The Best of Both Worlds

I lived in Riyadh for twelve years, from 1986 through 1998— the first six in the King Faisal Hospital women’s housing compound on campus (men lived off campus), and the second six in the city, amongst working class expatriate Arabs. Both ways of life offered me thrill and glamor, punctuated by stress and drudgery– long before Saudi Arabia initiated the reforms and developments that now include amusement parks, concerts, mega-malls, women driving, etc.

During the seventies and eighties, Saudi Arabia’s premiere developments included the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, where state of the art technology promised excellent medical care first to the royal family and gradually to most all other citizens who needed its sophisticated services. I got a job there in 1986, a month before Ramadan.

I’d been working in the States for five years after college. I liked my job as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist (formerly Medical Technologist). My colleagues and I used to see the ads for jobs in Saudi Arabia in our professional journals. I answered one of these ads. My reasons warrant a separate post, and maybe an entire book, but for now, let’s say I was hungry for a big life change. Those ads promised high salaries, excellent working conditions, lavish vacations and expense-free apartments built for the comfort of international professionals. All of that was supposed to compensate for the social restrictions, gender segregation and cultural adjustments that prevailed in the most conservative country of the world. It did, for many of us, for awhile.

I was hired for the Hematology Section of the Laboratory at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. When I started working there, the hospital had maybe four hundred beds; I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember that over the six years of my employment, the number of beds doubled, as did the services and clinics. My job morphed from manageable set of analytical procedures into an assembly line churning out results without pause. The length of the workday turned everything into drudgery. I began at seven AM and finished at 5PM.

In the beginning, I had enough energy after work to take the hospital bus to the shopping areas, or to hang out with friends, or swim. By the end of those first six years, my stress level had increased to the extent that I walked home after work and collapsed, not wanting to see anyone or do anything, except a rare swim in one of the wonderful pools.

The pools were the just a few of the perks of living and working at King Faisal, however. My salary was more than I could have earned in the States, and I lived in high-end, expense-free apartments, comfortable and attractively furnished, that I wouldn’t be able to afford in the United States. I was entitled to nearly seven weeks of yearly vacation, four of which included a paid round trip ticket to the United States, and the other three divided into two vacations to nearby countries. I visited Cyprus, Greece, Egypt (four times), Jordan, Turkey, India (twice), Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The memories of those trips still give me smiles of romance, fun, thrill, excitement, and beauty.

During the months between vacations, I went to the suqs (market places), many of which throbbed with activity and all manner of merchandise, especially traditional offerings such as gold, Oriental rugs, brass coffee pots, camel saddles, fabrics, clothing, spices, and cheap housewares. These markets attracted mostly Saudi families and expats from Arab and Asian countries. I could walk through the maze of alleys and shop for hours without seeing another Western person. I adored those suqs, especially when I learned a few words of Arabic, started covering my head and passing for an Arab.

I frequently joined some of the hospital women for dinners at area hotels. The major hotels featured rotating cuisines, all sumptuous and expensive, but we could afford it because our salaries were generous and our living expenses were carried by the hospital. Later on, when I started making friends with Muslim ladies outside the hospital, I would go to their homes, or meet them at one of the shopping malls, or join an Islamic “halaqah”— gathering for learning about religion from women scholars.

As the years passed, however, the stress of the job increased, as did my desire to get married before I got too old to enjoy married life. The heavy workload plus long workday drained me physically and psychologically. Even though I loved the hospital milieu, I was burned out. During my fifth year I thought about not renewing my contract. I hated to give up my extracurricular benefits, but my job had become so demanding and enervating that I looked for an escape, which meant I had to either get a husband or return to the States. That second option filled me with dread, as I wanted to remain in the Kingdom. In those days, expats were not allowed to live in the Kingdom without an employer or a spouse, so… I had to have one or the other.

I got a husband, an Egyptian electrical engineer who I met through the husband of an American Muslima who also worked in the hospital. Suffice it to say that I exchanged my job for a husband, and moved with him and his two girls (from his first marriage) into a city apartment, several notches below the standard to which I’d become accustomed, but clean enough and large.

I saved my final month’s salary and severance pay, locking it in my trunk for use during my marriage when my husband didn’t want to finance whatever I wanted to buy for myself. He provided the basics– food, clothing, shelter, and annual plane tickets, and I had no complaint– but he was not eager to buy my little luxuries like books or jewelry. Travel, too, had to be curtailed. From several international trips each year, I had to cut back to a single month-long vacation to the United States, and we had to pay for it.

The people around me no longer represented medical professionals from America, Canada, Europe, Arab and Asian countries, but working class expats from Arab countries only. I expected I’d finally get the chance to become fluent in Arabic, but no, and that’s another story.

For the first time in my life, I was a housewife, relieved of the monkey-on-my-back necessity of working outside the home. Some people thrived in the workforce; I never did. I’d always envied those who didn’t have to work.

Learning to cook, keep house, and look after my new family offered me a way of life that felt like the lap of luxury. I had traded the fatigue, the psychological and physical strain of the workplace for the peace and comfort of my own home in Riyadh from which I was not required to venture at all. Finally I had freed myself to explore the activities that brought me joy– learning languages, sewing, cooking, reading and writing, and exploring chances to interact with people I’d never have met while cushioned within the hospital setting.

I also traded the sophistication of professional expat hospital life for the restrictions of not being able to move about freely, not to travel to countries other than the USA, not to spend easily on elegant meals or clothes, and not to mingle with people from all over the world. However, the trade-off brought me exactly what I needed.

My life as a Muslim blossomed during those next six years. I met and grew friendships with a core of wonderful Muslim women whose Arab husbands, like mine, worked in the Kingdom. I was able to walk to neighborhood schools for Arabic language classes and Tajweed. I was blessed to make Umrah several times with my husband, and even Haj the year before we left the Kingdom. To this day, I thank Allah for those experiences, and I know how generously He blessed me.

In fact, the whole twelve years constitutes the most amazing and valuable phase of my life. I acquired two daughters who’ve enriched my life maybe more than I’ve enriched theirs, now with their own children– my grandchildren– who I love as dearly as I love their mothers.

I’ve only highlighted the surface of the ways in which I found fulfillment in the Kingdom. Did I have sadness, personal failures and stress apart from my job? For sure, I had plenty of it, the worst in my life. I haven’t even hinted at those shipwrecks of major depression. Maybe I will write about some of it, but the other side of my Riyadh years– the fulfillment, the happiness, the learning, the excitement, the opportunities to immerse myself in a religion and culture I never knew existed prior to 1986–overrides all of the troubles and heartache that afflicted me simultaneously– and that is what I’ve chosen to write about here.

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“Likes” and Comments

During the years I did not post to this blog, things had changed. WordPress added new features and withdrew others; that’s to be expected. A few of my readers from the past have showed up again. Thanks! The most striking difference, however, has been in the increase of “likes.”

I always look at the blogs of readers who take the time to “like” one of my posts. Many of the people “liking” my posts do not write blogs having any relationship to mine.  At first, I wondered why someone whose main blog focus was on pets, diets, fashion, birthing, or whatever, would even read my posts, much less “like” them. After looking at a dozen such blogs I realized that the “like” button has become a way of advertising and self-promotion. These readers may not actually like my posts. They may not even be reading them, but responding to tags I’ve used, or maybe just calling up a random “next blog”. They want me to look at them, to read what they’ve posted.

That’s to be expected, as well, but there’s something disingenuous about the way the “like” function is being used, and I don’t LIKE it. I would prefer readers to click the “like” button only when they like my posts. I’d like even better for those readers to make a comment. What I do not not like is for readers to skim tags and “like” my posts as a means to encourage me to look at theirs.

It’s not that I am not interested in pets, diets, fashion, birthing, or whatever, but that this blog concerns a particular aspect of my life, and should attract readers who are interested in such an aspect, and/or maintain an independent interest in the tags I have used. Those are the readers whose blogs will attract me in return.

The Internet is nothing if not a means to widen one’s personal net of contacts and affiliations.  New ideas come almost unbidden, and secure ones develop. Relevant blogs can be investigated immediately and thoroughly. Used efficiently, the blogging platform offers a forum for all kinds of personal growth. Used selfishly, it merely clogs the pores of sincere seekers.

We’ll see who “likes” this post!

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Another Swing into the Fullness of Islam

December 21, 2022

I don’t know how or why I found myself looking for a stream upon which I could set my vessel for a slide back into Islam. Muslims would say Allah was guiding me. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I’m comfortably dipping and swaying along the soft waters of Islam– my private experience of it, in any event– and I am happy.

Yes, I know now how this happened, after years of plowing through the muck of non-Islamic society, the hubris and excesses of American life. I want to go back to my roots– my Islamic roots. I’ve met a sheikha. Well, she’s not a sheikha, but she is on her way, and my respect for her grows steadily. She is one of many who have managed the successful incorporation of Islamic principles and practices into secular American society.

Meeting Karla occurred almost by happenstance, but she would claim that Allah arranged it, and I cannot refute that likelihood. We connected on Facebook, of all places, where communication is mostly quick and superficial. I have never been as inspired by Facebook as I was during the heyday of blogs, but OK, Facebook seemed to be the inferior replacement, so I sought out English-speaking Muslim groups. About five years ago, I read a comment by an American Muslimah who said that she lived in Minocqua, Wisconsin. I was flabbergasted.

This northern Wisconsin Land-of-Lakes area is a vacation wonderland, attracting tourists from all over the state and even from northern Illinois. The summer home phenomenon had developed there for middle-class families like mine, who wanted vacation experiences without spending an arm and a leg. My father built our lake home there in 1978. I was spending time during the spring, summer and autumn–not winter because of heavy snowfall– but I have never once seen or heard evidence of a Muslim in residence, or even one passing through.

I contacted Karla, who was also flaggerhasted to learn of an American Muslimah with a connection to Minocqua. We agreed to meet the next time I was there, and sure enough, we met at the local coffee shop in the busy strip mall on Hwy 70, and an instant rapport sprang up between us.

We exchanged our stories, histories, situations, and how we live Islam in the United States. I, of course, barely lived Islam by that time, having divorced my husband, still working (of necessity), living with my Christian mom, and generally out of touch with the Islamic lifestyle I had intended to establish when I repatriated in 1998.

Karla, on the other hand, never lived outside the United States, but has managed to establish and adhere to all the behaviors that mark an Islamic lifestyle, including prayer, fasting, eschewing haram and wearing hijab all the time.

In fact, I had met other American converts who had never lived outside the States, and most of them lived their Islam here better than I ever did, which looks ironic, because I had such a thorough Islamic indoctrination during my twelve years in Saudi Arabia. One expects that someone like me is in a better position to live Islamically in the States, having had such a large amount of practice in Saudi Arabia.

I was fascinated to know Karla, and learn about how she managed to not only convert, but adhere to Islam in America, without having spent time in any Muslim majority society that should make the process easier. I quickly learned the answer, which turned out to be the same answer I’d heard from other American converts who had never lived in a Muslim majority society, the answer that I’ve never been able to cultivate in myself.

These converts believed wholeheartedly, one hundred percent, in what they had found in Islam, and were determined to make all the adjustments necessary to enable them to pray, fast, wear hijab, and go to a local mosque for community events. Karla, and every single other American convert I’d met here, are all more pious, more devoted, and more ready than I am to endure the inconveniences of living their Islam in a place that is not set up for Islamic living.

I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m not.

Karla became my friend not because we were needles in the haystack of Minocqua, but because we felt so open and accepting of each other, and we recognized each other’s ability to dig deeply into the intellectual aspects of Islam, and religion in general. We recognized and accepted each other’s different degrees of piety, different ways of being Muslim.

Every time I had a conversation or meeting with Karla, I felt the warmth of her acceptance, the glow of her piety, the strength of her faith and the unwavering nature of her attitude towards Islam. I envied those qualities, just as I’d envied them in other Muslim women I’d known in Saudi Arabia.

I used to try to emulate the women I knew there, because I wanted for myself the peace and enthusiasm they exuded. Don’t misunderstand– I never felt badly for the lack of strong religious practice in my life. Growing up Christian, I went to church and prayed when I was supposed to pray, and I never felt that God was not present or active in my life. I never needed more than the absolute minimum of religious engagement. God and religion stood ready for me when I needed them, but I was not drawn to devoting myself lock, stock and barrel. I was taught to pray before eating, and to pray before sleeping. I did and still do so, most of the time, regardless of whether I was Christian or Muslim.

The year before I went to Riyadh in 1986, I returned to the same Episcopalian church of my childhood, because I had faced a dangerous situation and said to God, “If you get me out of this, I will find a religion and worship you properly.” He did get me out of it, and I decided to begin where I’d left off, at St. Andrew’s. Had I not gone to Riyadh and opened myself to Islam, I would have been content to remain in the spiritual home of St. Andrew’s, or perhaps explore similar branches of Christianity, because I felt good and happy for having come back to a worship of God, and I was not dissatisfied with being a Christian. Oh, I didn’t adhere to all the basic beliefs. I doubted more than I affirmed, and had even considered agnosticism and atheism, but I liked going to church, so I gave up on those last two options. I know now that I was a seeker, even then. I was always alert to alternative explanations of things, possibilities of truth shining brighter than certainties of it.

When I met some of the Muslim women who became my friends in Riyadh, I perceived in them a joy, a certainty in the purpose of life, that I admired. I wanted to bring some of that rock-solid grounding into my own life, which has always pushed me and swayed me in unexpected directions. I imagined that I’d be even more enthusiastic about life in general if I incorporated more religion into it.

We work with what we’ve got, and I’ve got a personality that never adhered to religious principles or practices that did not produce immediate results with the least amount of effort. Even when I was a Christian, I was never able to, “…love God as you love yourself, love Him with all your heart and soul.” I never knew what that felt like, or why I would love someone or something whose primary existence held no tangible stuff of direct evidence.

A beautiful sunset I could appreciate, a moist chocolate cake I could devour with joy, but God?

Recently I watched a video lecture from a dynamic American sheikha, who answered the question of, “How can I believe in something I do not see with my own eyes?” She asked, “Do you believe in love? Of course you do, but you do not see it. You believe that electricity exists, but can only see evidence of its existence, but not it itself.”

This argument is old, and no longer holds water for me, but I digress.

Karla inspires me. She renews my enthusiasm, reminds me that my happiest days passed within the garden of Islamic living, and that I can, and should, recover some of that living here in the United States. I really do feel happier when I pay attention to certain Islamic principles, like reading the Qur’an, praying (especially in the mosque), and studying Arabic. Upon her urging, I enrolled in the Ribaat on-line Arabic classes four months ago, and reignited my passion for both Arabic and a somewhat Islamic lifestyle.

Some Islamic practices, however, still fill me with a desire to plant all fours in the ground and resist, but that’s fodder for future posts. I identify as a Muslim, not because I practice well, and not because I’m ready to swallow everything without passing it through the filter of my scientific education surrounded by common sense, but because Islam makes me happy. It’s as simple as that. I feel happy when I think of myself as a Muslim.

I’m an even less observant Muslim that I was a Christian, but I ask Allah for forgiveness, just as I’d ask Him for forgiveness no matter which religion I’d follow, or none at all. I’m a flawed human being, walking on the cusp of apostasy, and having balanced on that cusp all my life. I don’t fall off, however. I can say with confidence that, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet,” and Islam makes me happy.

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Return to Riyadh?

My American friend Sharon, married to a Saudi man for at least thirty years, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. This came as a big shock more to me than to her. She’d suspected it, but hadn’t been honest with me regarding her symptoms in the months prior to the diagnosis.

Sharon and I became friends in 1992 when we met in Riyadh, at the women’s community college where we studied Arabic. Apart from class time, we rarely saw each other– in those days, women weren’t allowed to drive in the Kingdom. She had a driver, and would send him to pick me up from time to time so we could cruise around Riyadh and visit our favorite bookstores, Jareer and Al Obeikan. We spoke on the telephone every day, sometimes several times a day.

Then we drifted apart for several years, until we both repatriated. She and her husband live between Tacoma, WA (USA) and Riyadh, and I live in Wisconsin. We resumed our frequent phone conversations when our families were occupied, so we could talk about them and reminisce about our days in Riyadh. We often immagined me going to Riyadh with her for a long visit.

The trip remained a dream, as neither one of us took steps to make it reality. My four young grandchildren started arriving in 2007, and I didn’t want to miss even one month of their childhoods. Besides, I had developed osteoarthritis in both shoulders and knees, making movement slow and painful before I succumbed to inevitable joint replacements. Those long, international flights had been difficult even when I was young and healthy, so now they would take an even bigger toll on my body. Besides, my life in Riyadh was over. Even a visit there would not restore what could never be restored. Would I really want to go back and reignite, re-experience not only the joy of my life in that culture but the grief at having to leave it yet again?

I hesitated too long. Now, with her diagnosis, even Sharon cannot go back to Riyadh due to the stress of air travel. She doesn’t want to go even with someone to help her. Her balance and movement grow more compromised by the month, and soon she will need full-time assisted living, either at home or in a facility.

When first diagnosed, she fell into a predictable depression, and couldn’t even talk for several months. I would call her and text her daily, then several times weekly, but she’d rarely answer, and when she did, her words limped out slowly. I feared I’d lost my friend forever.

Last month, her voice had recovered its characteristic inflection and speed. She finally poured out her process of accepting the diagnosis and beginning measures to accommodate it. I offered again to accompany her to Riyadh, but she is too afraid of the difficulties of travel upon her compromised body and mind.

I will not be returning to Riyadh, at least not bodily, but the metaphorical Riyadh still buzzes and beckons. I have started to bring it into my daily life right here in the United States, by returning to my study of Arabic, both formally and informally. Arabic study is the best, easiest and most accessible tool for me to actualize the metaphorical Riyadh. Other measures include going to the mosque, sometimes, and surrounding myself with visual reminders of Arabic and Islam.

I’ve hung three Arabic numeral wall clocks around my rooms. I still intend to buy some lovely Islamic calligraphic art to hang on my walls, as well. I’ve listened to more Qur’an, and prayed again, in my inconsistent way, when convenient, but better than nothing, no?

I’ve started to write again, on this blog and elsewhere. In writing, I can be free of social or familial constraints upon my thought process and engagement with my own ideas. These measures have filled my with happiness, and I will continue them, add to them, and look for other ways to bring a metaphorical Riyadh into my life.

As for the actual Riyadh, I’ve looked at photos of its new architecture, its innovative social developments like theaters and concerts and mega-malls. I don’t like any of it because it contradicts my romanticized memories. I’m OK with not going back for a visit, but if Sharon improves, gets stabilized on new meds and decides to venture out, I will consider going with her. It will be the last chance, if it materializes at all, and if it does not, that’s OK, too.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I have not made New Year’s Resolutions for years, simply because I have never been able to keep them when I’ve made them. Now, however, at the age of seventy-two, I’ve become aware that I may not have many years left to live. Oh, no, I’ve not been diagnosed with a terrible illness, but at seventy-two, how much more healthy living can I expect, inshaAllah? Will I see ten minutes, ten years or fewer, twenty, or even thirty? الله أعلم Allah knows. Even ten years may sound like quite a few years to a reader who has not yet reached senior citizen status, but when I review my life in segments of ten or twenty years, I know how quickly the time can pass without accomplishing long-term life goals.

One’s life span is with Allah, and is generally not known, so I am well accepting of that fact. Now is the time, however, to focus on those goals that always seemed far off, desirable yet elusive, perennial in their attraction, ephemeral in their distance.

Now, I will make some New Year’s Resolutions, because it’s now or never for some of my goals.

I’ve actually started on a goal I’d made in 1986– to learn Arabic language. I’ve completed two modules of the wonderful Ribaat Arabic program, and I am eager to enroll in the next one on January 1. I also returned to studying Arabic independently, using on-line resources and texts I’ve accumulated over the years. No longer do I aspire to fluency; that aspiration maybe discouraged me in the past because Arabic is difficult and complex, and I did not create the best circumstances for learning it. I did get a wonderful introduction to Arabic and Tajweed when I lived in Riyadh; I can resurrect those teachings. My revised goal– achievable– is to keep studying for as long as I am able, to read the Qur’an in Arabic, and not to give up again or get discouraged.

Another goal I’ve already worked on is returning to horseback riding after a thirty year hiatus. That one is starting to fizzle out naturally because I’ve been unable to lose the fifty pounds I’d gained since my days of skilled horsemanship. My volunteer work at LifeStriders therapeutic riding facility has satisfied that goal well enough. I intend to keep my body healthy enough to continue that activity as long as I can.

Writing a book is a goal I’ve had for at least fifty years. I’ve actually completed a 90K word draft, so my goal for 2023 is to edit and polish that manuscript and make it suitable for publication. I want to start two more books– a collection of my Riyadh remembrances, and a collection of letters to my grandchildren which have been written only in my head. May Allah give me the resources to complete these projects.

A fourth manuscript suggests itself, too, one documenting my journey along the path of Islam, but that one may not get written, not because I won’t have time but because I am not sure I want my eccentric attitudes toward Islam and religion made public. Allah wants us to cover our negative thoughts and our sins. I’d have to include those events in such a book. In any event, I’ve got many writings from my Riyadh days that need editing so I can post them to this blog.

On a more practical level, I resolve to organize my living space, pare down, clear out, minimize and optimize my belongings. That means tweak my wardrobe, make those photo books I’ve been wanting to make for years, refrain from buying yarn while continuing to knit neck warmers for my Etsy store.

I established an Etsy story for my knitting, but I’ve never worked the store, because I hate doing retail sales. Also, many of my shawls are unsalable, either because of the style, fibers or price I’d want. I got the idea to make neck warmers, which are small, comfy, salable and easy to make. I could sell them for less than the shawls. I knit as a sort of therapy, a winding down, a relaxing activity, so I do not need to make profit on these items, but I do need to find a market for them.

In support of these resolutions, I resolve (as I resolve repeatedly, New Year’s or not) to improve my health, meaning my diet and exercise. Managing my eating disorder has been a work in progress for my entire life. Nonetheless, I resolve to give it more effort and a better attitude as 2023 rolls into my life.

Happy New Year to you, too!

Posted in Arabic Language, Blogging, Health and Medicine, Horses, learning Arabic, Life Writing, Religion, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

To Thine Own Self be True

Yesterday I was rummaging around my closet, looking for something, but I didn’t find it. I did find an old art project I’d done in high school, more than fifty years ago. The assignment was to choose a short phrase, a meaningful phrase, and to write it artistically using pen and ink. We were not taught standard calligraphic shapes, but we were tasked with creating our own shapely letters, and then embellishing them with squiggles and curlicues.

I chose, “To thine own self be true,” a famous phrase originally from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  I never read Shakespeare, but I loved the phrase and my resulting poster, and I saved it all these years, intending to frame it. It’s become yellowed, stained and frayed at the edges, but when I found it yesterday and admired it yet again, I decided to finally put it into a frame. Why did I wait fifty years to do so?

Well, during most of my adult life, I had not been true to myself. Even now, five years into retirement, I have not been true to myself, though I always thought that retirement would give me the circumstances I needed to develop the talents and interests I had to leave dormant during all my working years. In fact, even in retirement, while I do now have the time and support and no impediments to doing anything, I have not been true to myself. I suppose I’ve become so entrenched in putting myself aside, in stuffing myself into the corners of my daily life rather than climbing onto central stage, that I’ve become too comfortable in ignoring my writing, forgetting my Arabic, drifting away from my Italian, turning away from my photography, postponing the repair of my sewing machine, and even giving up my intention to ride horses again.

Finding that poster yesterday, with its ever wise advice to be true to myself, I realized that I don’t have much time left. I’m approaching the end of my life. At the age of seventy-one, how many more productive years can I expect, provided I remain in good health? Ten? Twenty? So many years are now behind me, and if I do not steer myself closer to the truth of myself, and if I do not do so now, today, then when? Shall I give up altogether, and sit comfortably, with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, entertaining myself with  my knitting and my binge-watching of Turkish films? The prospect does not fill me with dread. I feel no shame in embracing a retirement of quiet indulgence. Could this scene reflect a new authenticity? I think not– not yet.

The title of this blog, Return to Riyadh, holds the meaning of returning to the life I lived  in Riyadh, the life of self-fulfillment, if not by the literal return to Riyadh, then by the return to living as authentically as I did while in Riyadh. Practically, this means the return to Islam, to the extent I am capable, and the return to the study of Arabic, Islam, and the Qur’an. It also means claiming my strengths, honoring my artistic accomplishments rather than simply reminiscing about them. I’ve let these subjects lay fallow for years, but if I will be true to myself, then I must return now, and I must find practical ways to do so.

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Would I Return to Riyadh?

As the years pass, and my chances to return to the actual Riyadh remain firmly in front of me, I do not jump, and I do not plan. The actual Riyadh today holds little attraction for me. My one remaining friend still living there has not contacted me for years. I could get a Hajj or Umra visa, but I cannot imagine making that marathon airline trip for just a week or two, even for another chance to pray in Mecca.  

My other friend who now lives in the States but returns to Riyadh periodically (her husband is Saudi and they have relatives in the Kingdom) still wants me to come with her on her next trip.

Every time she returns to the United States from her semi-annual visit to the Kingdom, she tells me of the changes that have transformed Riyadh  into a city I would no longer recognize. Architectural changes have continued to alter the landscape, but some of the social changes leave me speechless. There are now movie theaters and musical concerts! Women are now allowed to drive! To see such things in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would make me question my sanity. Easier to comprehend are the changes in clothing– women’s abayas, specifically.

My friend has shown me images of the abayas that today’s women wear.  The long, flowing outer garment  now comes in colors, even white, of all things! White, traditionally, is the color of the man’s outer garment, not women’s abayas. How can those women wear white on their abayas and still feel feminine? How can anyone instantly distinguish men from women in a crowded market? 

 In our day, the color of abayas never deviated from  black, and the fabric was always synthetic or natural silk. They were sometimes decorated with black embroidery along the collar, black piping along the seams, and/or subtle variations in cut and style, but nothing more obvious. 

I would never want to see or wear abayas that flash colors other than black. In fact, if I ever return to the actual Riyadh for a visit with my friend, I will dig out my original abayas that are carefully folded in the corner of my closet. I never got rid of them, in case I ever return to Riyadh. 

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Hijab– the Perenial Argument

The Convert Connection

No person can approach Islam without considering that glaring badge of belonging– the head-covering of women. My comments in this post refer to the physical expression of hijab– the headscarf. I won’t post evidence for it or against, nor will I cite sources supporting my position. Each person is free to research and accept what he/she wishes to accept with regard to the meaning and/or necessity of  hijab.

There are two reasons hijab is such a constant and controversial subject. The first is that it carries multiple meanings that many women fail to understand. The second, and perhaps more obvious, is that hijab makes a visual, obvious and unspoken statement about a woman’s religion.

Rather than take a position for or against, I take a position at the intersection of the figure-eight, at the center, between the militant hijabis and the most liberal of liberals.

All are correct. All women are…

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An American Hijab

A hijabi reading this will be the first to object to my title: An American Hijab. There is no such thing as an American hijab, as opposed to an Arab or a European hijab. Hijab is Islamic, and it should be recognizable as such, no?

No. Muslim women can be identified and categorized according to how they wear hijab, and that’s been true for decades. Nationality, culture and degrees of self-determined religiosity are all made evident in a woman’s style of hijab. Obvious examples are the cornflower blue coverings of the Afghan women, with their mesh facial screens, or the all black coverings of the Saudi women, with full or partial face veils. Apart from those two examples, many variations exist, and all are considered appropriate by those who wear them.

The root of  this variation is in the generality of the admonitions within the Qur’an. No where does the Qur’an say clearly, “Cover your hair, arms, and legs loosely, and don’t wear make-up. Cover these parts in plain cloth.” The most that can be determined is that the breasts must be covered, extending to the parts between the navel and the knee. Only the Hadith address how and what to cover. Here is where we find the idea that only the face and hands can be visible while a woman is out in public. Most Muslims regard Hadith as more authoritative than the Qur’an, though they’d never admit to that.

I need not cite evidence for any position here; it is well-documented. I do want to draw attention to the fact that differences in style and fashion of hijab lend testimony to the flexible requirements regarding it within the literature. Many Muslims do not want to grant leeway or liberal interpretation of their texts, yet look around. The very fact of hijab’s variability is proof that its expression is of spirit, more than of concrete specification.

When I first converted and started wearing hijab in Saudi Arabia, I was advised to stop wearing make-up on my face. The idea of hijab is to cover one’s beauty. The hair is covered by the scarf, and the facial beauty should not be enhanced with eye shadows, mascara and lipstick. In practice, however, few women refrained from make-up altogether, though no one piled it on as if they were going to a party, but if they were going to a party, they did pile it on. Then, they covered their faces as well as hair, in obedience to the spirit of hijab. All women wore the black abaya while out in public. Once they arrived to their home or place of the party, the outer covers were left at the door.

The Saudi model took hijab to an extreme. Even amongst each other, or at work, no Saudi woman wore sleeves that did not reach  her wrists, nor skirts that did not reach her ankles. Expat women followed suit. The feminine awrah– the sexual parts that needed to be covered in the spirit of hijab– included everything except the face and hands. Religiosity could also be expressed by covering the face, hands, and ankles, as well. Neighborhood madrassas often required students and teachers alike to wear face veils, gloves and black socks to and from the school, and in the mosques. Modesty is a requirement from Allah, written in the Qur’an, and no one did it better than the Saudis.

I’ve always believed that the Saudi model of hijab was a bit robust, but I became accustomed to it and regarded it as normal. Imagine my surprise, when I visited Syria (back in the days before Syria was raped and pillaged)  and saw a different sort of hijabi “uniform.” The women wore headscarves, not always black, and an overgarment, not always an abaya, and often not black, but their skirts ended just below the knee, and their lower legs and ankles were visible! Moreover, they all dressed like this in public, so I realized that the lower leg was not part of the awrah in Syria!

In Egypt, women’s dresses displayed even more variation in both style and color, while many women didn’t even wear the headscarf. In Malaysia, the scarves and long dresses often matched, in plain pastel shades, sometimes with beaded decoration.

Only in America, however, many years later, did I see the concept of hijab stretched to its fullest limit. American Muslims wore face make-up, and patterned scarves. The wore belts, and tight jeans, and blouses that showed the outlines of their breasts, yet their hair was thoroughly tucked under scarves or turbans. Many of them took pride in wearing this “hijab”, making it fashionable with color, design and style.

For some years after my repatriation, I tried to accept this model, in keeping with my belief in the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I never did wear a head cover in America, though, except when at the mosque. My Saudi indoctrination with respect to the spirit of hijab always reminded me that arms, legs, waists and shapes could be just as sexually stimulating as hair, and therefore should not be accentuated. American Muslimahs seemed to think that as long as every strand of hair was tightly constricted under their head coverings, their limbs and shapes could be enhanced.

Lately, I’ve seen photos of hijabi fashion shows, believe it or not! There is even a Facebook page called, “Haute Hijab.” While a hijabi need not be dull or dreary while observing the spirit of hijab, the term “fashionable hijab” is  a contradiction in terms.  Let’s remember, however, that within the spirit of hijab, variation is not only permissible, but expected, according the cultural aspects of each Muslim population. What doesn’t make sense is that hijab be recognized as “beautiful” or “fashionable,” because those concepts do contradict the spirit of hijab.

(I might add a personal inclination. I’ve always seen men’s hair, shapes and muscles quite attractive, especially when uncovered, or covered tightly. Shouldn’t the spirit of hijab also extend to them? Well, it does, but it stops short.)

 

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My Conversion Story– Addendum

I forgot to mention a rather important event that pushed me towards conversion.

It began in the months before I signed a contract to work in Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Hospital and Research Center. As I was preparing to leave, early in 1986, my mother took me to her evangelical Christian church to meet a Lebanese Christian priest. I was supposed to make his acquaintance so that I could learn firsthand, from an Arab, the differences between Islam and Christianity, with the superiority of Christianity assumed.

A dark-haired, dark-eyed man with an easy smile and quiet demeanor, he welcomed us. The visit did not last long, as I had no questions for him, but I scanned his bookshelf, and was impressed to see copies of the Qur’an in Arabic and English, along with other texts with both Islamic and Christian titles. I decided I would ask this man questions if I needed a Christian approach. I took his mailing address.

Months later, or maybe the next year, as I’d resettled in Riyadh and was studying Islam and considering conversion, I learned about the Council of Nicaea, which occurred in  325 AD and  chose trinitarian Christianity as official, banning the unitarian Christianity at odds with it. I also learned that Jesus never called himself God, nor taught the Trinity as it is taught today. Additionally, I learned that the major religious seasons, as well as virgin birth story, were derived from a previous mythology.

Since I learned all of this from an Islamic perspective, I decided to write to the Lebanese priest at my mother’s church, and ask him specifically about these points, whether any of it were true. I wrote. I waited.

Several months passed. I thought he hadn’t received my letter, but finally I received his response. It was a short, half-page letter, acknowledging that I had, “done my homework,” and wishing me success in whatever path I chose.

Stunned, I read the letter repeatedly. This was not the letter I’d expected from a Lebanese Christian priest active in an evangelical church. I had been ready to accept whatever proof he could offer in support of Christianity.  Though I liked Islam, I liked Christianity, too, and felt comfortable in it.

Rather than being reassured,  I was shaken by the probability that what I had been taught from childhood as inviolable truth was not so true after all. That letter opened the gates of conversion unexpectedly wide.

I felt as though I had been catapulted into into a vast emotional desert (corresponding to the actual desert of Saudi Arabia), with a three hundred sixty degree circle of possibility. The tether of Christianity had been severed.  “I guess I’m going to become a Muslim,” I thought. How could I continue believing in Christianity after learning that much of its doctrine had been manipulated, even invented, by men? The tension of the opposites took hold and caused me great pain for while, until I learned to hold it.

I went on to study, pray, write and ponder Islam, and how I could live as a Muslim.

The priest’s letter was an important building block of my conversion story. I’m surprised I forgot about it while writing my first post, but I probably forgot it because its shock was not pleasant, and set me on an uncomfortable course. Conversion is not always easy, not always natural, not always even appropriate. Only from the perspective of thirty years can I say it was ultimately the right path for me.

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