taking off.

March 19, 2015

So, as I mentioned already, we’re traveling to the States very early on Wednesday morning. And by “we,” I mean Lavender and me, because we’re staying for about two months, and Mr. Mostafa’s job doesn’t offer two months worth of vacation days. So he will join us at the end of April and we will all fly back to Riyadh together in May.

Getting ready to travel separately is…weird. The last time I traveled alone, I was pregnant with Lavender. So obviously, since she was born, I’ve never traveled with just her. It’s going to be a whole new experience…especially since she’s on the cusp of two years old, meaning that she’s no longer a snuggly, sleepy, immobile infant. She’s a snuggly, awake, mobile toddler. But she’s still small enough that she’ll be sitting in my lap during the flights, not in her own seat, which is one of the reasons we decided to go to the States early this year; I suck at math, but even I am totally on board with the concept that two international plane tickets are cheaper than three international plane tickets. It’s our last chance to take advantage of that, because once Lavender hits the big T-W-O, we’re a family of three plane tickets.

So, by God, we’re doing it. Lavender turns two the day after we get back to Riyadh, which means there will be birthday parties on both sides of the world. We’re grateful for that.

Another reason that we decided to go at this time and on this schedule was because we kind of want to work toward a summer visiting schedule. When Lavender starts going to school, our summers will, inshallah, be spent in the States, so she (and any other children we may have) can get plenty of time in her other country, with her American grandparents, cousins, and friends. When that happens, Lavender and I will probably spend a couple months in the States on our own, and Mr. Mostafa will join us for the last month or so, as his vacation time allows. But for now, we wanted to start off that transition a bit more easily, with him being separated from Lavender for one month instead of two or more. He’s never been away from her for more than a few days, and he’s going to miss her. A lot. I get that, especially since I’ve never been away from her for more than a few hours. Even now, sometimes they’ll be playing on the floor (as I type this, they’re playing tea party with real cookies and pretend tea), and he will grab her and hug her and say, “Oh, habibeti, how can I be away from you for a whole month?!”

It’s going to be a little rough this go-round, and we’re very grateful it’s just a month. We’ll Skype a lot, and we also discovered an app called A Story Before Bed, which lets him record stories for Lavender to watch on the iPad. So we’re well-equipped.

Another reason we decided to go now is because my mom wants to take a trip to northern California to visit her mom (my grandmother, and Lavender’s great-grandmother, just to be extra clear). I want to go with her, because Lavender hasn’t met her great-grandmother yet. We’re road tripping, and we will be stopping at a few major landmarks on the way back to Missouri–namely, the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. I also intend to eat a great deal of authentic Bay Area sourdough bread while in California, and I hope Lavender will appreciate it as much as I do. My family can never get enough of that sourdough.

So Mr. Mostafa and I are planning out our traveling details well in advance of his departure date–such as what carry-on bag he will use, and that sort of thing, because this is what we do every time we travel, and I won’t be here in Riyadh with him to go through the process before he leaves for Missouri. He’s a meticulous organizer, and because we worry about different details of the traveling experience, we complement each other (usually). He’s already stressing about the fact that so far, we haven’t been able to reserve seats next to each other on one of our return flights (we’re all on the flight, just without specific seat reservations), and he’s been busy making sure Lavender and I have an optimal seat, since I really have no preferences about where I sit on a plane (I’m always just happy to be on it–although I do enjoy window seats); thus, for the past few days I’ve been bombarded by outer monologues and questions like, “Honey, I picked a seat for you that’s on the double-seat side of the little jet from Dallas to Springfield; is that okay? You’ll probably have to sit next to some random person, but I read somewhere that on the single-seat side of the jet, there isn’t an extra oxygen mask in case you need them.” And, “Do you want a seat closer to or further away from the bathroom? It’ll be easier for you to get to the bathroom, but I don’t want you to have to deal with bathroom noises and smells the entire flight. I like to sit near the bathroom, because I drink a lot of water, so that’s where I’ll sit when I’m traveling alone. But what do you prefer?” And, “Do you think it’s rude of me to reserve bulkhead seats for when I’m traveling by myself? I hate when I see guys flying alone taking up bulkhead seats, especially when there are moms with babies in other seats that need them.”

I’ve been encouraging him to choose whatever seat he thinks are safest and most convenient, to offer to switch seats with any moms he sees who are traveling alone with a lap baby and might need a bulkhead seat more than he does, and to not sweat the things we can’t control.

I’m scouring online maps of Heathrow Airport (because we have a five-hour layover in London) to find the family play areas and the nursing rooms in our terminal and practicing getting Lavender in and out of the Ergo Sport baby carrier that a very sweet friend here in Riyadh is letting me use for our trip (I’m a babywearer, but I’ve always used a Moby Wrap, and I haven’t worn Lavender since was small enough to fit in a newborn hug hold, and then a regular hug hold. We decided to try a different sort of baby carrier for this trip, instead of dealing with the headache of gate-checking a stroller. We’ll see how it goes, and if it’s successful, we’ll be investing in our own). Meanwhile, he’s making sure that we have everything we might need elsewhere. He thinks about things I wouldn’t immediately consider, and vice-versa.

For example, I just figured that if I wanted or needed to buy something in Heathrow Airport on our five-hour layover in London, I would swipe my American debit card and that would be that. There are bank fees involved with that, but I didn’t worry about it because I only planned to buy something if I really needed to (I plan to carry snacks and such, and we’ll eat on the Riyadh-to-London flight, as well as the London-to-Dallas flight). Then on Thursday, Mr. Mostafa came home and busied himself in the bedroom for a few minutes, before coming out with a small zippered folio, held open and displaying its contents.

“Okay, sweetie,” he said. “I think this is everything you’ll need, right? All organized. Here are all the passports, and here’s your entry/exit visa. Here’s a printout of your itinerary. Here’s a pen, so you can fill out your customs form on the flight without having to borrow one or asking a flight attendant. Here are some riyals in case you want to buy something in the airport in Riyadh once you get past security. And here are some British pounds for when you’re in London.”

IMG 6947 750x499 taking off.

“How in the world did you get pounds?” I exclaimed, momentarily forgetting that I’m in an enormous city and not tiny-town southern Missouri, where Mr. Mostafa once tried to change riyals into dollars at a local bank and the bank tellers had to get out a big binder of pictures of foreign currency in order to compare pictures of Saudi riyals to the real thing in front of them, to make sure he wasn’t trying to pull their leg.

But as it turns out, he didn’t even get the pounds from a bank teller. “Oh, I’ve been buying them off my British coworkers for a few weeks now,” he said. “When they get back from visiting Britain, they have pounds and they want riyals, and I have riyals and I want pounds. So it worked out. I know you never carry cash, but I figured you might want to have some in London. Just in case.”

I almost got a bit teary.

We make a pretty great team. And I think we’re ready for this new adventure.

Can’t wait to hug my parents in Missouri. And look out, London. Lavender’s a-comin’.


March 12, 2015

When I converted to Islam, I always knew I wanted to wear hijab–i.e., a headscarf. Perhaps owing to my years as a devout Catholic with the drive (but never the bravery) to wear a mantilla during Mass, headcovering seemed like a natural progression in faith, one that I sought to embrace wholeheartedly. I still love having my head covered in public. I feel uncomfortable and disconnected when I don’t, even though headcovering here in Saudi Arabia, with the tarha that matches whatever abaya I have on, can feel like a chore more than anything else because the material is often slippery and the wrap-and-tuck style I use (as so many other ladies here, Saudi and non-Saudi, do) when in the Kingdom lends itself to my adorably excitable baby yanking it off.

But even though hijab came naturally for me, I’ve never felt persuaded to cover my face with a niqab, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. It just never seemed to me like a practice that would enhance my connection to my faith in any way. However, I do know ladies who readily embrace the niqab for this reason, and for many others–yes, including feminism. Some women wear it because their husbands prefer for them to (at least when in Saudi Arabia), for a myriad of reasons. I know Western women for whom moving to Saudi Arabia was a relief because it meant that they could finally wear niqab without fear of judgment and/or harassment. I know other Western women married to Saudis who feel no particular connection to the niqab and wouldn’t wear it in the States or any country other than Saudi Arabia, but their husband’s female family members wear it, so they do, too. The diversity of reasons for wearing niqab is as endless as the diversity of the faces it covers.

But after a breakfast here in Riyadh in which I found myself chatting with friends about wearing the niqab and its influence or lack thereof on who a person is behind it, I found myself curious about what it would be like to cover my face in public, and what better place to try it out than in Riyadh, where the majority of women cover their faces, anyway?

It wasn’t about how other people would respond to me, or about attempting to step into the shoes and replicate the experience of a full-time niqabi through a part-time experiment. Rather, it was simply about exploring how I interacted with the world around me when I had my face covered. Would I feel different? Would I somehow feel closer to God? Would I feel further away from God? Would I feel empowered by my relative anonymity, or would I feel constricted by it or lost within it?

So I decided to give the niqab a spin.

I couldn’t just run downstairs and borrow one from my female in-laws; neither my mother-in-law nor my sister-in-law cover their faces, although my mother-in-law used to when she was younger (she says she stopped because it caused her skin to break out, which makes sense to me…the niqab serves as a protective barrier from the sun, but it also seems like if your face got sweaty, the cloth would absorb the sweat and hold it against your face, which can’t be good), and both of my husband’s grandmothers do. So one Saturday morning, while we were out and about, I instructed him to stop at an abaya shop and purchase a niqab for me. He ran in and came back out with exactly what I needed.

“It was really cheap,” he informed me. “Only 10 riyals.” Which is less than $3. I wasn’t surprised. This particular niqab was basically a long, narrow strip of black fabric that tied at the back of the head, with a square-shaped piece of matching fabric that came down over the face area, its top two corners connected to the longer strip, so that the eyes remained visible. There are different abayas that have the niqab built in, and different kinds of niqabs that are designed to come connected to a headcovering. But the one I now own is very simple. I just put on my abaya and put my tarha on my head like usual, and then I place the niqab over my face, with the long strip on my forehead and the ends tied at the back of my head.

For the next several weeks, I wore the niqab when out by myself in public places.

My first concern when I started wearing it was that Lavender would be freaked out when she saw me with it on. She had never seen me with my face covered before (heck, for that matter, neither had I), and I didn’t want to scare or confuse her. But when I tied on my niqab and turned to look at her in the backseat, she just laughed. Crisis averted.

Another concern I had was the heat. I thought that surely, it must be stifling underneath a niqab! And yes, being completely unaccustomed to it, it was, at first. I had never been so aware of my normal breathing. Every time I exhaled, it felt like there was a bubble of hot air trapped over my face. But then I noticed that every time I breathed in, the opposite happened. The incoming breath filtered through the fabric and canceled out the heat on my face with a rush of cool air. It was like a see-saw. Warm, cool. Warm, cool. Eventually, it evened itself out and I stopped noticing the presence of the niqab.

In Riyadh, I’ve often heard Western female expats say that the niqab actually draws more attention to them, not less, because their blue eyes are a giveaway that they’re not Saudi. I don’t know if my glasses deflected that sort of attention or what (when I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, I was wearing my regular glasses), but I don’t think anyone really noticed me more than usual when I wore niqab. In fact, I felt like I fit in much better; my sense of sticking out like a sore thumb was significantly diminished–which, obviously, is culturally relative, because in the States, the opposite would certainly be true. The only time I really felt that the niqab drew more attention to me than usual was when I spoke to someone in English–my American accent caused folks to stare a lot.

Wearing the niqab didn’t make me feel closer to or further away from God. Thus, I still don’t feel like the niqab has any sort of religious significance for me personally, but I understand that it does for many women (much like I can see how the mantilla would have no appeal for many Catholic women, but for me, it absolutely did). However, I feel like this is a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing–I put on the niqab partly to see if it would catalyze some sort of religious clarity or insight, but I think many, if not most, Muslim women who make the choice to cover their faces feel the religious need or preference to so before they follow through.

And even though I don’t feel like the niqab is a beneficial Islamic step for me, it’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of it, at least here in Riyadh. Even though many women don’t cover their faces here, the fact that so many women do makes it stand to reason that putting on the niqab would contribute to blending in with the larger crowd.

If my mother-in-law and sister-in-law wore niqab when they went out, I probably would, as well–or at least, I’d think more seriously about adopting it as a ritual when here in the Kingdom. But as it stands, I’ve reverted to my previous abaya-and-tarha combination, and just as before, I don’t automatically reach for my niqab as a part of getting dressed to go out. However, I do now keep my niqab tucked in a small pocket on the inside of my handbag, in case I ever start to feel uncomfortable in a way that more easily blending in with the crowd would help alleviate. I certainly didn’t feel lost within or constricted by my niqab-imparted anonymity, although I think that’s something that would vary from person to person. I actually appreciate that since I now know that I can feel comfortable with my face covered, I can choose to wear niqab or not, as it suits me.

And as with everything else, choice is what it should always be about.

photo 21 750x499 niqabi curious.

how we all start out.

March 5, 2015

When Lavender was tiny, Mr. Mostafa had a very important role in her toileting. The actual diaper changes were primarily my domain, but whenever I changed her diaper and he was home, he would be standing over her, making silly faces or singing songs or dancing (or all of the above) in order to entertain her, because she has always hated diaper changes.

Once, as we went through our diaper changing process and Lavender giggled at her baba’s antics, he smiled and said, “This is how we all start out. Think about it. It’s so funny. We can’t even wipe our own butts or find our own food; someone has to do it all for us. We all think we’re so big and important. But we all start out just like this.”

As Lavender grows and I find myself doing little things for her that conventional parenting wisdom never seems to acknowledge but are important nevertheless, it seems like I’m always having flashbacks to that moment. A few days ago, it happened as Lavender and I were sharing popcorn. Of course, popcorn is generally regarded as a no-no for children of Lavender’s age, because it’s a choking hazard. But she had a tiny part of a piece a few months ago, and she’s been hooked ever since. So I crumble the popcorn into smaller pieces, and I only let her have the fluffy, chewy parts. Regular pieces of popcorn are still out of her league, but she can have it this way.

So as I sorted her popcorn pieces and handed them to her one by one, I thought, “These will always be the moments I remember. These are the moments that shape how I think about her for the rest of my life. How am I ever going to let her go to college? How am I ever going to let her drive by herself? How am I ever going to let her spend the night at a friend’s house? How am I ever going to let her grow up, knowing that she once needed me to sort the safe popcorn pieces for her?”

It’s a question that bestowed a sudden, startling clarity on my relationship with my own mother.

A few days ago, my mom and I were discussing my itinerary for my journey to the States at the end of this month. After much discussion, Mr. Mostafa and I had decided that instead of taking our usual week-long vacation to a nearby locale, we would take our annual America visit early this year. There were multiple reasons for this, one of the big ones being that my mom and I want to take a trip to California to visit my grandmother, who has yet to meet Lavender. We figured that this would best be done sooner rather than later. So Lavender and I are flying into Missouri at the end of the month, and Mr. Mostafa will join us at the end of April. We will return to Riyadh toward the end of May.

One of the stops that Lavender and I will make on the way to Missouri is in London. We have a five-hour layover in Heathrow. I’m super excited about this, because I’ve never been to London, and I’m thrilled to have a chance to be there, even if it is just walking around the airport.

My mom, however, is less thrilled about the prospect of Lavender and I spending five hours bopping around an unfamiliar airport in a foreign country where we don’t know anyone. “Please be careful,” she begged. “Please try to get wi-fi in the airport so you can WhatsApp me or FaceTime with me. I need to know you’re okay. Please.”

“Mom, we’ll be fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. “It’s just an airport. In England. Which means everyone speaks English.”

“Don’t laugh at me,” she said. “I’m a mom!”

As I sorted and fed Lavender only the fluffy bits of popcorn one by one, I suddenly imagined her as an adult, alone in an airport in a foreign country, and my heart constricted in fear. How will she ever be able to take care of herself? She can’t even eat popcorn by herself! She can’t even use the potty on her own! I agonize about the possibility of her falling out of the bed, or pulling a lamp off a nightstand onto her little head. Everything is a choking hazard. I worry that the plastics in her sippy cups are toxic. My mind is filled with daymares and nightmares of child abusers, kidnappers, sexual predators, serial killers. And she wants me to let her walk around an airport by herself?

All my life, my mother has worried about me in just this way. And now, I get it. How is she supposed to think of me as a capable adult when she once had to wipe my butt because I couldn’t do it myself? This is how I met her, as a pink, squawking, helpless infant. They say first impressions are everything, and so I now understand that to my mother, on some level, I will always be that squawking, helpless infant.

When Lavender goes off to college, I will sit by my phone, worrying that she is seconds away from choking on the popcorn she is snacking on as she studies chemistry equations that I will never understand. I will be beside myself with worry as I watch her walk away from me to catch a flight in King Khaled Airport here in Riyadh, even though I will know that she speaks and understands Arabic and Saudi culture in ways I will never be able to comprehend. By the time she reaches the age of legal adulthood, she will be exponentially more worldly than I could ever hope to be in my lifetime.

She is a marvel.

But when she is grown and gone, off making her way in the world, I’m still going to worry. I’m still going to be scared for her. I’m still going to think about those moments of crushing popcorn and choosing the resulting pieces that are safe for her to eat. I’m still going to see her as a toddler who wakes up in the morning and crawls to the end of the bed and calls for me to come get her. I’m still going to think about those mornings spent sitting on the bathroom floor as she sits perched on the toilet by way of a Hello Kitty potty seat as we read Once Upon a Potty and wait for bathroom business to happen.

She is already so big and so important, and she will only become more so. But she started out just like me, and just like every other person in the world. And I will always think of her in these little moments where she needed me, and whether intentional or not, I helped shape her into the self-sufficient person she will become. And I will pray that I didn’t let her down somewhere along the way.

IMG 0914 750x561 how we all start out.