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!


Mah. Sabbagh said...

Noura. I enjoyed reading what u wrote. To be honest, I was waiting for the “scandalous” moment to come – when it didn’t. although that broke my heart, I have to admit it’s a good thing. Yallah 3ugbal when you become the first female labor minister in Saudi.

jms. jeanie said...

Welcome back Noura! I eagerly await your next entries. You give me hope for my daughters!

Noura T. said...

Hahaha Mahmood! Check out my definition of blasphemy in one of my previous posts; "by Saudi standards" :) As for the "3ugbal",,, thank you for the flattery but that position sounds more like a curse than anything!! Allah la yiktub 3ala a7ad :P

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.