Lessons from Arab Women - little ones and big ones
During the first two of the four years I lived in Saudi Arabia I had the opportunity to teach English as a second language at a women's language center in Riyadh. I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these women's lives in the most restrictive culture on the planet for females.
There was more to the Saudi wedding I was fortunate to attend than I included in the previous hub. My student's wedding took place on the night of Thanksgiving. It began at ten o’clock. I'd been up since six in the morning and had served dinner to more than thirty people at my villa. And, besides that, I was coming down with a cold. But I was not about to miss a chance to get a glimpse of such a significant event in this fascinating culture. My host, another of my students who was the cousin of the bride, knew all that was involved in an American Thanksgiving along with fact I was not feeling well. She was very accommodating. She understood after the bride and groom left that I needed to call my husband to come get me and take me home to get some rest. She had traveled to the west and was accustomed to Americans and their ways. She knew I was making an effort to learn about her culture and her life, in spite of all I'd been through that day.
We headed into the foyer of the dining hall where dinner was about to be served. On a table by the main entrance there was a telephone. Many ladies were hovered around it waiting to place calls. An event like this one was apparently a rare opportunity to exercise a bit of freedom for these women: unsupervised telephone conversations. Even brief calls with a bunch of other women standing nearby were a treat. My host instructed the ladies to let the guest use it first to call her husband because she was ill, but more importantly, because she was a guest and should be shown every consideration. She reminded me of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. At her command, my pathway was cleared to the phone, and I was miraculously the next one to use it.
I placed the call to my husband. I thought I'd wait in the foyer, say my goodbyes to my host, and that would be it. Not on your life. She may have been progressive. She may have been to America. She may have been the new generation of Sabans bragging about their advancement out of the desert, but - by Allah- I wasn't leaving that wedding without eating something. No self-respecting Arab would allow that to happen, I don’t care how westernized they were.
Fortunately, I understood the significance of this gesture of hospitality and had the sense to follow her to the dining tables and fill my plate with roasted chicken and mutton, rice with pine nuts, hummus, stuffed grape leaves (already my favorite after only three months in the kingdom) and a sampling of the "sweets" - baklava, a kind of rice pudding, and chocolates. I didn't have to eat it all, in fact I knew it would make a nicer impression if I didn't, but I knew I had to fill my plate and try to eat something or my host would never let me out of that room.
Fortunately for me, I had already been a guest in a few of my student's homes, and the standard fare was pretty much the same at every Saudi meal from the richness of a prince’s home down to my most meager student’s home. I think this similarity was the case mainly because they always served so much food, the variety couldn't be all that different. The point was to offer your guest so much food they felt they could have all they wanted and there would still be plenty left for your host and the other guests. On this night as on every other occasion, I loved every bite. I only wished I felt better so I could enjoy more of it.
Another feature of all Arab food was that it was never bigger than bite-sized. A Saudi didn't want to offer his or her guest anything that might be difficult or uncomfortable for them to consume. So foods were served in a manner that did not require a lot of cutting and could be eaten with a minimum of effort. You'd never get a salad of a lettuce wedge. Their favorite salad was literally made of parsley, finely chopped. It could be picked up in a piece of pita bread and was – like everything else - delicious.
All the food was painstakingly prepared, beautifully presented, and offered generously. One of the great regrets of my time in Saudi was not being well enough that Thanksgiving night to indulge myself with abandon at the rare opportunity to attend a thirty goat wedding! The Saban’s had indeed made their way far out of the desert. They were indeed the most gracious of hosts to this foreigner.
After Desert Storm (later known as the First Gulf War) was over, I was hired by Sheikh Tuwaijri to tutor his granddaughters in English. The Sheikh owned the compound I lived on, and I had met him a few months earlier when he invited a group of American women to his home one evening. He wanted us to meet his daughters. He also wanted to find out if our freedoms made us happy. That was an intriguing question for a Saudi man to ask. It was an intriguing question for a Saudi man even to think in 1990 . . .and today.
The Sheikh had four granddaughters who were middle to high school age. The oldest was in the process of memorizing passages of the Koran as part of her school assignments. When I met her she could recite thirteen chapters by heart – and she’d only begun!
I was reminded of something I learned during the culture lessons back in the Washington training. Memorization was an important part of the Arab tradition. There was supposedly a poem dating back centuries that, when recited today, took several hours to complete. Based on rhythms and syntax, scholars confirmed not one paragraph had been lost in the centuries since its premiere recitation.
This emphasis on memorization supported the historical theory that part of the animosity between Arabs and the Jews was tied to the Jews being known as “the people of the book.” They had a written record of their faith and their history long before the Prophet Mohammed provided the same for his followers. The ability to memorize was how the Arab history was preserved.
My sessions with the Sheikh’s granddaughters were scheduled late in the afternoons before the girls’ daily audience with their father. This practice of the regular visits between fathers and daughters was common, especially for men with more than one wife and more than one household. It served as kind of a round robin of parenting by the patriarch of the family. As I previously mentioned, the fathers I met seemed to genuinely love and care for their daughters. They were at least partially being true to the saying of the prophet that men would be judged in the afterlife for how they treated the women in their lives.
Just like my older students at the language center, these young girls were enthusiastic learners, eager to ask questions, and had a strong desire to master every aspect of the English language. They also did their family proud by being the most generous hostesses I could have encountered. On my first appointment they picked up on my taste for their fresh-squeezed orange juice. I mentioned I would be happy for their grandfather to pay me only in this treat because theirs was the best I’d ever had. Soon they didn’t even ask me what I wanted to drink. The crystal tumbler with the nectar simply appeared on a silver tray beside me on the nearest table.
Once again, hospitality and generosity were demonstrated to me. This was the Arab way.
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