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…”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Let's Play a Game

Happy Valentine’s Day!! I hope you’re eating candy hearts or at least wearing red and smiling at people you don’t know. So, guess what?! Tomorrow’s my birthday. And one of my favorite things about my birthday is that it is, indeed, the day after Valentine’s Day. [I am worth every discounted penny of “day-old” flowers and balloons and donuts. In fact, I delight in them.]

Last year, when I turned 27, I had a really unusual and fun day. An interesting turn of events [a.k.a. the lunar calendar] caused my birthday to align with that of the Prophet Mohammad’s. And do ya know what that means? I’ll tell you: it meant no work. For nearly the whole country. It. Was. GREAT! On a Tuesday, we all had off, because it was my birthday.

You may or may not need to know this, but: I would get really shy about buying toilet paper from local dukans [neighborhood convenience stores]. For some reason, I just couldn’t bear buying toilet paper from men in a small room. I couldn’t do it. Roommate would make fun of me and, well, we would use tissues. Yes, we would. In my country, the plumbing systems weren’t equipped to handle TP anyways, so there was always a little garbage can for it next to the toilet and a bidet. Well, I rolled up clean towels and decoratively stored them in my unused bidet, and when we ran out of toilet paper, I’d also place a box of tissues in there, too.

Some people thought this was so funny—that I wouldn’t buy toilet paper and that Roommate was just as stubborn and wouldn’t buy it for us/me. My first birthday visit of the day proved to be incredibly awesome. My friends came over, a mother and daughter team of fantastic-ness, and had a HUGE present wrapped up for me. It was an “economy-sized” pack of toilet paper. EIGHTEEN ROLLS, people. Yes, this toilet paper lasted me the rest of my days in the desert. I never again had to “not go buy TP,” nor did I stash tissues in the bidet. So fabulous. And so thoughtful. [I’m STILL thankful.]

The rest of my day included ice cream, more visits, and a homemade dinner [of not Arab food] with my most wonderful and dear ex-pat lady friends. I even had a birthday cake—yellow cake and chocolate frosting—my favorite, with “26 + 1” candles on it. [There was a minor argument over how old I was actually turning. Haha.] I took the liberty of making a collage of my day—or at least the photos I can show you here.

This year I’m celebrating 28 years of goodness by… going to work. But, I knew if I gave you the chance, you’d give me a sweet gift. Here’s the deal: All I want for my birthday is… your [sentence] story. The thing I most look forward to on my birthday is announcing that it’s my big day to total strangers and then asking them where they were and what they were doing when they were my age. It’s that easy. [And you’re not even strangers.] I like how people take the moment to “think back” to what they were doing in life. In my mind, it gives them a chance to see how far they’ve come and hopefully recognize all the great and precious milestones they’ve had in life. [I don’t think we do this enough.] Some of your memories may be long ago, or just this year, but regardless—won’t you play along?

So, my sweet friends who check on this Yellow Dress
and other things we do for love!
Where were you and what were you doing
when you were 28-years old?

[And if you’re not 28 yet, tell me where you think you’ll be by then—like, in life.]

{{Please remember that your comment will get… bumped off if you use any words that are uncomfortable or reason for suspect by some internet browsers for our sisters in the Middle East. [I totally got their backs.] So stick to words like “serving,” “worker,” “Father,” “His Son,” and whatever combination of $+@ symbols you can use. I totally and completely appreciate you respecting this. I know it’s hard, but get creative! I want TYD to be a safe place for our friends.}}

Ooooooh!!!!! I’m so excited.



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I Love Love

I’ve never looked at romantic love so differently as I have in the last year and a half. I saw a lot of confusing “romantic” relationships, heard a lot of crazy ideas about attraction and was even approached myself by men [and boys] who told me they “loved” me. [Bless their hearts.]

For Valentine’s Day, I made valentines and pink cupcakes and heart-shaped cookies for my friends. My friends loved to be kissed, hugged, remembered and fed. And, again, it’s largely an American holiday, so it’s my job to educate, right? So a showering of cookies and ridiculous paper hearts was in order. And after all, aren’t we here to love and show Love? [www.education.com has some awesome ideas for decorations, cards and homemade crafts if you want to throw a party for adults or children.] I think Valentine’s Day is an excellent opportunity to have conversations [and throw parties] about love. And any conversation can turn into one about the Great Love of your life. Always remember that. Ugh, I love love. [Talk about women’s ministry: cookies and stories.]

Something that I think is genuinely beautiful and also pretty silly about Arab culture is how lyrical and whimsical the language of love is. In a world of traditional match-making and arranged marriages, and now secret, on-line “habibi”s [loves], things can get a little scandalous. If you have just one Arab friend in all the world, I promise, you will hear soap opera-like love dramas amongst families. That are true. Sometimes they’ll even draw pictures so you can keep all the “Mohammads” and “Fatimas” straight in the story. The pick-up lines on the streets alone are unheard of in America: “Oh, my moon, my moon! You light my way. You are the only light I see.” Or, “There are twenty angels in the world. Ten are sleeping, nine are playing, and one is walking right before me.” One thing I can say about Arab guys: they are romantic and they are persistent.

A total bummer about romance and love while living in the Arab world as a “beautiful, American girl” is that you get hit on. All the time. A favorite ploy from the young men in the area would be to dial your number. Over and over and over again. It is quite a risk to answer an unknown number, thinking it might be that college girl you met at the park last week, because you might answer to find that it’s some man. Who has misdialed. And is now enjoying the happenchance of speaking with you on the phone. He hears that nice, female, native-English “Hello?”and… you’re done for. He will call relentlessly.

And when I say relentlessly I mean it. I’ve blocked numbers. I’ve handed the phone to other Arab men and they yell at them and shame them and demand their family names. I’ve answered and immediately hung up. I’ve answered and let the phone just lie on the counter while I did dishes, hoping he’d worry about his phone credit running out. [Note: whomever makes the call pays for the call—there’s no charge to a recipient.] I’ve told them that I’m married to the police [???] and I’m going to have “my husband hunt him.”

One night was a night to remember. Roommate and I were battling the harassing calls of what seemed to be a group of guys, shebab. For TWO HOURS they called over and over again. Finally, I grabbed her phone, put it up to my ear and just listened to them: “My love, my love, listen to me. I love you. Where are you? I love you. Oh, God, I love you. You are my love.”

At this point in time, I had been perfecting my camel noises and so… since they didn’t hang up in response to my silence, I started in on them. And I just didn’t stop. They listened to me for about four minutes. [Do you know how much that costs in phone credit??] Roommate, doubling over in laughter, grabbed my Flip and recorded our side of the call.

The men who need to get a hold of me know how. These guys who just harass for entertainment… well, I can appreciate their go-get-‘em attitude and persistent ways. [They could teach some American guys I know a thing or two in that department.] Regardless, I’m sure they’ll have some romantic, fantastical love-match one day. Just not with me.

They didn’t call back after this—they were too mortified, I think. [I would hope.]

But in other romantic news: These two fellows almost got into an actual fight as they bid for my hand in marriage. The bargaining chips were fancy cars, trips to Spain to watch futbol, and their mothers cooking and cleaning for me.

They were dumbfounded when I said all I wanted was a camel.

Happy [early] Valentine’s Day.

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