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 fad..no, 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 Slate.com, 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.

source: laprogressive.com

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.

source: oed.com

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.

tears and hugs…from strangers.

When I first arrived here in Riyadh, Mr. Mostafa took me to a bank so I could open a checking account. It was kind of a big deal for me; since I had to go into the ladies’ branch of the bank, where absolutely no men are allowed (hence the picture below of the bank door), I had to go through the account-opening process totally on my own while Mr. Mostafa sat outside in the car, waiting for me to emerge with my new debit card in hand. It was, as I recall, the first time I did anything completely on my own here, without the assistance my husband or my sister-in-law or my mother-in-law.

IMG 0531 tears and hugs...from strangers.

I got the account opened, and I was proud of myself. But, as it turns out, a checking account isn’t nearly as essential in Saudi Arabia as it is in the States. In fact, it’s been sitting nearly empty for several months; cash is still the preferred method for most transactions that take place here in the Kingdom, so lately I haven’t had much of a reason to use the account. Still, it’s there if I need it, and that makes me happy.

Well, last week I got a text message from the bank informing me that the money in my account had been frozen (all 2 riyals of it) because I had not “updated my information” with them. This is code for, “We need to see your iqama in order to verify that you are still a legal resident of Saudi Arabia.” So this morning, Lavender and I headed to the bank to “update my information.”

When you see pictures of Saudi women on TV, it’s always of them covered head-to-toe in black, with only eyes visible. But, in case you’re curious, when you enter the ladies’ branch of a bank in Saudi Arabia, it all looks very much like a bank anywhere else in the world–the women are dressed professionally, sans abaya or any other coverings (the idea being that Islamically, the all-female workplace renders them unnecessary).

I headed to the teller window and told her what I needed to do. The teller, a young woman in a very hipster outfit that included suspenders and a pair of super cute tortoiseshell glasses, explained that I needed to take a number and wait for the next available customer service desk. So I did.

Within a few minutes, my number flashed on the little screen above one of the customer service desks, and I hauled Lavender over to it. I sat down, and the lady on the other side said nothing.

“Hello. I need to update my information on my account; it’s frozen,” I said, handing over my debit card and my iqama.

She took the cards and began tapping on the keyboard of the computer on her desk. “Your account is frozen because you have to renew your iqama. It expires every year.”

“No,” I said. “Mine doesn’t expire every year because I’m sponsored by my husband, not an employer.”

She picked up the card. “See? It expires…oh. In two more years.”

“Yes,” I said.

She went back to typing on her keyboard. Tap, tap, tap. “You don’t speak Arabic?” she said.

La,” I said, the Arabic word for “no.” I smiled and continued, “I mean, I can read, and I speak a little bit, and I’m always trying to learn. But no, I don’t speak Arabic very well.”

She continued typing, staring at the computer screen. “You are in Saudi Arabia. You should speak Arabic.”

My face fell in shame. “I know,” I said.

“Your daughter is Saudi. You should speak Arabic.”

“I know,” I said again.

She pushed a stack of papers across the desk. “Sign here. And here. And here.”

I did. She handed my cards back and said, “Thank you. Be sure to use your debit card in an ATM to make sure it works again.”

And that was that.

That experience left me a tiny bit shell-shocked. I had never been quite so openly shamed for not knowing Arabic the way I probably should. When I got back in the car and rode home, I was squeezing back tears. But I couldn’t help but be somewhat grateful for the experience, because I know it’s something that people in the U.S. endure constantly when they don’t speak English.

You get that, people? Learning a language as an adult is difficult, especially when you have pressing demands on your time other than devoting yourself to language study. And knowing enough rudimentary Arabic to say prayers isn’t sufficient for everyday communication. That being said, the experience spurred me to start seeking out ways to study and improve in Arabic. My in-laws are wonderful, but they all speak at least basic English, so they all tend to fall back on just speaking English to me…and I don’t blame them, because if they want me involved in the conversation, it’s easier for them to just use English, rather than say everything in Arabic and then translate it for me. I get that.

So it’s up to me. I’m hoping that I learn some things along with Lavender. We’ll see if we can learn Arabic together. I’ve put Mr. Mostafa on the job of finding episodes of Sesame Street in Arabic to download. I think that will be good for both of us.

And for every experience that embarrasses or shames me here in Saudi Arabia, there is an equal and opposite positive experience. A few days ago, Lavender and I went to a nearby mall to do some morning mall-walking and some basic shopping. As I was waiting in line to check out at Carrefour, one of the female managers, who was overseeing the female cashiers working the family lines, started to make silly faces at Lavender, who was getting a bit fussy in her stroller. (She generally doesn’t mind riding in the car or in a stroller, but boy, does she get irritated when the car or the stroller stops and she’s stuck sitting there without being able to go anywhere. In this respect, she’s all Saudi.)

Once the manager had Lavender calmed down, she came over and stood next to my checkout line as the cashier rung up my items. She said to me (in English; I think she had heard me talking to Lavender in English as we got in line), “Welcome to Carrefour. Your baby is so beautiful, mashallah!

“Oh, thank you!”

“May I ask where you are from?”

I replied, “I’m from the United States.”

She said, “Oh, American! And you live in Riyadh?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you Muslim?” she asked.

Now, this is a question that any non-Saudi female will be asked, unless one is wearing a niqab. (It’s okay to say no if you aren’t. The response will probably be something along the lines of, “Maybe someday, inshallah.” You might even be given a business card which directs you to a website where you can learn about Islam–this happened to my mom once in a hospital waiting room while we were waiting for one of my prenatal appointments.) In the States, having one’s head covered is pretty conclusive evidence that one is a Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, if you look like you’re not Saudi and you don’t speak Arabic, covering one’s head is not sufficient Muslim cred. So I get asked this question a lot here in Riyadh.

“Yes,” I said.

At this, the manager’s eyes lit up. She came forward and gave me a huge hug. “Alhamdulillah!” she exclaimed, planting kisses on both my cheeks through the material of the niqab that covered her nose and mouth. “Mashallah!”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling. I paid for my items, hung my shopping bags on the handles of Lavender’s stroller, and started to leave. The manager took my hand and said again, “Alhamdulillah. Please come back to Carrefour soon.”

Now, I know that this interaction holds a lot of assumptions, and perhaps even prejudices on the part of the manager. I can’t help but think that she might not have invited me to come back to Carrefour soon had I not answered in the affirmative when she asked if I was Muslim. Before she found out that I was Muslim, she was cordial, but not overflowing with kindness. I couldn’t help but think that the world might be a better place if she had been so welcoming with others, regardless of whether or not they were Muslim.

All that being said, this moment warmed my heart. In the States, people are so often regarded with suspicion when they are “outed,” so to speak, as Muslim, whether that’s through clothing choice, their own admission, or whatever. So to be not shunned, but literally embraced because of my identity as a Muslim…well, that felt nice. I’ve written at length about how most of the time, Saudi Arabia actually makes me feel like less of a Muslim in many ways. But that moment…it was nice.

And now, if you have any resources for Arabic study that you’ve found helpful, feel free to send them my way.