What I Learned From Arab Women
The lovely women I came to call my friends.
I lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from September 1990 to July 1994. During the first two years in the kingdom I taught English as a Second Language at the Women’s Language Center in the Thalatine District of the city. I got an up close and personal glimpse into the life these women lived in one of the most restrictive cultures for females on the planet.
The women who were my students at the Language Center called me Mrs., just Mrs. Some of them called me Madame making me feel like I should have loose girls in the rooms upstairs in my villa. Eventually, they would start calling me Teacher. At first I was offended. Couldn't these women be bothered to learn my name? Then I learned. They were honoring me. Teacher was a term of respect. I was so grateful I hadn't made a big deal early on about what they called me.
My classes were advertised as a chance to learn five hundred words in English in just a matter of weeks. It became a joke between me and my students. They'd learn five hundred English words, and I'd learn one word in Arabic.
We met three mornings a week, which I didn't realize was quite an effort for these ladies. Getting up early was not part of their routine. But they made the effort and went out of their comfort zone to learn English, which they needed more and more as their middle class husbands traveled more and more outside the kingdom, and more and more to the west.
Being able to travel with their husbands served a vital purpose in their marriages, as I learned when one of them asked me if my husband had girlfriends when he traveled alone. My answer was an adamant, "He better not!" This response drew laughter with a hint of "How do you know for sure?"
I quickly learned a proverb of the Arab culture is a sin hidden is half forgiven. Also, it is assumed the laws of their religion only apply if you are within the boundaries of the kingdom. An urban legend in Saudi Arabia involves a well-known prince and an airplane full of prostitutes that circled above Riyadh for several days. The party was within bounds because it didn't take place on the kingdom's soil.
It was hard to believe the men here would so blatantly cheat on these women when the consequences are so extreme if the situation was reversed. Besides, these women were gorgeous. But then, men are men everywhere. Those guys who cheat on Hollywood's most beautiful women don't do it because they are looking for someone prettier. They are just looking for someone else. It's the same everywhere – if you are "one of those guys."
The men who lived on my American compound were primarily U.S. soldiers and were intensely curious about Arab women – naturally because they were absolutely unattainable even to view– an unusual situation for the military men who were my neighbors. I was only too willing to be the one to report to them in vivid detail how beautiful the women all were, every single one of them, like no mass of females I had ever seen: to die for figures, faces to launch more than a thousand ships, skin like satin, hair like silk. I wore myself out coming up with more and more elaborate descriptions of their beauty. Hey, there was not a whole lot of entertainment around there. Torturing horny men was as good as it got.
There were two absolutes I had to learn and adapt to in my classroom. One really irritated the heck out of me until I finally learned to live with it. When I was in school, if I was late, which was a cardinal sin in my day, I'd quietly slip into the back row as unobtrusively as humanly possible, hoping against hope no one would notice – especially the teacher or professor.
Not these girls. If they were late, which happened a lot, they barged right in and said "Hello" to each of their fellow students, all of whom stopped what they were writing or reading or listening to (generally me) and returned the greeting. Now this greeting might be a verbal exchange, but more often than not it involved standing to their feet and exchanging kisses on the cheek – not one, but one on both sides, Or if they were close friends or relatives, one on one side and then several on the other. I once saw sisters reunited at the airport, and I thought the kisses on the second cheek would never end.
What I learned from my fellow western instructors was that it was considered the height of rudeness in the Arab world not to greet anyone entering a group – each and every one. So much for slipping in the back row quietly.
The other absolute was "Insha’Allah." God willing - the phrase following any and every statement. We'll meet again on Wednesday, Insha’Allah. Tomorrow we will study gerunds, Insha’Allah. I'm going to get a cup of tea and will be back in five minutes, Insha’Allah. Every single thing in these women's lives was dependent on God's will, and they were darned sure going to acknowledge it.