My husband is a neat freak.
To put him in a pop culture framework, he’s a male Monica Geller. (And if you have to Google who that is because you’re too young to know, don’t tell me about it, okay? Thanks.) When he came to the States and stayed with me after our wedding, I would come home from work to find him vacuuming the living room almost every day. He was my house-husband for those few weeks, I suppose. And he was very good at his job.
He still helps clean, a lot. On his days off, he does laundry, vacuums, dusts (because if there’s one thing you learn really quickly about life in Riyadh–i.e., in the desert–it’s that there is always something that needs dusting), cleans the bathroom, whatever. He’s really awesome in that regard, and quite frankly, I thank him all the time for it. Because he’s the first man I’ve ever met, American or Saudi, who is so willing to help out around the house without complaint (or a lot of the time, without even being asked).
I think this attention to cleanliness is a part of Saudi culture. I’ve never been in a Saudi home that wasn’t immaculate. Now, if you visit people’s houses in the States, you’ll see homes in various states of disarray, from you-can-eat-off-the-floor spotless to hoarding situations…and everyone thinks their house is just fine. In Saudi Arabia, from what I’ve experienced, houses are clean. Not always new, or fancy, or modern. But always, always clean.
Of course, this has partly to do with the fact that so many people have maids. But I think it also has a lot to do with Islamic precedent. Islam is very big on cleanliness, and there are several hadith that refer to the importance of keeping one’s house clean. But even if having a clean house is a part of Saudi culture, men helping keep it that way generally isn’t. Still, when I thank Mr. Mostafa for helping me clean, he often says, “I’m just following the example of Prophet Muhammad. He always used to help his wife in the house.” In my humble opinion, this is one of many ways that Saudi culture contradicts Islamic culture. But I digress. One could write an entire book about that topic alone.
I, on the other hand, am not a neat freak. I mean, I like for things to be organized and clean, but the work that it takes to keep things that way is usually pretty low on my list of priorities. I have lots of other things to do. And messy people are more creative, anyway. Right? (The exception to my non-neat freak rule was near the end of my pregnancy with Lavender. Two days before I went into labor, I was on my hands and knees in the kitchen, scrubbing tile grout with a toothbrush. That nesting instinct is a…well, a female dog, shall we say.)
The fact remains, though, that despite the cute Dharma & Greg dynamic we have going on, sometimes Mr. Mostafa’s neat freak tendencies drive me nuts. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen an episode of Dharma & Greg. I just know about the basic plot of the series from a gag on Family Guy.) And sometimes my messy desk syndrome drives him equally nuts.
The upside to all of this is that I don’t ever really have to clean if I don’t want to. I can just sit around and eventually it will get to the point where Mr. Mostafa will just do it himself. Of course, I try not to take advantage of that knowledge, but even when I do clean, it’s usually not up to his standards. Every time I give Andy a haircut, my husband always knows about it when he comes home, no matter how much I try to get all the hair totally cleaned up. He’ll walk in the door, and within a minute he will say, “You gave Andy a haircut today, didn’t you?” And I will say, “How did you know?” Seriously, it baffles me.
Anyway, on the first day of Hajj vacation, Mr. Mostafa decided it was time to give the apartment a thorough cleaning from top to bottom. Since we’re leaving for the States in less than two weeks, he figured that we should do the major cleaning well in advance of our departure date, so that we wouldn’t have to deal with it while we were packing our suitcases and otherwise preparing to leave. Which was smart, I suppose…but I wasn’t particularly into the idea.
Still, part of marriage is supporting one another, right? So I agreed and we jumped into the cleaning. I dusted, he vacuumed. He cleaned the bathroom, I did the dishes. And on and on it went.
At one point, he called to me, “Honey, do you need these papers?” I leaned back through the kitchen doorway, into the living room, and glared at him suspiciously. He’s always trying to throw my papers away…things that are important to me but look like garbage to him. (Okay, I realize that makes me sound like a hoarder, but I’m not. I just have a messy desk. Like Einstein! Steve Jobs! Mark Twain! I am a brilliant mind, damn it!) At our house in the States, we’re constantly arguing about what to get rid of and what to keep. I have no problem throwing away things that I don’t need anymore and will never need in the future (or things that I have saved somewhere in a digital format), but the thing is that Mr. Mostafa often sees my documents as…well, just paper. This often leads me to shout something like, “Quit trying to throw away my stuff! Just because you don’t understand or care about something doesn’t mean it’s not important! How would you feel if I ran around throwing away your accounting spreadsheets just because I don’t understand them?”
But on this day, as I came into the living room to check out what he was trying to throw away this time, he held out a short stack of papers that had been sitting next to my laptop. “You can throw that one page away,” I said, pointing. “But the rest, no. The rest of them, I need.”
I went back to the dishes, and I heard paper ripping in the other room. A few hours later, after every sink had been scrubbed, the bed had been made with clean sheets, all the laundry was folded and put away, the floors had all been vacuumed and Swiffered, and the garbage had been hauled downstairs and out to the curb, we scarfed lunch and sank into bed, along with Lavender, for a family nap.
After we woke up, I settled into my spot on the couch, with my laptop on my lap desk. I had (who am I kidding, I have) a ton of work to do, and I was in the middle of a project that I’m working on with Mr. Mostafa’s aunt, who is an education professor here in Riyadh. I reached for the stapled document that had been next to my laptop before the cleaning spree began, because it was necessary for the work I was doing on the project.
As you might have guessed, it was gone.
“Did you throw away the papers I had right here?” I asked.
“You said you didn’t need them,” he replied.
“No, I said I didn’t need that one page,” I said. “Did you seriously throw all those papers away?”
“Um…yes. You said you didn’t need them,” he said sheepishly, his voice trailing off.
“Ugh,” I said, irritated. “Well, let’s get them out of the trash. They’ll be gross, but I can still use them.”
“I didn’t just throw them away. I tore them up. And I took the trash out. So…”
“Wow, you really didn’t want me to have those papers, did you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you said you didn’t need them.”
I got mad. “You mean, you wanted to hear that I didn’t need them. See, this is exactly why I tell you not to throw my stuff away! I know you think I just hoard meaningless crap, and I know you hate stacks of paper, but I keep things for a reason! Now how am I going to finish this? I have to call your aunt and tell her that my husband tore up my papers and threw them away. I don’t even have a kid who can walk yet and I already can’t keep my papers from being destroyed! Do you know how that looks? It looks really freaking unprofessional, that’s how it looks.”
“I’m really sorry,” he said again. “You can tell her it’s my fault.”
I called her. Embarrassed, I explained what had happened, and I requested another copy of the necessary papers. As I was doing so, Mr. Mostafa put on his thobe and left.
He came back about half an hour later. And he came bearing Subway. Wordlessly, he placed a Veggie Delite on my laptop desk. Then he reached into the bag and placed another small, wrapped item next to the sandwich.
He said simply, “I got you a cookie.”
Then he went and sat in his chair across the room and looked at me contritely.
I had to laugh. How can you stay angry at someone who brings you a cookie (and who knows your Subway sandwich order by heart?). But I think Mr. Mostafa has been cured of his “throw away now, ask questions later” policy, at long last. It seems that I’ve finally managed to convince him that my papers are not just trash that I’m holding on to for no reason. Now if only he could manage to convince me that staying organized should be higher on my priority list, we’d be even. But then I wouldn’t be like Mark Twain. And, you know, you should always be yourself, unless you can be Mark Twain. Then, by God, you be Mark Twain.