Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
If you haven’t been following this series of posts about my solo trip to the Saudi Arabia for business that has taken me away from my 2 young children and my husband, you can find them here. I returned to work refreshed after a weekend away in Dubai. I expected to spend my time outside of work hours in isolation in my apartment this week but instead I have been more adventurous with one dinner (in the family section), a meeting of a scientific society and three evenings this week I donned my abaya, hijab and joggers to take long walks (over 2 hours) through the neighbourhoods surrounding my apartment. It felt wonderful to be out in the fresh air and walk until I grew weary. My strides have to be shorter than normal because my abaya reaches my toes and I trip at least twice but so far I have not actually fallen to the ground. I have been told by several Arab men that it is not necessary to cover my hair (hijab) but I choose to do so because all of the Arab women are doing that (in fact many cover their faces and some even their hands as well) and I wish to be as inconspicuous as possible, which is already not easy at my height and with my pale skin and eyes. I am also conscious that I should not walk without a male relative but I had to take this trip alone so that is not possible for me.
Everyone stares at me, most covertly but some overtly, most obviously were a group of three young Arab men in a car yesterday evening who stared, pointed and laughed at me as I walked past them. Most people ignore me, some seem curious, especially Arab women. What strikes me as particularly different however is that almost no-one makes eye contact or speaks to me when I am walking, whereas everywhere else that I travel I interact with many people as I wander around. Twice in the past two weeks an Arab woman has met my eyes and returned my smile. Both were wearing face veils but their eyes crinkled up and it was lovely to share such interactions, even if they were wordless.
I have been delighted to discover dozens of other people taking advantage of the cooler evenings (28-35C) to exercise as well. Around 10% are women, all in abayas, all travelling no faster than a fast walk because of the impossibility of running in an abaya. I have seen two other European looking women, both of whom had their hair uncovered but both of whom avoided my gaze, which I found disappointing considering how nice it would be to chat with another woman. The rest of the exercisers are men and they range from slim to obese, dressed in business clothes to exercise clothes, walking to running. I also see groups of children playing in playgrounds and this makes me pine for my own children.
I have seen an impressive array of abayas from those that are front opening to those that are a dress, those that have lace from the knees down to the feet and elbows down to the hands, to those that are encrusted with swarovski crystals, others that are intricately embroidered or appliqued, and some have patches of shades of brown sewn into them, while others (like mine) are plain black and utilitarian (= cheap). I’ve even seen daring young women wearing belts to draw their abayas into their waists and reveal their feminine curves. Some women show their faces, others just their eyes. Some tie a face veil around the back of the head, one lady I saw had velcro on the back of her face veil and used that to hold it in place rather than having to tie it. Very occasionally one will see a woman wearing the traditional Bedouin face covering that looks a bit like a bird beak and is rigid and covers the nose and lips.
One cruel Peshawari man that I met said that Arab women have beautiful eyes but he saw a Chinese woman in a face veil and he laughed at her because he thought her eyes were ugly. Why he thought I wanted to hear that I don’t know. He went on to tell me that women are terrible drivers and he always avoids women on the roads. I bit my tongue to avoid telling him that I thought he was a reckless driver and if I wasn’t already paying him to drive me I would prefer to get out of his car. In fact on this trip I have been amazed by the information that strangers (always men) will share with me. Attracted by my calm demeanor, active listening skills and intelligent questions, I have been told some very candid things that I wouldn’t expect to hear from a stranger.
This week my network has expanded after meeting some expats at the scientific meeting and encountering a student that studied with our group in Australia. I’m enjoying myself. It’s more relaxing here than at home because I don’t have to multitask so much. I look forward everyday, with butterflies of excitement, to hearing the super cute voices of my children over Skype. My husband is doing a marvellous job of caring for their every needs and taking them to their out of school activities. It’s hard for all of us but we are getting through it.
My other posts so far on this trip: