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

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.