Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Finale- Kili Day 6

I lie flat on my air mattress, the sun is beaming down. I reach for the zippers of my cargo pants and tug; they are now shorts, and the sun is beaming down. I fiddle with my headphones and plug them into my ipod; it has curiously recharged itself, with the sun now beaming down. I cover my face with my bandana, but there is no refuge. The sun is beaming down the sun is beaming down the sun is beaming down and I cannot escape its rays. I reach for my water but manage not more than one sip. I am crying now, no energy left in me, my tears streaming down. My shoulders are shaking and I am sobbing incessantly. What the @#^&* is wrong with me, the part of me that's sane asks wearily-- wondering who this woman is and how to calm her the !@#$ down! The voice of reason arrives in due time, takes one look, and reports: "Classic symptoms of dehydration. Take these. DRINK WATER."

I am in my tent, in our camp just below the summit. We have returned from our 8-hour hike up through the night and into the morning, followed by the 3-hour descent which I completed in half the time- what with my discovery of the trekking pole-inspired activity known to some as "African skiing." Snippets of our recent adventure remain with me now, but it is impossible to speak definitively about it-- no two experiences are the same. FACT: how one performs on summit day is physiologically pre-determined. You just won't know until you're in it.

We set out in the snow minutes before midnight and my iPod gives me 3 to 4 hours of soulful, soothing, sing-a-long'able tunes before it catches a cold and dies on me. I look around, we are all in different states; me in such esctasy I am convinced I'm going to jinx myself, going to crash, going to get sick, going to suffer. "How much longer now?" "We're half way there." "So, what are the chances of me getting sick at this point?" "You're doing fine, just keep going, keep drinking, keep eating, keep awake."

The GU energy gel sachets are my best friend here, along with the glowing torch lights of those climbers smart enough to charge and use their lithium batteries that night. I fight sleep by singing, loudly, to heck with being out of tune. I use my poles to write messages and draw shapes in the snow as I climb. We cannot fall asleep, however tempting that is. We cannot dose off to the side, however easy that seems to be. We keep walking and the night sky turns lighter as we climb. Is it dawn yet? Almost, keep walking. How about now? Almost, keep walking. I am giddy with excitement, the break of dawn being my internal benchmark for success. The sky is a shade lighter, I beckon it to appear, the Beatles escaping playfully from my lips:

"Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right (doo doo doo doo doo)"

We turn off our torches, move silently, endlessly, with purpose, full of hope.

"Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Sun sun sun here it comes.
Sun sun sun sun here it comes.
Sun sun sun here it comes.

Maybe I did jinx myself with all this singing about the sun. But first, before the sun: STELLA POINT!

We arrive at the final marker before Uhuru Peak and the Beatles are wayyyyyyyyy too mild for us here! "Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces" is a maaaaaaaaajor understatement-- we're rejoicing, celebrating, crying as if it's Uhuru itself. We're all singing now, but not about the sun, oh but about the mountain, I get haughty you see 'cause at this point, "baby there ain't no mountain high enough!" I was nothing short of a monkey by then, bouncing with energy, practically running to the summit. It's no wonder I got smacked by a good dose of nausea bitterly coated in headache, as I tried to calmly proceed back down.

As I relive our arrival at the peak, I am back to the beginning of my memory reel. The rest is downhill from here, literally more so than figuratively, but I must admit it's a bit of a downer to have to walk back down after such a high. As we slowly but surely make it down Mweka Route to the gates of Kilimanjaro over the next 2 days, we are leaving a part of us behind. But we surely took something huge with us. We're the same people, but ever so slightly altered, in ways that only those who shared in the experience with us can truly understand.

Some would do it again, others are happy to have done it once, fully. I am of the latter category, but the outdoors- they'll be seeing more of me, inshallah. And Africa- I hope a lot more of me as well.

Thank you to the Zahids for this experience of a lifetime, and thank you to the Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing (, to which we dedicated this climb. The work you provide to help those in need is an inspiration to us all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You Will Never Walk Alone- Kili Day 5

We woke up this morning with our arms and our legs sprawled diagonally, having slept sideways through the night. Karanga camp is on an incline, and at that elevation our porters were hard pressed to find steady ground on which to pitch our tents. By now it doesn't even matter, since we're such pro's you see, sleeping through the night and all, and even sharing our tent with our duffle bags- instead of leaving them in the "entrance" area. (When roughing it, it's the little things that give you an ego boost.)

The mountain has a funny effect on people. Zein is practically trotting with energy mashallah, while just behind her the excess motion makes Aunty Ammooni dizzy. As we ascend, we enter the "sleet" area. We are rock climbing now, literally; as in, the terrain under our feet is simply slabs upon slabs of uninterrupted rock, interspersed with piles of broken up sand-colored stone. It's like a construction junkyard. I look back to see how far we've climbed and find our trail twisting and turning through the slopes, clearly defined as if marked up by chalk. But before we know it, Karanga camp disappears in the haze. Smoke-like clouds ascending from below make their way around the top and encircle us. They team up with the wind and push us further along. To our right, more silvery grey clouds hover over the rocks. As they part, beautiful, puffy clouds appear. We are above the clouds now, the horizon below us, against a sky so blue.. the sun shining through.. it's enough to get a rhyme out of.. you.

But there is little wildlife here, no plants whatsoever- maybe a mouse or two, or a bird of prey circling up high. I wonder at which point the mud decided to quit us. Ironically, there are more signs here of human presence. Pebbles stacked on top of one another in creative patterns- perhaps to mark the route, or perhaps the remnants of climbers playing around during a water break- words like "TONY 2011" etched on a rock; lots of familiar alphabet with indecipherable meanings scrawled in thick black marker. My pole picks up a juice box straw and it hangs on for a few meters.

We cross the ridge and then surely enough those humans start to appear. Fellow climbers, all walking downhill as they return from successful summit attempts. That British man with the red face and few words; the Scandinavians looking dizzy and nauseous; the Canadian with a kindness in his face that reminds me of my college friend Sushil Jacob. The Japanese. And finally the French party poopers ("ça vaut pas l'coup" - it wasn't worth it).

I'm lightheaded I think, but I can't be too sure. My heart is racing I think, but again I can't be too sure. I breathe deeply and focus on the boots in front of me. With every step, I pray to see the orange tents.

"Subhan".. "Allah".. "Alhamdu".. "lillah". The supplications are timed to my poles making contact with the ground. I fight to keep going but the tents refuse to reveal themselves. Instead, protruding from the rock is a sequence of capital letters that actually spell something I can read:


I stop dead in my tracks. What compelled me to look up at that moment, at that rock, I don't know. I am ecstatic now as the emotions gush through me, flooding me with thoughts of loved ones, family and friends who have been with us in spirit from the start. With this unexpected boost of energy, my struggle is reversed: I now fight to keep my pace slow.

I am finally, inexplicably, fully ready to tackle tonight's climb. We arrive at our final camp. We are SO close, but we must first eat up, rest up and then have one more meal before midnight. My arm is sore as I write this- my bicep is feeling the pressure of pen on paper at this altitude. It is hailing outside but I feel like I'm on top of the world. And that wouldn't be a stretch: at 4800 (?) meters, I've never been this high!

We lie down to rest. It is hardly three in the afternoon, but a deep slumber besets us, not unsimilar to the time when Dororthy set off to see the wizard (the wonderful Wizard of Oz). I just rewatched that scene and the resemblance is UNCANNY: Dorothy and friends reach the end of the yellow brick road. Above them, Emerald City sparkles in its green magnificence. But first, they must cross the field of poppies. They are so excited they start to run, but the poppies put Dorothy and Toto to "sleep, sleep, sleep." Tinman, Scarecrow and Lion are all panicking that the witch (in our case, altitude) has cast a spell on them, but it starts to snow and the snow wakes them up.

Ok... after this synopsis I can hardly believe it, but I swear it's true: when we woke up on summit night and stepped outside our tent, it was snowing. Our entire campsite was covered in deliciously fresh, thick, Christmasy powdery white snow.

It is time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Barranco Wall- Kili Day 4

"Dreaming serves as an outlet for those thoughts and impulses we repress during the day. When we go to sleep at night and slip into our dream state, we feel liberated and behave in a manner that we do not allow ourselves to in our waking life."

-- Dream Moods (online)

Day 4... also known as the day before the day that precedes THAT night- summit night. Clearly my subconscious mind has begun counting down to tomorrow night's scheduled ascent, because in my sleep, I didn't succeed. Instead, I had returned home to Jeddah having turned back from Kili early. Stupid dreams! Fortunately, my conscious mind has immediate access to Albus Dumbledore's Pensieve. This object, crafted by the magical talents of JK Rowling and explained in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, operates as follows:

"One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure." As I release the air from my air mattress and pack it along with my "sleeping hat" (a funny looking rat-shaped beanie gifted to me by a friend), I pour those excess thoughts into my wash basin and throw them out with our dirty water.

BARRANCO awaits. Apparently that's Swahili for "breakfast," and it is also the name of today's main attraction: the Great Barranco Wall. Supposedly known as such because we climb it after breakfast, this wall is just that: a wall. There is no discernible trail, only dots of moving color slowly making their way upwards. Noticing the panic on some faces, our guides reassure us that "it's a piece of chocolate cake..." after all, the porters climb it one-handedly, with packs on their heads. My personal take on naming this wall "the Great Breakfast" is that it serves to remind climbers to stuff their faces this morning: lunch isn't for another 7 hours.

When I think of this day looking back, I have a vivid image of one of us losing a water bottle. Just thinking of that fluorescent yellow plastic crashing against the cliffs over and over again, until it disappears from view... it's enough to give anyone a chilling case of vertigo. But my handwritten account of that climb has me cruising through it: "Barranco Wall! AMAZING. SO MUCH FUN." Followed simply with, "I love rock climbing." Surely enough, if I could revisit any part of the Kilimanjaro trip and do it all over again, it would be this day. Deciding how to surmount those rocks, where to put your feet, how to use your hands for support.. this technique requires a certain finesse that is highly gratifying.

3PM and we're done, stationed at our new camp for the night. As a present to mark the first day of Eid, our phones start working again; we have BBM reception at 4000+ meters above sea level. But first, we must prepare our equipment for tomorrow's climb and so, one of our guides stops by our tent to check in with us. "Suze," I say, looking her straight in the eye. "If I get sick tomorrow, I'm going to want to keep going. You need to know this because I'll need you to tell me when you think it's no longer safe." Her reply is confident, "You're going to sail through it," she says. Sweeter words have never been spoken.

I finally get through to Mama on the phone and her loving voice rings clear in my ears: "NOURA! DON'T BE STUPID TOMORROW. IF YOU FEEL SICK, YOU TURN AROUND, YOU HEAR ME?" I hear her... the question is, how did she hear me?!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Taste the Rainbow"- Kili Day 3

What euphoria!

We wake up and shed layers, as the sun greets us with its warmth. My headache is gone, we've slept through the night, and we're all in great spirits. Altitude can make you delirious, but I'm hoping this elation is from within, a sign that the mountain has accepted us.

Day 3 brings with it a stark reminder: Mt. Kilimanjaro is, first and foremost, an ancient volcano. Here we all are, marching in single file like migrant elephants pursuing food and shelter in the great wilderness, and the landscape is... barren. Just volcanic ash, and to our left a trough where the lava once flowed. It's like a scene out of Jurassic Park, or at best where the Hyenas lived in Disney's The Lion King.

But we feel GREAT. We are 4000 and something meters high now, "we've surpassed Mont Blanc!", and it starts to hail. Our chatter dies down. We are just trekking, one pole planted, then the next. I pick up my boot and then put it back down, missing a step. But we keep going, mirroring the motions of the feet in front of us... all the while murmuring short prayers, fully aware that today is 'Arafa, the penultimate day of the Hajj. The tiny ice cubes soften into snowflakes. My right pole buckles and folds in on itself.

Our thoughts are elsewhere today, Rami's wedding, Myriam's baby, my family in Paris, Zein remembers a relative's birthday, I wonder how Raha is doing just 2 days behind us on the Kili trail.

"Mabrook Mabrook!" A voice ahead wakes me up from my trance. "5 hours! Well done!" WHAT! Already? How!! It's lunch time but we resume shortly after- the aim today is to gain altitude, acclamitize, and sleep lower. Lava Tower looms in the distance, deceptively close but not close enough. We arrive by the grace of God, just as I am starting to feel headachy again. It looks like a shot from the Land before Time, if you remember that cartoon. We take photos, we celebrate, and then....

What comes next is like nothing I've ever seen before- which would make sense, since it only exists on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya: A field of Senicia Trees. Akin to a palm tree with banana leaves? Or maybe a cactus with a trunk? This is my image of, oh say, Madagascar? Peru? As we descend, the snow clears and the clouds part: There's the peak!! Grand, welcoming us: "Mwakaribishwe Kilimanjaro!" - welcome to Kilimanjaro!

But those trees, they're the reason to climb Kili! What a hidden treasure. I am half expecting a Llama to appear, this scene is so surreal. And then, a rainbow! I can hardly believe my eyes as I trace the full arc across the sky. Laughter returns to the group on this endless day. And sure enough, like the Irish leprechaun's pot of gold, but no longer a hidden secret, there lies our campsite waiting for us at the rainbow's end.

We arrive just in time, half an hour before sunset. Together, we face due North (almost) and direct our souls to the Creator of this splendor.. on this most holy of holy days. Unbelievable day, alhamdillah.

Kul 3am wintu bkhair w Eid Adha Mubarak!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Jambo! Kili Day 2

Good morning, from 3000 meters above sea level!

The unzipping of tent doors is my wake up call, it's time for Day Tw- my thoughts are interrupted. "Go back to bed!" I hear our guide calling out, followed by stifled laughter. For a split second, it is summer camp and 'lights out' is being enforced: "Rest for another hour," the voice suggests, "You'll need the energy."

Zip zip.. an hour later, tent doors fly open again. "Khalas, it should be time," I hear my aunts say. We went to bed at 8PM, it's no wonder some are restless. I stretch my arms out and toss around, always one to cherish the snooze button. But our tent shakes, someone's outside.

"Jambo! Habari Gani?" (Hello! how are you?) Our local porter's voice is friendly but certain- it's officially time. I smile, remembering my introduction to Swahili just a few days back. "Jambo", I'd repeat after the coffee lodge staff, and they'd follow with "Jambo Jambo" and start singing what is clearly a popular song. "Try it!" I say to my friend incredulously. "Just say Jambo Jambo and they'll do the rest."

We step out of our tents and there stands Mount Meru in the distance, proud and ever magnificent in the 7AM sun. We are in the "heather zone" having cleared the rainforest yesterday, but Kibo (which is the highest of Kili's 3 volcanic cones) remains hidden from view. Whether it's behind the fog or somewhere else, I can't tell; you don't quite grasp how big a mountain is until you're within its folds. We have about 840 meters to climb today and I am determined to learn the remaining "Jambo" lyrics and understand what they mean. A touch of local culture.

We set off and I think back to our arrival into Kilimanjaro airport. Being in town was such a tease. The trip through Arusha to the lodge was like a cross-sectional view into African rural life, but only accessible through the windowpane. There we were, in the middle of nature, and I was just fixiated on the road- "the artery of life", as Amo WYZ put it. On either side, the terrain is a mixture of sand, shrubs, and incredible jakaranda trees. What lies beyond this road is a mystery to me; children in school uniforms are walking to and fro, where their homes are is anyone's guess. Like the River Nile, this road brings to the countryside of Tanzania commerce, life. It connects people, provides access to goods, services, schools. Mobile phones can be refilled with credit. Hair salons, bars, and convenience stores line the pavement on both sides. Our safari van stops momentarily and I feel like an intruder into their lives: A striking young woman with beautiful dimples is smiling coyly at a man on a motorbike. They part as we start moving again, and she heads in the same direction as us, the motorbike driving in the opposite direction. On occasion, they separately turn back for one final glance. Where's the next meeting, I wonder.

I'm grateful for the chance to interact with Tanzanians during our climb so I can get a better glimpse of it all. Although we walk slowly and keep our chatter to a minimum ("conserve your energy!"), there is still enough time to exchange life stories and ask questions about our various cultures. When we break for lunch, we find ravens circling about. I think I spot a chipmunk scurrying into a shrub.

I don't remember much of the rest of the climb, probably because sometime into it I started feeling lightheaded from the change in altitude. When we got to our camp for the night, it started to rain and I lay in my tent, first to rest and then to wait for an intermission from the downpour.

It was colder that night, but dinner was delicious and certainly well earned. We are slowly but surely inching our way to the summit. Just before bed, I learn my last expression for the day: Lala salama... Sleep well!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We summitted Kilimanjaro!! Day 1

I sit outdoors sipping an herbal tea blend. A stray cat makes the trees rustle, as it confidently walks along the fence. A kitten darts glances at my bowl of salad. My fingers tap-tap against the keyboard.

A fortnight ago, that cat, and the little kitten, they would have been monkeys. Replace my laptop with a pen and paper, and exchange the mug for a liter of mineral water induced with lime flavored, electrolyte fizz. The cats are in the garden of my home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia... the monkeys in the breakfast area of Arusha Coffee Lodge, Tanzania. There are 14 days and 2,800 kilometers separating the 2 "me's" in time and space, and yet here we are: both drenched in mosquito repellent, both thinking of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We summitted!

Stop. Is that really the first thing I'm going to say about climbing Kilimanjaro? That we made it to the top?

Yes, yes it is. We had walked all night and it was morning when we arrived. The highest landmass in Africa was completely covered in snow. The sun was shining and I was crying, overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, the excitement of a mission accomplished. We had walked the last few steps side-by-side, arm in arm.. breathing deeply to take it all in, the fresh air, the view of the glaciers.. the climbers ahead of us snapping their well-earned portraits in front of the black and yellow plaque:

"Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895M.... Africa's highest point. World's highest free standing mountain."

Stop! This moment is meaningless without the days preceding it. Today I am just a messenger, transferring sprawled ink to digital text. I turn my attention to the notes I've jotted down in my tent above the clouds, my tentmate zipping up her sleeping bag to my left.

Page 1, Day 1.

Although it's rainy season on Kili, the sun, God bless it, is beaming down on us as we approach Machame Gate.

It's finally time!!! Our boots are on, our day packs are securely on our backs, and our water bottles are filled to the brim. Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually a National Park and, lo and behold, Day 1 takes us through the thick of a rainforest. I was under the impression that Kili had a barren volcanic terrain through and through. But this is breathtaking!! How many people mention that when they return from Kilimanjaro? All this focus on making it to the top- I want to put it out of my head and just focus on today.

These trees are magnificent and the weather is heavenly. We pull out our trekking poles and Duncan gives me a few pointers on how to coordinate my movement, so as to make the most of them. Some of us are concentrating on the road ahead, but for the most part we're walking leisurely and chit-chatting, pointing out a new type of tree or trying in vain to spot the bird fluttering through the branches.

I stroll alongside Wilfred, one of our local guides, and before I know it I'm back to thinking about the summit. "Why do people climb Kili?" I ask. I know it's not the type of question I should be posing, since here I am attempting the same, and we really shouldn't be thinking negative thoughts, but it's just.. on some level, it doesn't make sense to me. The cold, the altitude, the discomfort. For what?

Wilfred turns the question on me: "Well, why are you here?" I laugh, "Because I got invited! And.. and I can't turn down an adventure."

I learn from Wilfred that the first people to attempt a climb to the summit were the local Chaga tribe. Legend has it that the Chaga (who had never seen snow) mistook Kili's white peak for silver and climbed in pursuit of this treasure. But when they had reached the altitude at which snow falls, the white fluff melted in their hands, vanishing into thin air. Interpreting it as a sign that the the gods were upset with them for wanting the silver, they turned back before reaching the summit.

Of course it was a Westerner, a European, who first "summitted" Mt. Kilimanjaro in the 1880s. He had a local Chaga tribesman with him-- Wilfred says this man only died a few years ago at the age of 100 and something. Today, countless Tanzanians make a living as guides and porters for tourists like ourselves, and the mountain is an important source of water for the region(which is why I hope it rains.. ahem.. just as soon as we're safe and sound in our tents and not a minute.. later)!

My lungs are taking in the fresh air. My legs are marching on. Ah, the outdoors. I know that's why I'm really here.

We arrive at the camp after dark. For a while, Z and I just sit there, in our tent for two, fidgeting with our head lights, zipping and unzipping our bags, taking things out and then putting them back in... having made absolutely no progress. I start giggling and she does too, because we just really don't know where to start: how to wash up, what to wear, how to take out our sleeping bags when we're basically inside an orange piece of fabric in the dark, on top of a mountain, side by side, unable to stand.

We are not alone. From the tents to our right and left we hear voices, louder than ours, making suggestions, issuing commands.. adjusting to the close proximity between tentmates and belongings. We can no longer control ourselves, we're laughing hysterically. This is going to be fun.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Public self-expression

I envision a Kingdom that enables and encourages each and every individual to come into their own self-expression. I am not referring to the basic needs: shelter, education, employment. No, this is a much more qualitative aspiration... it is the ability to construct one's identity and express it while living in harmony with her and his own society. I think this is one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to street art (emphasis on "art" and not scribbles on walls with complete disregard for private and public monuments). Most of all, this focus on individual, own, self, etc. is really about personal space and the ability to act on it within public space.

One of my biggest simple wishes (and I'm not alone in this) is that I could just step out of my home on occasion and walk around aimlessly, without clear purpose... say I want to get a cup of coffee, stroll down an avenue, take a walk in the park, peruse a bookstore. In short, using my leisure time outside clear-cut spaces. It's really about two things: the first is, not needing to get into a car to drive to a specific destination: school, work, a friend's house, a mall. Abesent of public transportation constraints (that's an entirely different subject), there's a question of enabling these spaces for self expression to exist. The second matter is the culture of being alone.

Nowadays, walking along the Corniche and having a family picnic are no longer rare occurrences. As a society we are placing more importance on providing public spaces for families to enjoy. This is nothing short of absolutely positive. At the level of the individual, however, it is not as pronounced.. but it is slowly emerging.

The coffee shop culture which has always been integral to our traditions and lifestyle as a society, is now seeing a different type of visitor: the sole individual seeking a moment's solace. Call her, the Parisian.

One summer in Europe, a group of us we were walking around discovering the nooks and crannies of a particular neighborhood when we came across a small coffee shop with outdoor seating. We were suddenly overcome with a desire for fresh lemonade and a little rest time. There was but one elderly gentleman sitting outside reading a book and other than him, the tables and chairs were all free. Within 2 minutes, we had rearranged the entire seating area to accomodate our big group and were laughing and joking merrily and being, frankly, quite loud. From time to time, the gentleman would look over incredulously and in the end, giving up, he put down his book and laughed in despair. We had invaded his quiet time. Realizing the situation, we turned to him and included him in our chatter, laughing off the situation.

Now, I am in now way claiming that we have adopted (or need to adopt) this solitary coffee shop culture. Some people don't like to be alone, period. Others really enjoy reading in bed or on the beach. Some can only focus in an office or an otherwise quiet location assigned for that purpose. And for another lot, spare time means it's nothing. For many, an outing is only an outing when you can share it with others.

I'm not trying to persuade anyone to change their habits and I admit I have never seen anyone reading a novel in public here. But for those who relish quiet time, alone, in public, these spaces have begun to slowly crop up. And this makes me.. happy. I have always been one who finds inspiration in the mundane around me. Watching a family interact or exchanging smiles with a child who wanders to my table. Sipping tea while writing down thoughts or reading.

Taking my laptop to a coffee shop. This is my own tiny form of public self-expression. What's yours?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bombay is electric- here's why

Dood, the food is totally grrreat in Mumbai, yaar!

* Trishna (in Kala Ghoda)- the crab is something else
* Santoor (by Taj President)- high-end roadside style Indian food. Don't let the drab interior influence your decision to sit down and give it a try
* Natural (by Intercontinental Hotel on Marine Drive)- Guava icecream! Wow!
* Mahesh Lunch Home- the seafood "moo 9a7y"!

We didn't get to the non-Indian cuisine, maybe next time:

* India Jones - multi-Asian @ Oberoi
* Wasabi- Japanese @ the Taj Palace
* 212- Italian
* Indigo- Italia @ Colaba
* Thai Pavilion @ the Taj President

You'll need to walk this all off: Sightseeing!

* The Dhobi Ghat (world's largest public laundry) is a unique sight.
* Gandhi's home is pretty interesting and gets you in the zone.
* Take an auto-rickshaw ride through Bandra.
* The Gateway of India you'll inevitably walk past at some point.
* Be sure to make your way to Victoria Terminus for some impressive architecture.
* Avoid Sasson Dock (fish market), unless you want to test your tolerance for powerful odors.
* One sight you won't want to miss, although we unfortunately did, is the dabbawallahs delivering lunch to millions of people at around 11:30am at Churchgate railway station.
* If you've read Shantaram and feel that you *must* go to Leopold's cafe, a simple photo of the sign and maybe a t-shirt purchase will suffice.

You can always squeeze in some time for shopping:
* Bombay Electric - boutique in Colaba
* Bungalow 81
* Shopping arcades at the Oberoi and Taj Palace hotels

You're going to need to sleep after a day of walking along Marine Drive or chilling at Chowpatty Beach:

* The Taj President Hotel (now called Vivanta and located in Cuff Parade) is charming and hospital for business trips, but...
* the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is simply unmatched in its grandeur. If you do stay there, let me know how the tea lounge is- it was restricted to guests only.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Yes, this is India.

Jaipur, the Most Indian of Indian Cities. We didn't start here or end here, it was just one stop on our jam-packed tour of northern India. "Jammmm-pakt." First, the greener than green Delhi with its wide streets fit for a capital. Next, the glistening lakes of Udaipur.

This is India???

As if summoned by our question, Jaipur arrives (it was only a matter of time really). Our shoulders relax, we tone down our skepticism and feed our insatiable appetite for the sights and sounds of "real" India.

Yes, this is India. "Did it meet your expectations, ma'am?" Buses, taxis, cars, rickshaws, cows, elephants, motorcycles, hairdressers, camels. Together, they form the puzzle pieces of the mayhem that here is called a street. We don't compete for space, there's room for all. This is India, anything is possible, everything is possible. The street is a place to pee, spit, walk, stop traffic, get into accidents, watch accidents, try to prevent accidents.

Applause on the bus, as our tour-guide-turned-storyteller-turned-traffic police, Vishal, clears a traffic jam and makes room for a cargo truck to pass. Collision averted. The Indian Street derides the limits of our creativity, "Hah, and you were just expecting cows." The Indian street of Jaipur. We met up with it again on the road from Agra to Delhi. Exceeding our expectations, ma'am.

Hundreds of eyes. Peering from above an elaborate mustache, from below a turban, from behind diamond-studded shades, on a pair of barefoot brothers. We are being watched. Made aware that we ourselves are staring. "A tomb! In the middle of the street!" (Vishal: It was there before the street.)

A window from the Indian street is rolled down for a better view. A timid smile, sometimes a wave, once every five cows, a toothful grin. We don't stop traffic-- we provide a distraction from it. Mutual. 6-hour trip and not one "are we there yet?" is muttered. Instead, "Look at that huge cow!" ("That's a bull," Vishal ever-patient). In short, the ocean of humanity that we packed Dettol wipes and packaged food to protect us from. Shields that lowered our expectations. The image that did not prepare us for New Delhi or Udaipur or the sheer magnificence of the Taj Mahal (not overrated).

India. Edible India. Credible India. Incredible India. Where we danced in the rain. A trip that revealed our "indomitable spirits," witnessed by Vishal. In his name, a collective determination disguised behind Indian-accented English: V. Shall. We shall. "Yes, We Shall" memorize the names of the 6 Mughal emperors, the 5 distinguishing features of a Sikh. Yes, India, We Shall Meet Again.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wham ma'am no thank you BAM!

We got into Providence just in time for lunch; not missing a beat, we grabbed wraps from East Side Pockets (where the same friendly workers offered us an extra baklava and falafel) and dashed straight for the main Green to soak in the Brown campus in all its glory. Alongside former classmates and other familiar faces and places, I was also greeted, within an hour of my return to College Hill for my 5-year reunion, with a patronizing article in the Brown Alumni Magazine (BAM).

Next to a caricature of a veiled woman with stars in her eyes and a background of the American flag, were the thoughts of a former Brown student living in Riyadh. Among other questions, he wondered:

"What would a return to Saudi Arabia mean for women who'd studied in the United States? Would they be doomed to a life of catered parties? ... if they return after having been able to drive, to work real jobs, to wear whatever clothes they like — would they still think Saudi Arabia wasn't that bad?"

As a Saudi woman who never once felt out of place at Brown, I was offended. I began to name all the other Saudi women who were at Brown during the author's college years (there were six- not to mention all the Saudi men). And so after a few days of fuming and discussing, I wrote a letter to the editor.

How ironic that I would read Nathan Deuel’s "The View from Riyadh" while sitting on the main Green, having arrived that morning from Saudi Arabia to attend my 5th year reunion. If the two ladies interviewed by Deuel were to study at Brown, they would be joining a succession of Saudi women and men who have had the honor and privilege of calling themselves Brown graduates, including six Saudi women who were undergraduates at Brown during Deuel’s college years.

Ironies aside, the assertion that Saudi Arabia and the United States offer “two ultimately incompatible ways of life,” is representative of the view of many of the students I met. I was used to the unabashed curiosity of friends and strangers, all wanting to know what it was like to be a Saudi woman, both at Brown, but also in Saudi Arabia. It was not as evident, however, that my country of origin would be just as readily accepted as I was.

Instead, the journey of accepting me as a Saudi woman would generally go through a number of stages: first, there would be pity for my voiceless existence. Then, upon hearing me speak, I would be labeled as an exception, someone who did not represent the “typical” Saudi woman. Finally, I would be glorified as a heroic woman returning home to liberate her country from the backwardness of tradition. Along the way, however, my voice would be drowned because of the impossibility of fathoming the idea that someone would choose to live in Saudi Arabia after being exposed to the West.

Why do I go back after having experienced the joys of life abroad? For one, I have reconciled my commitment to my country with my aversion to some of its laws and customs, the same way that citizens around the world may express their disapproval of their nations’ policies but would never consider living elsewhere. When I go home, I return to a busy and fulfilling life and to a “real” job, even if I do dress more conservatively and do not have the option of driving myself to work (yet!). And after a long day of work, the “catered parties” are a fun albeit frivolous treat.

Ultimately, however, I return to Saudi Arabia for the same reasons that I come back to Brown every chance that I get: the people are warm and welcoming, a comfortable and familiar piece of ourselves remains there, and there is a deep rooted hope for the future, with us as active members and participants in shaping it.
The full text of the article is available here:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


We spent our last day at the UN chasing a peacock in the garden.
Good times.

"Hey" is Swedish for "Hello"

In an earlier post, I described Dr. Lama as Santa Claus. Little did I know back then that Santa would be taking me up North! To Sweden to be precise. Dr. Lama was invited to speak at a conference on "GCC-EU Relations under the Swedish Presidency of the European Union." The conference took place in Lund, which is closer to Copenhagen (Denmark) than it is to Stockholm. A pretty university town with a grand hotel where they do not help you with your luggage at the lobby.

It was a very short trip, but highlights include:

1) Taking pictures of a truckload of high school graduates roaming the town in celebration of their graduation
2) Being asked to take a ticket to wait in line at the bakery store, even when there was only one other customer there
3) Staring incredulously at a bunch of ducks using the zebra crossing to cross the street at a traffic light. Are they for real? We don't even have zebra crossings for humans, but over here even the DUCKS use them!?
4) Wondering what time the sun is going to set.. never?
5) Taking pictures of the signs at the Copenhagen Airport... Danish is be easier than I thought it was. Or, in the words of one friend "ispeakdanish."

Women's Rights as Universal Human Rights

We charmed our way into the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. When I think of what we did to get in... never mind that, but how could we resist? Saudi Arabia was up for a periodic review! They gave us official passes and everything ... That's right, so hot right now. I was half expecting to witness a massacre. If you live in the 21st century, you'd understand why, but if you need me to clarify, here's just one fact that I picked up at the Yale University library one evening: In 2000, Amnesty International launched the first ever campaign against an individual country by an international human rights organization. That country was, you guessed it, our one and only beloved KSA.

In short, states are given recommendations on a report they should have submitted months earlier and it is up to the country to accept, reject, and/or take these recommendations into consideration for further examination. At this, the 11th Session of the Human Rights Council, the country under review is given 20 minutes to make a statement, after which other states voice their opinions, followed by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The report is then, presumably, adopted by the Council.

Don't believe what the marketing gurus tell you: you don't need popcorn and Coca-Cola to enjoy every feature entertainment. It wasn't all fun and I did, to my horror, fall asleep waiting for our turn to come (not enough sleep- read my previous post). But when the screen signaled that we were next, my ears perked up. The gentleman who stood on behalf of Saudi Arabia (head of the National Human Rights Commission) was extremely well-spoken and poised, in that way that makes you love the Arabic language even more. He highlighted King Abdullah's interfaith efforts and his program for rehabilitating terrorists, as well as recent amendments in the judicial system and progress on women's issues, domestic violence, and the establishment of a department to protect foreigners. I was moved, but still reluctant about the World's reaction, given.. you know...

When he was done, the names of 34 states came up on the screen, but protocol dictates that only the first 10 are given 2 minutes each: Pakistan, Venezuela, Qatar, Algeria, Cuba, Belarus, Bahrain, China, Egypt, and the UAE. What came next was, from my point of view, pure comedy. It doesn't take a genius to guess that one after the other each state spoke in praise; just take a second look at the list of countries who were speaking.

Cuba spoke of KSA's generosity towards developing countries, while China expressed its support of Saudi Arabia's "very responsible attitude and careful study of recommendations. No country is perfect but we are convinced that Saudi Arabia will take all necessary measures." Then Egypt spoke in its usual exaggerated language "Masha'Allah La Quwwata illa billah... 7aga 3azeema" (Praise be to God the Powerful, this is a magnificent thing). Finally the UAE representative concluded that "my delegation expresses its support."

Next up: NGO's. Amnesty International made the cut and with it, an abbreviated version of the massacre I was expecting.

In 2 minutes, Amnesty squeezed in every issue under the sun: the death penalty and the beheading of children, foreign nationals, and terrorists; fair and transparent elections; forced disappearances; the "abolishment of male guardianship as a matter of priority"; and reforming the basic law to incorporate gender equality. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights also spoke up about women and migrant workers and religious freedom and the freedom of association and public flogging. But there were also some random ones like the Indian Council of South America and the National Association of Cuban Economists. Huh? (They were supportive, in case you were wondering.)

I learned one important lesson that day and it actually has roots in our Islamic tradition: "Innama al-a3mal binniyyat" (actions are judged by the intentions behind them). All states, with no exception, shelter dreadful human rights violations, some worse than others. The real question is about political will and participating in the process of reform. If you can demonstrate that, you're golden.

And, of course having friends helps.

The report was adopted. Hurray!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

You gotta have faith to keep going

It occurs to me that I might need to explain why it is that at these UN meetings, one must often find ways to pass the time. It's because of the prevalence of two "unavoidables": 1) language nuances and 2) protocol.

I was approached during one of the early meetings of the Committee on "Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work" by an ILO representative, with an offer for me to represent Saudi Arabia on the so-called Drafting Committee. She explained to me that the Gender Equality Committee was to produce a set of "conclusions" at the end of the conference and that this drafting committee would be comprised of 5 employers, 5 workers, and 5 government delegates. By agreeing, I would be representing not only Saudi Arabia but the Arab, Islamic world. What's more "it will be a very good experience-- tiring but rewarding." Notice, this woman has just met me but already she seems to know how to lure me. By hiding the word "tiring" in between the much more appealing terms "experience" and "rewarding", she was ensuring that she had my commitment. So I committed. (I then found out that for logistical purposes I wouldn't be able to represent Saudi Arabia but Dr. Lama had to instead so after giving me evil looks for forcing her to do work during the weekend, she accepted. Then she slyly found a way to sneak ME into the committee, as her ADVISOR. I don't know how she gets away with half the things she does.)

Annnyways, we soon found out that this was the first time for Saudi Arabia to ever participate in a drafting committee in the however many number of years that we've been participating at the International Labor Conference. We quickly learned why this was the case.

It was long. I mean, really long. We were cooped up in a room with the other delegates and there were these 15-pages or so that we all had to agree on. And it seemed simple enough to do, except for the language nuances.

Employers it turns out love the word "flexibility". They argue that flexibility is important, that rigidity may create and has created more problems for women in the workforce. So they want to put the word everywhere. But the workers loathe this word. They believe that "flexibility means less work, less pay, and less of a bright future ahead of you." Speaking of the workers, what they do love is strong language. Instead of "flexibility" their favorite word is "precarious" and they want to warn against "precarious" employment everywhere. Employers object to this word because they hardly think that part-time work is precarious. In the end the employers have settled for the term "atypical" which in itself is contentious for other reasons I can hardly begin to wrap my head around. For someone who loves words, this is actually an interesting discussion at first. But after hours of debating whether governments SHOULD, COULD, CAN, or MUST develop sexual harassment laws, it can get a bit.. what was the word she used to recruit me? Oh that's right... TIRING. By 1AM when you've only had half a sandwich for lunch and you've been sitting down in a meeting room since 10AM, it can get a bit "tiring." So no, I don't care if we use the word "sex-based discrimination" or "gender-based discrimination" or "discrimination between the sexes". But there are those who DO care.

It's really long but all of a sudden we were done and Dr. Lama and I, first-timers at any UN event, were jumping for joy. We did it, we did it!

Or did we?

Our faces turn cold when our new friends, from Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and Mexico, explain to us that now the LARGER gender committee must approved of this document and that for the next week we will be discussing every paragraph and every word until some sort of consensus is reached. This is where our second "unavoidable" comes in: protocol. Strict protocol is the only way to control almost 200 people from some 80 countries. And as the Chairman reads each paragraph aloud, the delegates one-by-one raise their hand to argue that a word should be included or a paragraph should be removed in its entirety.

Let us observe a moment of silence in honor of the sheer number of delegates from an impressive array of countries who actually attend every session, simply for the the reason that they believe in the process.

(For those interested in the final draft of the conclusions, you can download the PDF file: (Last accessed September 5, 2009; title: PR No. 13 - Report of the Committee on Gender Equality - Sixth item on the agenda: Gender equality at the heart of decent work (general discussion))

Lost in Translation

A crazy thought came to mind one morning, as I flipped through the 8 channels of simultaneous translation that were being streamed to us individually via funny ear-shaped headsets. Before I share my thought with you, I must say that the accessibility of these languages is an ideal time for me to test my Spanish, maintain my French, acquire technical words in Arabic, and- when I need a break from the discussions- to start developing a taste for the sounds of Chinese, Russian, German and Japanese.

It so happened that at that meeting, a Korean government representative was speaking in Korean about gender equality in his country. And it occurred to me then and there that there are actually more than 8 languages spoken at the UN. I found my eyes growing wide as I remembered that half the time the delegates weren't speaking in English, such that, even if they were speaking in one of the 8 languages, these languages are then translated into each of the other languages. This isn't just a simple translation from English into 7 other languages.... And the questions came popping out so fast I couldn't control them: How does this translation business actually work?? Are there translators on standby who translate between Korean and Russian and between Korean and Arabic and between Korean and French, and then between Russian and German and between German and Spanish, and between Spanish and Chinese, and between Chinese and Arabic? There are about a billion UN meetings occurring at the same time and each meeting needs translations back and forth between all these languages. HOW MANY TRANSLATORS ARE THERE!? Is it possible that these translator speak 8 languages with enough fluency to translate between them all? And this doesn't answer my question about languages like Korean and Swahili that are not the of the mighty 8!!!

Or do the translators translate from other translations? Such that the translator speaking English on Channel 1 is translating from Korean, and then Mohammad speaking Arabic on Channel 7 who also happens to speak English but not Korean translates from his English friend on Channel 1?? etc etc??

Other delegates have different ways to pass the time, in case you're wondering. In front of me a delegate's head has just jerked back, waking him up from his short slumber. Snoring is not a rarity at these meetings by the way, due to a combination of painfully redundant protocol and exhaustingly lengthy days that roll into nights, culminating over a period of 3 weeks into sheer exhaustion and aching feet.

But you know what my favorite part is? When someone cracks a joke and 30 seconds later, the delegates laugh. I can only imagine the speaker's relief in knowing that his joke wasn't lost in translation, but simply delayed.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Enter the Arabs

The items on the agenda came to a close and the chairman of the employers’ session ended our meeting 20 minutes ahead of schedule. The Arab employers (including Dr. Lama and me) stayed behind, as the orderly Europeans, efficient North Americans, humorous Kiwis, lively Latinos, and colorful Africans exited the hall. Up next was a closed meeting for all Arab delegates across the tripartite system. (Remember the tripartite? Yes, exactly: employers, governments, and workers)

Enter the Arab workers and Arab government representatives, who leisurely make their way into the hall, chatting and hugging and exchanging warm embraces. A chubby man with a bushy moustache and a stack of documents cradled in his arms hands me a round metal button emblazoned with the words “Freedom for Palestine”. As I begin pinning it to the lapel of my suit jacket, Dr. Lama taps me on the shoulder with a grin. “Halla shoofee il far’I” she says in her Lebanese Arabic (Wait ‘til you see the difference). 20 minutes past 6PM and I’m still waiting to see the difference. Except, well, that’s one of the differences. Why haven’t we started yet? At the front of the hall, the delegates are shuffling around until they finally settle on a North African to chair the session.

He strikes the desk with a .... *sifting through my mental dictionary* .... not a wooden hammer but a... gavel, that's it. A few moments later- ok, a few MINUTES later- we are called to attention. The meeting's purpose is to prepare Arab representatives to participate in the general meetings and in the specific committee meetings with a unified approach, wherever possible.

It doesn't take long for the Palestinian conflict to take center stage, replacing the international employer's focus on the financial crisis. The workers announce they've planned a peaceful protest for Palestine in a week's time. A harsh word is directed at the essentially mute government representatives/spectators, with a plea that they also attend. A strategy is proposed, that each Arab delegate mention their concern for Palestinian workers and employers as a top priority alongside any other nation-specific points.

"But remember!" the chairman asserts, "In these ILO meetings, there is a time limit on your participation. How many times have we heard our Arab brothers going on and on about national problems and only when their time is up, as they are asked to finish their comments do you hear them yell out 'And also don't forget our brothers in Palestine!' This is not acceptable. Who will listen to our cry about Palestine if we only mention it when our time is already up?"

And so the meeting ensues, casually, smoothly. Support is bestowed upon the delegate who calls upon the ILO to make Arabic an official language alongside English, French and Spanish. (This would mean that all official documents would be provided in Arabic during the ILO meetings) "We have asked for this time and time again", the man states, "and I think this will be our year."

It begins to approach 8PM, when the meeting will officially come to an end.

I tend to doodle in these meetings and here I am making abstract shapes as I hear a man in the distance asking us to support his nomination of a Filipino delegate to chair another committee that he's involved in. He explains that the Arab vote would help this filipino colleague, who would be an excellent chairman, not to mention that his views are friendly to Arabs. Why not, I think to myself. But apparently there are many who find this particular suggestion offensive to their senses.

"Are there no Arabs worthy of such a position?" a voice exclaims. I drop my pencil, dear God please tell me that we are not going there. Another voice speaks in support of the first voice. "I agree, there are many qualified Arabs!" My intestines start to boil, I catch my tongue to prevent myself from yelling out "Ya hubul what does this have to do with anything? There are no Arabs running for this position!" The meeting has gone slightly out of control as it degenerates into the usual sob story of... I'm not sure what exactly, but it sounds familiar. Optimistically, reassuringly, thankfully, a dozen other voices condemn the first voice in more eloquent, albeit irritated responses that appease my internal organs.

8:10PM and the crowd starts getting restless. We start eyeing the gavel: Mr. Chairman, will you end the session please? The workers are not so conscientious. Some start filing out of the room already as the Chairman bangs on the table incredulously trying to restore order. "I have not ended the session yet, I have not ended the session yet." The workers get a bit rowdy. Meanwhile more hands are raised suddenly remembering that they have more pressing things to discuss.

I shake my head in dismay, reminded of what the Chairman had just been saying about bringing up important issues at inopportune times.

Just as the gavel is about to make contact with the hard surface, these heavy words fill the space:

"I would like to remind my esteemed colleagues about the plight of your brothers and sisters in Iraq. Have you forgotten about them with your emphasis on the Palestinians? Please remember to mention the Iraqis."

I'm sure the majority sympathize but we're already half way out the door.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Word of the Month: Tripartite

"It is in times of crisis that the world most needs a strong International Labor Organization."

It was Gibran Khalil Gibran who brilliantly described joy and sorrow as "inseparable" in his flawless work, The Prophet. Khalil writes: "When one [joy or sorrow] sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed." Surely enough, the International Labor Organization's 90th anniversary, a supposed time of joy, is no exception. Sprawled through the main corridor is a magnificent red carpet with dates etched on it in white, starting with 1919, 1920, 1921 all the way up to 2009... an exquisite gift from the Chinese delegation honoring the Organization's 90 years. But as we enter the first meeting of the International Organization for Employers, there are no balloons or cake in sight. Instead, the mood is somber as the following words permeate the hall: "This is the most severe crisis we have experienced yet, since nobody here was in business during the Great Depression of the 1930s." As if the Global Financial Crisis isn't enough of a buzz kill for any celebration, our "daily bulletins" are marked in bold font with a daunting Swine Flu alert: "H1N1 VIRUS: If you experience any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or sore throat, you should excuse yourself from the conference immediately and stay in your home, hotel, or residence."

As I take a swig of my vitamin-enriched water, an employer from Venezuela raises her hand. Her voice is frantic. "I am concerned about free enterprise in my country," she begins. "Property is being CONFISCATED by the government!!! Or nationalized, depending on what word you use," she adds sarcastically. "Venezuela is a dictatorial regime that has concentrated all power in its hands. Housing and personal goods may be next. There is no talk of new elections. And Venezuela has threatened to pull out of the ILO. This may be the last time that we attend this conference. I urge you to look into our matter and put it on the agenda."

My eyes open wide, this is serious stuff. How can she talk so openly without fear of reprisal from the government she represents? It is then and there that I understand the meaning - and value- of the term TRIPARTITE. The International Labor Organization prides itself on being a tripartite United Nations agency, meaning that it brings together representatives of 3 parties from each of its member states: governments, employers, and workers that all have an equal voice in the Organization's proceedings. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was not welcomed into the ILO because the government did not recognize labor unions, thereby violating the tripartite principle. The Venezuelan woman who was speaking out against her government was officially sent here from Venezuela. But she is an employer, representing the private sector. The government has no control over what she says within these walls.

Finally, I start to feel less like a freshman who has entered a graduate seminar without have completed the assigned readings. The system starts becoming clearer and perhaps Dr. Abdullah notices. "You can say whatever you like here," he explains. We represent the employers of Saudi Arabia and the Chambers of Commerce. We are separate from the government delegates."
Hmmmmm...... I think back to my time at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Although the Jeddah Chamber is the official business club for employers and the only real non-government organization in Saudi Arabia- or so I was told on my first day of work- in actuality, it felt like a funny mix of all three parties. Although it catered to the private sector, it continued to annoyingly resist the efficient productive nature of business enterprises. At the businesswomen center, we operated like an NGO but still sugar-coated our arguments with government lingo.

I can't imagine how to begin working uniquely from an employer's perspective. Governments aside, the rift between employers and workers here is larger than I imagined. Given the financial crisis, the workers' unions have been talking about the need for a "new international economic order." On the other side are the employers. Their response to the workers is embodied in the following words "It's 2009, not 1970. This isn't the first crisis we fix. The workers' bench has forgotten that crises are cyclical. This is not the end of the free market or capitalism."

Dr. Abdullah slips me a piece of paper and asks me to choose a Committee to participate in during the next 2 weeks. These are specialized sessions to set labour standards and develop policies dealing with topics that have been singled out as particularly important for this year. HIV/AIDS in the workplace, the Application of Standards, the Financial Crisis, and.... my heart skips a beat...

Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work.

The stars are aligned for Dr. Lama and me. This is the FIRST time since 1985 (I was hardly a year old!) that gender is on the agenda! With joy sorrow and with sorrow joy. This is pure joy! The first meeting begins at 11:30AM.

Monday, June 22, 2009


June 1, 2009

Arrivee a Geneve. La receptioniste coquette smiles and glances at my passport from behind her desk at the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, located just a few steps away from the glorious United Nations Office with its 3-legged chair statue.

“Vous-etes avec la mission de l’Arabie Saoudite?” [Are you with the Saudi Arabian mission?] the receptionist asks me politely. “Ummm.. Oui [yes]” I reply. And just like that, I am transformed. Unknowingly, the receptionist has managed to conjure up that awkwardly familiar, nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure you know what I mean, that uncomfortable phenomenon of 2 worlds coming too close together. It can be a different situation that triggers it for each of us; in my case it’s the formal Saudi world of right and wrong, of protocol, of pushing cultural boundaries, of worrying about appearances and externalities. To deal with it in Saudi is one thing and to find it collide head first with my other world is another; the other world of travel and being myself and wearing whatever the heck I feel like wearing and, most recently, the sheltered 5 months debating and contesting and researching within the walls of the “Academy” at Yale.

As I started unpacking my summer dresses and pulling out my sneakers and beachwear (my suitcases that I was bringing back with me to Saudi for the summer holidays), I revisited the age-old question for Saudi women abroad; The Head Cover: To wear or not to wear? I recall the message I received from Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman inviting me to join her with the Saudi Delegation at the International Labor Conference. [Dr. Lama is one of the women who were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber in 2005- a.k.a my former 'big' boss at the businesswomen center]. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and excitedly prepared a few suits and light scarves. Geneva. The UN. Saudi Arabia. Work and Gender. OMG OMG OMG. YAY. I call my mom. “What will you do exactly?” she asks. “I’m not sure but I’ll be Santa’s Little Helper. And when Santa is Dr. Lama, you know it’s going to be good!”

I’ve known for a few weeks I’d be joining the delegation so why am I only now apprehensive about my attire? For one, I didn’t think we’d be neighbors in the hotel that’s for sure. And Dr. Lama has to yet to arrive. How will we interact with these Saudis [pause for dramatic effect] who I imagine to be conservative male government folk? So yes. Apprehension.

Is it all in my head or a reflection of reality? I guess I’ll find out tomorrow!!

June 2, 2009

7AM and I’m up! 20-minute yoga, 30-minute workout at the hotel gym. Pray, shower, floss, eyeliner, shirt, pants, suit jacket. Honey and Toast. A peach.

Hotel Lobby, 9AM. The other Saudi delegates are staying in a different hotel and we are to meet them at the ILO.

“Oops I forgot my head scarf upstairs,” I tell Dr. Lama. “It’s OK,” she answers. “I decided we don’t need to wear them.” Her rationale is that the event is not a media spectacle and that we’re not in the limelight, attending as participants and observers and not official speakers. A headscarf when we don’t normally wear one is self-imposed, perhaps more complicated, and definitely contradictory, since we’ll likely keep it around our necks at one point or another. The fact is, the government doesn’t have a stated position on the matter (not yet anyway and who knows for how long). It shouldn’t be taken for granted that some of our Saudi businesswomen pioneers set the precedent of not wearing the ‘abaya abroad, unlike many of our Gulf compatriots, having adopted the suit and scarf ensemble when traveling with international delegations. So we’re not being too scandalous (this word seems to always find its way into my blog!) and for now we’ll enjoy the obscurity and hope to pull it off.

Simon Says No Scarf, so no scarf! I feel good. And ready. Yalla now what? Dr. Lama turns to me: “I can’t come with you to the first meeting but I’ll meet you there. Here is Dr. Abdullah Dahlan’s number. When you arrive at the ILO office call him and he’ll come meet you.” I can do this, I coach myself. I’m strong, smart, independent, terrible at directions but it’s just a short trek down the road and to the right.. or to the left or something like that.

Somehow, I end up on a bus and not too much later I’m shaking hands with Dr. Abdullah Dahlan, formerly Secretary General of the Jeddah Chamber (it seems everyone has had a foot in the Jeddah Chamber at some point!), former member of the Shoura Council, and currently a writer and long-term representative of employers at the International Labor Conference. He presents himself with confidence in his matching tie and handkerchief and delivers a warm, welcoming greeting to his new protege (me!).

Out of the corner of my eye I see the jet-black hair of a tall woman in a short dress strutting into the building. I laugh to myself as I enter the conference hall and see bare arms, low-cut blouses and big hair. My previous inner monologues now rendered ridiculous, I take my seat comfortably next to Dr. Abdullah in the front row as he actively participates in the discussion on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, speaking in elegant Arabic that is translated instantly into 8 languages and received by the other delegates via headsets. After the session, he exchanges embraces with international colleagues whose respect and friendship he has fostered over 27 years of attending this particular conference. I turn my attention in awe to Dr. Abdullah’s jovial approach and appreciate his mentorship of me. He purposely introduces me to every Jose and Mohammad and encourages me to speak my mind and participate whenever I see fit.

“Dr. Dahlan! We’ve both been here for 27 years!” One European delegate exclaims. “This means we started attending when we were 15!” The 60-something-year old men chuckle and I take in the moment, trying to make it sink in that I’m at one of those conferences I once imagined to be the ultimate “cool thing to do when I grow up.”

I’m already here? What? Praise the Lord! God is Great!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Revelation Strikes

I've just signed on to my blogsite (is that what these pages are called?) after over a year of absence... why today of all days I can't be too sure but my fingers, which are a little sore from grasping my tennis racket too tight, which have been aching to type non-work related thoughts, non- "official documents", to pour out from the heart instead of from the brain if that makes sense... these fingers are ready to start typing again. I've said this before today, so why today of all days I can't be too sure. But I get this inkling of a hunch that I'm on to something. I'll announce it now at 9:06AM on this Thursday morning after an impulsive 7AM game of tennis, before heading to work to write more "official documents."

To everyone in both the singles and families sections of the public spaces in my fair country and to those in the "mixed" environments abroad: My fingers are about to resume their blogging. and it's not because i treated them to a pretty french manicure last night (ok maybe that's added some incentive).

A couple of days ago my boss said something to me that might have been the trigger. She was reading a draft of an article I was preparing for an international publication, just a 750- word essay on Saudi women in the Economy, no big deal. She read the first paragraph and smiled "You write like a reporter" she said. Luckily that's what the article required. But it struck me. And today, well I guess that explains why today of all days is the day... today I discovered the reason for my mental block. I had forgotten the beauty of words for words' sake. forget'n and spellinng. forget well-crafted arguments. those are for newspaper articles, dissertations, and books. I was so caught up in trying to convey what are almost always convoluted and often blasphemous thoughts about contradictions and challenges and obstacles. (Did Noura just admit she has blasphemous thoughts? Yes she did my friends, yes she did, but when I say 'blasphemous' I mean it by Saudi standards so that's not saying much is it) But today... REVELATION strikes. Of course I've having mental constipation.(sorry) I'm trying to write articles, meant for publication. meant to be critiqued. meant to be edited, and proof read for typos.

But after 8 hours at the office and an hour of tennis and a few hours of vegging on the couch with my parents and a few hours of brainstorming for the recycling campaign and all the others things i love to fill my life with.....aaaahhhh... i also want to write articles summarizing world conflicts and bridging ideological gaps? No no no no no. This shall not pass.

So to my once loyal readers and to my constant life gurus. I'll try to win you all back. But before I do such a thing I must make a comment about my last blog entry, Zahra's "short-lived happiness." Her story does not end there because it turns out (go figure) that in life we can't decide where to put the punctuation marks or when the story ends... if it's 'short-lived' or not... After that entry, Zahra got her divorce, she got her house back, she got an 'empowering' life experience defending her rights in court in an ironic twist of events stemming from a pleasant eye opener. yes our courts are patriarchal (or is it patriarchical?? no that looks wrong)but women are not turned away even in Jizan. And yes the judges are patriarchcicicial but they still can judge fairly.

So Zahra's biggest challenge now is to learn to manage her money better: to stand up to her children and tell them "NO you can't have a car because I need that money to pay for electricity and food. YES I know our house looks run down but let me pay off our debts and then I can tile the kitchen floor."

There should be a conclusion but this isn't an article and if I don't press "publish post" now I'll be late for the office.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Short-lived happiness...

It seems Blogger doesn't support Arabic yet so the margins are kind of off. I suggest you enlarge text size (View-> text size-> largest) so that it's easier to read...

عجزتُ عن مساعدتها فانطلق اللسان لعلها تجد المفر عبر كلماتي أو مساعدة أحد غيري

زهراء حسن مهدي قوزي ، امرأة في السادسة و الأربعين من عمرها تعمل كمستخدمة (مساعدة) بمركز العناية الأولية في قرية قوز الجعافرة في محافظة صبيا بمنطقة جازان منذ ثلاث عشرة سنة و لها سبعة أطفال أصغرهم في الثالثة من عمره . طلقها زوجها بالثلاث و هو العسكري المتقاعد شطيف عبد الله أحمد العاجمي إثر حالة نفسية عانى منها بسبب تعاطي المخدرات. قصتها تتلخص في سطور مع أن آثارها بعيدة و خطيرة المدى. تقول

اشتريت قطعة أرض من راتبي ثم بنيت بيتا و اشتريت أثاثا و احتملت معيشة زوجي مع أنه قام بكثير من المخالفات علي و على أولادي و هو بحالة غير طبيعية. أخيرا قام بطردنا من البيت و أتلف كثيرا من الأثاث و خاصة المعدات الكهربائية— و الآن أعيش في هذه الدوامة أنا و باقي أولادي مشردة من بيتي تحت رحمة الناس و لا أعلم كيف أخرج من مشكلتي

إن خطورة هذه القضية لا تقتصر على نهب الإنسانية من امرأة و عائلتها في بلد الإنسانية و حسب، بل تتجسد في معاملة العنف الأسري كظاهرة خاصة بالعائلة بعيدة عن الأنظار بالرغم من أن قصتها ليست مخفية عن الناس في قرية صغيرة يعرف كل سكانها بعضهم البعض. و من المحتمل أن تغرق قضية زهراء بين مئات القضايا المشابهة التي تستقبلها باستمرار الجمعية السعودية لحقوق الانسان و لكن تبرز حتمية مساعدتها في كونها امرأة نظرت إلى المآسي و وجدت الفرص و بحثت عن وظيفة تعيل بها أسرتها لاعبة بذلك دور الأم و الأب. و ما كان جزاءها إلا أن تتجاهل المحاكم قضيتها و أن تعيش مع أطفالها في ظل خوف دائم من طليقها الذي يثابر في مطاردتها

المطلوب الآن إعانة زهراء على إرجاع منزلها إليها و لا سيما إعادة حقها المسلوب في كسب الرزق بعيدا عن العنف و المخاوف و التهديدات المتوالية . (بيني و بين نفسي : إذا قدرنا نسجن / نعاقب/ نعالج زوجها كمان أحسن و أحسن!) و في منطقة يضرب المثل بنقاء قلوب أهلها كبياض الفل الساحر ، فمن أصفى و أنقى قلبا من امرأة بالرغم من متاعب الدنيا و من إفشاء سرها إلى العالم تمتلك مخاوفها حفاظا على أطفالها و تجيب على السائلين بقناعة لا تنبع إلا من الإيمان: "الحمد لله مبسوطة"؟

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


The data collection phase of my research project has come to an end; today I interviewed my final participant! Just as it should be, my last interview opened up more questions than I have the time or the capacity to answer. For one, I could hardly understand half the words the woman was saying and I had to ask Zahra to help clarify some points and make sure that I had filled in my final questionnaire survey correctly. This last woman, with her unfamiliar dialect and different way of thinking and living (different to the other women I've met), reminded me that, while I may have reached my target, I have but scratched the surface of this community: What are the relations like between men and women within households? Does a high income for a husband also mean a high standard of living for his wife and children? What role do brothers play in their sisters’ lives? How can one live in this day and age from hand to mouth, just off the money they get from their livestock and the little aid they receive from the government?

Tonight my stay in Jizan will end inshallah with dinner at Zahra's, and it is only appropriate that I also end my blog with a little about this lady who works at the clinic and who has helped me with my interviews. Zahra means "flower" in Arabic, and Jizan— according to my tourist guidebook— is known as "Balad Al Full Wal Kadee" (Land of [2 flowers whose names I don’t know in English]). Of all the ladies I have met and interacted with in this village, it is Zahra who will stay prominent in my mind. We spent many hours discussing life: she with a bagful of sunflower seeds in the palm of her hand, and me with my ink-stained fingers frantically jotting this and that in my notebook. What little authority I have gained in this community because of my status as a researcher from an institute of higher learning, Zahra has gained in my eyes from her position as one of the rare workingwomen in these villages. Not only is she a workingwoman, she is also a mother (her youngest son is 2 years old) and, most remarkably, her family's sole breadwinner. It is she who buys the groceries after work, she who checks up on her mother in the afternoons, she who takes care of the bills, she who feeds and clothes her children. And it is she who has spent the last 2 years paying back debts, while her husband stays at home, unemployed and demanding.

And yet her attitude is always cheerful, content with the very knowledge that she has picked herself up and is carrying her own weight... Not a care in the world, all the while thanking God for the blessings He bestows on all of us. And every morning, the day begins with the same exchange:

Me: Kaifik ilyom? [And how are you today?]
Zahra: Alhamduillah, mabsoooooooota!! [Happy as can be]


blues, beiges, and reds

July 4, 2006

"Going native." That's what anthropologists call it when researchers adopt the life of the people they are researching. And that's what I did this morning. Arriving at the clinic with only a few interviews left to collect, I was able to embrace the slow pace of life in the waiting room of the clinic and take it slowly myself. It is easier now that I'm no longer an attraction. I have become as much a part of the setting as the blue chairs in the waiting room and the posters on the wall that describe the dangers of Typhoid and Hypertension. In fact, I have become so uninteresting that some women have actually declined my requests to interview them. Handling the rejections calmly, I followed Zahra into one of the patients' rooms during the dead time of day and lay down on a cot to enjoy the soothing breeze emanating from one of the A/Cs. This is the life: Me wrapped like a black Samooli bread in my abaya, with Zahra folded the same way in another cot. Why pretend to do work when there's no work to be done? We came back out when the patients started filtering back in, and I got my 50th interview of the week before lunch!

Whatever I said the other day about Man conquering nature, I was just joking, I swear. God please forgive my arrogance and restore the desert's calm temperament! Beginning at 1:30 today, I saw nothing but beige: Heaps and heaps of beige culminating in a sandstorm reminiscent of the Dust Bowl of Miss Samirah's 9th grade American History class. It is on days like this that Ahmad’s driving skills are worthy of a standing ovation. In Jeddah, his unpaved "shortcuts" to Nora Ham's house had more speed bumps than either one of us Noura's could stomach. But today I thanked my lucky stars that he learned to drive in Yemen. He knew exactly when to speed up; when to slow down; when a car was coming in our direction; when a car was coming from behind; and when to ask me if I was still hanging in there. Meanwhile, I held my breath and stared with bewilderment at the farmer trotting along on his donkey, seemingly unaware that there was sand blowing into his ears and out of his donkey's nose. (Mama, the sandstorm hit unexpectedly, we had no choice but to go forward.) When were finally back at the campsite, I walked into my cabin to find my brand new A/C spitting ice onto the carpet...

Germany vs. Italy!! I was invited over to the General Manager's place to watch the game with him and his German wife. Ok, fine, so maybe I invited myself over... but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the game! They welcomed me in with a warm cup of Moroccan mint tea and a delicious (port-a-)home-made fruitcake and it was pure excitement despite the lateness of the hour. My text messages to Edo and Hyewon should reveal which team I was supporting:

"Oh my—Wha! YAYYYYY * yay * congrats! Wait, and that was the second goal! I can’t even deal right now so how are you feeling!"

[My condolences to Michaela, Yara, Duc & Nisreen!]

For me, the real enjoyment of the game actually came from something else entirely: During half time, I counted on my fingers and toes the number of familiar faces strewn around the globe who I knew for a fact were also glued to their TV screens, be they in a pub in Germany, somewhere off Iffley Road in Oxford, or with friends and family in Jeddah and Bahrain... A shared 2+ hours watching a man running like the wind in his bright red shoes and another man with a bobbing ponytail that acted as a shield when his skull made contact with the side of the football field. And all of a sudden, I was no longer living among tractors, shrimp hatcheries, and mangrove nurseries at the outskirts of a neglected village in the Arabian Desert. On the contrary, and as Hyewon reassured me once, "We’re all under the same sky." It was then and there that I got the push I needed to get me through my last day of interviewing at the clinic.

Monday, July 03, 2006

dreams, day dreams, and hallucinations

Sunday July 2, 2006

5 city girls arrived at the clinic today to "apply for jobs." Rumors spread among women like a real live game of "Telephone Kharban" (for the non-Arabs, Chinese Whispers or Broken Operator: No matter what you call it, the sentence at the end of the round has no relation whatsoever to the one you begin with). Did I mention that one girl actually asked me: "Is it true that if you tape record our interview, my chances of getting a job are higher?" What do you say to that other than, "AHAHHAHAHA." No... I didn’t laugh in her face, but is this for real?

Little things like that make me laugh here. Other things that make me laugh: the little boy wearing a "50 Cent" baseball cap; the crushed Mountain Dew cans and bottles in the streets (Why Mountain Dew? What happened to 7UP?); and the loops sewn into the women’s abayas so that they can put their thumbs through (this way their sleeves won’t roll down if they lift their arms up).

In other news, the cute little girl who said she would sew a pair of pink pants if she ever became a tailor, returned to the clinic today. She sat next to me with a shy smile and asked if she could amend her answer to my question about desired profession; she wanted to add "hairdresser" and "doctor" to her list. Later in the afternoon, I visited a school "for the erasure of illiteracy," which was offering summer classes to older women and to girls of all ages. The 23 of us sat in one classroom as the 2 teachers gave lessons in Qur’an (Surat Al-Feel), reading (the Arabic letter Z), and math ( I skipped that lesson :P). The classroom is like those you see in BBC reports on schoolchildren in Afghanistan or Ghana: just chairs and desks and a chalkboard (and air conditioning). It is located in the middle of the desert, between the sand dunes and the rubble. And yet the women arrive buzzing with life: they sip coffee, pass around chocolates and dates, and repeat the lesson after the professor just like we did in elementary school in Jeddah. To one corner there is a display of Jizani artifacts, as well as a desk cluttered with arts and crafts. They are dedicated, motivated and on a quest to be their best. (Ignore that last bit, I think I just recited the Tang Soo Do creed of honor, except that that one begins with "We are a black belt school"). Time will tell if these women will get the opportunities to realize their dreams.

But back to me and MY dreams (no time for modesty right now ;) If you want to learn about these women I’ll send you my thesis after the 1st of September inshallah!) All I dreamt of at the end of this hot and humid day was to go back to the camp and lie on my couch. The novelty of the face veil wore off today when I was in the archaeological museum and could hardly see straight because it was so hot. And yet, the exhibit was so interesting, how to take it in and not evaporate in the heat? The solution: take it home with me. I busted out my loyal camera (thanks to Soomi-doodle for lending me her charger) and started shooting away at pictures, texts, reconstructions, everything. I went home and downloaded all the info on to my laptop to zoom in on and read once I regain my strength.

Monday July 3, 2006
I dragged myself out of bed. I shoved cereal into my mouth. I dragged myself to the clinic and I pressed my eyes to stay open. Today was slow. And I was itching to meet my target of 40 (total surveys collected from the beginning of the week) so that I could get home. When I finally hit my target I also hit my wall. I rushed out, wanting to kick my heels in the air, but I was so lethargic that I just did that in my head. Funny enough, Ahmad was also not feeling it today and was just about to dial my number to see if I was done, when I sent the nurse to the men’s section to get him. We headed back to the camp, stopping along the way to watch camels convene around a bush in the desert landscape. Unfortunately, we were too far away to get a good photo and we feared we’d get stuck in the sand if we went by car. But they were mesmerizing and we were mesmerized. Either that or we were just plain sleepy.

My blogspot is poorly named. I have not had shrimp once here since my arrival. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I had shrimp. Also, hardly any women here eat shrimp and, if they do, only rarely. (I asked them: it’s one of the questions on my survey!) My blogspot should be renamed to "I heart AC." Today, the AC in my port-a-cabin is working very poorly, so I have escaped to the computer room to type while the technician sorts out the problem. Then I think I'll take a nap because I feel like I'm typing nonsense, which I probably am. Faisal and Baba, will you take me out for sushi when I get back? Mama, you could order your salmon teriyaki...

...left only 3 days left only 3 days left only 3 days left only 3 days left only 3 days lef...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

eyes eyes baby

I begin the new month with my thesis supervisor's priceless advice: "Take a deep breath and keep calm." I enter the clinic at the start of the Saudi working week wearing the face veil. A quick glance at my reflection in the window leaves me amazed: Does my vision fail me or have I really transformed into just another village girl, one of the masses who were staring at me last week with such curious eyes? It's pretty cool actually: In what other small village in the world can you pass so easily for a local, just by wearing their garb? From the men’s section, the head of the clinic peers in and inquires "Is she the researcher?" And then... a thumb's up sign to indicate his approval of me conforming to this curious village's ways.

Today I got my drive and my focus back. I was no longer the center of attention: the chatter had quieted down and my arrival was now old news. With the exception of a few stragglers coming in to "apply" for jobs at the processing plant, all the women at the clinic were here to see the doctor. Perfect! I could now proceed with my original plan of interviewing a much more random sample of village women. This week's approach is to administer the questions personally to the women in the waiting room. Since the interviews are at the clinic, most of the women who come are either mothers or older people and many of them are illiterate, so I have to ask them questions verbally and then write down their answers.

My research has purpose again! And it's fun! The old women in Jizan are just as cute as the old women in Jamaica and Istanbul {Ari and Erencim, please send my love to your precious grandmothers ;)}

At the end of the workday, Ahmad and I headed back on our unpaved, open road towards the campsite. Throwing off my face veil, I resume my daily game of “Spot the difference: mirage or sea?” Poor Ahmad is the one who has to put up with this constant question of mine, as I marvel at the desert’s cruelest practical joke: the mirages that stretch for miles and ignite your thirst by the mere sight of them. Feeling motivated by the day’s accomplishments, I stare back at the mirages, crank up the AC, and take a cool sip of Safa bottled water. A case of Man conquers nature. Drumming my fingers against one another other, I let out an evil laugh that would make Mr. Burns from The Simpsons proud. [Under my breath of course, Ahmad thinks I'm an angel] ;) Mwahahahahahaha

Friday, June 30, 2006

flowers and girl talk

Thursday June 29, 2006 late night recap.

My abaya fluttering in the sandstorm, sand in my teeth and the door to my port-a-cabin having threatened to fly away Wizard-of-Oz style, I headed to the car to go to my first visit of the day. I think I’m going to put an end to invitations after today. It’s too overwhelming and time-consuming and I really need information now from official sources and very importantly, the shrimp company. With one week left, I have to get started on those and bid adieu to socializing-- however fun and incredibly informative it has been.

On my first visit of the day, my host’s mother took out all the old pots and tools they used back when men and women worked in the field together. I really was born in the wrong decade: just like this woman, I yearn for the days of the past. Sure, there was no electricity and only “God’s wind” (as they say) for air conditioning, but the men and women were devout, they prayed they fasted, they paid zakat, feared God and yet they interacted with one another normally in the field and at home. When a guest came to the house and the husband wasn’t at home, the wife would let him in and serve him tea. All the women dressed modestly, but their arms were bare and definitely their faces were uncovered.

And then one day, a pocketful of idiots decided that it was un-Islamic for men and women to even talk to one another. And so the women were sent home and the men hired Yemeni laborers to replace the women. Now it’s a bunch of contradictory dreams that the older women live with, yearning for those days when they didn’t have to shroud themselves in black just to open the front door and, at the same time, truly believing that back in the day they didn’t know any better and that the so-called religious leaders of today have guided them to the right path.

But I digress. When I asked the mother whether she would let her daughter leave her face uncovered now since she didn’t believe in it before, she said there’s no way. They have a good point: If were a resident of Al-Qawz I’d veil, too otherwise you’d be the center of scandal and attention!

After a while, my host (who is super nice and funny and friendly and welcoming) said, “so now you know about our present and our past and we don’t know anything about you.” So I told her my family history in terms of geographical origin etc and then the subject went to my schooling: in Jeddah for high school then America and now England. I told her I was in the States with my brother and in a moment of confidence I also told her that I didn’t wear the veil when there. If she was shocked, she hid it well and told me that she respected that we each had our different ways and that this is what I was used to.

Which brings me to the quote in the heading of this post. My world in Jeddah has been so sheltered and only now have I begun to realize this. We’re so far removed from our surroundings it’s ridiculous. Ridiculous! The Saudi Arabia that I know operates, for all intents and purposes, outside the government sphere: private homes, private businesses, private restaurants, private schools, and private beaches. The Saudi Arabia of the majority of Saudis has large government presence, in terms of public school, jobs in government positions and for many here in the army, etc. and no private public places, if that makes sense. The privacy is the privacy of one’s four walls and that’s it.

After this visit, I went to another girl’s home for Henna and the “Jizani hairstyle”. Was shocked by their wealth and was not expecting that there were people with big houses and marble floors in this village. I was reminded that there are poor and rich everywhere. I was also embarrassed by their generosity. The living room is opulent considering what I’ve been seeing in other homes here, but then the kitchen is minimal and the bathroom as always is a hole in the ground with the showerhead and a piece of mirror on the wall. One mystery solved today is the soap conundrum. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t have soap in the bathrooms and so when I went into the kitchen to wash my hands there, I asked for soap and she gave me a bowl that had Tide soap in it. And then I remembered that there was a similar bowl in the bathroom of the house where I had lunch yesterday. And I didn’t realize that it was soap cuz it looked like white sand (read: Tide!)

I really had a great time, pictures of my Jizani hairstyle will follow. In short, flowers covering my entire head and hair, and gold coins at the front with brown muck to keep my hair down; also fresh flowers for earrings and green stuff tied to braids at the back of my head. Complicated but really beautiful end result. Towards the end of the night, though, I got really tired and was ready to leave but they insisted I stay for dinner (it was 11:30PM by the way).Once you enter their house you can’t leave. It’s just that I think that the flowers got heavy and I just wanted them out of my hair and also I was getting really sleepy, I really wasn’t in dining mood. This evening, I just kept saying thank you thank you thank you and it was just not the right word. I really should learn more expressive, umm, expressions. It’s in situations like these that my Arabic fails me. The flowers were so precious I wish I could document their scent…

The veil thing came up in the evening too; double whammy because they were asking me if Ahmad (my driver who goes here by “my uncle”) was my father’s brother. The thing is I can’t just say he’s my father’s brother because he speaks Yemeni. They wanted to know if there were any male guardians with me here who could see my hairstyle and if Ahmad was one of those in front of whom I could keep my hair uncovered. Don’t know how I got out of that one!!!


"T'es pas une saoudienne typique"

Friday June 30, 2006 late afternoonish, sand and wind howling outdoors; A/C creaking indoors

The words of my host father from my study abroad in Paris ring true today: "you're not a typical Saudi."

Yesterday, when I went to one girl's home it dawned on me that they were openly discussing village life with me and jizani culture, but found it curious whenever I asked things about Saudi culture. How can a Saudi girl be asking these questions? Is she really Saudi? How come she doesn't cover her face? Who is this man who accompanies her? He's her uncle? As in, her father's brother? She's talking to the man in the clinic, she's really bold.

I didn't realize these things-- maybe I'm naive-- but i didn't realize these things were an issue because this is how I act in Jeddah and in Jeddah there are some who cover their face and others who don't and it's not an issue just as long as you cover your hair in public. But here, as I found out today from the girl who I visited yesterday, the fact that I don't veil has aroused curiosity about who I am, and all of a sudden I felt like I don't belong.... They have not been hostile and they have still welcomed me into their homes but all of a sudden I feel odd and uncomfortable in the spotlight because I don't want them to ask me about my personal life which is so different than theirs. I didn't think about this before, but my idea and their idea of what it is to be SAUDI are different. Questions on gender relations and access to moeny for women are SAUDI issues. Marriage and marrying more than one wife are SAUDI things. "I should know this." On the other hand, the village life, water problems, unemployment, etc are JIZANI issues and these things they'll speak openly about, and they have.

But I didn't think to disconnect the two. Like yesterday, for example, when my host was asking me if I was Saudi I replied, laughing: “Yes, iljawaz akhdar: [yup, my passport is green]” Today on the phone she asked me what I meant by that. And then I realized that these people don’t have passports so she had no idea what I meant when I was referring to the green of the Saudi passport cover.

Here’s what happened. I called my first host to say thank you for yesterday and then transitioned into the subject of our discussion to ask her eventually to please keep that discussion to herself. I believe in gut instincts and I have a good feeling about her. But my dad was telling that I shouldn’t discuss religion because it’s sensitive and the village sheikh might get involved if word gets out. Anyway the girl said not to worry, etc but when I asked her more about the situation, she told me that everyone had trouble believing that I’m Saudi and also said that I’m the first Saudi woman to come to the village without a face veil. (imagine that!) She advised me to cover my face when I go to the clinic tomorrow.

Today was the first time that I felt a weight on my chest and I just felt rotten. All in all it's been great here, especially because the women have been wonderful. It's been eye-opening, welcoming, enriching, educational, but I think that I need to stay out of the private sphere from now on, go buy myself a a face veil to reduce village gossip (i'll tell them that I realized that I was the only one and I want to respect the ways of this village) and then take the last few days as they go, workign on getting official sources and collecting more questionnaire surveys from the clinic.

Don't worry, though, my chin is still up and now that I’ve sorted through all my feelings and have noted them on paper, umm, computer screen, I feel so much better, alhamdillah. I’m learning as much about myself, my life choices, and the world, as I am about these people. And for this I can’t be more grateful. And now I am reminded again of Mena’s words: “If you’re not uncomfortable you’re not learning.” Well, I’m uncomfortable, therefore I’m learning. And I can’t ask for more than that.

God bless xx

Green Bassabort [Passport]

IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.