Tuesday, May 15, 2012

To Be Fought For

I have several major “takeaways” from my short time in one of the most intricate cultures I have personally encountered. I’m fascinated with the beauty, strength and volatility I experienced in the desert, and how it has carved out a safe home in my fragile heart. I think the special insight I’m able to add to it today is that I’m almost a full year away from it all. The sand and dust are out of my sheets and hair, and I’ve learned to restrain myself from kissing every woman and child “Hello.” This week, for my final post, I’ve chosen to share with you just one takeaway—probably the one that shows up in the most powerful and profound ways in my life today. It’s simply that… the LORD God fights for me.

Back in my good ole’ college days, I memorized Zephaniah 3.17, and it has come alive to me in the last two years:

The LORD your God wins victory after victory
and is always with you.
He celebrates and sings because of you,
and He will refresh your life with His love.

And I left for the desert with this verse quietly weaving itself to my heart:

I sought the LORD,
and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to Him are radiant
and their faces shall never be ashamed.

Psalm 34.4&5 (ESV)

Being a single, foreign, young woman in the ME… is not for the faint of heart. In all honesty, it’s left me bruised and calloused towards power structures and societal frameworks bearing oppressive norms on women, while opening my eyes to the same in my own culture. What I mean is, I can’t tell you what it did to my heart to muster up the courage to enter a government building, best prepared as I could be with Arabic forms filled out, copies of my passport, everything… to get through a chilling security pat down and find the right “line,” only to be obstinately ignored. My presence meant nothing. No “Peace be upon you” or “God give you strength for your work” or “Hello, Mister” helped. No eye contact or acknowledgment of me would be made—just downcast eyes, smoke-filled rooms and finally, the waves of hands dismissing me.

So I’d leave. [In a rage of frustration and anger.] Get a taxi and beg some man—American, Canadian or Arab—to accompany me. Suddenly, as if in a play, the men previously on eternal coffee breaks came to life and wanted to help me. Well, the man I brought with me. The message was clear: I’m not enough.

The stark contrast to the cat-calling shebab and creepy men following me down the street at night was this: complete disregard. But in both on-going scenarios I was taught that I was nothing without a man.
I’m not saying I ever got over it and definitely never accepted it—but I did have to deal with it and navigate the protocol. The thing about being single was that I always had to enlist a man for help. None of them had made a “till death do us part” promise to go with me. [They did it out of the kindness of their hearts and schedules.] I didn’t have anyone sticking up for me, speaking for me or fighting for me—even when I was wrong. I didn’t have someone with me.

But I did. Even though I had to learn how to ask for help [and sometimes go through several men till I found that help], I learned that I was not alone. Those words kept being whispered to my heart: I win victory after victory and I am always with you… Seek Me, I’ll deliver you… Do not be ashamed!!” It was often the only encouragement I found when walking the streets alone, trying to get a taxi, crying at a fruit stand, or falling asleep during a long, hot visit in someone’s home after eating. [Again.]

For me, Father has revealed Himself to me in powerful ways and His promise to always be with me has rung true. He’s spoken softly in the quiet of my heart, through His Children and through His Word. Many times, I was like Moses when he desperately asked our Father in Exodus 33, “Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct…?” Or in other words: Father, what else will distinguish me, other than Your presence in my life?? Please! Go with me!!

If there’s nothing you ever “get” from reading The Yellow Dress: and other things we do for Love, get this: The LORD your God fights for you. He represents you. He is ever-present in your life. He works great and mighty deeds. It is His presence in your life that causes you to stand in awe and press on. To press on in language learning, in cooking local food, in gaining the endurance to visit for hours, to rest in the desert heat, to be away from “home,” to know Him and make Him known through your life. Press on, friends! It is only His favor and His presence in us that causes us to be distinct from the world—wherever you are in the world. You are His and He is with you, wherever you go. He stands as a strong, victorious Warrior, making you to shine like the day.

Watch what God does, and then you do it,
like children who learn proper behavior from their parents.
Mostly what God does is love you.
Keep company with Him and learn a life of love.
Observe how Christ loved us.
His love was not cautious, but extravagant.
He didn't love in order to get something from us,
but to give everything of Himself to us.
Love like that.
(Ephesians 5.1&2, The Message)

Going with God,



Monday, May 14, 2012

The Yellow Dress: A Tribute

What a privilege to have worked with such a talented woman...the girl can write! But more than that, she can pour out her heart and make me see what it is like to serve Him in a dry and weary land. Thank you, Sarah, for being a friend of God and His children. ~Cindy Blomquist, WOTH Editor

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

VOTE: Yellow Dress Contest

YEA to all the women who submitted their Yellow Dress photos!

Everyone please vote for your favorite...stuffing the ballot box for your fav is encouraged! The winner will receive a $25 iTunes gift card.

Remember: Sarah's last post will be next week...if you have never posted a comment all year, I'm encouraging you to do so next week. Courage. Gratitude. Sisters of the Yellow Dress unite!

PHOTO #1: Kenyan Girl | Kelsey Lane

PHOTO #2: Two At the Market  | Dawn Goebbels

PHOTO #3: He ain't Heavy | Dawn Goebbels

PHOTO #4: Easter Chickie-lou | Phyllis Hunsacker

PHOTO # 5: Mexican Wrap | Jamie Loker

PHOTO #6: This screams YELLOW! | Liz Crittendon

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

To Be Alone

It’s happening. Every day takes me further away, making the desert my memory instead of my reality. Cindy, WOTH Editor, tells me that, “We write so we don’t forget.” And can I tell you something? I’d rather not document all of this, but… I don’t wanna forget it…because He’s so good. Maybe you’ve been here, too… or maybe you’re headed here. Either way: Welcome to the Uncomfortable.

So, I’m being totally awkward and withdrawn and people are reaching out to me and being mostly wonderful and I…. just stare at them. Like they’re the ones being weirdos. Inside my big, lethargic body, I’m squirming around in gratefulness and delight, but I can’t communicate it. I can’t give the right expression or say the right words. I can’t appropriately respond to their initiation because I feel imprisoned… just locked in a foreign language, time and space. Alone. Again. [Like I was in the desert.]

No other American shared my desert work experience. I spent HOURS every day in my head. [Trust me—you don’t want in there.] Surrounded by women cluck-cluck-clucking, playing with my hair, poking my stomach, examining my eyebrows, studying my clothes and talking about me… in Arabic. Bored, embarrassed, stuck, alone. I marveled at my days and friendships, at my unprecedented boldness and strength. I grieved my lack of language and style, my youth and my weakness. Even in the adventure, every day was wildly predictable: I’d be alone.
I’m approaching a full two years of not being known, of no one in my daily life being able to understand me. It’s not anyone’s fault that they weren’t with me in the desert—totally not. But I can’t fully articulate where I’m at right now, and I’m the one who is responsible for navigating these changes. These changes in me.

A wretched reality of the Shagra in TYD is that I’m [seemingly] strong. StrengthsFinder will tell you that I’m an outrageously empathetic-believing-wooing-developer of people who values connectedness and has a strong sense of responsibility. What StrengthsFinder won’t tell you is that I feel I’ve run out of these strengths. “New norms” have made me weak, but people around me don’t recognize that I’ve stopped interacting till I’m at the point of being fully recoiled and closed, if at all. Again: Not their fault.

I’ve also decided that the English language needs more words, too. Because I’ve been examining myself and wanted to say that… I don’t feel lonely. Not most of the time. The alone I’m speaking of is that of isolation and separation. Like I’m some steps behind… that I’m not included… like there’s something I’m not understanding…

I can tell you that my heart has been singing this past week—well, it’s been singing the blues, but it’s better than being silent, amen? Dear, dear photo book friend is in the States and I can reach her by text. So, of course, we skip the chit chat and go straight for the heart wrenching topics. Over text. But she knows. She knows the wounded parts of me—the depths that are silently sliced open when I don’t know what to say to a friend who wants me to “talk” or when a story actually finds its way out of my soul and past my lips and… then, no one knows how to respond. She knows because she shares this with me.  And as I was crying in a Starbucks in California [yeah, I guess it’s what I do these days], she found herself a side street in New York to mourn her own last desert days, anticipating her photo book…

It hurts—this coming and going. And, in many ways, I don’t feel like I know myself anymore. But in the past months, while clumsily finding my way, I’ve come to see these natural stages of reverse-culture shock as one more thing I’m willing to endure for Love. My alone-ness has caused me to talk to Him and want Him more—for Him to show Himself as Comforter. It’s given me words for those anticipating their own arrivals and departures. It’s opened my eyes to the reality of the Son’s time on earth—how He really had no one who knew Him.  

I’m embracing that fact that “I’m ruined” in so many ways. I can’t understand and have trouble managing much of it, but I’ve been wrapped in the joy in my aches and tears. I’ve found that I don’t want to forget how I avoid. And divert. And am grieving.


And so I write…
About how I’m okay with it.
I know I’m not always going to feel this way…
It’s just another valley He’s walking me…carrying me through.
So I’m taking an emotional picture
and thanking God for this season:
A time for me to be alone

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Packing, Three Stories and a Picture Book

“My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away…
but every now and then you come to mind…”

--Sheryl Crow

I literally almost had a panic attack about packing. It came down to the point that I actually, physically, couldn’t do it. My decision to “be all there” hindered any ideas of organizing… stuff. Buying presents, giving away nearly all my clothes and household items, and fitting what was left over into three bags [or the trash] was an overwhelming task. What I couldn’t bear was knowing that there was a clock somewhere inside of me that was just ticking away. Every moment I spent packing and cleaning my apartment was one more moment not spent with a friend. All the times I had previously wished to be in the States ran through my head like a slideshow and I deeply regretted those moments—thinking, “If only I felt then the way I feel now, I would have approached those days so differently.”

I didn’t want to leave.
But for my sanity, for my emotional health,
for viable living, I had to.
And so I packed up and I left.

I approached my last 10 days or so with a treasuring in my heart, with audible whispers in my soul telling me, “You’re going to miss this.” [By now, you know TYD dramatic flair—imagine it in full force with anticipatory nostalgia fueling it all.] With every [dumb] material item stuffed in a bag, I exponentially bottled up an emotion and a memory. Even today, I am still unpacking [or maybe ignoring] some boxes from my one year in the ME.

Some really good advice that I got was to prepare three different stories:

1. A story for someone who says, “Hey! Good to see you! How was your trip?”
First of all, it wasn’t a trip. This person has an attention span of approximately 14 seconds, so share some sweet, light-hearted, cultural/language faux pas story. They’ve got places to go, and, really… you might cry when you look up to see their reaction and find that they’ve… left you. Standing there. Talking. To yourself. [Yes. This happened to me.]

2. A story for someone who says, “Ah! I’m so glad you’re back! What do you miss the most??”
This person knows your name, read your blog/newsletter and might have actually prayed for you. They deserve a 2-3 minute story about something of your newly past life and are actually willing to listen to you for a few minutes.

3. A story for someone who invites you to coffee or dinner and says, “Tell me about...”
This person is invested and is setting time and distractions aside to know. To know your day-to-day life, to hear about your friends and to see how you’ve changed. [You know you’ve changed, right?]

For me… well… I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to share. I felt like—no, I’ll be honest: I feel like I have too much context to set up, and everyone’s apparently already an expert on the Middle East and “A-Rabs,” that I didn’t don’t have much room to… unpack. I can’t do an entire world justice in the 34 seconds someone gives me, so instead of having three stories ready, I just smile that Sarah smile and say, “I loved it and I miss my friends so much. The food was delicious and I can’t wait to go back.”

And that about shuts everyone up—at least the #1s and the #2s. And I keep smiling. [Because I like throwing people off and smashing their (false) ideas of the ME.]

For the #3s in my life, I hand them a picture book that my dear, dear friend made for me [by sneaking onto my computer when I wasn’t home and copying photos]. Each picture has a story and so I let them ask me about the photo that most interests them and then I share that story. This picture book has saved me a million times over—unlike my advice, I didn’t have those three stories prepared. [I was serious when I said I didn’t want to talk about it.] When you share, though, be completely positive about your experience in the first 8 minutes. Why ruin an opportunity to tell of His great works with a complaint or hardship? [Save it for later—He’ll send you someone who can carry that with you.]

I think it’s both good and bad that my joys and trials are safely tucked within me. I’m approaching 10 months away from my desert and I’m still protecting my “yesterdays.” They’re alive inside me, so precious to me, and sometimes I let them out. [I know I should more often than I do.] They are most easily coaxed out when someone actually asks me a thoughtful question, when they sit down, point to a photo and say: “Tell me about her.”

It happened.
At [an early] coffee.
So I made her take this picture:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Back to Amreeka: They Don't Know...

April is going to be my month of reflection and saying goodbye.
This one’s for those who have asked me
about “transitioning back to the States.”

The thing about being a shagra [blondie] in the desert is that people spot you a kilometer away. And they watch you. And they wonder about you. They call out to you. They welcome you. And sometimes they follow you. Well, in the States, no one knows about my secret: that I'm ruined. They don't know that just 24 hours ago I was sitting on a concrete floor sipping mint tea with my friend, “Amina.” Or that just 3 months ago I was dragged onto a bus filled with women dancing, smoking, singing and just cluck-cluck-clucking. In my face. At a volume that still makes my ears ring. They don't know that I can [barely] communicate in Arabic, or that just 9 months ago, I was a minor celebrity in a teeny-tiny-Middle-Eastern city. Nope. They don't even notice me. And if they do, they're wondering why my clothes don't quite fit or why I’ll approach three women for directions before remembering that it's okay for me to accost a man.

They don't know that I secretly talk myself into eating with my left hand. Or that I had to have a little discussion with myself about wearing a short sleeve shirt without the cardigan. They don't know that I worry about letting the water run for one unused second or that I feel totally guilty about taking a 10 minute shower. They don't know why I stare at women with head coverings or why I crane my neck to see, just see, if maybe that couple, just maybe, is speaking "my kind" of Arabic. They don't know that I almost kissed that woman when she hugged me or that I totally recoiled and cringed when that guy gave me a hug. They don't.

They don't know that I sometimes struggle going to church on Sundays or that I'm beaming because I simply just said something like my Love's Name aloud without some modification. They don't know that I still get nervous about visiting websites with articles that have words I'm supposed to avoid. They don't know that I actually needed this scarf a year ago and now it's just “a cute accessory.” No. Actually, someone with six kids sold it to me on a street corner after asking me if I knew Justin Bieber.

I had to come to terms with the fact that everyone was waiting on me to be “normal” again. To not get upset when someone at a cash register hands me my change, thereby touching me, instead of placing it on the counter or on a small dish for me to collect without making contact. They're waiting for me fight the urge to systematically greet everyone in the room, to drive in between the dashed lines on the road and... wait in a line. Silently. [What. Ever. America. Totally ridiculous and uptight of you.] They don't know that I love women who sit too close to me, who feed me when I’m not even hungry and who pray over me to find a husband… yesterday.

Father has given me a peace and a delight in this. I no longer need to explain to every person I meet that, “Oh, I've never seen that show because I wasn't in the States when it came out.” Nope. They don't need to know, I don't need to talk about it and I don't need them to know.

Turns out, I still get a little upset when people ask me what color my burka was. [Yellow. With purple polka dots, of course.] But, slowly, He started bringing me people to talk to and share with—those who’ve traveled and lived abroad more outrageously than I. People who have their own “Aminas” and “Mohammads” and “falafel moments.” And they have shown me that they are able to engage in both worlds with a beautiful balance.

In the months before I left the ME, people kept urging me to disengage and transition back. And I made a conscious decision to “be all there, wherever I was.” And I don't regret that at all—I’d do it again. What I do regret was that I failed to apply that rule when I started over in the States. I’m being taught to “be all here”even while large chunks of my heart are in another world, with another people. I think it's a most excellent problem to have—the challenge to balance yourself, your interests, your relationships, your conversations, your love. I'm here for “such a time as this”—to engage with those who are right before me. This is a reality, too, and this American life is worthy of my full attention and energy, especially when I firmly believe that our Father is forever sustaining us, preparing us and directing our steps.

He's beautifully writing a story of my days,
and those days will forever include
my sweet Desert City and all it entails.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Have Life

In my first weeks in the Middle East, I quickly erased six simple words from my vocabulary: “My dad would kill me, if…” Because the reality of those whom I spent most of my time was just that: Their dads [and brothers] would kill them, if… they texted a secret boyfriend. Left the house with “too loose” of a head covering. Didn’t come home straight after school. Were attacked or raped.

They’re called “honor killings.” [Or in other parts of the world: “Dowry Deaths” and “Crimes of Passion.”] And the idea is that somewhere, somehow, honor from the family has been lost. In order for it to be replenished, the one who brought the loss on the family has to pay. Traditionally, in Arab cultures, women hold the honor in the family. Or in other words: The family’s reputation falls on them and they can really do nothing to increase its value—they can only dirty or decrease it. And if this so-called “honor” has somehow been stained or taken away from the family, the woman [or the girl] pays. With her blood. These aren’t voluntary. These are pre-meditated attacks and murders by male family members on their own mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. [Most often the other women in the family not only support the attacks, but also aid in carrying out these murders.]

But there is nothing “honorable” about them.

As if the tradition and community acceptance of these acts of violence against women isn’t horrid enough, governments in over 30 countries [not only Arab countries] allow them to happen and have simply made room for them within their “modern” judiciary systems. The government and authorities see these passion crimes as a matter of the family—not the law. If the murder of a 16-year old girl is found to be in “a fit of rage” and “for the sake of the family’s honor,” her killers [most presumably, her immediate family members] will not be imprisoned. It’s custom and law that the case will not even be a case at all. Her death will see no justice. She’ll be buried in the backyard, in some unmarked grave, and the record of her existence will be erased—her family will never speak her name again.

There is nothing in the Q. book that permits or authorizes these “honor killings.” But the idea that women are property of men, with no rights of their own, is deeply rooted in Islamic [and other patriarchical] cultures. These crimes aren’t regarded as such on the governmental level because, well, the core unit of society [the family] practices them. Marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, seeking a divorce from a violent husband, seeming to be “too sexy,” even failing to serve a meal on time—these have all been “reasons” for honor killings. A man murdered his wife based on a dream that she had betrayed him, and in Turkey, a young woman’s throat was slit in the town square because a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio. Often, women are stabbed in their sleep, with no opportunity to prove their innocence. And quite regularly, it is their teenaged brothers who are forced to carry out their murders under the direction of their parents. [In case of improbable legal action, these minors would see a lighter penalty (maybe three months in a rehabilitation center) as opposed to the adults (maybe one year in the same place).]

These systematic acts of gender violence are not new. In our Book, we see the Teacher stop an honor killing—the one where they bring out the adulterous woman. Well, I’ve always wanted to point out that she had to have been with an adulterous man, ya know. But we don’t see him being brought out, presumably naked, to be stoned.

I know how He handled it. He dismissed it and granted her freedom and a second chance. The only worthy Judge ruled for life and redemption where humans saw shame and a need for death. He didn’t condone a killing for a proven wrong, leading me to believe that He certainly wouldn’t approve of a murder for a supposed [and unproven] sin. Honor killings, dowry deaths and crimes of passion occur every day in our world, and maybe in your country… Among the very people that some of us have come to love with our hearts and lives.

And so how do we navigate that?
How do we interact with people
who have been trained to believe
that there is no redemption,
no second chance in life?
How do we begin to instill a thought that
there is a God Who is Good and Just,
Who longs to rescue us from our own selves,
Who is slow to anger and
rich in steadfast, unwavering Love?
That they, as females, are worthy of Love?

That He knows their names?
That He wants them to know Him?

That He came so that they may have LIFE?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Superpowers, Reality and "My Fault"

If I were to have any super power I wanted, I would definitely choose “Invisibility.”

Sometimes I forgot how emotionally draining it was to walk outside my house. One major stressor I came face-to-face with while living in the Middle East was my own presence. Unlike my entire life before the desert, I became starkly aware and concerned about how I looked and carried myself. I could do nothing to fit in—only draw attention. People could spot me literally a mile away. And they’d watch me come for that mile and they’d watch me go for the next. I couldn’t escape the stares, the licking lips, the snickers, the singing, the comments, the kissing sounds, the whistles. I dressed conservatively, not showing any skin and hardly any form, yet I’d still be undressed by their eyes.

What bothered me the most was that it was so unwanted, so uninvited and totally unwarranted.

What they didn’t know was that as their stares burned holes in my soul and my jeans, I was on my way home to tell the world about them. About how their curiosity and vulgarity were going to make the headlines in my daily report, about how their stares and creepy smiles made my worth waver, about how I somehow feel smaller and lesser because... they looked at me. Like that. And there’s nothing I can do? Come on! How come they get to win and I get to be drained?

And to pour heaps of salt into my wounds, I was told and expected to believe that it was my fault.

To my utter surprise, I have literally stopped trucks, halted guards from washing cars and caused soldiers to abandon posts. [I never dreamed I could be such a diversion!!] “I didn’t want to walk by you—I had to,” is what I’d think. I locked my jaw, stared straight ahead, remembered that I wanted a strong posture and to just pass them. [And then I’d pray for God to send some more men to my city to go to them and build relationships with them.] Because I couldn’t do anything. Sometimes I’d turn and watch them, trying to shame them, letting them know that I was watching them watch me or video me with their camera phones. But I’d just get mad. Not the raging anger—it was the hurting anger, the kind of deep aching that brings hot tears to your eyes, for both them and yourself.

I’ve had Arab friends and their family members ask me what the hardest thing about living there was and I’ve openly, yet selectively, shared with them these frustrations. They resorted to many excuses and usually laughter, saying something like: “Well, Sah-rrrrah, it’s your fault. You’re asking for it. You’re blonde and have blue eyes. [Actually they’re gray and yellow.] You smile at little children and play with them on the street. You speak in Arabic to the store owners and to the taxi drivers. You don’t wear a [long overcoat]. Of course you’re going to get this attention. What you need to do is hide yourself, away from them. They can’t control themselves—they can’t help it.”

This attitude that men can’t help themselves or hold any kind of self-control just boggles my mind. And what further damages my psyche is that this was an accepted explanation. That women would say this in front of men, and vice versa, and they would both nod their heads in agreement. It was okay to them that I [and every other female] be treated this way, have to dress a certain way, to act a certain way, to be intimidated, because… they can’t help themselves. Entire societies are built in compliance to this gender attitude.

Men are allowed to act this way. And somehow, it’s my fault.

It was stifling and I felt as though the wings of my heart had been clipped. Furthermore, I wonder at the aches they have in their own hearts. I grieve over these accepted and perpetuated gender attitudes. And how mine couldn’t be entertained because what I was doing, in expressing my “hardship” and “reality,” was shaming their men and their culture.

And so, I’d turn inside and wonder how it was my fault—What? That I was born? That I was there? What? The sunset’s call to prayer would sound and I would be hidden. I’d be tucked away in my little apartment, reveling in the fact that at least in there, they couldn’t see me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Compliments: Truth or Flattery?

{{From one year ago… Make sure you stop by my “Latest News” tab and read… my latest news. :)}}

So the other day I was out with my ten, sweet workplace-friends having lunch. And as is the recent norm, they were talking about how dumb it is that I'm leaving them.
[We're not exactly creative people::: we keep having the same conversation.] Then, without me even noticing, because they're SO present, came the jokes about getting married & the offers for them to just "find a guy" for me. A nice, Arab man. Do I want a Mus. or Chr.? How many kids am I planning to have? etc. etc. [They're funny aren't they?]

And suddenly, there it was: One of the most profound compliments I think I've received being here, and from one of the women I most respect...

"You should do it. I think you could cope," she said, in all seriousness, cigarette in hand.

“I’m sorry?!”

"I think you could handle marrying an Arab and living here. You could do it—so just do it. You've proved yourself," she said as she blew smoke out the side of her mouth. "And then we won't lose you for next year," she added, laughing.

“Except to maternity leave, right?” I responded as we laughed together.

Then I clicked my tongue at her and raised my eyebrows, signaling a firm "no."

But my heart's smile overcame my face and,
in the loud restaurant, across the table,
we shared a little moment
as I mouthed a sincere "Thanks" to her.
She smiled at me as she took a sip from her glass
and tapped down the ashes from
her cigarette into the ashtray, refolding her arms,
and finally taking a nice, long drag from it.
And as soon as it came, it left again,
and we were on to the next topic.

That's all it was.

That was it.

But why I'll remember it for a long time is because it says a lot about what she thinks of me. And I'll be the first to admit—I’m just dying for feedback!

I was most intimidated by her when I first started a short ten months ago, but she quickly became my role model, mentor and friend. And when I feel like most days I'm just flailing my arms, spazzing out and being some awkward duck who's not even trying to fit in, a comment like this, from her, speaks volumes to me.

I think many of the women I work with have been watching and waiting for my mess-ups and blunders. Some are supportive and encouraging, others are jealous and rude, many just ignore me...
[...or maybe I ignore them?]... At any rate, in general, from the women outside these ten,
it's been a shallow and isolated "welcome."

But my friend just let me in on her secret: she doesn't think I'm like all the other American girls who come to the Middle East for whatever reason. She thinks I'm legit and that I could “handle” an Arab husband.

Marriage here isn’t what it is in the States—or in my head. Sociologically speaking, it can be said of families within the States that the strongest relationship is the husband-wife. Obviously, the divorce rate is high, but even still—it’s the strongest family bond. In a Mus., Arab context, the strongest familial bond is that of mother-son. And so, when a woman [often a girl of 17-21 years of age] is married, it is usually [not always] an arranged [and sometimes forced] marriage. This marriage isn’t necessarily expected to be one of companionship or partnership, but rather one of procreation and service. The wife provides for her husband’s family by bearing children [preferably sons] as well as taking care of the home and upholding the family honor. There are dowries and bride prices [separate customs] in place for different groups and traditions, and a “good” family name, money and virginity are all key to a successful match. It is true that Is. allows a man to have four wives if he can equally provide for all wives. Usually women who are “beneath” him, are divorced or “damaged goods” in some way, or those who are older virgins are cheaper brides and make excellent candidates for second, third and fourth wives.

All this to say, that while I’m not currently entertaining these options, it was quite a gift to be told that I could make it in her world. [Please read: Not all families treat marriage this way, however, it can be said that this is a prevalent and accepted norm. There are marriages for love and I personally know a few American women who have incredible marriages and families with Arab spouses.] And while there are obvious, additional challenges in cross-cultural marriage and living, my friend welcomed the idea of me being part of her people. [And meeting her brother…]

It could be her flattering me…
but I’m choosing to take this compliment as her truth.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just One Man

About fifteen months ago, a man my age made a momentous decision: he set himself on fire.

December 2010: A twenty-six year old man named Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole-bread winner for his family of seven in Tunisia [his mom and five siblings]. He was a fruit vendor. You know the guys, they have those little carts full of fruit and they’ll even cut a piece open for you to taste the sweetness of strawberries and melons and the like. He’s said to have been trustworthy and popular among his peers. Since he had been providing for his family since he was twelve-years old by selling fruit on the streets, he had a history of being harassed and required to pay more than his “fair share” of extralegal bribes to petty officials. “Early” in the morning on the 17th, [yes, 10am is a little early in some parts of the Arab world], he started his day, hopeful for plenty of business to not only pay back his creditors, but also to take home some money and provide food for his family that week. [He paid for food and housing, as well as his sisters’ tuition in university.]

Most accounts go that a female official wanted him to shut down his work for the day and he refused. She slapped or spat on him, cursed his deceased father’s name, confiscated his scales and discarded his cart and produce. In addition, witnesses have confirmed that he was beaten by her aides. He was irate that there was no way for him to provide for his family and for this public SHAMING and abuse that he had suffered. He ran to the mayor’s office to report the incident and ask for his scales to be returned [his only means for business]. When his request to be seen was refused, he obtained some paint thinner and returned to the government building. At 11.30am, amidst traffic and the bustle of his city, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire, screaming, “How do you expect me to live?”

The thing about Mohamed is that… he did live through his burns. For a little while, anyway. Most people, when they set themselves on fire, successfully commit suicide in the act, but this time it was different. He was taken to a hospital and cared for until he died on January 4, 2011. The country gathered to see his fate and waited for the government’s reaction. Mohamed wasn’t alone.

Right now, second only to sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States have the highest percentage of youth in their population. That means that their largest age bracket is 15-24 years old. For North Africa and the Middle East, the majority of their populations are educated. And unemployed. You see, they’re doing everything their leadership is telling them to do. The Arab World has made astounding strides toward education in the last decade. Education matters. And so, these youth are hopeful when they complete high school and perhaps go to university. And then, they graduate to find that… there are no jobs. They have no livelihood. [I can’t tell you how many trained surgeons and engineers were my taxi drivers.] Their aspirations for their futures return to a dismal outlook as the reality of their lives becomes apparent to them.

They’ve done everything they were supposed to do. And now what? How can we expect them to live? Many live in near poverty, if not deep in it. Hence the heavy dependence on family for life and the emphasis put on marriage.

These last 18 months have been a volatile and pivotal time for our world, especially in this region. The day Mohamed died, the entire country rose up in rage and protest against the government. Within ten days, their president of 23 years fled the country.

Mohamed’s fire hasn’t stopped with him. With one successful overthrow, protests spread across the region into Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan and Yemen. I’m hopeful because of the Arab Spring. In most cases, I’m witnessing a shift in the mindset and attitude of the youth in these countries. They want to have ownership and responsibility in their present and future lives. They’re smart. They work hard. And they want their voices heard. I don’t think they’re ridiculous. They’re only demanding what I believe are modern day human rights: jobs, reasonable food prices, education, and freedom from repression and oppression. It’s not going well for them in most cases, but it’s also not over yet.

I counted it a blessing to be in the Arab World at the time these unprecedented overthrows were being carried out. There’s something stirring in this world. People, young people, are asking questions they’ve previously been denied, as to their existence, their purpose in life, their contribution to their world. It’s a heavy door that’s being pushed open and I’ve only experienced it to be positive in my personal relationships with Arab friends. For the first time in a long time, they say, they are hopeful for the days to come. It’s my prayer that this door opens to a new opportunity to explore The Hope we have in our Father and His Son.

And really… it all started with just one, 26-year old man.

In some ways, it reminds me of a 33-year old Man.
HE made way for a new kind of Life, too.

I’d like to invite you to pick a country and pray for their people.
Lift them up and petition our Father to reveal Himself
in dreams, relationships and new governments.
We’re here for such a time as this.

Some shebab who came out for some protests in my neighborhood.
I, of course, “interviewed” them with my Flip.
They’re smart guys with high hopes for the future.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tucked In

I wish I would’ve snagged more pictures of the vast variety and contrast of ornate and bare salons in the homes of my friends. Living rooms, or salons, are either gaudy or naked. The majority of my free time was spent in homes where they have that one fancy room, the one in which they never sit in, except of course, when I come over.

I don’t like this.

Ya see, these fancy-schmancy rooms are for entertaining guests. I don’t want to be a guest. I’m their friend. I mean, I probably invited myself over in the first place, but that’s beside the point—I want to be a “refrigerator friend.” I want to get into the “family room”—not the “living room.”

I started noticing a trend—that when I was ushered into a room and they told me, “Tfudlii,” or “You first,” gesturing me to take a seat, I’d sit down in a space I chose…. and I always, ALWAYS, without fail, got moved. They’d look at me with pain in their faces, and tell me to move to a different seat—one which I felt was way less conducive to good conversation and potential dancing room. [This is what I do at people’s houses: talk and dance and eat. Sometimes they play with my hair.] Eventually, on return visits, I’d know where I was “supposed” to sit and depending on the amount of fight I had, I’d go directly there, or would end up there after a few [sassy] attempts to get a different spot.

Finally, I asked a good friend, after she moved me, of course:
“Kholoud, habibti [my love],
why do people always move me?
Am I bad at picking a place to sit?”

“Ya Sarah, laaa, laaaaaa, lllllaaaaaa!!!!!
[Noo, nooooo, noooooo!!!!]
You are good, you are good.
But we Arabs have a thing.
It is the highest place of honor to be
in the most inside place of the room,
furthest from the door.
We honor you—you sit in the seat of honor
when you cannot be called on to serve
or help in the kitchen
or get up to make room for more guests.
You are the queen in this seat.”

I get it.

“Ohhhh! Well, shuuuukkkrraaan! [Thank you!]
Shukran for honoring me, ya Kholoud!
You are so kind. Many blessings on your long life.
But I want to help in the kitchen
and play with the kids and bring YOU tea!”

As she laughs at me and what she deems as my ridiculous comments, her belly and shoulders shake and her eyes get really small behind her glasses.
“La, la, la. Mish mumkin, ya habibti.
[No, no, no.
Not possible, my love.]
You will never serve in this house, my friend.
You are my forever high guest and dear friend.
Enti Sarrrrahhh!! [You are Sarah!!]”

I smile and reach out for the dates on the small table between our red, plush, overstuffed Western chairs. I bless her hands and her heart. I appreciate being so “tucked in” to the room and to the hearts of my friends. Quickly thinking back to all the times I’ve been moved to a “more honorable” place, my mind wanders to the passages that tell us to assume a humble position, so that the Lord will lift us up. I wondered at how many times I’ve been moved to a place of honor, without even knowing it, in front of men in their own houses, dressed in their white dishdashes and checkered hattahs, some very pleased and others noticeably annoyed. I didn’t mean to and nearly every time I didn’t want it.

But here I am, this young [foolish], single [unprotected], American [loose] woman [girl] being honored, in homes half a world away from my own. They choose to bring me deeply in, take me on as their own and protect me inside their walls. Sometimes we’re in golden foufy rooms, and sometimes we’re sitting on the floor atop of cushions which they’ve sprayed down with water to “keep them cool.” Either way—I’m brought way, way in. I AM honored.

It’s another event of emotional whiplash
but it’s also another exhibition of the
deep love and hospitality extended to me.

I stand in awe of the ways God has given me favor, in so many ways, among the people of this land. I don’t even recognize it half the time, but He’s lifting me up while using my friends’ hands and nagging. :)

I used to get irritated at having to constantly be moved and corrected, and usually in front of many people. But now I’m just so glad to know that they’re just tucking me into their homes, just like they already have in their hearts.

My first visit in "Amina's" home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Where No One Knows My Name

Looking back, I think some of the most impactful times for me in the Middle East with my friends were the times when I was just dumbfounded—the days that I didn’t have pretty little answers that fit into little Tiffany Blue boxes with white ribbons. I mean, sure, Father gave me plenty of answers and comments that were truly only from Him, but sometimes, believe it or not, I really didn’t have much to say.

My family and society expects me to travel, be educated and be independent. My mobility is my commodity and, as an American, “my right.” [Don’t get me started on all the “rights” we think we’re entitled to…] I can come and go, stay or leave, and no one really thinks much of it. [Except my dad. Sorry, Dad.] But I had this friend, whose dad had died. She’d had a terrible and, thankfully, short marriage as a teen and was now working retail in a local mall. She’s gorgeous, takes care of her sisters and mother, who no longer work, and even though I loved the light in her eyes when she saw that I was stalking her at work, she was, indeed, tired. She told me one day, “You don’t know what it’s like in my life, but I’m tired. You can see—my tired bones.”

She’s 22. And she’s tired already. And I completely believe her.

She dreamt aloud to me about starting a new life in another city—one where she could begin again and no one would know her, but where she could fall in love, be successful and pursue a future. But almost like a movie, the light in her eyes would fade and despair would return. She was stuck. That stuff wasn’t a reality for her. She’s a Mus. girl who can’t just move somewhere. No money, no family support, no man—nothing in her culture entertains those notions—that’s crazy Western talk and she must be careful of who hears her.

And as she went on, tears gathering in her eyes, I just stood there and held her hand, like Arab women do. We were in the awkward lingerie section of the store she worked in and I whispered to her: “I think you need a sunrise.”

And there you have it: I successfully ruined the moment.

For her, not me. “What, ya crazy Shagra?!!”

Whoops. There’s this song and the chorus says, “I think I need a sunrise, I’m tired of the sunset.” [The idea of the song is that this girl wants to leave California (where the sun sets) to start a new life in Boston (where the sun rises).] “…nevermind. You want a new beginning, right?”

“Yes. I want new beginnings. May God give them to me if it’s his will.”

“Inshallah,” came my response. I just stood there, still holding her hand and blankly staring out at racks of awkward lingerie. We were silent.

But I could hear this song in my head and I could feel tears starting to burn in my eyes.

She doesn’t want my Father. Right now.
[I’ve already asked her.]
She doesn’t want my money.
[As if I even had any to give her.]
She doesn’t want my words.
My silence, the tears in my eyes, the squeeze of my hand…
they were enough.

And… that’s it. I kissed her goodbye, she finished her 10-hour shift…
I walked the mile or so home, at sunset,
with lots of honks from taxis and people watching me
as I walked alone in a conservative neighborhood,
being a blonde crying blob.
[I may or may not have used my scarf to wipe my tears.]

I didn’t go home and pray. Nor did I share this with my roommate or any friends. I went home, made some cookies for a visit the next day while I had this song on repeat. And I wallowed. I wallowed at my ability to move and start over and be by myself. I hurt for her immobility. For possibilities always being just out of reach for her. She’s prettier, smarter and kinder than me. But she’ll be here all her life with hardships and monotonous routines. She’s only 22.

It’s not wrong or bad that this is her life—no.
I’m sad because she wants something else
and she’ll probably never have the opportunity to actualize her dreams.
But me, I was born in the same time, but in a completely different world.

And it’s not fair.

So, I just cried for her.

Boston by Augustana

In the light of the sun, is there anyone? Oh, it has begun…
Oh, dear, you look so lost, eyes are red and tears are shed,
This world you must’ve crossed… she said:

“You don’t know me, you don't even care…
You don’t know me and you don’t wear my chains…”

Essential yet appealed, carry all your thoughts across
An open field, when flowers gaze at you
They’re not the only ones who cry when they see you
You said:

“You don’t know me, you don't even care…
You don’t know me and you don’t wear my chains…”

And she said: “I think I’ll go to Boston,
I think I’ll start a new life,
I think I’ll start it over where no one knows my name.
I’ll get out of California—I’m tired of the weather,
I think I’ll get a lover and fly him out to Spain.
Oh yeah, and I think I’ll go to Boston,
I think that I’m just tired.
I think I need a new town to leave this all behind.
I think I need a sunrise—I’m tired of the sunset,
I hear it’s nice in the summer—some snow would be nice…”

“You don’t know me, you don’t even care…
Boston… where no one knows my name…”

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