Split Personality, or Double?

Split Personality, or Double?

I stayed in Riyadh an entire year before returning to the States for a vacation. As the day of departure approached, time seemed to slow down; I was so eager not only to see my family again, but to immerse myself in ordinary American culture. I wanted to go outside without an abaya, I wanted to drive, I wanted to see a movie, I wanted to eat  a McDonald’s fish sandwich.

Finally, the day arrived. Since I no longer possessed ordinary American clothes, I wore a comfortable cotton galabiya, and I wrapped my hair turban-style in a gauzy black scarf. The outfit combined the requirements of the Saudi dress code with the my family’s expectations of what I might look like after living in the Kingdom for a year. The head covering was more for practicality than religion; I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to style my hair before getting off the plane.

The plane would be full, as usual for a June departure. I was surprised at the large number of Saudis who were waiting at the gate with me. I hadn’t realized that the US was such a popular destination for them. I wondered where they would visit, and what they would wear.

I knew they were Saudis because the men wore white thobes and the woman wore black abayas with face covers, and after a year in Riyadh, I was able to recognize the Saudi dialect.

That particular flight was the longest and most uncomfortable flight I’ve ever had, but that’s another story. After a complete, delicious dinner,  I took another Dramamine, flipped the ends of my black scarf over my face, and tried to become unconscious. All I wanted was to zone out until we landed in New York, the sooner the better; I didn’t care about making friends on the plane, or walking up and down the isles. The interior lights of the plane were dimmed, and I lost myself in the anticipation of seeing my family and visiting my native country.

About ten hours later, the passengers were roused for breakfast, and the NY arrival soon thereafter. I looked out my window– across an unwelcome seat mate, I might add– the entire time, marveling at the early morning view over the ocean. I paid no attention to the other passengers, until the plane landed, and everyone popped out of their seats at once to grab their belongings from the overhead bins.

“Where did all these Americans come from?” I thought. The white thobes had vanished, and most of the black abayas had disappeared, too. An occasional face cover still did its job, and but for those random remnants of Saudi wardrobes, I  might have imagined that  we were all Americans. Plenty of blue jeans, in all hues and degrees of fit, clung to most of the legs, male and female alike. Colorful shirts and blouses, some of them short sleeved, also draped the torsos of men and women alike. I saw more female hair on public display amongst those passengers than I’d seen during the entire year I’d been in Riyadh– long hair, short hair, curled and straight hair, up, down, and caught in decorative clips. I had never seen Saudis dressed in anything but their national garments; I was amazed.

At that point, there I stood, waiting in line to get off the plane, and I became self-conscious about my galabiya and gauzy turban scarf. I felt as though I were the only person who looked like an Arab; I hadn’t changed clothes.

How were we all going to behave while in America, apart from a drastic and immediate change of wardrobe? There would be no adhan, no midday meal followed by a nice nap. There would be twenty-four TV, shopping all day long, plenty of pork, and people having too much to drink. There’d be women all over the place, alone and uncovered, and couples holding hands in public. There’d even be dogs, not only on the street but in people’s houses.

There’d be street festivals, musicians, animals, and free mixing of all manner of people, especially men and women together– young and old, black and white, thin and fat, beautiful and not so beautiful. How would we who were Muslims, or almost Muslims, we who lived in Saudi Arabia eleven months of the year, react and respond to all of that?

I suppose the answer suggested itself before we got off the airplane. When in Rome…

In that first year, the question did not disturb me, as I had not yet become fully committed to Islam, but in subsequent years, I become more preoccupied with how to live in the United States and be a Muslim at the same time.

A certain, small sliver of the Muslim population will maintain their prayers, wardrobe, and related behavior no matter where they go. Another segment, a bit larger, will abandon Islamic and Arabic cultural behavior altogether. One is tempted to judge the first group as committed, religious, and the second group as superficial or worse.

The majority, into which I found myself, will make compromises.

I’ve experimented, over the years, by putting myself into each of the categories. I can do this easily because I am a native born American, and no one expects me to be anything but that– free to conform, free to be eccentric, free to behave as I please. What I learned was not that I am a good or a bad Muslim, not that I am an incorrigible hypocrite, or a big sinner, but only that I am subject to the ordinary qualities and tendencies of human behavior. I learned how behavior  can change, and change genuinely, depending upon the culture in which one finds oneself. I learned how attitudes can subtlely shift until the anchor moves out into a different sea, no matter whether one is pulling the rope or not.

I also learned that sometimes one must cultivate a split personality, or perhaps a double personality, and change it with the change of clothes on the airplane or soon after landing. This compromise, the easiest, quickest, most efficient, and least satisfying, cannot be explained or justified in ordinary terms. I suppose a sociologist or psychologist would have something to say on the matter.

When I hear a Western wife of a Saudi lament that, “He has changed completely since we got here! He’s acting more and more like his brothers!” I understand completely, not from her point of view, but from his. This perceived change  is a surprise to the wife who hasn’t lived in the Middle East prior to her marriage. What she may not realize is that her husband has not changed at all; he’s simply reactivated the part of his personality that had gone underground while abroad.

Upon returning to Riyadh at the end of the summer, I would be asked straightaway, “Did you cover? Did you pray?” The questioners would wait expectantly for my reply.  Their animated expressions, coupled with the immediacy of the question, revealed that they, too, wondered how it was done.

Sometimes I’d say, “Yes,” and sometimes I’d say,”No.”

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
This entry was posted in Islam, Life, Memoir, Saudi Arabia, Travel, Writing Memoir and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Split Personality, or Double?

  1. Hning says:

    Uhm, does the term “Culture Shock” fit the diagnosis? And you had to mention psycho/socio/logy, hadn’t you? 🙂

  2. Marahm says:

    LOL! Of course I had to mention it. I’m a closet shrink, you know!

    What do you think about the subject? You’ve certainly had the experience of switching cultures over extended periods of time. Did you also change– upstairs, you know?

  3. coolred38 says:

    “or almost Muslims..”

    lol that just about describes a large % of the Muslim population in my opinion

    I get those questions fired at me while Im still grabbing my luggage at the airport upon returning to Bahrain…depending on my answer determined the homecoming I got….sigh!!

  4. msa says:

    There is a distinction between Islam and Wahhabism, the strain of Islam manifested by the Saudis. The wahhabis are like chameleons.

    A true Muslim do not change color that easily irrespective of the surrounding they are in.

    The wahhabi doctrine is similar to that of Bush “you are either with us or you are against us”.

    I hope you have not been indoctrinated by the the wahhabi doctrine.

  5. Marahm says:

    msa, welcome to the blog! Thanks for you comment, and no, I have not been indoctrinated into the Wahhabi doctrine, though I lived by it durinng my years in Riyadh. I must admt, though, that when I travelled, and finally repatriated, I found other ways of practicing Islam questionable, if not a bit strange.

    Wahhabism works in the Kingdom because the entire country is set up to practice it. I can’t imagine practicing it anywhere else in the world.

    Islam, supposedly a religion for all people, in all places, and in all times, must necessarily be fluid enough to accomodate factors such as climate, time zones, and the customs of the native populations of any one area.

    suzanne, I’m glad you enjoyed this.

    coolred, so you, too, have had the same experience? I suppose we all face this situation if we travel back and forth enough. We can at least succomb to facetiousness, by choosing our “yes” or our “no” answers according to the circumstances of our landing in the ME!

  6. Countrygirl says:

    It’s not the time that i’ve read something similar. The same happens (from what i’ve read) in planes leaving Iran…as soon as the plane is out the Iran the people run to the toilet to change in western clothes….i can’t still fanthom how it’s possible to live two so different lifestyles….maybe it’s something deep in the arab mentality? I mean with the western arabs show one face and with muslim they show another one: this happens also with speeches, when some muslim/arab cleric/politician speaks in english they say one thing but when they speak in their mother language they say the opposite…i hope i didn’t offend none…

    I have a question why for a muslim woman in Saudi is forbidden to be alone with non relative man but the same woman can be alone with her MALE driver (since women can’t drive)

  7. I saw the same.. uh, uncovering (?) once. We were leaving Qatar, headed Europe-wards, when 15mins before landing, everyone began conforming (??) right then and there. At first I was like “whhaaat??? Were you wearing that for God of for your people?” *cough* hypocrisy *cough*

    But when I had the chance to actually live in Syria, I found myself conforming in little ways, changing who I was to adapt to the culture I lived in. And when I moved back to Canada, it was like you said: I reactivated my dormant Canadian, and hey presto! I’m the other me.

    After moving back here, this time for an extended period of time, I think it’s going to be interesting to see just how much of my inner Syrian I activated… and how long it’s going to take to get it out of my system =P

  8. Chiara says:

    A great way to approach this topic! Acculturation (modifying one’s psycho-social self to fit in) happens to everyone in varying degrees (depending on the cultural demands and their freedom of choice within the culture) as a way of staying psychologically healthy and socially appropriate.

    The points you made about not so much changing as (re)activating parts of oneself are so true. I would add that sometimes different behaviours are culturally required to communicate the same universal eg. to show respect for others: Western, make eye contact; Eastern, lower your gaze. (grosso modo, of course)

  9. Hning says:

    Ya think? I believe in reincarnations AND child marriages. I got hit in the attic a LOT, woman!

    Take my word for it, being a snobbish with least exchange with natives is your upstairs’ safest bet for coherence.

  10. SubhanAllah I cannot tell you how close to tears this makes me …..
    about returning to USA someday. May Allah keep me from having to live there….
    this post and the last (which i read first) both made me realize how truely lonely I would be back in good old USA.
    This does happen to a smaller degree when you’re one of the few who doesn’t change clothes upon going back. You are who you are no matter who or what you meet. You let the Yallahs and Alhamdulillah’s fly. But inside there is this change. Oh GOD! The absolute SHOCK of Undressed womena nd men all around you! No wonder men just go ga-ga when they get to Western countries. i don’t blame them.
    I was just horrified by TV and was glad my husband wasn’t there.
    IN Lebanon they still have some censorship (though in the last two years it’s gone down hill too) in programming but when i got back I felt like I was seeing everyone in their underwear! All over TV!!! And sometimes Less IE MUSIC VIDEOS!
    I just wanted to run away back HOME to the Middle East subhanAllah.
    This is why I pray I don’t have to go back. I know you either become a stronger or worse Muslim there but how can you be sure all of your family will make it with you better and not worse? Just walking down the street it’s so hard to lower the gaze for mena nd women.
    Ok enough blah blah or I’ll write a post on it…and I can’t cause then my Mommy will see it and get upset…. 😦 😀 <—see two faced…

  11. Do you know how hard i laughed though that you woke up and found completly different dressed people! I was not expecting that. I wonder what would happen if someone had that happen to then and stood up and shouted in pure English “OH MY GOD WHERE HAVE ALL THE HIJABIS GONE!?!?”
    I bet half the plane would cringe and shuffle lower in their seats.

  12. Achelois says:

    What a perfect post! I can understand every sentiment and concern here.

  13. I think it shows that many of the Saudis don’t like living in a black and white society. They want to express their own personalities and individuality and if they had the choice, many women would choose not to wear the black abaya and some would choose not to cover their hair. These should be personal choices.
    I’m the first to admit that these freedoms of choice have gone way overboard in the US. There is no modesty left. I think most people dress appropriately, but the ones we always notice are the ones who like to attract that attention.

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