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:

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.