Getting Stuff Done in the Middle East

I’ve always struggled with time management. But I really like making schedules, both by hand and in my computer. I like to make little colored boxes where I promise myself that I’ll dedicate the block of time between 9 am to 1 pm Saturday to studying then 1 pm to 1:30 pm to a quick lunch, then 1:45 pm to 3 pm for organizing my room. But normally I wake up and read some annoying comment on a blog or think of something I need to blog about. That can last for a few hours, then I have my compulsive email checking, which can suck up another few hours. So then my little time slots are in disarray. By the 5th week, I stop following my pretty colorful schedules. But I still log in those study hours.

I normally made up for wasted time by taking it out of my sleep, multi-tasking (i.e. eating while reading or writing), or canceling social engagements (to my friends’ chagrin). Even now, I am writing, what I hope to be, a brief blog. But I have about 75 Arabic words to look up in Hans Wehr. Anybody that has used this dictionary can know how irritating guessing whether the word has a weak vowel or if you are getting the right definition out of the 30 possible definitions. It is especially bad if you don’t know half other words in the sentence so reading from context can’t help you. Plus, I need to review everything I learned in the past 4 academic years + 3 intensive summers of studying Arabic. Seems like everything is a haze, like I got Arabic amnesia or something. I’ll return to that thought as I transition this blog back to talking getting stuff done in the Middle East.

I find that the angriest travelers are those who come with their preconceived notions about how stuff should work in the Middle East. And the people are the most frustrated of them all are those who want to live their lives in the Middle East ordered in the same way as they do in the West.

During my first trip to Morocco, just about everything was taken care of. I was definitely spoiled, but I also learned to give up control. One of the graduate coordinators came to pick me up from the airport(a grad student from Arizona who I must say is one of the nicest human beings I’ve met) . We drove the four hours from Casablanca to Meknes, stopping on the way for a nice lunch. Everything was arranged, our housing, food, registration at the university. We had a driver who drove us from our lodgings in the countryside to the classrooms which were in a satellite of Universite Moulay Ismail. We had lunch at a nice restaurant everyday and dinner at a cafeteria. Our weekend trips were planned and we even had organized social gatherings. Once a week, our driver drove us to the new city where we could run errands, shop, go the ATM, get some sweets. While many of the other students (most of them had traveled abroad before) complained about this and that, I was pretty stoked to be abroad. One grad student began complaining from the very first day because the program was restrictive. Basically, she wanted to be able to wander around and possibly live elsewhere or make it to class on her own (i.e. stay out all night in good ole conservative Morocco). We had two graduate coordinators who did their best to see to all our needs and nurse us from the throws of gastro-intestinal illnesses brought about by microbes and possibly parasites. Over time, you learn to avoid food joints that will lead explosive diarehea (especially places where the cooks never wash their hands). I missed a couple of days from that intensive program. It sucked, but I managed to make up my work because so much of the footwork was done for me(from finding a late night pharmacy to shopping for yoghurt and water).

During this first trip, I fell into the stereotyped role of the ill-adjusted “Black!” girl Real World/Road Rules style with a group of 9 white women under the age of 26 and 1 white man. I got tired of the incessant complaining, and learned to just go with the flow. Everything was so well taken care of that I would have missed one of the most important lessons about living in the Middle East. Alhumdulillah, I decided to stay a week on. Plus during my final weeks, I took a trip to Fez with one of the graduate coordinators to interview students of sacred knowledge. It was during that trip that I learned my most important lesson in patience: if you got three things done in a day in the Middle East, you were lucky. Yes, this has helped me preserve my sanity during my three visits to the Middle East.

That important lesson became ingrained in me during my second trip. That was even with Maria’s help setting up our apartment and dealing with Alif Fez. We even had help from our good neighbors over at Julie’s Cafe (who helped make sure Maria got a reasonable price on the rent) and Lotfi and Haneen downstairs. But even then, there were things that had to be done. It took me three days to clean the kitchen to get it to a livable condition. I remember it was a struggle to get to the Bank, grocery store, and cook dinner in one day. Some days, it could take an hour to catch a taxi from the train station to our section of Medina Jadid. Even my research and writing came slower. I remember having a meltdown in 120 degree weather, trying to get out of Fez. I could barely type up an email. We were broke, so I washed all my clothes and the linens on the balcony. That took extra time, as well as learning to cook in a third world kitchen.

In the West, you can get a lot of things done. But time management is key. It is possible to set out with a day full of events and appointment. Here is a typical Friday:

  • 9 am Withdraw cash from Bank
  • 9:30-10:15 Oil Change and Car wash
  • 10:15 Pay electricity Bill
  • 11 am Appoint Dr. Benghazi (10 minutes early for paperwork)
  • 12-1:15 pm Lunch with Sofia @Chez Maroc
  • 1:30-2:30 pm Shopping LuLu Hypermarche (hypermarket, even though they have less stuff than our super markets)
  • 3:00- 5:30 pm prepare dinner
  • 5:30 Dinner with Rashida
  • 8:00-Book Tickets online
  • 8:15- 11:15 Work from Home, upload files

Seriously, in the Middle East this list isn’t going to happen. The Bank? You’ll likely be in long lines or somehow your wire transfer decides it isen’t going to show when you really need it. The mechanic could be having a bad day, or a better paying customer decides he needs his oil changed and car washed, so you time has been pushed back. Dr. Benghazi may be on ‘Umrah or vacation (without telling you), Lunch with Sofia is likely to take up 3-4 hours, getting to the shopping center is going to take you a good 1/2 hour to full hour (no matter how small the town is), Dinner’s not going to be done on time because you should have gotten the food the night before or early that morning. Rashida may come around 6, but she’s not going to leave until after a good 4 hours sitting. In fact, let that be your whole night. Now that your friend is gone, you may not be able to get online. The internet will likely decide to be down for some reason, depending on where you live there could be a regular power outage, the water stops running, or you cannot get DSL or even a phone line at home.

Even without the breakdowns in transportation, you have to be prepared for a slower pace of everything. Social and Business transactions can last for hours. Traffic jams are just the rule. Bureaucractic institutions means that you have to go from person to person just to get something basic done. You can’t just call to get information, a personal visit is often necessary. I’m still learning the rules. You may have to go to several stores. The items you may need may be spread over several locations throughout the city. Lines are long. You have to find delivery guys and spend a 1/2 hour negotiating with them. Just because things happen slower and at time, inconvenient, it does not mean that you can’t get jack done.

Normally for any appointment, I give myself an allowance of minimum three visits over a course of a couple weeks. Arabs also like you to come back to their store or office, and the more often the happier they are. They really want to know if you are serious about getting what you want. Plus the person who makes the big decision or has the most important rubber stamp is usually never there. The key is to find their higher-ups so they can put the heat on them. That way, you can get something done. Otherwise, you better hope that the person you gave the paperwork to happens to like you or happens to feel charitable that day. Otherwise, your paperwork will sit buried under piles and piles of papers.

Getting stuff done in the Middle East is really about balance. You have to be persistent, but never let them see you perspire. You have be firm, without being too harsh and developing a bad rapport with the paper-pusher or gatekeeper. In fact, they can be your vital advocates. If they don’t want to help you, you have to then find their superior who may possibly help you. Then, you have to seem important and well connected. Being the friend of some important people helps. Or they might help you and expect something in return (I believe that’s what’s called wasta). But then what happens if what they want,  you can’t give?Being American, depending on where you are in the Middle East and the proclivities of the person you’re dealing with, may help you or hurt your cause.

I definitely survived my first trip to the Middle East because a lot of people were looking out for me. I’m not rich or well connected.  And there are times when people bust out in some local dialect and I’m like WTF?? There are times when I get tongue tied and feel stuck and overwhelmed. I also feel shy with my broken and mistake laden Fushah. To get a lot of stuff done, I rely upon friends and family that are looking out for me and advocating for me. I am learning through our shared trials and tribulations that when you set out to do something here (and anywhere else), you better say insha’Allah. And you better mean it.

Driving in Kuwait


I don’t know if I have the guts to drive in Morocco, and surely I lack the patience to drive through the chaos that is called the streets of Cairo. But I have driven in Kuwait. And even though the streets are clean and everything is well organized, it doesn’t take too long to realize you are driving in the Middle East. Even walking can be a hazard. There are rules, speed limits, fatalistic cautionary signs like, “Speed Leads to Death!” The US Department of state reports:

Driving in Kuwait is hazardous. Although Kuwait has an extensive and modern system of well-lit roads, excessive speeding on both primary and secondary roads, coupled with lax enforcement of traffic regulations and a high density of vehicles (one vehicle for every 2.8 residents), leads to frequent and often fatal accidents. In 2005, reported vehicular accidents rose again over the previous year to 56,253. In 2005, there were 451 traffic-accident-related deaths, also an increase over the previous year. The average age of death was between 21 and 30 years. There are now over one million motor vehicles registered in Kuwait. Incidents of road rage, inattention and distraction on the part of drivers, poor driving skills, and highway brinkmanship are common in Kuwait, and can be unsettling to Western drivers in Kuwait who are accustomed to more rigid adherence to traffic laws.


This website, Life in Kuwait faithfully depicts the hazards of Kuwaiti driving. But the scariest thing are the roundabouts. The first time I encountered one, my friend told me to go straight. I didn’t know what that meant, there was only left and right. I almost drove into the center divide. Whew, but she meant follow the road to the left, then turn off right. So recently I found this guide to roundabouts. One piece of advice goes:

Never come to a full stop while waiting for your turn; stopping is a sign of weakness. When attempting to enter you must be fearless. If the other cars detect that you are not confident in your attempts, they will make sure you never get by.

The advice helps. You have to have courage to drive in Kuwait. The first time I drove my friend had her entire family make du’a. The kids were suprisingly silent so that I could focus. We all breathed a sigh of relief when I made it to our destination. Just like airplane take offs and landings, driving in the Middle East makes me  especially religious (conscious that the end may be near) and my prayers more fervent.

Along with all the women driving in Kuwait, when I’m out running errands or heading to school, I’m spreading untold corruption and eroding social mores as I navigate Kuwaiti roads. That’s the argument that the opponents to women driving in Saudi Arabia make. Here’s what the latest report from New York Times has to say

Some Saudi officials and religious men agree with the women that Islam does not forbid women to drive. In the past, Saudi women were able to move freely on camel and horseback, and Bedouin women in the desert openly drive pickup trucks far from the public eye.

Clerics and religious conservatives maintain that allowing women to drive would open Saudi society to untold corruption. Women alone in a car, they say, would be more open to abuse, to going wayward, and to getting into trouble if they had an accident or were stopped by the police. The net result would be an erosion of social mores, they say.

See the rest of the article here, Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel

Cultural Matters–Bridging Worlds

One of the great things about travelling to Muslim countries is to be able to witness the various ways people express this faith and its traditions. Even if some of the things I’ve witnessed were strange and seem illogical (one day I’m going to write about my field trip to an oracle in Morocco), for the most part I have enjoyed the similarities and contrasts. There are all sorts of ways that culture plays a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic, culture is a dialogue. There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.

This raises questions about Islamic culture? What does it mean? Last year I taught a class and one of the major themes was showing that there was no monolithic Islamic civilizaiton and no single Muslim culture. And none of us saw that as a bad thing, but a testament to the beauty of our faith tradition. I taught the period from early Islam to the early-modern period. While the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans were exciting Gun powder Empires, I didn’t get to explore the questions that preoccupy us in the 21st century.

Today, my friend’s husband asked me if I thought there was an “American Islam.” Some of the neo-cons are in fear of it. Their arguments sound pretty close to what some of the early 20th century progressives (and KKK) had said about Catholics and the Catholic schools. They didn’t think that Catholics were loyal Americans and that they hoped that the Pope would become ruler of the world. That resonates with the crazy arguments that establishing a Khalil Gibran school will make inroads into Jihadism and will someday works towards establishing Shari’ah and imposing it upon hapless Americans. Well, there were a whole bunch of polemics then and there are a whole bunch of polemics now. Despite the intolerance, America has always been made up of a mosaic of faiths. And I know for a fact that there is an American Islam. I think there are several. But if we are going to talk about American Islam, we should take into account the largest indigenous American population who are Muslim, African Americans. Many of us are converts, and a number of us are children of converts. Our lives are intimately tied with our non-Muslim family members. In a major event I spoke up and said, “Hey I don’t join an organization or hold an event to participate in interfaith dialogue. I do that everyday with my family and loved ones.” Nothing dispels myths and misconceptions than close personal relationships.

In August, Just before I left the states, Christine Morente of the Oakland Tribune interviewed me about the depiction of African American Muslims. I talked briefly about the role of African American Muslims and their marginalization in the media African-American muslims fight misperceptions. Other commentors have mentioned that African American Muslims have been rendered voiceless in the media. Much of the media focuses on the immigrant struggle integrate in America while maintaining their cultural and religious values. I have also known that in the past decade, immigrant Muslims propel white Muslims to leadership positions. The conversion of a White American affirms their faith, rather than the conversion of those who they deem as lowly and marginalized (but contrary to what many foreign Muslims might think, 3/4 of Black people are living above the poverty line. And many of us are doing well with institutions established like universities, libraries, political lobbies, and large companies).

I became kind of nostalgic for the days when the Warith Deen community was really strong and that there were clear African American Muslim institutions (And Halal Soulfood and catering). Back in the 90s, a lot of Muslims really had it out for culture. Muslim Student groups looked down upon leaders who catered to ethnic communities. The most important identity was Islam. Culture was the source of all bad things. It was the source of nationalism, bida’, superstition, and division. We were one Ummah, there were no differences. Yes, that’s what we learned in halaqas and lectures.

I took Shahada at Masjid Waritheen because the brother (a family friend) figured I’d be freaked out by the gender segregation at MCA. This was even though I lived 45 minutes south of Oakland. Masjid Waritheen’s sunday Ta’alim (pronounced Taaaleem) had the feel of Church. There was call and response. Imam Faheem Shu’aib told us stories and parables that many of us were familiar with in the West. He used Greek myths and parables, historical figures, Prophetic sayings, stories of the Sahabi, Great Muslim leaders, and Western classics to teach. And there was call and response. “Umm hmmm!” “Teach!” “Ameen!” “That’s Right!”
Their modes of dress differed from the dour black, grey, and navy blue abayas and jilbabs Black and white big square scarves pinned neatly beneath chins at the MCA. MCA by the late 90s turned into a modesty contest. The contest for who could be the plainest contrasted directly with my experience at Emmanuel Baptist Church, which was about who could be the fliest at church. There is was a shame if you wore the same outfit twice. But me being the impressionable Muslimah that I was, became a true product of the MCA. I wore the jilbab and big square scarves came to look down upon the sisters who wore bright colorful patterns and African prints.

Even as I became fully entrenched in the whole MCA thing, I felt torn between those two communities. One of the things I struggled with early on in those youth groups and student groups, was that I felt like so many people pulled me in several directions. There were so many causes overseas: Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, Philipines, Afghanistan, etc…. Plus corrupt leaders in the Muslim world who didn’t let Muslims practice Islam and Allah forbid didn’t let young Muslim men wear beards. Their was a critique of the secular leaders, religious repression of the Muslim brotherhood, petty tyrants, Kingdoms (which we were told were haram). There were dreams of revolution and the creation of an Islamic Utopia. As youth, we were the vanguard, we had the energy, we had the sincerity to change everybody’s perceptions of Islam, as well as change the world.

But that stuff started to break down. I was struggling as a young Muslim woman on my own. I felt like no one really cared about social justice issues or economic disparities that affected African Americans. All the zakah money went abroad. There, the need was far greater, in their minds, than the needs in the states. But there were real economic issues that I faced as I tried to put myself through school. Those same economic disparities increased the steady decline of African Americans from the South Bay. Not many African Americans felt like they belonged there or were really wanted there by the organized leadership of the MCA. For me, it was a mixed bag. It was in that community that I forged really strong ties with my immigrant friends (mostly Arab and North African and a few Pakistani and Indian women). But there was always a peripheral feelings. At the same time, when I visited Warith Deen community, I normally got the cold shoulder. I wasn’t Black enough, as evidenced by my “wanna-be-Arab-style-triangle-scarf-and-jilbab.” It seemed like in the women’s parties, we created little utopias where we were all equal. But all of our realities were different.

I struggled to straddle my multiple identities and deal with all the communities that I belonged to. Back in the 90s, I remember an overzealous Arab Muslim woman (who now longer practices or associates with many people in the Muslim community) chewed me out because I wrote a paper about my multiple identities with a title something like this “African American Muslim Woman.” She was upset because I put African American first. She said that Islam should come first. Mind you at that time, I had been Muslim less than two years. Second, even in the MCA, the quickest way to identify me was to say the African American sister. There were only two, so it wasn’t that hard.

Most of my life and cultural values were shaped by my Western and Christian upbringing and experience as a Black child growing up in an integrated community. My conversion experience did reshape how I engaged with those values, cultures, and experiences. Islam became the filter by which I viewed my world, my moral lens, the basic framework that guided my actions and ethics. My engagement with Islam gave me meaning and still to this day, my life’s work is really about understand Islam and how various people understand and live this faith. But at the same time, I’m influenced by Englightenment thinking. Freedom, rational thought, inquiry, questioning, basic underlying assumptions about truth and justice shape my orientation to Islam. When I began my academic career, I realized how much I was a product of multiple worlds. Even when I rebel, it is within that framework. I know there are people who consider me less than Muslim because I don’t conform. There are people who consider me less than American and some who think I’m not Black enough. Who is it that decides how does one engage with the communities that you belong to and who decides for you what those traditions should mean? I am beginning to ramble…knowing this blog entry really started out to talk about how fun Girgian was.

Two Arab Beaches

The other night it was a cool 96 degrees. The temperature is dropping and soon we’ll be able to do outdoor activities in the daytime without feeling like we’re about to drop dead from heat exhaustion. We went to the Beach at night. I put my feet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf for the first time. Too bad people think sandy beaches are one big ash tray. Despite the litter, an evening on the beach was really nice after iftar. Big ships passed by and from a distance they looked like constellations drifting farther and farther away. My experience contrasted with my daytime experience in Casablanca two years ago (I fell in love with Morocco during my first trip three years ago. But like any healthy relationship you recognize your love’s merits and postive traits, as well as their flaws and shortcomings).

Me and my friend Maria took a four hour train ride to Casablanca in order to escape the heat of Fez. There was a pool in our hotel. But I really wanted to find a nice beach. The beaches were packed with men and highschool age boys. It was really around 20 men per woman. There were a few girls in bikinis, but they were clearly with male relatives. We didn’t plan on swimming. So, we walked fully dressed, me in an ankle legnth long skirt and t-shirt and Maria in loose jeans and tunic, to the water.
All I wanted to do was put my feet in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, I swam and body surfed the waves of Atlantic city and I even have vague memories of Chesapeake Bay. So, stepping into the Atlantic on the Coast of Africa had a special meaning to me. Mind you, Morocco as much nicer beaches in the South, but for that time Casablanca had to do. But, the beaches were dominated by men hanging out soaking up the sun. Men laying out walking. And there were of course a few families. But through the whole length of the beach, there were impromptu soccer games that stood in our way to the water. It was scary dodging soccer balls launching across the beaches and men running back and forth. Plus, I had to spend the whole time looking either at the sky or ground and avoiding eye contact.

Both me and Maria got a lot of cat calls. Although Maria is from Bahia Brazil (with all Brazilian flair to go with it), we look like sisters. A couple of times, a few guys sang, “Tamainunil asmarani…” Sometimes the guys would call out, “Soooooooooooosie!” or the standard “Pssspsssspspspspspspspssss! (that cat calling sound)” or “Zwaina!” Sometimes they would ask us questions as we passed by, “Where are you from? Are you Moroccan? Can I just talk to you?…” You learn early on that it is better to ignore an unwanted admirer. Even responded “No.” encourages them. Normally they will follow you, but I never really felt physically threatened in Morocco. This contrasts with the harrassment in I experienced in East San Jose, San Francisco, and East Oakland. I would get called all sorts of B***es and ‘hos. But one time we did get freaked out. A guy started following us. He kept speaking in rapid fire Moroccan, “Where are you from? What’s your name? Please I just want to talk to you? Can I just talk to you?…etc.” We kept walking away, trying to ignore him. Then he grabbed my arm. We both freaked out because this was the first time and only time someone invaded my personal space. We had no place to go but in the water to get away from him. Maria’s pants got soaked to the knees. I don’t know how I didn’t get soaked. After we escaped the over-enthusiastic guy, I tried to spend a few moments experiencing the Atlantic from the other side. That meant blocking out that recent close call, the learing eyes, the soccer games, and the male dominated public space. There are beaches and swimming places dedicated to women. But that day we didn’t make it. For the rest of our trip, me and Maria didn’t attempt to visit the beach again. That was enough for us. We went swimming in the hotel pool and got stared at by random guys on the third and seventh floor.

So, that account of my time on the public beach in Casablanca differed greatly from my experience on a Kuwaiti beach. First, women just don’t walk alone at night in places like Fez. But in Kuwait, it is common to see a woman get her jog on, speed walk, or hustle and bustle to one place or another in the evening. In a way, it made me hopeful that the Muslim societies can allow space for women to move freely without fear and intimidation. I saw a few couples relaxing on the beach. Women were out too. Sometimes in pairs or small groups. Numerous women walked along the path for evening exercise. A few times I saw a woman walk alone. I saw a fully veiled woman with chador flowing from her head to toes and niqab. I also saw regular girls and young women wearing abaya and the loosely wrapped head scarf walking in pairs. I saw Western women walking and an Asian woman in tight jeans and baby-t speed walking. All the women walked unharrassed, even as they passed by small groups of men.