story of a working mom, take one.

I think I’ve mentioned before that during most of my time here in Riyadh, I’ve worked online in a part-time position for a university in the States. It wasn’t particularly inspiring work, but it was a job, and I was grateful, especially since I could stay home with Lavender while I did it, and I gots student loans to pay.

Well, about a month ago, I got notice that the funding for my position was being cut, and that at the end of the semester, I would be out of my job. I expressed my frustration with the situation in a discussion with some friends in a private Facebook group, and a few minutes later, I got a message from one of them, asking if I would be interested in teaching in a new English school for adults that is opening in Riyadh. She explained that I could teach part-time if I wanted, and that there was childcare in the center, so I could bring Lavender with me.

good things fall apart story of a working mom, take one.

I mean, seriously? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect situation, even better than working online. As much as I love being able to stay with Lavender all the time, after a year and a half in the role of stay-at-home/work-at-home wife and mom, I don’t think I’m very good at it….although I want to make clear that there is no way in hell that I’m implying that stay-at-home moms don’t actually work. Sometimes when Mr. Mostafa gets home from work, I will ask him to change Lavender’s diaper or otherwise occupy her so I can, like, go to the bathroom with the door closed. He’s usually pretty good about this, but occasionally, if he’s had a long day at work, he’ll balk or heave a great sigh, like I’m asking him to do something enormously difficult. From time to time he’s even pulled out this old chestnut: “I have been working all day, and you get to stay at home.” One day he did this, and I was in no mood for it. I said, “Listen, when you get home, and you don’t want to go on Lavender duty, why do you think that is? Why do you not want to do that? Because on some fundamental level, you know it’s work. And that work is what I do all day. So let’s agree that we both work hard.” And thus, the issue was settled.

But anyway, I was over the moon about this offer. I would still spend most of my day hanging out with my baby girl, but I had the chance to get back in the classroom for a few hours a day, and Lavender would have the chance to spend some socializing time with other kids, especially Arabic-speaking kids. And she would be right there with me, in the same building, on the same floor, where I could easily peek in on her and make sure she was okay. Furthermore, we would both be able to get out of the house every day, and I surmised that the job might catalyze more of a set routine that would kick-start my productivity, since obviously staying at home all day has not been conducive to my dissertation motivation.

So, last week I had my first training day. The in-school childcare was not opened yet, so for the four hours of training, Lavender stayed with her grandmother, my mother-in-law, whom I love. And when I left her on that first training day, I cried. Lavender was just fine, but I bawled like I was the baby. Leaving her was hard.

While I was gone, my mother-in-law constantly sent me pictures and updates on WhatsApp to let me know Lavender was okay–there were pictures of her gleefully crawling after the cats, pictures of her throwing colorful balls around in her purple Pack ‘n Play, pictures of her conked out after her playtime–in short, pictures of her being her happy, sweet self. She was happy to see me when I got home, but she wasn’t distressed at all. She was fine.

lavender plays story of a working mom, take one.

This went on for two days. Then, on the third training day, the childcare area opened, and I brought Lavender with me to work. I got there early, so I would have time to sit with her in the childcare room, which was full of new toys and had a fun, colorful floor made up of soft foam letters. She crawled around a bit and got comfortable while I chatted with the lady in charge of the room. Lavender didn’t seem too eager to interact with the other kids in the room, which surprised me, because the previous week, we had gone to a La Leche League meeting, and while we were there, she crawled right up to the other babies and toddlers and wanted to play. But this time, not so much.

After about twenty minutes, I decided we were good to go. Lavender seemed happy. I kissed her and left the room.

Now, keep in mind that I was no more than thirty feet or so away from her at any time after I left her–I was very close to her, but just in a different room. After the first five minutes, I peeked into the room through the window, and she was fine. She was perched on a pillow, holding a toy, while the childcare manager danced around her in a (seemingly unsuccessful) attempt to get her to smile. She didn’t look happy, exactly. But didn’t look upset, either.

About five minutes later, I heard a baby cry. I thought it was one of the other babies in the childcare room. One of my managers asked me, “Is that yours?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. It didn’t sound like Lavender at all. But as the crying continued, I figured I should probably go check on her, because in other situations, I had seen her become upset when other kids started to cry.

You can imagine how terrible I felt when I looked through the window and discovered that the wailing baby was Lavender. I hadn’t recognized her cry, because I had never heard her scream like that before. If you had asked me if I would be able to recognize my baby’s cry out of a bunch of other babies’, I would have said, “Absolutely.” But here, I had failed.

I ran into the room and took her from the arms of one of the other ladies, who had kindly attempted to soothe her. As she clung to me, she screamed a few more times, and kicked me a few times as well, as if to say, “How dare you scare me like that?!? What kind of mother are you?!?” She calmed down a bit, but she continued to cry, just more quietly.

I knew nursing her would be the best way to soothe her, but it occurred to me that disrobing in my workplace within the first hour might not be considered very professional. So I grabbed a bottle of pumped milk from her diaper bag and hurriedly attempted to feed her with it. She was having none of it.

I took her out of the room, thinking that the relative calm of the hallway might help relax her. The bottle that I was holding was a Playtex Nurser, which is the only bottle that Lavender has ever been really willing to take. However, according to what I (thought I) knew about such bottles, it’s best to press gently on the liner to push out the extra air through the nipple, to avoid getting extra air in the baby’s tummy. I’ve always done that (and so has every other mom I know who has used these bottles).

So, as I stood in the hallway bouncing Lavender, two of my managers approached and asked how she was doing.

“Oh, she’s going to be okay,” I said as I pressed on the bottle liner to prep it before I settled in to feed her with the bottle. “But I feel so horrible! I heard her crying for, like, a minute before I went to check on her because I didn’t recognize her cry and–”


I stopped talking when the bottle exploded on me. All over my dress. And Lavender’s face. And all over the floor. My breastmilk was on the floor. Lavender, startled by the noise and by the milk splashing on her face, began to cry all over again, because what was this awful day.

I didn’t blame her, honestly. At that point, less than an hour into my training day, I wanted to cry, too.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll clean it up,” said one of the managers.

“No, I’ll do it, I…”

“No, just take care of the baby. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

My other manager said, “Would you like to just finish the training with her with you?”

I answered in the affirmative, apologized profusely, then went to the bathroom to dump the milk that remained in the popped bottle liner. By the time I got back, everything had been cleaned up, and with Lavender in one arm, I went into my classroom to work on the lesson plans for the two demo lessons I was supposed to give later that afternoon.

Lavender was still unhappy, but she calmed into red-faced hiccupping, with her head buried in my shoulder. The manager who had cleaned up my milk mess came into the room and asked, “Would you want to move to the room down at the end of the hall? It’s quieter, and darker, and she might calm down better there.”

So I grabbed my nursing cover from Lavender’s bag in the childcare area, packed up my teaching materials, and moved the whole show to the room at the end of the hall. Once there, I threw on my nursing cover, stuck Lavender underneath it, and held her with my left arm while she nursed, as I intently scribbled out lesson plans with my other hand.

Finally, on the boob, my kid was happy. She nursed contentedly, and as I observed a few yawns and a bit of eye-rubbing, I fervently hoped she would fall asleep there.

But of course, that was not to be. She nursed, and then she was done, and when she saw that there were no other people around, and thus no chance of me leaving her with said people, she wanted to get down and play.

The floor was dusty (being a brand new building, still not entirely ready), but the room was small, so I obliged and put her down on the floor. She gleefully crawled all over the place, inspecting the legs of chairs, pulling herself up to stand, giggling at me. And then…then she found something really fun.

The electrical outlet.

When she spotted it, she was about two feet away from it, and she crawled over within a few seconds. She put her hand up to touch it.

“Lavender, la!” I said sternly. (Interestingly enough, at this point, if you tell her “no” in English, she will just look at you and giggle. But if you tell her “no” in Arabic, she will listen.)

She stopped and turned to look at me, her hand hovering in midair next to the outlet. I jumped up and pulled her away, sitting her back on the floor in the corner farthest from the outlet.

I sat back down in my chair. Lavender again made a beeline for the electrical outlet. Except this time, she stopped at the outlet, put her hand up precariously close to it without actually touching it, and gave me a wide smile.

I picked her up and put her in another corner far away from the outlet. She did the same thing as before. As she looked at me with her best devilish grin, her hand again hovering in midair next to the outlet, I realized that electrical outlets were now a game to her.

Oh, this kid.

I picked her up and put her on my shoulder and started to bounce her and sing to her, hoping to get her to sleep. I quickly discovered that it was impossible to write lesson plans whilst bouncing the baby, so I focused on the task at hand. Within ten minutes, she was asleep, and I went back to writing.

A bit later, I had a decent outline of one mock lesson, when I was supposed to have been preparing two. One of the managers came to the room and got me to come eat lunch. Lavender woke up. We went into the open area and while I ate, Lavender crawled around on the floor, making friends and exploring her surroundings. She seemed happy. When I finished eating, I took her back to the childcare room

After lunch, it was time for me to give the mock lesson I had prepared.

I guess on some level, I was stupid for thinking that she would understand that Mommy was just outside, still checking on her, still with her…just in another room. But that had been my (silly) hope. So I took her back to the childcare area, sat with her while she played, got her settled in again (or so I thought), and left the room, off to my classroom to give my mock lesson.

My “students” were two managers and two other teachers. A few minutes into my lesson, I heard Lavender wailing again.

I bit my lip and kept teaching. I guess my panic was evident in my eyes, though, because as soon as I got an “activity” started with the “students,” one of the managers said, “Do you want to run grab her?”

“Yes,” I said, and I sprinted down the hallway, burst into the room, and swooped up my crying baby. As she calmed down, I perched her on my hip, went back to my classroom, and continued my lesson.

She remained with me for the rest of the training day. The only time she was out of my arms was when she fell asleep in them at one point, and one of my fellow teachers, who is a total sweetheart, offered to hold her while she slept. “You need a break. I have two daughters,” she said. “I’ve been exactly where you are.”

When I got home, I sat down with my mother-in-law and burst into tears. I felt so guilty at the thought of Lavender and her panicked wailing, not knowing where she was, who she was with, and why I had left her there.

“Nicole,” said my mother-in-law, as Lavender played happily in her lap, “why you don’t leave her with me when you go to your job?”

So, for now, that’s what we’re going to do. I did want Lavender to get in some time with other children, but she has plenty of time later for that. This way she gets to stay in her familiar territory, and she gets some time with her grandmother and her auntie before her dad gets home from work and takes over Lavender duty. It will give baby and her daddy a couple hours of good bonding time before they come to pick me up, and at this point, that’s more important than her being around other kids. And thank God we have these options to consider.

Now we’re just waiting for the English learning center to officially open so we can start our routine. I’m so excited, and I know Lavender will be thrilled with the arrangement. Just last night, she spent a few minutes downstairs with my mother-in-law, and when she was brought back upstairs to me and Saleh, she burst into tears and shrieks because her grandmother was leaving her with her silly, boring parents (at least, that’s what I’m assuming was going through her head). Get used to it, kid. Your parent-infested youth is just getting started. Bwahahaha…

if it happened here: the cold water challenge.

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal released an article chronicling the rise of the “penguin dance” as a fad in Saudi Arabia (and my friend Layla, who writes the blog Blue Abaya, is mentioned in it, which, despite my issues with the tone of the article, is very cool). 

According to the article, “In a land where a strict interpretation of Islamic law means movie theaters and many other diversions are banned, nightclubs are unthinkable and the weight of tribal custom is heavy, Saudis in large numbers are discovering the thrill of a little sidekick-sidekick bunny-hop.”

Because obviously, it can’t just be a fun, frivolous, no. Not in Saudi Arabia.

Putting aside the discussion of the fact that Saudis do have fun in lots of ways that don’t involve “a little sidekick-sidekick bunny-hop” (or nightclubs, for that matter…I’ll concede that it sure would be nice to have movie theaters here), when I read this summary of the appeal of the dance, I couldn’t help but think of Joshua Keating’s brilliant “If It Happened There” series on, in which he writes about American news topics in the style that American media often employ to cover stories in countries and cultures.

Thus, in the spirit of Keating’s series, I decided to write an article about the “cold water challenge.” Videos of my friends and acquaintances participating in the challenge, posted by the participants themselves, have been filling up my Facebook newsfeed throughout the past week or so, and as I watch them, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone from another culture would think of them.

All names in this article are fictional, and I want to make clear that this piece is satire. My goal is to cover the story using the same voice–and often, with the same dubious reaches for explanation–that American media use to report to Americans about events that take place in other parts of the world. If you read a part of the article, and think, “Well, yeah, that’s kinda right, but no, you’ve got it all wrong!”…that’s the point.

So without further ado, this is what an article about the cold water challenge might sound like if it happened…here. 


Timothy Jones is a young police officer in southern Missouri, a central state in the United States of America. He is dressed sparsely in running shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the high school from which he graduated seven years ago, a nod to the fierce pride with which he regards his meager education. Behind him is a scenic river, running wild through the settlements established by this equally untamed culture. Dense forests surround the river, and although the yearly government-sanctioned period for deer hunting has long since passed, at any moment a bullet fired from the gun of a townsman, or even an arrow from the bow of more primitive villagers, may come zipping out of the woods in a wayward attempt to bring down a deer that will provide nourishment for a family for months.

Later this year, in the scorching humid summer, the hunt will have ceased for the year, and this area will be dotted with scantily clad Americans, many of whom will be participating in water sports while refusing to wear life jackets, a practice borne of the long-standing cultural value of rugged independence. But right now, in the harsh Ozarks winter that has held its grip on the poverty-stricken region this year for much longer than average, the river is piercingly cold, and this young man stands in front of it.

Jones faces the video camera and says, “I’m Tim Jones, and I got called out in the cold water challenge by Randall Martin. My charity is St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I’m calling out Carl Rogers, Mark Smith, Everett Baldwin, and Joseph Garrison.” He turns and wades gingerly into the river, stopping when the water reaches his mid-thighs.

Jones holds out his arms in an apparent allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; most southern Missourians identify as Christians, and many admit that not only are they conservative Christians, but they also seek to live their daily lives based on Christian values in every way possible. Jones falls backward into the frigid water, completely submerging himself, imitating the Christian practice of immersion baptism.

He splashes through the surface of the river as he stands up again. He shivers and cries out, “Whew! You see that? You’ve got 24 hours to git ‘er done, boys!” (“Git ‘er done” is the catchphrase of Larry the Cable Guy, an observational comedian popular in the region, whose act relies on bringing out the humor in everyday situations in the American South.)

Jones shakes the water out of his hair and says, “Whew!” again as he begins to wade out of the river. The video cuts to black.

The rules of the cold water challenge are thus: when a person is challenged (“called out”), he (or she, although, perhaps owing to the more conservative gender roles that prevail in this area of the country, female participation in the ritual is less common) must submerge himself in a body of cold water and donate 10 American dollars to a charitable organization of the challenger’s choice. The submersion act must be captured on video and posted Facebook, a social media site gaining popularity even in this private, insular region of the country, where internet access, especially in the most rural areas, lags severely behind the more developed cities of America. Jumping into the cold water also bumps up the person’s rank from challenged to challenger, as it allows him to choose his own charity and “call out” three or four more people to participate in the challenge. However, if the challenged person prefers to avoid leaping into cold water, or does not complete the task within 24 hours of the challenge, he must donate 100 American dollars to the challenger’s chosen charity. 

The challenge forces its participants to choose between the shock of their bodies being stripped of warmth or their wallets being stripped of cash. The ritual cuts to the heart of southern Missouri priorities: pride and money (as evidenced by the fact that the majority of these Americans strongly oppose social welfare programs, although poverty is a norm), forcing its participants to choose between one or the other.

But as Missouri has long been a state torn, this is nothing new to Missourians. Southern Missouri in particular is a historically violent region in a mostly rural area of the central United States. In this part of the world, gun ownership remains high and acute distrust of the government runs deep, tracing its roots back to the American Civil War, in which radicalized Missourians jumped into the bloody fray as militants for both sides of the conflict; thousands fought with the pro-slavery Southern rebels, and thousands more fought for the Northern regime. In the end, Missouri elected to stay with the North in the union, while maintaining its status as a state in which slavery was legal–at least until later in the Civil War, when the famed American leader, Abraham Lincoln, freed all slaves in the land currently known as United States of America. However, in the southern region of Missouri, where strategically important skirmishes in the Civil War took place, many citizens maintain strong allegiances to the South, which manifest themselves through frequent displays of the Southern flag on clothing and vehicles.

rebel flag truck if it happened here: the cold water challenge.


Brayden Cartwright, an 18-year-old high school senior who plans to join an American militant group once he has completed his education (he is still trying to decide between the Army and the Marines), participated in the cold water challenge to benefit a local hospital. “My mom was so mad when I came home dripping wet; it was freezing cold outside,” he said. “I had to promise her I would never do anything like that again.”

“That boy ain’t got no money or no sense,” Bonnie Cartwright stated in her southern Missouri dialect. “He’d jump off the dadgum Mississippi Bridge if his friends were doing it, too. Who’s the peckerwood who thought up this game?”

It’s a question many are asking, and some have answers. Harry Lewis, owner of a small bookstore in Glasgow, Scotland, saw a cold water challenge video pop up in his Facebook newsfeed when a distant cousin of his was tagged in it, and he immediately made a connection. “It must come from the Loony Dook,” he said, referring to the event that takes place every New Year’s Day in South Queensferry, Scotland, in which participants jump into cold water as “loonies” who follow a “dook.” “Loonies have usually lost a bet,” Lewis admits.

Meanwhile, when Bram Stijn, an architect from The Netherlands who spent a year as an exchange student in St. Louis, Missouri during high school, watches a cold water challenge video, he sees the Nieuwjaarsduik, an annual Dutch New Year’s Day tradition in which thousands of people plunge into icy cold seawater on beaches all around the country.

Obviously, there are different theories as to how the cold water challenge began, but it has rapidly swept across the nation with slight variations along the way, and southern Missourians are eagerly adopting it. Many see the cold water challenge as a source of entertainment in a land where movies and alcohol abound, but other diversions are scarce. In any case, most Missourians see the challenge as a harmless way to have a bit of fun and benefit a good cause while they’re at it.



A few days ago, an article from Salon popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. It was all about shiksa, a Yiddish word to used refer to non-Jewish women, and how it’s gone from having a mostly pejorative connotation amongst Jews to becoming almost a badge of honor amongst non-Jewish women (remember that episode of Seinfeld where they talked about Elaine’s “shiksa appeal”?). And it got me thinking.

So, there is this word. I hear it mentioned all the time in relation to Muslims and Islam. And I think we need to discuss it, because despite the word’s seemingly unshakeable connection to Islam, I’ve always been kind of confused as to how this association came about, due to the fact that I’ve never actually ever heard a Muslim use it. And after some research, I have discovered that…

infidel 1024x1001 infidelicious.

Or, perhaps I am an infidel and so are you. Either one will work, really.

Yes, the word is infidel. I hear people use it all the time, because duh, Muslims hate infidels, right? I have even seen a couple of pickup trucks in the States with stickers in their back windows proclaiming that the owner of said truck is a “proud infidel,” because an infidel is supposed to be a mortal enemy of Islam or something. Like shiksa, I think the term infidel has become something of a badge of honor amongst some non-Muslims.

But as I already mentioned, I have literally never heard a Muslim use this word, even in translation. So I got really curious about the etymology of this word, because I was confused as to how it somehow got so closely associated with Muslims. So I paid a visit to my good friend, the online Oxford English Dictionary, the most exhaustive catalogue of words in the English language (their meanings, uses, and origins), an encyclopedic collection of volumes once regarded as the crown jewel of the bookshelf of the English-speaking linguistics nerd. If I had been born twenty or so years earlier, I probably would have acquired an entire set of the Oxford English Dictionary at this point. However, as a child of the dawning internet age, I’ve always had the OED at my fingertips.

But I digress.

Anyway, so I looked it up, and here’s what I found:

Screen shot 2014 04 12 at 1.27.12 PM infidelicious.


The definition continues from there, but it basically continues to elaborate on the ways the word exists in current usage–i.e., primarily from a “Jewish or Muslim” viewpoint, according to the OED. So really, depending on your perspective (i.e., religion or lack thereof), anyone could be an infidel. Even Muslims. Especially Muslims.

Because do you see where the earliest English usages of this word show up? In the Bible. And the etymology of the word comes from French and Latin…Arabs didn’t have anything to do with that business. (Spanish is another story, though. The Spanish and Arabic languages are closely related.)

Now, I don’t make this clarification with the intention of saying, “Nah-nah-nah, see, the Christians are the ones who hate infidels, not the Muslims!” Rather, I think it’s an important thing to discuss because the word is so infrequently used among Muslims, but in Western media, it is frequently represented as an essential term in the Muslim lexicon (much like “veil,” which is also frequently used in Western media to refer to various headcoverings that Muslim women may or may not wear, but is actually hardly ever used among Muslims…at least, as far as I’ve heard up to this point).

There is an Arabic word that some Muslims use to describe non-Muslims–it’s kaafir (plural: kuffar), and among Muslims, that word is most generally translated as “unbeliever.” But mostly, people just use the word “kaafir” when speaking English, the same way they use other Islamic words interspersed within English conversation, such as Qur’an, hajj, jihad, etc.

In context, kaafir can take on lots of different meanings. Sometimes it can have a sort of neutral meaning, and it just refers to anyone who is not a Muslim. Other times it can be thrown around as more of an insult. I’ve heard this term used most frequently among American Muslims who have moved to Saudi Arabia for religious reasons–i.e., in expressing relief or gratitude that they’ve managed to leave “the land of the kuffar” (i.e., America, or Britain, or Australia, or any other country in which Muslims are not the majority). Meanwhile, others consider only one group to be (or rather, to have been) kuffar: people in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who did not follow him and become Muslims. (Hence, when I once mentioned to my brother-in-law that many Western Muslims make hijrah to Saudi Arabia in order to leave the land of the kuffar, and he joked, “Where did they live before, the Roman Empire?”)

Once Mr. Mostafa and I were discussing the infidel/kaafir issue, he mentioned that when he was little and learning about the history Prophet Muhammad in a Saudi school, he got it into his head that all kuffar, including the ones who lived during the time of Prophet Muhammad, were white, blonde, blue-eyed, and spoke English. I find this really interesting, considering that so many of my own American countrymen grow up believing that Muslims all have dark skin and speak Arabic…which, of course, is just as untrue as the idea that all non-Muslims are blonde, blue-eyed English-speakers.

Anyway, Mr. Mostafa told me, “I remember thinking, ‘But if they only spoke English, how did Prophet Muhammad communicate with them?’” He never asked that question in class, though. I’m wondering what his teacher’s answer would have been if he had.