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

Thursday, June 29, 2006

I'm sorry for not updating: BEEN SUPER BUSY. Here's why

Saturday June 24, 2006

I came prepared with my friend Mena’s English professor’s words running through my head: "If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning." Well, I’m comfortable, so I hope I’ll still learn! I have a whole port-a-cabin to myself. It’s in the middle of nowhere, literally, just sand and dug-up holes (where the shrimp ponds and the drainage areas will be) and other port-a-cabins around me. But there’s AC in each room, I have a queen-sized bed, bathroom, kitchen, living room and desk area where I’m seated now typing this. I could host the entire Wolfson College Boat Club for circuits if I wanted to! The only thing I don’t have is Internet in my room, so alas no Skype calls or late night MSN/AIM chats and no regular updating of my blog. But it’s all good; Will and Grace can keep me company here too just like they did in Oxford, thanks to my cousin's DVD collection. And I have 10 books staring at me from the shelf waiting to be read!

Sunday June 25, 2006
Task for today: Identify the gatekeeper; find way into the community to begin interviewing women; allocated time for mission: 1 week. Task completed in: 1 hour

Today someone from the Shrimp Company took me to the village's health clinic to introduce me to the man responsible there, who said he would allow me access to their files so that I can collect quantitative information on the village. At first, I paid lip-service to the idea, sticking to my convictions that I wouldn’t really have time to look at these files since my study is qualitative rather than quantitative and I wanted to speak to women directly and engage then in “conversations with a purpose”. But then we arrived at the clinic and lo and behold, the gatekeeper revealed herself to me in the form of a veiled Dr. {name withheld} from Egypt. A pediatrician who speaks very softly, I took an automatic liking to her; that is, once she removed her veil and started speaking candidly. She automatically began telling me about the problems in the village: a high rate of depression and a high rate of very early divorces. Women at 20 getting divorces.

She said women will receive the idea of working because they just want to get out of the house. That there are friendship and family bonds between these women: there are no restrictions on visitations; but the relationships with their spouses seem to be poor. They would also take the job because they need the money. She posed the men as the problem: New money coming in for the men means another wife, for example. I have to see if all this is true because the guys at the shrimp company say that her viewpoint is very typically Egyptian and not based in the actualities of Saudi society.

Before I knew it, I was talking to women. The atmosphere in the clinic is very informal: the doctor was seeing patients while I sat next to her at her desk. Her patient eyed me from time to time, with no malice just curiosity. The first girl I spoke to was 23 and had only completed 2nd grade. Asked why she stopped going to school, she said “Thuroof: circumstances.” In other words, it’s private. I think that with these women I won’t be able to find out about how they feel. I think my questions will have to be more quantitative and didactic. Questions that I can code and put into a schedule and throw into SPSS. Which I guess I’m finally going to learn to use. But the only way I’ll access the women at this point is the women that the Dr. refers to me.

Why had a girl my age only completed second grade? Can they not afford to go to school? I thought schooling was free.

My dad's advice: they will need awareness for the whole village. The men won’t accept the idea of women working at first and then they will. You need to approach them nicely, then ask how they’re feeling, etc. Tell them that the government is behind this project.

Monday June 26, 2006

Yesterday I was a stranger to the community; today a welcomed guest. Already I have been invited into 3 homes for lunch. What accounts for this change? I have to be aware of the tremendous sampling bias in my study. Overnight the news had spread that someone from the shrimp company was in town. And so the women arrived to apply. This means they are all waiting in a line to be interviewed and I must accommodate all of them; I become like the Dr., knowing that the diagnosis must be quick because there are many more that need to be seen before the day ends at 3:30.

I came in today with a revised interview protocol (less open-ended and more direct questions). My initial reason for wanting to make the interviews shorter stemmed somewhat from a misunderstanding on my part of the meaning of “thuroof.” I took it to mean, “It’s private.” In fact, I took it so far that I worked from my western perspective that that they wouldn’t disclose their income either, or anything monetary. This is reflected in Western interviews where the income issue is left until the end of the interview or 'occupation' is used an indicator for income. This may have been the case on day 1 (yesterday) but today was another story altogether. Also, age: I was embarrassed to ask them their age, but now it’s one of my favorite questions because they don’t always know the answer and so it’s interesting to see how old they think they are.

I arrived at the clinic around 9 this morning with my documents in English. I was worried about that at first but it’s just that I didn’t have time, since I spent last night restructuring the interview entirely and my Arabic typing skills are as poor as the telephone signal I receive in the village. In the end, it didn’t even matter. They didn’t care at all because there’s no hiding the fact that I’m an outsider. Just as long as I cover my hair, they ignore the fact that I don't cover my face (all of the women here cover everything but their eyes, with the exception of the 2 Indian nurses). Anyway, I began by interviewing in one of the patient rooms and the women were sent to that room one by one to see me. Today, I conducted 15 formal interviews.

It’s 1AM: EXHAUSTED. Been working non-stop since I got here, no time for movies or books or rest. I can’t wait for weekend! What shall I do tomorrow in the clinic? More interviews? Am I ready to interview the doctor yet? I think the most effective question was the number of people in household and asking about each person’s occupation, marital status, etc. I could make my interviews shorter than today’s and aim for a total of 60 from this village.

Tuesday June 27, 2006

Oh boy. Today’s lessons: 1. Stop making plans. 2. My only plan should be to be prepared.

Yesterday I was a guest, today I am the shrimp company in human form: a ray of hope for the women who are all desperate for jobs, whatever they may be. I walked into the clinic this morning and there were about 50 women, none with medical problems. Read: They are all here to see me. The word had spread that I was here and so the women came in droves. The doctor's assistant rushed me into the “Pregnant Ladies” room and desperately tried to close the door as all the women tried to pile in. "Me first, no me, no me!" So I sat the first one down and started to ask her the questions that I had prepared. But how was I going to do that with every woman and be done in time for lunch at Umm Muhammad’s? That was the first problem. The second problem was ethical: they all are looking for work and that’s why they’re here. They see the shrimp company as a savior and they see me as linked to the company, not as an independent researcher. No matter what I told them they didn't care; they wanted to "register". After a few interviews and more women banging on the door, I let them all in and first apologized for being late and unprepared, saying that I was not forewarned that there would be women coming to see me. “Bittalaphone” says the assistant: the news had spread by telephone. I had women asking me what the qualifications were for working; whether they needed to have high school certificates; and whether they could call their friends over from other villages and towns. First things first, I told them, NOBODY from outside this village should bother coming. I had to. The company would be in a dilemma otherwise, promising so few jobs (relatively speaking) to so many women. Next, I explained to them that even if they wrote down their names they won’t be getting jobs. That I’m here to document the socio-economic situation of the villages: If they wanted to help me, please come back tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a paper and a pen (I REALLY wasn't prepared) and please write down your name, age, education level, marital status, etc.)

I had lunch twice today. The head of the clinic wouldn’t let me leave before lunch, even though I explained to him and pleaded with him to let me go meet Umm Muhammad who had postponed her travels for me. From his point of view, I couldn’t leave because his wife had already prepared the food and was sending it to the clinic. So there ya go, a HUGE predicament. I called Um Muhammad to tell her I’d be late, explaining why and apologizing a thousand times. She told me the food is ready and they’re waiting; “I’m going to send my husband over.” NO no don’t send your husband I’d be there at 2.

They’re living in really meager accommodations. From the outside the village looks deserted and yet I can’t explain their houses are not something out of the ordinary when you go inside. Just really minimal and really cramped, but at the same time familiar to me. How is this familiar? Where have I seen it before? Food served on the floor on a mat and big plates that we all eat from with our hands. Delicious food: rice etc and guess who just started eating meat again? ;) What choice do I have really, since vegetables are off limits (Mother's orders- and I don't blame her given my abysmal history with vegetables in remote areas. What can I say I've got a delicate stomach!)

One of the little girls (they're all adorable) laughed at me for wearing socks in the heat. "What should I do?" I asked her. Wouldn’t you wear socks and sneakers too if they told you there were scorpions and snakes in the camp? It was a very light-hearted conversation. I feel at home with all these women. There are more similarities between us despite the, in many ways, clashing lives we lead.

As I was leaving, Umm Muhammad gave me seeds and a bottle of perfume as gifts. My gift of a box of chocolates, no matter how big, paled in comparison to their generosity. It’s probably also melting in their house. The AC doesn’t really make the house cool, just less hot. The room we sat in had curtains all around, in a pattern that we “Jeddah elite” would call “balady". Esther and I never found the perfect way to translate balady from Arabic and Korean, but the English equivalent would be "tacky.” Beige with red roses, No windows. You access this seating area through the children’s bedroom which is head to head with beds along 2 walls (maybe 4 beds total?) I don’t know what else there is in the house or how this compares in size to the men’s quarters. I felt like I’d be prying and wanted to enjoy my stay and make them feel that I’m at lunch for their company and not as a researcher. For this reason also I didn’t ask to take pictures.

Wednesday June 28, 2006

Yesterday I was savior, today I'm the Pied Piper. The women find me wherever I am. I was invited for lunch today at another village. This invitation came about as a response to my question: "Describe to me a day in your life." The answer? "A day in my life? Come over and you can see for yourself." I was delighted. This woman, a mother of many (i lost track of which kids were hers and which were relatives and neighbors!) One of her boys was playing football with a deflated ball, while his little sister told me she was cheering for Brazil and Spain in the World Cup. As for the Saudi team, she counted on the fingers of her little hands her favorite Saudi players. (I'll complain about the saudi team in another blog- maybe I'll call it,

After a full day today, having collected 88 questionnaire surveys and played domino's with the kids, and witnessed the beginning of a sandstorm, I got home for the first time since my arrival in Jizan feeling like I'm ready to leave. My love handles are just NOT pretty (those of you who know my methods of dryfrying and my affection for brown rice would be proud of the insanely oily food I've been eating)and I have forgotten what my research is about. Information overload. I turned on my computer and watched episode after episode of Will and Grace.

Thursday June 29, 2006

Thank God it's Thursday! Woke up feeling refreshed having slept in (until 9:30! WOW!) The clinic is closed today, so I'm able to come in and check emails. Thanks to all for your amazing emails and facebook pokes. I LOVE YOU FOR THEM. Must quickly revise my questionnaire surveys, print out more, then head to my new Jizani friend's house for tea. She's going to give me a lesson in Henna and Jizani hairstyles. My Jeddah friends are probably laughing at me because once again what's considered beautiful here is considered tacky to us oh-so-snobbish-and-yet-so-cool Jeddah girls. Was I the Pied Piper yesterday? Today I'll be Jizani bride. In any case, if I want pictures of these traditions the only why I'll get them is if they're pictures of me. Sigh, the things I do in the name of research!


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pre-Jizan Thoughts

June 20, 2006 4:30 PM
33 The Stream Edge, Oxford UK
6 hours at the Examination Schools finally behind me, confetti and flowers still in my hair, a black velvet ribbon tied loosely around my neck...

Received an email with “good news: Saudi Telecom has finally installed a tower at the camp site- now we have mobile phone reception within 2km of the area!” Should I write back saying that I wasn’t aware that mobile phones didn’t already work in Jizan? Dear Lord, what world will I be entering on Saturday? How do they have Internet but no mobile phone reception? Do they have Internet?! Will I be able to keep up this electronic thesis diary? What about checking my wall postings on Facebook?!

June 21, 2006
2:30PM- Oxford Train Station
Struggling to get my suitcase onboard as a stuffy train conductor watches me from the platform. Finally, he decides that I’ve blocked the door long enough and intervenes with false cheer: “May I suggest that you buy a bag that you yourself can lift? There won’t always be someone to help you with it.” Wow. Taken aback by his chivalry (or lack thereof), I decide not to flaunt my “rowing” muscles at him- or to retort that I could lift him on the train, too, if only the wheels of my suitcase were not stuck to the bottom of the platform. And with that, I bid farewell to fair Oxford, its dreamy spires, and its not-always-friendly townies. And so begins the journey towards my shrimp city, err… hamlet.

8:30 PM- “All aboard” Saudi Airlines 116 to King Abdulaziz Jeddah International Airport. One guess as to what’s playing on the TV screens… Yup, the Ministry of Tourism’s promotional video for none other than: Jazan Province.

Beloved blog-readers, time-wasters, Noura-lovers: forget Granada or TapkapI Palace-- Jizan is where it’s at: colorful Islamic calligraphy engravings and mud-built huts; rows upon rows of mango trees; prancing gazelles; glorious purple-orange sunsets; and intricate woodwork that would make my classmate Janelle weak at the knees. Of course, the camera may be concealing just as much as it reveals (typical of “environmental” documentaries, there are no people in these shots— what else are they hiding?) But still! How exciting! I just might apply for a week off to explore the Fifa Mountains, Farasan Islands, Bin Malik and Lajab Arreeth Valleys. Any takers? They should start operating direct flights from London.

Shrimp galore

"Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it… There's, um, shrimp kebabs, shrimp Creole, shrimp gumbo, pan-fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich... That- that's about it."

- Bubba in Forrest Gump

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.