Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

Advertisements

Back, well sort of

 I’m back, well sort of. I’m back in Kuwait from my two week trip to Egypt. Fourteen years ago, I used to only dream of visiting places like al Azhar and the pyramids.  I definitely could not have imagined living in the Gulf.  I became Muslim shortly after the Gulf war ended Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. I definitely could not have imagined that I would thrive here of all places. Like every dream I’ve had and been able to live, my dream of seeing the Middle East turned out so much different than what I expected. Even with this trip to Egypt. It was really a lifetime dream. It was so much different but so much better than I expected. Slowly, over time, I am getting to know Egypt. I am learning how to get around, to find places I love. I’m learning how things work. How things don’t work. And I’ve learned a lot in a short time. I’ve learned that I’m prone to erupt in tears when hungry and frustrated. I’ve learned how much luggage I could lift just to avoid feeling jipped by someone demanding bakteesh. I’ve learned that I can meet people on common ground. I’ve learned to cross the street while cars are racing by, as if I have some force field to repel cars. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned more the obstacles I face in life (the biggest one being myself) and a bit about what it will take to overcome them. I’ve learned that I am here because of the goodness of my brothers and sisters (regardless of race, religion, or creed). All that goodness comes from one source, and for that I am truly blessed.

Taking real trips, avoiding tourist traps, going alone and seeing the down and dirty you get to experience real life. A few years ago, I was able to  see how poor and Middle class Moroccans live. I have mingled with the upper middle class Egyptians, spent way several evenings in city stars, visited a family in the City of the Dead, experienced life in the suburbs of Cairo. I have met religious and western trained scholars, teachers and educators, everyday workers and craftsmen. I have spent 8 hours with a taxi driver conversing  in broken English and Arabic.  I have seen seen beach side resorts, watched a lively Alexandrian woman bargain to have a duffle bag handmade on the spot.  I have ridden on a felucca blasting belly dancing music, watching muhajabats bellydance. I have strolled old palace gardens, ate ice cream outside a pre-modern fort put my feet in the Mediterranean.  I have been on the receiving end of lewd comments and unsolicited flirting. I have had met men who were protective and made sure that I was okay.  I have been hustled and received kind gifts of generosity.

For me, traveling and living abroad is a chance to learn a different way of life. I believe we are made of different so that we can get to know each other, and as we get to know each other, we can learn from each other. I believe travel is a way of learning about yourself, about others. It is an ideal opportunity to transform yourself (and I don’t mean just going native). Some of the things I have experienced really make me want to be a better person. Arab hospitality is something that I have really come to admire.  Years ago, I first experienced it when visiting my Libyan American friends. They fed us hearty North African food, couscous served with savory tomato based stew, lamb soup with cilantro, tomatoes, and pasta, sweets,  Ahmad tea with milk served in beautiful cups. My Muslim friends made us as comfortable as possible frequently asking me to stay the night in order to avoid a long drive in the dark. I never felt unwelcome or that my presence was burdensome. My experiences with Muslims from various cultures raised my bar for hospitality. For fourteen years, I have had high standards to meet. Sometimes I come short. But often, when I grocery shopping I buy something just in case I have a random guest drop by. At minimum, I have an elegant tea set to serve my guests. I love cooking,  I love having people over to share food with. But the pace of life in grad school often sucks up all my spare time. But the value of hospitality is something that I feel is still ingrained in my from my grandmother’s southern roots. The past two weeks in Egypt reminded me how hospitable Arabs can be. The kindness I was shown really warmed my heart. I know that if ever I have a guest, I will try my best to do what was done for me in the past two weeks.

Being away has been nice. It makes you appreciate little things. It makes you appreciate being able to let go of less important things. Walking the streets of Cairo or the malls of Kuwait, so much that seems heavy back in the states lifts away. It is break from the provincial thinking that many Americans have. For the past 7 years I have thought about where I want to live, knowing that I would spend a considerable amount of time in the Middle East and Africa, and maybe even Europe. While abroad reading blogs reminds me about what people are struggling with in the States. I think about those issues, and what type of life I want to lead. Sometimes the prospects and opportunities of teaching in some American University overseas some really great, especially considering the flurry of negative, unconstructive comments.   Although for the most part, my comments have been encouraging  I get frustrated sometimes. It reminds me that going back home means going back to a place full of baggage.

The first time I went to Morocco I felt a sense of relief. Honestly, I felt like it was a break from being Black. By that, I do not mean that I was escaping my Blackness. People did notice my skin color and I was treated differently than my white classmates abroad. I didn’t mind being nothing special on the street. I just kind of blended in.  People noticed my color, made reference to it, but my skin was in a completely different context. I wasn’t just another angry Black woman, nor did people assume that I was. Noone assume that I was from the hood, but they were surprised that I spoke “perfect” English and that my family didn’t immigrate to America. Many people assume I’m African, and a number who have said I look like a black Arab. Maybe because they haven’t been to America or they haven’t been exposed to all the stereotypes and the people who perform them perfectly to a “T.” But no one assumed I had a chip on my shoulder. If I had a grievance and got loud, that’s no problem because that’s what everyone does here. Arab women can be very dramatic bargaining or expressing complaints about services rendered. I never had to get too dramatic often ticket agents examining the size of my head luggage or forgiving the extra luggage would  say  things like, “I like to be kind to my American Muslim sister.” Many Egyptians and Kuwaitis don’t seem to assume that I’m un-marriageable. I meet women of various ages and they say things like, “Maybe  you will find somewhere here and stay” or “Marry an Egyptian and move here.”

I am not saying that this is solution to all my worries. But that not everybody is looking through a racialized lens every living breathing, waking moment. Nor do I claim that everything is perfect or that I’m living in a utopia. There are struggles, there are challenges, but I have been embraced by an amazing group of people. I miss my family like nothing else. But I’m not ready to go back to the States. Not yet.

Traveling

I haven’t written any blog entries because I’m traveling in Egypt until the 4th. I slept only an hour the night before the trip. I normally can’t sleep before a trip. So, I looked really tired when I arrived in Alexandria.  My Egyptian friend who spent several years in California with her husband met me at the airport. I swear, she and her family are among the nicest people you could possibly meet. That was evident back in California. But we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together before she and her husband returned to Egypt to start their lives.  Her family exemplified the Arab hospitality. The only comparable hospitality in the US would be maybe Southern, even though I’ve met really kind mid-westerners.   But even then, it is nothing on Arab hospitality. My hosts kept feeding me, and my friend’s mother-in-law gave me snacks and sweets to take with me on my 2  hour train ride to Cairo. Her father-in-law gave me a Qur’an with tajweed markings (which is soooooooo helpful). Also, since my purse’s zipper broke, they gave me a purse to carry all my things. I spend several hours with the family. They were so kind, and even gave me compliments on my Arabic (which was more than generous because it needs a lot of work).I was pretty nervous before leaving on the train. But my friend was really helpful, guiding me along the way and making sure I understood the illegible writing on the ticket (seriously it printed so faintly I could barely make out the numbers).  I always get nervous about train rides, in the US or abroad. Something about missing the stop, getting off too early, it just makes me nervous. I managed to get a second class ticket at 7:15, with an arrival time of 9:30 in Cairo.  I think I dozed off several times on the train ride. But I listened to my ipod, with each song bringing bringing back memories of someone or some place. Some songs brought back old feelings, as the time passed I kept thinking about how sweet or sad an experience was for me. I tried to set aside any preconceived notions. But I didn’t want to talk too much or stand out. It helped that I wore abaya. My friend noted that I didn’t stand out much as a foreigner. She noted that I looked like any African, like I could be Egyptian. She just said try not to be noticeable or speak loudly. I guess most Egyptians get confused, I am sure they assume I’m dumb because I can barely understand or it takes me a while to process what they’re saying. But overall, I didn’t get haggled too much as a foreigner and in general, people were courteous and helped me with my luggage as I struggled along. When I arrived in Cairo,  I slipped by a sleazy taxi cab driver and found a man that looked about 100 years old. He asked if I needed a taxi. I said “na’em,” like a good foreigner. I then told him Nasr city and pulled out address from my phone. He said 30 EGP, I said I heard 20 EGP. He said 25, I said, “tayyib.”  I’m staying with friends, who are also amazing hosts. It is really interesting to see the expat American Muslims, Arab Americans, British Arabs, as they manage lives in the hustle and bustle of Cairo. It gives me a chance to know what I’m in for. I guess I won’t be so overwhelmed when I come to live in Cairo to do research and continue studying Arabic. I don’t make it a point to do touristic things. Of course I want to see things. Coming to Egypt is  like a dream. I can’t believe I’m within reach of some of the most historical sites. I guess that’s why I’m not in such a rush to see everything. I have a fear that I’m going to impose some preconceived notions on this experience. Still want to see pyramids, al-Azhar, old markets, and even the cheesy touristy spots. But it is nice to just visit friends, get to know new people, and get a sense of the way of life.  

Performance Anxiety

I admit it…I have performance anxiety. Everytime I have to bring it, I fear that I will fall short. I’m not saying I’m an old pro, but I’ve doing it for over 14 years. I learned on my own, self-conscious, stumbling, bumbling, not knowing if I had the right rhythm or flow. I still make mistakes and get real awkward. I’ve read books, watched videos, listened to tapes,and I’ve been guided step by step. Even with all those efforts whenever I have to recite some Qur’an in front of people I get really nervous. Even when I read a regular Arabic text, even if it is voweled, it is clear I’m not a good Qur’an reader. If I was, then somehow I’d read it smoothly, finding natural breaks and random words. Since my first Arabic class, in fact, I hated reading out loud. I’d stumble over words trying to guess the harakat (short vowels).

It took me a while to begin to even wrap my mouth around some Arabic words. When I first converted in Fall 1993, I prayed in English. After I memorized the steps and saying in each part of salat, I graduated to transliterations. I had notecards that I used to hold with color coded text. What helped me through the transliteration was this CD with Abdul Basit. The great thing about the CD was that after each ayah there was this guy with a deep voice reading the meaning. So, as I learned the short Surahs in Arabic, I also memorized the meanings. In Spring 1994 an Iraqi student taught me the alphabet and basic reading. I am forever grateful because she opened so many doors. But sometimes when I’d read along with a text, I’d question my ears. I though I heard an “m,” but the final letter was a “noon.” What used to get me was Ikhlas, I kept hearing “wa lam yakul lahu” but I read “wa lam yakun lahu.” I knew there was some special magic skill of recitation. But I didn’t know that they called it tajweed. I recited my fatihah and my short surahs like Abdul Basit. Well, not quite. My voice is terrible and besides that I kept self correcting from what I heard and what I read.

I still think about my three surahs. I used to work those three surahs. In fact, many imams at that time used to work them too. The thing that used to get me was that immigrant religious leaders know those long surahs. But at that time, many of the indigenous Muslims had a very different knowledge base. They were charismatic, addressed social justice issues, and mostly African American. Many of these imams were well read and their khutbahs covered a wide range of subjects, literary and historical references. Many of these imams blended cultural references that I was familiar with along with Islamic references that I was just beginning to learn. It was clear that they did their homework, dedicated a lot of time to developing khutbahs or dars that were relevant to their communities. And their talks appealed to many second generation immigrants who were born or grew up in America.

In my own newbie stage, I was just becoming aware of the tensions between indigenous American born Muslims and immigrants. There were arguments about who would lead prayer. I heard complaints about African American brothers never able to lead prayer. Enthusiastic Muslims wanted to receive some barakah for leading prayer. Oh but this brother from Syria has tajweed, this other brother from Pakistan memorized more Qur’an. The converts had Abdul Basit, just like me. Sure, I wanted to memorize more Qur’an and how to recite, but I also wanted to understand the Qur’an. That’s when my farfetched dream of learning Arabic began. During that time, programs like Institute for Arabic and Islamic sciences seemed to be just kicking off and there wasn’t a Zaytuna. It was rare to hear of male converts, let alone women, travelling to learn Qur’an, Arabic, Fiqh, etc. I’m not saying that there weren’t Arabic and tajweed classes, halaqas, and attempts at MCA. I remember stepping into my first Arabic class at MCA. It was actually Hamza Yusuf teaching Arabs the intricacies of grammar. It was so advanced and discouraging, I didn’t go back. I went back to my Abdul Basit CDs and for years that was the way that I learned Quran.

It wasn’t until 1996 when I joined a halaqa in Boston that I actually had to read Qur’an in front of someone. That’s when I learned that I was a terrible reader. But the women in the group were patient. And they pushed me, while correcting me. All of the women had grown up in the States. They all had some Islamic education, even if it was only Islamic Sunday school. But that was years of edification. When I was on the East coast, I had few friends. So, I had a lot of spare time to begin to expand beyond the 5 surahs I knew at the time. And my co-halaqists assigned me Surat al-Abasa. I remember thinking that it was impossible for my mind to reproduce something like that. But peer pressure does amazing things. So, I’d spend hours, me and Abdul Basit, and my Qur’an preparing for the D-Day when I’d have to demonstrate that I got another ayah under my belt. Over the years, I’ve discovered my amazing ability to memorize things and promptly forget other similar things. My hiatus didn’t help. But over the years, when I set my mind to memorize something, I’ve drawn on the same technique.

That sort of changed when I took a tajweed class at Middlebury in 2005. Once a week, I’d have to face my worst fears. That’s when I knew I had some serious performance anxiety. My heart would beat harder. My palms would sweat. I’d stutter. I wanted to get it right. There were times I questioned why did I want to do so well. Finally, I learned why I heard my old friend Abdul Basit say one thing and read another. I memorized new Surahs without my old friend Abdul Basit. The most trying part of the class was that I had to read in front of the school. I picked the most simple surah. I had this knee jerk reaction to reciting in front of people. I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t add any of the notes to embellish my recitation. It was dry, dead-pan. The deadpan style that I recited in contrasted with the chaos that was going on in my body. I read as my heart raced, I felt like I could barely breath, and of course my palms sweated. I was relieved to finish and from that time I avoided reading in public.

As I’m trying to piece together a program for Arabic study, I realize that a huge part of my learning process is reading Qur’an. Since I started studying Arabic so many native Arabic speakers have said that reading the Qur’an is so helpful. I have other motivations. It is sort of like your pride is wounded as a not so new Muslim. I mean, when a six year old knows more Qur’an than me (and I’ve been Muslim more than twice his age), I know I suck. I’ve had people ask me how much Qur’an I know. Shoot, not even a juz (30th part). I’m working on that. I’m just hoping I don’t get the surahs mixed up. Make du’a for me, I’m always afraid that I’ll butcher Allah’s book as I stumble through the learning process.

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

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.