journalism at Qatar Foundation’s Northwestern University offered, “Well, I wouldn’t go for an arranged marriage blindly.  I’d rather know the guy from school, or work, or actually have had a conversation with him, you know, not real dating, just you know publicly and then having him go to my parents.”  Mouza, also attending Northwestern University in Qatar, chimed in, “It’s like big proof that they love you, if they go to your parents when they propose.” The other girls nodded in assent.

The closest thing to dating in Gulf countries takes the form of a pre-marital meeting between the bride and groom that takes place in the bride’s home within direct view of family members.  In contrast, Arab countries outside of the Gulf region, particularly countries like Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan exercise greater leniency regarding the tradition of arranged marriage.  In some cases, young men and women have a say in the selection of a marital partner.  Despite this courtship liberalism, dating normally becomes restricted to public places with a chaperon in tow, usually from the bride’s family.

Whether inside or outside the Gulf region, courtship and matrimony are deeply intertwined with the concept of family; kinfolk take intimate roles in nearly every step of the courtship process.  The business of seeking out a potential female mate for nephews, sons, or grandsons typically falls to aunts, grandmothers, and mothers.  This community of women may also make the initial contact with the prospective young woman’s family, usually her mother.  Fathers, however, sign the final marriage agreement, along with the bride and groom and witnesses.  To westerners, this practice may seem oppressive or even overly intrusive. However, for couples in the Gulf region, this hands-on involvement often strengthens family ties and brings the benefit of parents’ experience to the new couple.

According to the young Qatari women I interviewed, weddings, parties, and other gatherings are all common venues for this important search.  “Women only” weddings provide a particularly good opportunity for these family members to “scout out” potential marriage material.  These weddings find scores of unmarried young women glamorously attired in formfitting, low-cut, luxurious gowns, gyrating the night away on raised platforms in the center of overflowing ballrooms to popular Arab music.  If a young lady is lucky, her mother may just receive a call the following day from a wedding participant.  If there is a good vibe between the women this normally leads to the next step in the process: protracted family meetings.

In Qatar and the Gulf nations it is compulsory that families of the bride and groom communicate or meet first, before the prospective bride and groom are introduced, in order to determine the suitability of the union.  These meetings precede the Khutuba, or engagement ritual; the Melcha (Aqed Zawaaj), the marriage agreement/contract; and ultimately the wedding celebration.  The visits between the families provide the time to probe the laundry list of desirable characteristics from the appearance and personalities of the prospective mate’s family, to the career of the father and rest of the family members, to the family’s wealth: The groom’s father is an engineer, for example; this bodes well in the bride’s mother’s eyes.  The bride has a brother working at a prestigious law firm in London; this gives the groom’s father a confident feeling about the match.

Eighteen year-old Sara recounted that her sister’s match followed in this traditional vein.  Sara is a soft-spoken girl with delicate facial features, currently studying graphics and fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth at Education City in Qatar.  “His mother saw my sister at a wedding,” Sara said. “She thought my sister was really beautiful and a good girl, and that they should propose to her for their son.  So, they came to my house, and they told my family, we would like to propose to your sister, to your daughter.  This is how we get to know them and we found out he was a good guy, my brother in-law.” Sara paused briefly, smiling, “He is really a nice guy, and they got married.”

For Sara, having her family in general and her father, in particular, closely involved in the courtship process is crucial. “My Dad really knows me,” Sara stated.  “Like my brother-in- law, when he proposed to my sister, my father made sure he was going to allow my sister to drive and continue her education. That’s why I think my Dad’s opinion is very important.”

Despite the cultural constraints upon her, and her strong views on formal dating, Sherifa believes she will meet her future husband at work.  I asked her if she felt she would need the permission of her father before she married that “special person.”  Taking a sip of bottled water, Sherifa replied, “Maybe if I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is like the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Sherifa continued undeterred, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

The process of creating marriage is different for East and West cultures, yet it seems a universal mindset persists for women of this generation who are impacted by global and cultural changes.  Marriage, arranged or otherwise, might just take a backseat to career pursuits and individual growth for an expanding segment of the female Qatari population.  Sara, pursuing a career in graphic arts and fashion design conceded, “Maybe after 10 or 20 years I’ll see myself married and having babies.”  Similarly,eighteen year-old, Mouza, who hopes to own Al-Jazeera (TV News Broadcasting Company) someday, told me she never really thought about finding a future husband. “My biggest concern now is to finish school and get my degree, and then I’ll start thinking about that stuff,” she said.  “I have more important things to think about.”

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