Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 2)

Growing up in the 1960s among the brown rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area was cheery and carefree; lots of sunshine, infused with drives up Mount Diablo atop the backseat of my dad’s convertible MGB sports car, trips into San Francisco to stroll the lush gardens of Golden Gate Park, and four square at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac.  Halfway around the world in Jordan, Bishara, the youngest of six siblings, appreciated time spent with his devoted mother and cherished nephew, Haldoun, and an eclectic collection of family pets, despite pining for his father under contract in Saudi Arabia.  Peaceful days in rustic Mafraq, though, were interrupted by a terrifying hail of bombs that fell during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which found Bishara and his family huddled together in the middle of the bathroom convinced the end was near.  The warm embrace of his mother provided little comfort for nine year-old Bishara against the barrage of missiles targeting his country.

My own experience of war was through our black and white TV screen, observing the carnage of Vietnam’s battlefields as my parents watched the nightly news, and discerning only that something momentous and formidable was unfolding in a far-off land.  I knew, instinctively, I was shielded from this horror by distance and my ever watchful parents, and viewed the events more like an illusory scene from a play or movie trailer.

Bishara’s real, “life and death,” scare was followed by three brief years of relative calm during which he visited friends to watch wrestling on TV or scoured the nearby desert for edible mushrooms for the evening meal before the Palestinians (PLO) began clashing with the Jordanian government in 1970 in what came to be known as “Black September.”  Bishara’s school classes, along with those throughout Jordan, were cancelled for the month as demonstrations, shootings and general chaos ensued across the country resulting in thousands being killed over a one year period.  Bishara, not fully comprehending the ramifications of the situation, was both relieved over not having to go to school, but scared to his core over the possibility of his home being hit by rockets.  Although the effects of the Civil War were not as intense in Mafraq as in other Jordanian towns, Bishara’s family was under constant fear that the Jordanian army might invade their city, which was under Palestinian militia control.  As a result, Bishara and his family remained largely isolated in their home, playing cards, glued to the radio, and praying for a good outcome.  By the summer of July 1971, acrimony and bloodshed were superseded by the ouster of Palestinian combatants from Jordan to Lebanon, comparative peace, and the return of Bishara’s dear father.

Bishara’s most exciting days were Fridays when his father allowed him and his two older brothers to watch a cowboy movie at the town’s theatre every other week; the three brothers, merry with anticipation, walked a mile to the “male only” movie showings.  Cowboy flicks led to European and American movies of other genres, and to the notion that the world was larger than the confines of Mafraq, and a developing interest in probing other regions.  The quandary in Bishara’s young mind, however, was how he could leave his beloved mother behind.

My domain was widened when as a young teen my family moved from sunny, mellow California to a university town in the southeast, a sort of culture shock for me and my three siblings who had to transition from a more permissive and progressive environment to one permeated with palpable and staid southern hospitality and racial diversity.  Circumspect and reserved, the life shift required patience, grit, and a bit of hurt.  I remained, however, academic and a straight shooter; a girl with a small circle of friends, who envied the popular girls.  On weekends, I watched “American Bandstand,” and loved music, in general, a passion instilled in me by my dad who was hip and introduced me to The Beatles and Ravi Shankar in my younger days.  I savored the hours spent in my bedroom anticipating that special song coming over the airwaves, my tape recorder in hand, and finger hovering over the red record button.

At age 15, Bishara left a Christian middle school for Mafraq Secondary Boys’ School, a larger establishment comprised of nearly one hundred percent Muslim students.  Bishara, somewhat wary, wondered how he would get along with his new classmates.  A couple of months later, his uneasiness vanished, as Bishara relished participating in school sports, including basketball and soccer, with his new Muslim schoolmates, spawning strong attachments with his fellow athletes.  Several of his long-time friends wondered about Bishara’s behavior and questioned why he became sudden buddies with the Muslim kids.  Unaffected by this concern, Bishara knew he was simply expanding his “friend base.”  This revelation bolstered Bishara’s realization that he needed to study abroad after high school to advance his knowledge of the greater community outside of Mafraq.

While Bishara dreamed of expanding his horizons, I co-piloted a single engine plane at age 16 with my dad as pilot ferrying my sister, two brothers, and mother from our hometown in the southeast to California, Washington, and Montana.  I was humbled and gratified to reach the Guadalupe Pass at my calculated time as we sailed over Texas.  Otherwise, life was fairly predictable, and although the smaller moments produced the utmost satisfaction, a restlessness within implored me to connect to a deeper and wider reality.  This sense was magnified when Oma, my German grandmother, moved across the U.S. to be closer to her son and his family.  Oma’s travel stories brought the broader world into her quaint one-bedroom apartment only a couple of miles from our home.  My more treasured times as a high school senior involved leaving school early, walking the short distance to Oma’s apartment and having a homemade German meal while we watched “The Guiding Light” and talked of Oma’s European travels.

As Bishara neared grade 12, he could not wait to finish high school and move on.  But to what and to where?  Bishara felt it much harder to stay in Jordan, and the general region, than to pivot to the unknown.  His mother was his world and the only soul with whom Bishara’s could share his thoughts.  Bishara was happiest when he watched his mother iron his father’s clothes as he sat two feet away doing his homework, or when he silently slipped into his mother’s room during an afternoon nap, and listened to her snore as he pored over the books.  Who’s going to cook for you, and who are you going to watch cooking for you, Bishara’s mother would lament.  “My advice for you, son, is to remove these thoughts from your head.” She would convince Bishara for a day, but he soon had the feeling that his mother was talking from an emotional perspective only, and Bishara knew, in his gut, he must follow his inner voice.

This voice, and the Civil War in Lebanon, led Bishara to surreptitiously leave Lebanon, where he settled with his family following high school, for Western Europe, via Syria, at age 18.  Bishara eventually journeyed to the United States where he was drawn to a college education and a young woman originally from the Bay Area, who he ultimately married.  And she, wanting to fulfill her own fantasies of experiencing faraway cultures, persuaded him to leave a comfortable suburban life in the U.S. and travel back to the intriguing and beguiling world of the Arab Gulf. . . .

scan0006

scan0002

Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 1)

While my husband, Bishara, and I share many of the same tenets in life, such as “be good to yourself and your fellow man,” we grew up half a world apart under widely differing circumstances.  My life began mid-century near coastal California in John Steinbeck territory – Salinas, California, while Bishara, a native of Lebanon, was introduced to the world by a midwife at his family home in Mafraq, Jordan, in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe.

As a young family, we moved several times within the San Francisco Bay Area in the span of 12 years, from Salinas to San Jose, Berkeley, Lafayette, and, ultimately, Walnut Creek.  My childhood was spent dashing through sprinklers, romping with neighbor friends and cousins, skiing in Lake Tahoe, and dancing to The Beatles and “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  Annual summer trips to my mom’s indigenous Browning, Montana on Blackfeet Indian tribal land punctuated with blurs of color, buckskin and eagle feathers at Pow Wow ceremonies, as well as treks into adjacent Glacier National Park, became a regular and memorable event.  My first memory at two years old is of my family on the outskirts of tiny Browning maneuvering across railroad tracks to enter the home of my aunt (mom’s elder, and treasured, sister), and feeling both mystified and enchanted to be in the company of my three older cousins.

A world away, Bishara’s older sister, Wedad, 18 years his senior, was getting married and Bishara at four years-old noticed his mother and sister crying while Wedad stood at the alter in a beautiful white lace gown.  A somewhat baffling response in the eyes of a young boy.  Bishara, the youngest of six children, and, as such, often the recipient of sibling drubbings, was sensitive, soulful, and, by his own account, a nerd.  Often left behind by his older siblings on weekends, Bishara felt comfort and fulfillment in the company of his mother, the twosome frequently spending time together in the back courtyard of their stone home beneath the olive and berry trees, chattering away about everything while Bishara peeled mandarin oranges for his kindhearted mother.

Although sweet, shy, and reflective, as the eldest of four children, I took a certain satisfaction in playfully trouncing my three siblings, on occasion, in my younger years.  A kind child who, nonetheless, wanted to establish her natural dominance in the family structure as the first born, I had an innate sense of justice and of not wanting to be taken advantage of by the outside world.  Another early memory reveals me as a five year-old walking the short distance between my grandmother’s modest home in Browning to my aunt’s house down the street, my parents shadowing me in their car.  Within minutes, stones hurtled down at me from the windows of a neighboring home.  Initially taken aback by this onslaught by mischievous kids, I impulsively collected rocks from the street and vigorously lobbed them back at my assailants, to my parents’ unspoken gratification.

Just as my first sibling, and only sister, arrived engulfed in my adoration and constant companionship, Bishara’s nephew, Khaldoun, was born to Wedad when Bishara was just five years-old.  Being relatively close in age and location with Khaldoun growing up in a Jordanian town approximately two hours away by car from Mafraq, Bishara played often with Khaldoun and developed a deep-seated brotherly affection for his first nephew.  Joy-filled visits from Khaldoun left Bishara feeling melancholy and disheartened when Wedad and Khaldoun left at the end of a weekend following days spent engaged in hide and seek, tag, and friendly wrestling.

At around 8 years-old, Bishara said goodbye to his father who was travelling from Mafraq to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to pursue a long-term employment opportunity; one of Bishara’s saddest days.  A world away my father was travelling home from a short stint in Japan as an Air Force reservist with a surprise gift for me – a two-wheel bike.  As Israeli warplanes bombarded Mafraq a year later during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Bishara and his family hid in a 16 square foot bathroom with Bishara convinced that his mother had corralled them into the tiny quarters, so they could die together in close proximity.  Meanwhile, one of my paramount concerns was learning to ride the bicycle from my Dad, and experiencing challenges  braking while navigating down a steep hill; I sustained a mere knot on my forehead as Dad lunged in front of my bike to minimize the impact of crashing into bike racks at the bottom of the incline.

Bikes and pets are prominent features of American life, and for a short time as a child, we had a German Shepard that would regularly jump our backyard fence, follow me to school and steal the kids’ lunches, or hurdle over other fences and end up in someone’s pool.  While this pooch was ultimately rehoused, Bishara had a menagerie of pets while growing up, unusual in the Arab region, including a monkey, dog, chickens, deer, rabbits, and ducks, all kept in the back courtyard.  As a younger child, Bishara indulged in playing with the rabbits, which were raised along with the chickens, and ducks for later consumption, a fact that now produces misgivings in Bishara.  The monkey, Saada, arrived from Saudi Arabia in a truck, a gift from Bishara’s father to the family, and became a close companion to Bishara.  Bishara taught the monkey how to peel bananas, play catch, and even considered marriage to this attentive and shrewd primate.

Besides appreciating the company of his troupe of animals, Bishara played “cowboys” with neighborhood playmates, index fingers or sticks serving as guns; rolled atop, or inside, truck tires down neighborhood streets; and on the weekend attacked kids from rival blocks with stones.  Bishara was skilled at this latter pursuit, being a good aim, and a daring collaborator by zig-zagging between incoming rocks when assailing his opponents.

Summer visits to Ein Eible in Bishara’s native Lebanon to see his relatives were particularly happy days.  Bishara spent time with his grandfather, and once a week borrowed his donkey to go to the family farm and fields to pick figs and grapes, which Bishara brought home in baskets.  Bishara also took walks through the town with his brothers or alone, expressly admiring the beautiful young town girls.  The special times in my life also included occasions spent with extended family, in particular, British and Montana cousins, and my German grandmother, Oma, my father’s mother who eventually became a full-time resident of a nearby California city.  In the summertime, my siblings and I spent many a weekend at Oma’s apartment complex with an interior courtyard containing a pool, palm trees, and amiable neighbors.  Oma had a beautiful accent, wonderful spirit, and was colorful in dress and outlook.  Outfitted in a red flowered bathing suit and gold fringed bathing cap, Oma danced with my siblings and me, in turn, in the shallow end of her apartment pool.  And pool dancing was always followed by sweet iced coffee with milk and ice cream on top, served poolside.  Oma taught me the love of life and travel.

An emphasis on diversity and the broader world were not only apparent in my grandmother’s worldview and everyday life, but in the actions of my father.  I was most excited, when as an elementary school student, my Dad organized having a Kenyan man from Berkeley’s International Student Center come and speak to my class.  Attired in traditional garb, the young Kenyan man gave a fascinating and eye-opening presentation on life in Kenya.

In our prepubescent years, Bishara and I both felt our own budding romances.  At around age 10, Bruce, a classmate, regularly selected me as a square dancing partner in PE, a secret thrill, as this was the first time I was noticed by a boy.  This freckle-faced chap had the gumption to present me with a ring before our relocation from one Bay Area town to another.  In my young mind, I was mightily impressed with the courage and straightforwardness of this boy.  Bishara’s introduction to “puppy love” was quite different.  Living in a more restrictive society where genders were often separated, Bishara and his friends were reduced to jotting down love notes on bits of paper, which were crumpled and hurled at their particular love interest.  Bishara was in serious trouble when someone complained about him and his buddies following a group of girls to school, with the boys ultimately being arrested and taken to the police department for interrogation.  The police officers ultimately took pity on the boys following the arrival of their parents.

Little did I know that 15 years later I would meet, and develop an intimate relationship with, a near-felon, nor did Bishara realize he would rendezvous with a western woman and the “American Dream.”

Pic of Michele

Pic of Bishara

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.

File:Sabah - Al Mawed.jpg

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.

600full-mona-abou-hamze

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.”

scan0002

Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon)

scan0003

Mountain View Outside of Beirut

scan0004

The Mediterranean

scan0007

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.”

scan0005

The Feigned “Lebanese Look”

scan0006

The Real “Lebanese Look”

Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.) 

I had been a career woman in Saudi Arabia for a matter of months, having left a satisfying life in Washington, DC with my husband and two miniature poodles in tow for a cultural adventure in this intriguing land of black abayes, and white thobes and ghuttras.  My experience at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh began in November 2000 and within a short time helped illuminate the importance of “people time” in the Saudi workplace, as well as the emphasis placed on achieving a healthy balance between work and “home life.”

The KFSH compound itself actually helped to bridge the work-life divide in some interesting and unexpected ways. Its vast property catered to single, expatriate females, primarily nurses, by providing a large array of amenities. From grocery stores and flower shops to a bowling alley, post office, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the grounds included everything that an average, western girl needed to feel at home, minimizing her exposure to the Kingdom’s unfamiliar customs.

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

King Faisal Specialist (KFSH) ~ Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Most days, these many facilities, combined with the overall make-up of the staff, made it easy to mistake the hospital premises for a small town or planned community. Browsing the magazine racks in the grocery store always brought me back to reality. Black magic marker blotted out the bare arms, legs and cleavage of the models on the magazine covers.

My spine bridled when I first opened one of the women’s magazines to find each of the pictures of the young models with similar blackened arms and cleavage; each magazine I flipped through was the same. Later, I discovered that one of the informal duties of the mottawah, or religious police, involved shielding the community from even the slightest hints of sexuality.

This sort of seemingly nonsensical mottawah activity provided fodder for uneasy chuckles and long discussions about our mutual unconventional experiences within the Kingdom at weekend expatriate gatherings or evening fetes. Many of my single female expatriate friends who remained in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time eventually came to the conclusion that the financial rewards and unique professional and personal experiences gleaned from life in the Kingdom outweighed concerns over eccentric and baffling pursuits by the mottawah.

While the mottawah were not permitted on the hospital premises, I remained mindful of my dress, especially for work. In the States, I might have decided on my outfit for the day in the precious minutes between drying my hair and heading downstairs for a bite of breakfast. Although my clothing options were more limited in the Kingdom, my early days at KFSH found me devoting significant time to picking out clothes that were both respectful of the stringent cultural customs and professional.

During my induction at KFSH I half expected to be greeted with a neatly divided fleet of robes and pant suits. Instead, Western women like me were permitted to forgo the black abaye on the hospital grounds; we were strongly counseled, though, to have our arms and knees covered, and low-cut blouses were strictly prohibited.

When off hospital grounds, Western women typically wear the abaye; in some shopping malls they are required to wear a headscarf or otherwise risk an encounter with the “mottawah.” In extreme circumstances a woman or her husband, who in the “mottawah’s eyes allowed her to dress indecently, might face jailing.

Like most other female expatriates I normally wore a mid-calf (or longer) skirt or pants, and a long white lab coat to work. My colleagues’ fashion, however, reflected both the cultural and stylistic diversity in the workplace. The Saudi woman working at the passport desk was completely covered in black, her eyes, two charcoal pools, stared back at me. Her Sudanese workmate at a station in close proximity wore a colorful yellow and blue sarong and head covering that exposed her entire unmade face, leaving wisps of hair peeking under her scarf.

At the hospital, Lebanese women stood out in stark contrast to all others not only in attire but also in their confident demeanor; these women sported tight pants, immaculately coiffured hair and painstakingly applied makeup, demonstrating their knowledge of the latest fashion trends. Lebanese women followed the same kind of cultural mores as other Arab women such as covering their arms and legs while on the hospital grounds and wearing the abaye and headscarf in public (with their faces exposed) when off the hospital premises.  Yet, it appeared as if there was an unspoken understanding in the Arab world that granted Lebanese women more fashion freedom. Conceivably this nonconformity was due to the regular influx of Western European tourists into Lebanon during its golden age in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the civil war, when it was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

In any event it became increasingly apparent to me that women from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain were clearly more reserved and demure in dress and behavior in public settings than those women from non-Gulf countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. I soon found that despite the divergence in clothing styles and presentation, women were not typically the objects of unwanted glances or stares that sometimes find their way into Western workplaces dominated with male colleagues.  In fact, great lengths were taken to shield women from this unwanted attention; Arab women’s offices were never positioned along a main corridor, and some women even hung curtain material over the entrances of their partitioned offices.

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

KFSH Dining Hall (Riyadh)

As I became more acclimated to my new professional surroundings and adjusted my demeanor and appearance to fit in, one particularly surprising aspect to the Saudi workplace continued to fascinate me: the relationship between women and their hair.

It might sound trivial to Western women who fail to think of their hair beyond fretting over its neatness, messiness, or frizzyness, but Saudi women experience their hair in a completely different manner. In the Kingdom, strict mores exist about the public display of women’s hair, and Saudi women exercise careful attention to keep their hair covered with few exceptions.

I distinctly recall dashing to the restroom early one morning before a meeting and running into my workmate, Amal, splashing her face with a bit of water, her shiny raven colored locks free from the confines of the obligatory headscarf. Restrooms were one of the few locations at work where a Saudi woman felt safe and sheltered enough to bare her hair.

Wednesday morning breakfasts of Lebanese mazzah that featured mounds of hummus and babaganoush, freshly baked pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, and spirited chatter behind closed conference room doors were another. Although I usually felt awkward when I noticed a Saudi woman uncover her hair, as if I were intruding on a particularly private and intimate moment, I inevitably found it hard to look away.

Despite the ubiquitous headscarf, Arab women take great pains to style their hair based on the current rage, commonly sporting fashionable cuts and trendy highlights. Some of these women were particularly exquisite looking with their luxurious hairstyles framing ebony pools of their eyes.

On another occasion Aisha, also an officemate, came into my office and glanced around furtively, making sure we were unobserved, before tentatively removing her headscarf. Her dark brown wavy hair spilled around her face, and she asked if I liked her new haircut. “Oh, yes, it looks great,” I affirmed. “You know, Michele, you should really try putting highlights into your hair like Alia,” Aisha quipped. “Highlights would really bring out your face.” My heart swelled with humility; this from a woman who, in public, outside of hospital grounds, was not only required to cover her hair, but her face, as well.

Working “shoulder to shoulder” with my female Saudi counterparts I came to learn that they had an acute appreciation for their career opportunities, were extremely hardworking, and remained intensely disciplined, particularly those without young children.

I often felt like a surrogate mother or big sister to some of the younger, female Saudi women, one of whom would even stop by my office regularly to discuss some of her more private marital challenges, which invariably most women face. “My husband isn’t spending enough time with me,” she fretted on one occasion. “Sometimes he goes out with other men, and doesn’t tell me where he’s going or what he’s doing,” adding “I feel that maybe he doesn’t love me anymore and is not interested in me.”

I admit that at times I felt off-balance during these encounters, happy yet daunted by this level of trust from a workmate; I couldn’t recall ever having these kinds of intimate discussions in the American workplace. “Marriage is complex and challenging,” I began tentatively, trying to give my best Dr. Phil advice. “It has its ‘ups and downs,’ and there are some points during a marriage when the man and woman feel somewhat distant from each other. You just have to nourish the marriage like you have to water a flower to make sure it grows and stays healthy.”

She remained expressionless, yet I glimpsed a flicker of understanding before she bolted away to answer her incessantly ringing phone in her office down the hall. I always felt honored to be a trusted colleague and friend during these moments. The professionalism of my American employers suited my career aims, but after becoming familiar with this more familial work culture, I realized how many U.S. offices, by their very nature, discourage these types of personal interactions.

The heart-wrenching tragedy of September 11, 2001 certainly challenged some of my budding relationships with my Saudi co-workers. The events of that day left Bishara and me emotionally spent and quite discouraged as initial reports implicated Saudi involvement in the attacks.

As I tentatively entered the office the following day, Abdullah cautiously approached and asked, “Are you alright, Michele?” adding “I am so sorry about what happened.” He continued, “I hope that nobody you knew was hurt or affected.” I told Abdullah I appreciated his concern and felt a bit of relief that there weren’t any hostilities toward me.

KFSH, like many places in the Kingdom, certainly had its factions that disagreed with American policies, and I became apprehensive when it was confirmed that Saudis participated in perpetuating the attacks.

However, I was astounded one late afternoon several weeks after 9/11 when Samer, a Saudi finance manager and collaborator on one of my reports, bristled when I expressed concern for Americans living in Saudi Arabia. He exclaimed, “Michele, if anybody tries to get near you, anybody at all, I will put myself between them and you.” He paused for a moment, and continued “And I know your workmates would do the same.” Samer’s gesture rendered me mute for a split second; I barely managed a curt, “Thank you, Samer.” Despite my enduring trepidation, in this moment I had a renewed sense of faith in humanity.

Many of my friends back in the States still wondered at my dubious choice, fearing that I had traded one competitive work culture for another one with additional, improbable challenges. They emailed regularly with endless queries: How was I coping? Did I miss family and friends? How did I manage working under such (they envisioned) strict and sterile conditions?

I greatly appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I was thriving with each new discovery. In the midst of what was becoming a fulfilling and productive life transition, more change ensued: My heart sank in late spring 2003 when we discovered that my husband, Bishara had a life-threatening medical condition.

We considered having Bishara treated in the U.S., but after much deliberation we realized that Bishara would receive “top notch” medical care from KFSH doctors who had studied at some of the finest medical institutions in the world. I was not only gravely concerned about my husband, but acutely aware of how this might impact my work arrangements. I found myself in Abdullah’s office, again, hoping to trade on his good graces.

“Abdullah,” I began, as I closed the office door behind me, a lump forming in my throat, “Bishara is going to be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and I’m going to need to work out a leave schedule with you so I can split my time between work and spending time with Bishara.”

Before I could continue Abdullah jumped in, “Michele, while Bishara is in the hospital, I am not your boss, Bishara is your boss. Anytime Bishara wants you to take off from work, take leave time; and I am not going to charge you for any time off as long as Bishara is in the hospital!”

He must have seen the uncertainty in my face because he added, “It’s okay, go off and see Bishara. He needs you!” My eyes welled and my limbs trembled as I stepped over to shake hands with my gracious benefactor, the same man who had made such a stony impression on me when I first arrived.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how far my working relationship with Abdullah had come in the short years I had been at KFSH due, at least in part, to my own personal and professional growth rooted in this unparalleled cultural experience. My initial meeting with Abdullah in November 2000 had left me numb and certain that my best efforts to contribute to the financial success of the hospital would be thwarted at every turn.

At the time, I thought maybe what I had heard in the states about women lacking respect or receiving unfair treatment by men in the Middle East was true. In that instant, I had questioned my decision to leave my comfortable life in Washington, DC for this unfathomable and strange life in the Kingdom.

Yet Abdullah’s unwavering support of me and my husband during this time of crisis, (and on other projects and ventures throughout my time at KFSH), simply affirmed that I was where I belonged: among a very unique community of individuals who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them.

One early evening, around the anniversary of my first year at KFSH, bone weary after several twelve-plus hour days at the office, I turned my bleary eyes to Abdullah as he swung through my office door.

“You know, Michele,” he exclaimed, “you are the one person in our group who I know when I give her a task, will get the job done right!” My knees nearly buckled with the unexpected compliment. Taking a breath, I merely smiled saying “Abdullah, I think it’s time for a cup of tea.”

Related articles

Souks of Qatar (Omani, Vegetable, and Fish)

A couple of months ago an American expatriate friend invited me to join her along with a women’s group that would be visiting several souks in Doha.  A souk is an Arab marketplace, often open-air, selling everything imaginable, from spices, to kitchenware, children’s toys, electrical appliances, computers, colorful silk cloth, jewelry, camels and livestock, and so much more.  Some souks sell a variety of different items and others a specific type of item like jewelry, vegetables, or computers and related equipment.  Souks have been around for thousands of years in the Arab world, and historically caravans with goods and materials bought and sold from one another and the nearby townspeople, and even bartered for goods.  Souks were also a place where festivals and various social and cultural functions were held, including poetry readings and general storytelling sessions.

On this particular occasion, against the backdrop of a spring-like sunny Doha day, we would be visiting the Omani, Vegetable, and Fish Souks, all within walking distance of each other and located in the southwest of the city off of Salwa Road and Wholesale Market Street.  The Omani souk, reportedly so-called because many of its goods are imported from nearby Oman, sells quite a hodgepodge of items such as desert truffles, dates, plant pots, watermelon, pomegranate, lemongrass, bamboo, flowers, bushes, palm trees, coconut, baskets, garden materials, and a small assortment of dried fish.  Since it was Tuesday (a weekday), the Omani souk was not overly crowded, just a spattering of Qatari and other Arab men, and a couple of women from northern Africa in intricately designed cotton cloth body wraps.  This, in contrast to early morning Fridays, a weekend and religious day, when the specialty souks, in particular, are abuzz with customers on the lookout for the freshest vegetables, fruit, and fish, and negotiating the best deals with vendors.

Omani Souk (General)

Our first stop at the Omani souk was a desert truffles stand; the vendors were of Southeast Asian origin (from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan), which is typical of souks in the Arabian Gulf region.  Not being one who is terribly interested in cooking (or anything that has to do with the kitchen, for that matter), I had always thought truffles were chocolates; I had no idea they were a form of funghi!

Several of the women were interested in purchasing a box of truffles and splitting the cost and contents amongst themselves.  Although this was a group comprised largely of western women, they were only too aware of the obligatory art of bargaining that accompanies any purchase in a souk.  Several of the women held their ground, as did the vendor, who ultimately left the women empty-handed as the vendor was clearly more interested in haggling over the truffles at individual rates rather than selling them at a reduced bulk rate.

Truffles (or mushrooms) found in the forests of Europe are superior in aroma, taste, and texture to desert truffles, however, according to a Saudi friend, the reason desert truffles are expensive in the Arab Gulf these days is mostly nostalgia based.  My friend divulged that people in the Arabian Peninsula used to cook desert truffles as a substitute for meat, which was prohibitively expensive 50 plus years ago.  At the time, most people of the Arab Gulf had red meat (mutton or camel) no more than a dozen times a year, hence the popularity of desert truffles found under the sand for free, which reminded Gulf Arabs of the texture of meat, (along with some imagination).

Truffles at Omani Souk

The women and I shuffled on to a nearby stand, which included a variety of dates.  Having lived in the Arabian Peninsula since late 2000, I’ve become acutely aware of the significance of dates in this region and the different ways they can be prepared.  Dates are grown in four stages, including kimri (unripe), khalal (crunchy and fully grown), rutab (ripe and soft), and tamr (ripe and sun-dried).  The tamr dates may even be compressed in a container made of the palm tree “leaves” and left to age for some time.  I cannot count the times I’ve been served dates along with cardamom coffee in Arab friends’ homes, (a common form of Arab hospitality), usually in rutab or tamr form, sometimes with the pit replaced with an almond or sprinkled with bits of sesame seed.  While important, culturally, to the larger Arab population, date palms are actually a critical part of the desert Bedouin’s diet, who could survive harsh desert conditions for months consuming dates and water alone.  During Ramadan the fast is broken by eating dates, which are rich in vitamins and minerals.  Dates are also used for medicinal purposes, as a Qatari friend told me that when she was a child her mother used a mixture of heated tamr dates with olive oil as a compress for a twisted ankle.

Dates in the Omani Souk

The Omani Souk is contained in an open warehouse, and besides truffles and dates includes an assortment of ceramic and clay pots in a variety of hues with some lovely engravings; straw hats and colorful woven baskets; plastic bags of dried sardines; and a small collection of fruits including watermelon, coconut, pomegranate (a favorite of mine), sweet potatoes, and what my Lebanese husband, Bishara, calls “green cherries” (otherwise known as “janarik,” which are unripened plums).  As a child in Jordan and Lebanon, Bishara used to eat “green cherries,” which look like miniature green apples and are sour-tasting, with a dousing of salt.  The predominant items in the Omani Souk seem to be flowers and other leafy plants, ranging from daisies, to hydrangeas, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, pansies, and the odd bonsai tree.

Bonsai Tree & Plant Pots in Omani Souk

Baskets in Omani Souk

Dried Fish in Omani Souk

Fruit & Vegetables in Omani Souk

Flowers in Omani Souk # 3

The Vegetable Souk, right next door to the Omani souk, sports a large array of vegetables and some fruit, (mostly imported from Lebanon and Syria), such as tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, garlic, red and yellow peppers, red and green grapes, bananas, oranges, kiwi, pears, plums, apricots, squash, robbi (turnip), pineapple, strawberries, and purple and white eggplant (which I had never heard of before).  A young Egyptian woman in our group said she wanted to buy some eggplant, as she would be making Mahshee, stuffed eggplant with rice and onion, for dinner.  Although my newfound Egyptian friend disclosed that white eggplant is actually more tender and tastier than the purple version, she would be using the purple eggplant, which is the traditional ingredient in Mahshee.  The Vegetable Souk is heavily populated with men, usually of Southeast Asian origin like the vendors, who will assist you with your purchases by placing them in a wheelbarrow or rolling platform and follow you around, even taking your haul to the car and unloading your purchases for you.  Of course, a small tip is appreciated.

Vegetable Souk # 1

White Eggplant & Turnips at Vegetable Souk

Me at Vegetable Souk

Man w/Red Beard at Vegetable Souk

We eventually moved on to the Fish Market, a mix of sights, sounds, and smells (many not so pleasant), and quite a variety of fish with a convenient cleaning/gutting service.  Qatar shares a short border with Saudi Arabia to its south and its remaining three sides are surrounded by the Arabian Gulf waters, hence the abundance of fresh fish.  Fish available in Qatar includes, but is not limited to, Hammour (Grouper), Sherri, Prawns, Blue Crabs, Kanad (or Kingfish), Squid, and White Pomfret, and Sultan Ibrahim (Red Mullet).  The mention of Sultan Ibrahim later that evening brought back sentimental memories for my husband, Bishara, of the wonderful occasions during his childhood in southern Lebanon when his mother fried this special fish enjoyed by the entire family while Bishara’s father smoked sheesha and drank arak on the back patio of their home in the mountains.  I found the blue crabs dazzling, and knew they were indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia having had many of these delectable delights in soft shell form (another favorite) when we were living in the Washington, DC area, but was surprised to find out they were also caught in the Arabian Gulf.  The Fish Market was a real treat and is now a favorite destination where we regularly purchase fresh Hammour and Sherri, which we love to grill on weekend evenings.

Blue Crabs at Fish Market

Fish at Fish Market # 2

King Fish at Fish Market

View of Fish Souk

Grilled Hammour (Grouper) Recipe:

Ingredients

  1. 250 g hamour fillet
  2. 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  3. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
  5. ½ teaspoon dried tarragon
  6. salt and pepper
  7. 200 g potatoes, boiled
  8. 150 g green peas, boiled
  9. 20 g fresh mint leaves, chopped
  10. 50 ml milk
  11. 3 tablespoons butter
  12. 1 teaspoonfresh parsley, chopped
  13. 1 pinch nutmeg

Directions

  1. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, ginger-garlic paste, tarragon herb, salt and pepper to make a marinade.
  2. Marinate the hammour fillet in this for a few hours or overnight for best results.
  3. Grill it over the charcoal griller.
  4. Saute garlic in butter.
  5. Toss mint and greenpeas in it.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Mash grated potatoes in a pan.
  8. Add milk, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg gradually until creamy in texture.
  9. Finish off with cream and parsley.
  10. Arrange the grilled hammour in the centre of your serving plate.
  11. Serve hot with salad and other accompaniments such as lemon butter sauce.

From: http://www.plaincook.com/grilled-hammour-Recipe-2007-06-23/