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!!!



amore said...

Hey Babes,

I can't tell you how excited I am for you!!! Even though its a bit tough which no doubt it is, I'm amazed to learn through you and hopefully one day Insha Allah with you, more about my county's culture and past. Miss you lots and hope to see you soon.

amore :)

Hyewon said...

Now I'm so curious about the “Jizani hairstyle”! I feel like I'm learning with you. I had no idea that in the past Saudi women worked together with men with their faces uncovered. It's always interesting to know what I regarded as a tradition or culture is socially constructed. :) Luv ya, my habibty!

Anonymous said...

Hi Noura,

Just a note to say this blog is really interesting, I feel like Im escaping oxfords confines as im reading, and you're a lovely writer.


Hyewon said...

Finally the mysterious 'Jizani hairstyle''s revealed!!! Actually that quite goes well with you!! Nicola just commented it's so pretty too. :) Love lots.

ali said...

wow, i so want to make a joke right now, but i know you will edit it. i will hold my tongue till i talk to you in person. oh man, this one is good.

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.