Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
My five weeks is complete and I am now in Dubai on my way home and gladly no longer wearing my abaya or hijab. It’s been a tumultuous time and I have no emotional resilience at the moment as a cumulative result of desperately missing my husband and our children, insomnia, extreme stress related to the job, anxiety about being busted by a vigilante/zealot for travelling as an unaccompanied woman, and the intense connections that I made (I shed a few tears as I said farewell to my staff today after working 9 hours a day with them for 5 weeks). I have learnt a lot about the region, the religion, the culture and picked up a little bit more Arabic language. I have come to love Arab hospitality, where looking after the guest and ensuring he/she is comfortable physically and emotionally is of utmost importance. I love to watch Arabs laughing and joking together everyday and greeting each other warmly with mellifluous greetings. I will obviously never fit in here or even understand the culture or master the language but I will try!
A Bedouin man told me that the guest always comes first and that in the past, when food was scarce, when a guest stopped at someone’s home, the host would serve their own meal to the guests and the host family would go hungry. In 2003 on a backpacking world trip, I modified our travel to visit some family in the UK. They did not invite us to stay with them and it wasn’t until my Mum told them to invite us to stay that they reluctantly did so for 1 night only. I certainly won’t be visiting them again and I was shocked by the lack of hospitality shown to kin. Another Bedouin man told me that his home is frequently inundated by house guests. The men and women have to be kept separate so for months of the year he practically does not get to see his wife. He is frustrated by this and wishes that there was a way to reduce the number of house guests but he knows that he cannot refuse hospitality.
At the accommodation where I was staying, each time that I interacted with the managers, they greeted me by my first name, treated me with kindness and an eagerness to help but were bemused. I don’t think that they have ever had a solo woman stay with them. I made a couple of Skype calls with a male colleague in the evenings and modesty dictated that we could not do this in private, so we had to make the calls in the reception area. In both instances the managers brought us coffees, once home made Turkish coffee, and the other time cappuccinos from the coffee shop next door (for free of course).
As a woman, I have occupied a special position in the world of the Arab men I interacted with daily. They cannot have female friends, so I have been treated as a sister and it is a position that I cherish. I think that it has been interesting for them as well, getting to know me and watching how hard I work, how much I value connections and love to laugh and joke. It’s an honour to be their first ever (and probably only ever) female friend! They have never had a conversation with a woman who is not related to them. They do not even know the wives of their closest friends. They wanted to take me to have fun with them outside of work (barbecues, quad biking in the desert, smoking shisha) and I think that it was difficult for them (and it certainly was for me) to know that they cannot do what felt natural. I readily make intense connections and it was hard for me to not to ever touch my new friends, not even a friendly punch on the arm and certainly not a hug goodbye when I left yesterday. As I write this I have tears streaming down my cheeks – definitely no emotional resilience which is very unusual for me!
A tea party
I have repeatedly commented on here that I did not have access to women but that changed! On Monday I was invited for a cup of tea to the home of an Algerian man who I have met a few times through work. I thought is was for tea with him and his wife so I wore my baggy work clothes with ‘barefoot’ jogging shoes and my abaya and a very conservative hijab. I was very surprised instead to find that I was meeting 5 women (wives of men I have met a few times) and it was a women only event without hijabs. Three of the women were quite dressed up and I felt daggy in my conservative work clothes but at least I had clean hair. The Algerian hostess (let’s call her Houda) dressed in a traditional embroidered dress with matching shoes and jewelry. She prepared a staggering array of savoury and sweet Algerian pastries for us and it certainly was not just a cup of tea! We started with Arabic coffee (tiny cups of weak coffee that is very bitter from the cardamom and saffron) and dates dipped in cream and that is a fantastic combination! Next we had savouries with juice that tasted more like undiluted cordial then sweets with mint tea. It’s remarkable to think that the husbands of those 5 women work together everyday but those men do not know these women and vice versa. It was strange to sit among them and think about the times I have spent conversing with all of their husbands, which is something they can never do.
I was amazed by the intricacy of details shared on such topics as acid reflux and I realised that talking to each other is one of the few things that these women can do. The amount of external input into their lives is extremely limited. They were affectionate and warm towards me and made me feel included. Houda is fluent in English and spent the evening translating for us. The other women tried a few words of English and I a few words of Arabic. We shared photographs of our children and they were silent (in a kind way) as a shed a few tears when asked if I miss my children. One beautiful Arab woman in a partially sheer top, skin tight jeans, nails painted to match her jacket and magenta heels, captured my attention. When it was time to leave I watched as she donned a very elegant abaya and matching hijab but then a niqab as well, so that only her beautiful eyes were exposed. As we parted Houda talked of what we will do next time I visit so I’m hopeful that we have started a friendship.
I went to Oman last weekend but if I had stayed instead I would have had 3 social engagements to attend – why does that always happen?! No invitations for weeks and then 3 at once and a commitment to be elsewhere. I will definitely be back over the 12 month life of this project but hopefully for shorter periods. I have had several invitations for social engagements when I return (not with my Arab male friends of course) and I’m looking forward to it. It feels like a 2nd home now in a way.
In just over 24 hours I will be reunited with my children!!
My other posts from this trip: