lavender’s islamic name.

November 19, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in names. This is partly because I wrote a lot of stories as a kid, and of course, my characters had to have names. Nice names. Interesting names. Beautiful names. Names that made me want to keep writing about those characters (even though inevitably, I lost interest in almost every story I wrote and never got to find out how they ended).

But my long-standing fascination with names also stemmed partly from the fact that I have always wanted to be a mother. Always. I didn’t know when that would happen, or with whom, or even how (because for a long time I was quite certain that I wasn’t destined to get married), but I knew I would be a mother someday. And babies, just like story characters, must have names.

Thus, as a teenager, I kept a list of potential baby names. Yes, thanks to Matilda and Roald Dahl, Lavender was on the list. I’ve always had a thing for uncommon names. This is one thing that Mr. Mostafa and I–generally–agree on; we don’t want any of our children to be one of four kids in their class with that same name. Liams and Jadens and Bens, oh my!

But there were many other names that had safe spaces on my list of potential children, names that I assumed would remain uncommon enough that I would be able to use them once I was old enough to have children.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that I’m starting to think I have some sort of baby-naming sixth sense. At least for girls’ names. Because all three of my favored girls’ names in high school are now out of the running because their popularity has erupted like Pompeii, drowning people in an auditory lava flow of hearing them called constantly in public spaces. Taunting me. (At least, this is the case in the States, which I guess makes it kind of a good thing that I ended up in Saudi Arabia, eh?)

First of all, there’s Isabel. I freaking love the name Isabel. Not Isabella, not Bella, Isabel. I’ve adored this name for well over fifteen years. And when I met Mr. Mostafa and we decided we were going to get married and all that, I was thrilled partly because Isabel sounds lovely with the surname of Mostafa. Isabel Mostafa. It sounds like a diplomat. A doctor. An artist. Someone with a lot of great things to say. Someone who will make the world a better place.

But then, along came Twilight. Eff you, Twilight. All of a sudden, every watermelon-tummied glowing pregnant woman around me was smiling sweetly and announcing that they would be soon be delivering a bundle of joy named Isabella, and while all of the other ladies around would coo, “Awwwww!”, I would be smiling blandly and holding back the expression I really wanted to make, which was something like this, even though absolutely none of the ladies around me had any clue that I had long dreamed of having a daughter named Isabel. (Yes, I know that technically Isabel and Isabella are not the same name, but if you care enough to check the stats, you’ll find that Isabel has surged in popularity due to its plague-like cousin. And even if I did choose the name Isabel for any daughters we may have in the future, I’m sure anyone who took the time to think about it–because duh, everyone thinks about me, me, me and my baby name choices–would just assume I chose Isabel as a slight offshoot of Isabella. And…no. Oh, and just to be clear, we are not currently expecting a second Mostafa baby.)

And then…there’s Emma. See, my mom’s name is Emma, and for a long time, I harbored dreams of naming a daughter after her. Because she is amazing, and her name is adorable. It seemed like a plausible dream to one day have a uniquely-named daughter named Emma, because when I was a kid, my mom’s name was an anomaly. Her name was nowhere. On road trips, when we stopped at truck stops filled with racks of little personalized touristy trinkets, I always checked for her name and it was never there. Ever. No one was named Emma except my mom. In large crowds, my brother and I knew that if we wanted to find our mom, all we had to do was yell, “Emma!”, and she would appear. Nowadays, in any corner of America, call, “Emma!” in a public place and you’ll instantly assemble a kindergarten class. And whenever I hear a mom in a public place yelling, “Emma! Emma, stop that! Come here!”, I automatically look up, expecting to see my mom throwing her movie popcorn all over the floor or something. It’s odd.

I could keep going; I have several more names with similar stories (and I know you’re just fascinated by the two I’ve already offered). But I guess they’re largely irrelevant at this point, because when the time came that it was necessary to choose a baby name, I was stunned by how easily we concluded that Lavender, one of the names I had loved for decades, would be our daughter.

When Mr. Mostafa and I first found out that we were going to be parents, the name selection process began immediately. We started tossing around ideas. I downloaded a baby name app (or four). I began compiling lists of my favorites, and lists of lists.

But my ideas were all English names. I clicked around a bit in search of suitable Arabic names, but Saleh shot down all of the ones I found and liked. “We need a Saudi baby name book,” he declared. Because, you know, a name may be Arabic, but not particularly Saudi…just as a name may be English, but not necessarily sound American (like, when you say the name Reginald, I think of British nobility, not a kindergartner in Kentucky).

So we went out and got a baby name book.

IMG 0201 750x499 lavenders islamic name.It’s probably best if you don’t ask too many questions about the cover art. Or, at least, that’s the conclusion that we agreed upon before we brought it home, after we agreed that this was the baby name book for us because the bunny-baby on the cover seemed as confused about its plight as we were.

I dutifully combed through the book, but one night, as we were sitting in bed, I said out of nowhere, “You know what name I love? Lavender.”

I figured this would be a long shot. But much to my surprise, he turned to me and said, “I love it.”

“Seriously?” I gasped.

“Seriously. I love it.”

And that was that.

We got a lot of questions and weird looks when we revealed that we had chosen the name Lavender for our baby girl. “No one will know how to say it in Saudi Arabia,” some said. Others said, “They’ll never let you name her that,” because Saudi Arabia, like other countries, has guidelines by which its citizens may be named. And some proclaimed that our chosen name was “not Islamic”–because often, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as well as Arabs and non-Arabs, the word “Islamic” gets conflated with the word “Arabic.” Although the Arabic language is intricately linked with Islam, these words are not interchangeable.

There are different fatwas about Islamic baby naming, but when it comes down to it, the name just has to have a nice meaning. It’s said that in Prophet Mohammed’s time, some tribes had the custom of giving their children names that had ugly meanings, in order to ward off evil spirits and such. However, with the advent of Islam, names were required to have a nice, pleasant meaning.

I’ve been asked what my “Islamic” name is, and the truth is, my Islamic name is Nicole. It’s the name my parents gave me and it has a nice meaning (it’s a Greek name meaning “victory”), so I have never felt any need to change it. Many folks do adopt an Islamic name when they convert, for whatever reasons they feel are appropriate (and when that happens, it’s usually an Arabic name), but there’s absolutely no requirement to change one’s name upon becoming a Muslim. Muhammad Ali chose to change his name because the family name he was given at birth belonged not to his parents or grandparents, but to the slaveholding family that once considered themselves the owners of his ancestors. And if someone like Bill Buttlicker decided to convert to Islam, he’d probably get some folks at the masjid politely suggesting potential new names for him.

But it’s for this reason that I’ve never been bothered by the suggestion that Lavender doesn’t have an “Islamic” name (or by any suggestion that I need one). True, her name isn’t Arabic (the Arabic word for “lavender” is “khozama,” which, while a lovely Arabic name, just doesn’t have the same ring to my ears). But the meaning is still nice, and that’s the important thing. (And for now, let’s put aside the important point that different words can have positive or negative meanings in different cultures.)

I mean, just try to tell me that’s her name doesn’t represent something beautiful. I dare you.

Due to my track record of admiring relatively obscure names that eventually go on to achieve the popularity that awkward adolescents dream of, Lavender may be destined for a meteoric rise. Okay, okay, so if it does become popular, it will probably be more because the kids who devoured the Harry Potter series are growing up and starting to have kids of their own, and there’s a character named Lavender in those books. But at least I will be able to rest assured that we were well ahead of the trend. And if the name does take off somewhere down the road, all those little Lavenders can rest assured that they have a proper Islamic name.

matchmaker, matchmaker.

November 12, 2014

In Saudi Arabia, marriages are made with the consent of the families of the couple. Obviously, this is wholly unlike marriages in America, where you can get married in a drive-thru in Las Vegas in the middle of the night while drunk as a skunk if you want to, and no one even cares whether or not you have parents at all, let alone if they agree to the marriage. But here in the Kingdom, if you want to get married and you have parents, those parents must be on board with the plan. Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen.

My parents were initially uncomfortable with this idea, as I suspect the majority of Americans would be. When Mr. Mostafa and I wanted to get married, they were baffled by the idea that he had to get permission from his family before he could marry me.  (Technically, he could have just moved to the States and married me, without the approval of his family. But that was a last-ditch option, and neither of us wanted to go that route if we could avoid it. We didn’t want to start off our married life with his family hating us.) To my parents, this whole “I can’t marry you until my family approves” thing was a surefire sign that this kid was no good.

“I don’t like it,” my dad said to me one day as we sat at the kitchen table at my parents’ house, Monday Night Football blaring on the TV. This was about a year before Mr. Mostafa and I got married. He took a puff of a cigarette, and then said, “His family’s got nothing to do with it. It’s you and him that have to make a life together. Not me, not your mom, not his parents. You and him. That’s what matters. When you get married, you break off to start a new family. It’s not our decision anymore. It’s your choice. We can’t choose who you marry, even if we may want to. We raised you, and all we can do now is hope–hope–you make good choices for yourself.”

I’m pretty sure that my dad still feels this way, and my mom, too. But occasionally, I get the feeling that they’re starting to see the fun in playing matchmaker.

A week or so before Mr. Mostafa, Lavender, and I left Riyadh for our visit to the States, my mom called me on FaceTime with some very exciting news–while grocery shopping, my parents had found a wife for Mr. Mostafa’s brother.

“She’s a checkout girl at Harps!” Mom said excitedly, referring to our small local grocery store chain. “She’s such a cute little thing! Your dad told her that we had a Saudi prince that we wanted her to meet and I tried to tell her that he isn’t really a Saudi prince–”

“Well, to his mom, he’s a Saudi prince!” my dad called in the background.

“Well, okay, he’s that kind of Saudi prince, but not really a prince!” my mom yelled back. “Anyway,” she said, turning back to her iPhone camera, “we just think she’d be perfect for Suleiman! How old is he now? 21? He’s still in college, right? Engineering?”

“Yes,” I replied.

A few days later, my phone jangled with the arrival of a WhatsApp message from my mom. I looked down to see a photo of a pretty young woman. Standing in front of a cash register. Wearing a polo shirt. With the Harps logo. Smiling nervously, with an expression that looked just like Lavender’s when we put her on a swing for the first time–fear and amusement fighting in her eyes.

photo 15 e1415695457435 750x499 matchmaker, matchmaker.

I hurriedly called my mom on FaceTime. “You took a picture of her?” I exclaimed when she answered.

“We had to!” my dad called from the driver’s seat.

“Yes, we had to!” my mom agreed, in a tone that clearly conveyed her annoyance at the fact that just I didn’t seem to get that a marriage could not proceed without the two parties knowing what the other looked like. Then she leaned closer to the camera and whispered, “I think she thinks we’re weird.”

“Well, yeah!” I agreed, imagining the FBI rolling up to my parents’ house to arrest them on suspicion of running some sort of human trafficking ring.

“We’re not weird!” my dad insisted as he kept his eyes on the road. “We just found a wife for Suleiman!”

My sister-in-law was sitting next to me in the apartment when my dad said this. “A wife for Suleiman?” she repeated.

I opened the picture and held up the phone to her.

Mashallah, she is so beautiful!” my sister-in-law exclaimed.

“Let me see!” Mr. Mostafa said.

I held up the phone to him as I looked down at the floor.

“And she’s so sweet!” my mom said excitedly. “Kinda quiet and shy. Just like Suleiman!”

I shook my head.

A few weeks later, when we were in Missouri, Mr. Mostafa, Lavender, and I were on our way to my parents’ house for dinner when my mom called and asked if I could stop and get some milk; she had forgotten milk when she went grocery shopping earlier that day. I swung into the Harps parking lot, ran in, grabbed a couple jugs of two-percent, and plopped them down on the conveyor belt of the nearest empty checkout line.

“Hi there,” the checkout girl said.

I was struck with the sense that I’d seen this person before, and I quickly realized that I had. In a WhatsApp message. Because of my matchmaking parents.

“Oh, hi!” I said.

“How are you today?” she asked as she scanned the milk.

“Just fine, and you?” I replied politely, swiping my debit card and punching in the PIN digits.

“Doing good,” she said. “Now, I’m gonna go ahead and put each of these in two bags; sometimes these bags break. We wouldn’t want that.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” I agreed. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Have a nice day!”

“You too!”

When I walked through the door carrying two (well, I guess technically, four) Harps bags, my mom said, “Oh, you went to Harps! Did you see…you know?” I could tell she was dying of curiosity, but she didn’t want to seem…you know…weird.

“Yep, I checked out in her line,” I said.

“Really?” Mom said. “What did you think? Isn’t she a sweetheart?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I conceded. “She double-bagged the milk.”

“I told you!” Mom said triumphantly.

A few days later, Mr. Mostafa and I were out and about, while Lavender was with my parents. We stopped at Harps to pick up some snacks and juice. As we walked past the checkout counters on our way in, he elbowed me, nodded toward one of the registers, and joked in a whisper so loud that it really wasn’t a whisper at all, “Hey, isn’t that Suleiman’s wife?”

“Yes! Come on! Shhhhhhhh!” I shushed him in an even louder whisper. He giggled conspiratorially.

We grabbed our groceries, and as we moved toward the checkout area, the reluctant potential bride cashed out her register drawer and scurried away from her line, into the employee break room.

“This is getting ridiculous,” I told my mom later that night when we went to pick up Lavender, after I’d recounted the story of what had just transpired at Harps. “I think we’re terrifying this poor girl.”

“I know,” my mom sighed. “But we’re not weird, Nikki!”

“Uh, I know we’re not, Mom. But she doesn’t. Imagine if I had been working at a grocery store during college, and I told you that some older couple came through my line and said, ‘Let us take your picture! You’re just perfect for this guy in Saudi Arabia we know!'”

My mom giggled, but looked totally serious at the same time. “Yeah, I know.” She leaned over and whispered, “I know it looks weird, and I tried to tell your dad that, but I don’t think he gets why. He’s just so proud of your Saudi family, you know. We both are. They’re such good people.”

Last night, my mom called me on FaceTime on her lunch hour. “I went to Harps yesterday,” she said, biting into her sandwich.

“Oh, you did?” I said.

“Yep,” she nodded. “I took that girl aside. I said, ‘Listen, sweetie. I don’t want you to think we’re weird or anything. My daughter really does live in Saudi Arabia, and she really is married to a Saudi guy, and he has a younger brother. They’re a wonderful family, and me and my husband just got excited, you know, because we love their family.'”

“What did she say?”

“She said she didn’t think we were weird. She said yesterday some old man came through her line and said he’d like to see a picture of her in a bikini, and that was weird.”

“Um, yeah. Ew,” I said, thinking that this girl could probably start a pretty fascinating blog of her own if she wanted to. It would go viral. Weird Grocery Shoppers of the Ozarks.

“I told her, ‘My daughter and her husband came in a few weeks ago and they were joking around…my son-in-law was like, “Is that her?” and my daughter shushed him pretty loudly. They were afraid they scared you.'”

“Oh, my God, that poor girl!” I said. “What did she say?”

“She laughed and said she didn’t notice anyone like that, so you shouldn’t worry.”

“Oh, good,” I said, relieved.

“And then,” Mom said, taking a drink of juice, “I told her that Suleiman was 21 and an engineering major in college. A very nice young man, if she might want to meet him whenever he comes with you to visit. And Nikki, I swear,” she continued excitedly, “her eyes just lit up when I said that!”

I’m not convinced that her eyes weren’t lit up in terror rather than excitement, but who knows? Maybe it might be a match after all. icon wink matchmaker, matchmaker.

barbaric cultures.

November 5, 2014

Rant warning. Buckle up.

Since I live in Saudi Arabia and write a lot about it, I often end up reading a lot about it, too. Often people, especially friends and family who probably wouldn’t otherwise read a whole lot about Saudi Arabia if I didn’t live here, will send me articles or pieces about life or events in Saudi Arabia and ask what I think of them.

Like, one time a person sent me a link to a piece about abuse in Saudi schools–teachers hitting children–and asked my opinion on it. My opinion was that this is certainly a problem. It needs to be addressed. I applaud parents who actively seek reform. If my child were to come home and tell me that she was hit by a teacher or an administrator, or that she saw another child being hit by a teacher or an administrator…well, let’s just say that the next day would be really unpleasant for all of the adults involved.

But then…there were the comments on the piece. Oh, the comments. Dripping with neocolonial angst and pity that people actually live in such a backward society. This is common in Westerners’ writing about Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to negative stories, although they frequently don’t notice it (and I’m guilty of it too sometimes, although I really try to police myself when it comes to this). Painfully common. Sometimes the neocolonialism is so evident in people’s words, it’s like seeing someone walking around with their skirt tucked in their underwear, and you just want to tap them on the shoulder and let them know.

From what I’ve read, Westerners will scoff at Saudis who demand legislation to address problems they see in their society (for example, the wasting of food), especially if those problems aren’t legislative priorities in America (“Oh, those childish Saudis and their lack of common sense! They’re so unable to control themselves that they actually demand frivolous legislation to do it for them, when such greater problems exist in their society!”), while simultaneously expressing horror that laws that protect Americans from real dangers and injustices that have managed to make their way onto the American cultural radar do not (yet) exist in Saudi Arabia. For example, car seat laws. As far as I know, every state in America mandates that children be buckled into appropriate car seats when riding in cars, even though when it comes down to it, it should be common sense to buckle your kid into a car seat, for Americans and Saudis alike. But it wasn’t in America until laws made it so. And unfortunately, it certainly isn’t in Saudi Arabia yet, and just like in America, I expect it won’t be until laws make it so.

That’s creeping neocolonialism, folks–this idea that “my culture does it right and yours is backward if it doesn’t do things like mine does, so fix your culture to make it more like mine. I’ll help you! The problems you see in your culture are silly. The problems I see in your culture are important and need to be addressed immediately.”

My brother and I used to ride in the back of a truck when we were kids. Like, if we were going to town and we were taking the truck and the weather was nice outside, of course we kids would load up and ride in the back. Having four people in the cab of a truck was crowded and uncomfortable, something to be endured preferably only on snowy days when my parents had to take the truck to work because the cars wouldn’t make it in the snow. We loved days when we could ride in the back of the truck. It was fun.

It was also really, really dangerous. Our parents loved us. Our parents were the best parents ever. But we were allowed to do that very dangerous thing, like every other kid we grew up with, simply because it’s what had always been done in our part of the country. Eventually, of course, my parents stopped letting us ride in the back of the truck. They wouldn’t dream of letting their grandchildren do it. But why did they stop? Was it because they suddenly wised up and decided, “No, this is bad, very bad, and we should not do this anymore; this is a cultural flaw”? No. Was it because a tragedy befell our family due to children riding in the back of a truck? Thank God, no. It was because a law was passed. Heavy fines were enforced for anyone who was pulled over with passengers in the back of the truck. And through the enforcement of that law, the culture changed. You’ll never see a kid riding in the back of a truck nowadays in Missouri. And it probably should have been common sense to not let kids ride in the backs of trucks, at least not at highway speeds. But it wasn’t. Because, again, it was what had always been done. It was culture. And a law fixed that problem, because someone (or multiple someones) from within my culture identified and addressed it.

When Americans pass a law that addresses a problem in their society, no matter how invasive the law may be (I mean, there are people in America who still complain about being required to wear seat belts in cars) or how attributable to a lack of common sense the problem may be, the legislative solution is lauded as enlightened, progressive, civilized. But when a Saudi calls for such a law to be passed, it’s because Saudis are primitive and backward and cannot control themselves, and so they must have silly laws to do it for them–that is, unless the Americans have also identified the problem in their own culture and legislated it away themselves.

The point is, we Americans, especially white Americans, are so terribly efficient at illuminating others’ cultural malignancies while conveniently ignoring our own, or ignoring that we once had the exact same problem. Actually, in many cases, “ignoring” is much too generous a term, because that would imply that people actually see and recognize problems but choose not to address them. In many cases, people don’t even know or realize these problems exist because they’re so busy tsk-tsking about how the savages need to be saved from themselves.

Remember that article I mentioned earlier, the one about abuse in Saudi schools? The comments on that piece went largely along the lines of, “I’m so glad I don’t live in Saudi Arabia.” “This would never happen in America.” “I’m so glad I live in America, where I don’t have to worry about the safety of my child at school.” And I’m sure that if it came out that Saudi Arabia was considering taking a much stricter stance on teachers or administrators who hit children (as, I will say as the mother of a Saudi-American child who will likely be attending school in Saudi Arabia, they absolutely should), the comments from my countrymen who got wind of the development would go largely along the same lines, complete with detailed diagnoses of exactly why this problem exists in Saudi culture, from people who are (shocker!) not Saudi. Because Saudi Arabia is backward and primitive and Saudis have little regard for their children. And yet…

Let me tell you a story about going to school in America.

When I was a freshman in high school, I took band class. I wasn’t really that into band, but it was a tiny school, and elective choices were limited. I played the flute. (No, I never went to band camp, for those who share my late-90s pop culture reference set. And as serious as the following story is, I know that it totally lends itself to American Pie jokes. Just to get that out of the way.)

I was pretty terrible at playing the flute. I couldn’t even sit properly while I played. Apparently, it’s bad form to cross your legs when you play the flute. I kept forgetting, because in any other sitting situation, I crossed my legs out of habit. I didn’t even realize I was doing it half the time, but when I was in band class, my music teacher noticed every time, and she would yell at me to uncross my legs whenever she caught me.

Now, as teachers go, this music teacher was not a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t hate her, and I never really had a major problem with her, but I admit, once I realized I had this ability to drive her crazy by crossing my legs while I played the flute, it got kind of fun to mess with her. We were all somewhat amused by how she would scold me so seriously whenever she caught me playing with my legs crossed. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to get so upset about. It was a tiny rural school; none of us kids were destined for Julliard, or even a bottom-tier college marching band. Band class was a silly elective. None of us took it seriously.

But one day, the teacher had enough. She stopped the piece we were playing and said, “Nikki Hunter, the next time you cross your legs, I’m going to paddle you.”

We all laughed.

“I’m serious,” she said. “I will paddle you the next time this happens.”

Despite her ominous proclamation, none of us believed she was serious. Still, I figured it was best not to mess with a paddling threat, and right then I decided I would quit with the leg crossing.

But as I mentioned before, it was a habit.

I crossed my legs again a few minutes later, not even realizing I was doing it. I was plugging away at the piece on the music stand in front of me, along with the rest of the class, when the music teacher stopped us, pointed to the door, and said, “Nikki. Art room. Now.”

The art room was empty during that particular class period; it was the art teacher’s planning time. The music teacher did not have a paddle, but the art teacher did (when one of her classes got particularly loud and rowdy, she used to smack it on her metal desk to startle/threaten us into silence), so for the music teacher, the art room was the place to be in order to administer a paddling.

The music teacher escorted me out of the room and into the art room as the entire class watched, stunned. No one had expected her to actually do it, which, I suppose, is exactly why she was determined to do it.

The art teacher was sitting at her desk in her empty classroom; the music teacher requested the paddle, which was a plank of wood about two feet long and about an inch thick, with a narrow end for a handle. According to Missouri law, another teacher had to witness the paddling, so the art teacher stood by after she handed the paddle to the music teacher.

The music teacher had me put my hands on one of the art tables. She explained that she was going to hit me on my rear three times. She wound up, and I cringed, anticipating the first blow.


It hurt. Like, a lot. It hurt so much that my eyes welled up with tears that I wouldn’t let fall because I was so angry; I wouldn’t let this teacher see me cry for anything.

The second and third blows hurt just as much. But they weren’t as traumatic as the first, because, I expect, like childbirth, the first one is always the worst because you have no clue what to expect. When the third blow had been administered, the music teacher handed the paddle back to the art teacher and I turned around, looked upward and blinked back my tears, and marched back into the music class, a smug grin on my face, proud of myself because I hadn’t let myself cry.

I took my seat and picked up my flute. The music teacher came back into the room a few seconds after me and started the class again like nothing had happened.

It hurt to sit down for a few days after that. I didn’t think to look back there until a couple days later, when I craned my neck around while stepping into the shower and looked into the mirror to see yellowish-gray bruises fading into my backside.

When I was a little kid, my dad had always made it a point to tell my brother’s and my teachers that we were not to be paddled at school. My parents weren’t opposed to spanking, but my dad would not accept any sort of corporal punishment being administered to his children by teachers. “If they need to be spanked,” he would say to teachers, “I will be the one to do it.”

But by the time I was in high school, it was unrealistic for my dad to go to every teacher and state his rule, and besides, I’d never done anything to warrant a paddling in elementary school or middle school. It seemed silly to think that high school was when I would do something to get myself paddled.

I did tell my parents about the paddling, but I downplayed it as much as I could. I didn’t want them to make a big stink at school about it. I’d gotten through it (although I was certain I wouldn’t be taking any more band classes). I was humiliated, and I just wanted the whole thing to go away. And it did.

Years later, when I told Mr. Mostafa about this incident, he was horrified. “That’s sick,” he said. “No way are teachers allowed to do that.”

“Yup,” I said. “In Missouri, and a bunch of other states, it’s totally legal.”

“Teachers can hit you?”

“I mean, like, they have to hit you on the butt, nowhere else. And it has to be with a paddle, I think. And I don’t think they’re allowed to do it in front of other kids. And another teacher has to watch it, as a witness. There are rules as to how the teacher has to go about it. But yeah.”

“That’s sick,” he repeated. “I mean, sometimes would teachers hit us, like smack us on the head or something. It used to happen. I guess it still probably does sometimes. But it’s not allowed. Ever. That’s horrible. Horrible.”

And the thing is, I agree wholeheartedly with him. It is sick. It should be illegal for teachers and school administrators to hit children. This seems like a no-brainer to me. And yet…it’s legal in 19 states, including Missouri. According to federal data collected in 2009 (the most recent data), approximately 184,527 students without disabilities (which makes me wonder how many students with disabilities were left out of those numbers) received corporal punishment in American schools in states where it is legal. (And let’s not even go into the epidemic of school shootings in America. Kids having to do lockdown drills. Teachers accidentally shooting themselves–or, God forbid, someone else–because they’re carrying concealed weapons. Fun fact–that New York Times article I just linked to was written about one of the towns in the area I grew up in. I could also mention sexual abuse in American schools or the epidemic of child abuse in homes. And heck, both those stories came out of my area of the country, not even worthy of national–let alone international–outrage, and they both hit the local news within the span of time that I was there last month! There are tons more.)

Now, does this mean that all American schools are violent places? That America is a horrible place for children? Well, no, of course. I take my child to America every year. She is American. I can’t imagine her not being a part of American culture, of American life. But my point is, when something bad happens in America, we Americans often write it off as just the product of a deranged outlier. When something bad in Saudi Arabia happens, it’s a product of the culture. Those people are repressed. And oppressed. These sorts of bad things are destined to come to pass in Saudi Arabia because it’s a bad place. Read the comments sometime, about any piece related to Saudi Arabia, and this is what you will find. Sometimes you don’t even have to read the comments–it’s right there in the piece itself.

So what’s our excuse, Americans?

I’m sure there are many people, especially people who also grew up in schools where corporal punishment was the norm, who would read my story of being paddled and say something like, “Oh, get over it. You shouldn’t have been messing with your teacher like that to begin with. You deserved a punishment, and that’s what you got. Lots of kids got paddled regularly, and from a young age. You got paddled once as an almost-adult. Shut up with the whining.” Let me assure anyone wondering that I am, in fact, “over it.” My one paddling doesn’t shape my life in any discernible way (I’m pretty sure I would wholeheartedly oppose corporal punishment in schools even if I had never experienced it), and until I wrote it down for posterity as a means of making a point within this blog post, it has existed in my memory as only an odd little anecdote that I recall from time to time, in an “oh yeah, that happened” sort of way. But that doesn’t mean it was okay that it happened. It doesn’t mean that it’s okay that it continues to be legally sanctioned in the state that I still call home, even though I don’t exactly live there anymore. And it really doesn’t mean that you can roll your eyes at my tale of being paddled to bruising by my music teacher and yet be horrified and enraged by tales of monstrous, barbaric Saudi school personnel who hit the children entrusted to their care.

Now, as I’ve already said, this is not to say that I would ever be silent if my child were hit by a teacher in her Saudi school. I believe that all mothers, anywhere in the world, have a right to demand schools for their children that are free of violence and abuse, especially from those who are meant to protect our children when we are not with them. And only God knows how many elements of Saudi culture and Riyadh life there are whose underlying logic I don’t understand (if there is any logic within them to be understood). There are so many things about Saudi Arabia I wish I could change, if only for the benefit of my daughter and any future children I may have. But I can easily say the same about America.

When it comes down to it, I guess what I want to say is that the next time you are tempted to diagnose or otherwise rant about injustices that you perceive in other cultures, stop and think if there’s a parallel injustice being perpetuated in your own culture. Look into it. Read beyond the scope of what you can immediately see and want to know. Pluck the lens of acculturation out of your eye (I know it can be hard to do, but try). If your own backyard is truly clean, then congratulations! Proceed (with caution). But if it isn’t (which, let’s face it, is most likely the case), try to do something about that first…or at least make it clear that you’re aware of that problem and are equally troubled by it. Because otherwise, you just look like a clueless neocolonizer, if not a self-aware neocolonizer, which is undoubtedly worse. And that’s cool, I guess, if all you care to do is preach to a choir, even if said choir is in dire need of a come-to-Jesus moment in order to reexamine its own priorities. But if your goal is to make real, lasting change in the world, I think a good way to start is by learning to see and then seeking to address the problems in your own community which you find so abhorrent, amusing, or annoying in others’.

I want to say one more time that I am not offering a blanket defense of Saudi culture or the Saudi state (which seems to be a disclaimer I must offer more and more frequently, as everything I say that points out flaws in my own culture while contending that life in Saudi Arabia may be difficult and unjust at times, but it’s not that bad inevitably gets construed as defending anything and everything anyone in Saudi Arabia does–interestingly, no one ever construes my words that way when I write something positive about life in America and how much I miss it at times). There are certainly major problems here, just like anywhere else. I’ll rant all day long, to anyone who will listen, about not being allowed to drive here. That rule, among others, deserves zero respect, and it is a problem that absolutely does not exist anywhere else in the world. Literally. I have a Saudi American daughter, and I won’t be silent on issues that directly affect her career, her education, her freedom of mobility, and her life in general, should she choose to stay in the Kingdom in the future. But I have zero patience for complaints, “activism,” or “raising awareness” by non-Saudis that addresses problems, rudeness, or inconveniences that they perceive in Saudi Arabia but conveniently ignore in their own backyards; often those exact same problems exist in our home cultures in a format made more palatable to us by years and years of acculturation, the same way that Saudis seem to accept problems in their culture that we Westerners find ourselves baffled by.

You find it rude when people stare at you in Saudi Arabia when you don’t cover your head? Well, women who do cover their heads are stared at in the exact same way in America. You hate being harassed at and/or stared at by those filthy Saudi men? Yeah, watch this video. It certainly wasn’t filmed in Saudi Arabia, and it’s just a snippet of the ten hours of video–there are many more incidents that didn’t make it into this clip, including harassment from white men. Speak out about the problems that manifest themselves in your home country because of the exact same attitudes that undergird Saudi Arabia’s cultural issues, instead of embracing a neocolonial, ethnocentric worldview that depends on you (or others like you) to diagnose other cultures’ problems and their causes.

photo 14 e1415202893705 750x500 barbaric cultures.