tears and hugs…from strangers.

April 2, 2014

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.

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.

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  • http://yankeedoodlesaudi.com YankeeDoodleSaudi

    I love getting the “congratulations on being Muslim hugs”, but that lady at the bank can shove it. She needs to learn good manners; they are the most important language.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      funnily enough, i went back to the bank a few days later, and they were super friendly. one of the ladies even came up to me and was like, “oh, so this is pretty lavender! and you’re lavender’s mom!” it turns out she is a friend of a friend of my sister-in-law, who posted a picture of lavender on instagram. :)

  • Cat

    Hi Nicole! I’d be happy to help you out with Arabic. I’ve tutored several students from beginner up to intermediate level Arabic. We can meet via Skype. No charge of course!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      awww, thanks, cat! i don’t know if you could call me a strict beginner–i know the alphabet and and can read, and i have some vocabulary…but i would love if you could help me out! :)

      • Cat

        Happily :-) my Skype is cwilcoxnw- let me know when you’d like to check in and get started!

  • http://bunglinghousewife.wordpress.com Sally

    The lady at the store sounds lovely, despite the assumptions inherent in her reaction to learning that you are muslim :p The world is not as kind as it used to be so I say take what happiness/good vibes/kindness comes your way without overanalysing it!
    Good luck on your quest to learn Arabic!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      oh, she was very lovely indeed, mashallah. thank you! :)

  • Risi

    Here’s a story you may enjoy.
    There was a man standing in one at the grocery store in Arizona. In front of him, a woman was talking on the phone. After she finished he accosted her and said,” Lady, this is America! If you want to speak another language, go back where you are from! The woman replied,” I happened to be speaking Dineh ( Navajo). If you want to speak English…go back to England!”

    • http://mommyofmoon.wordpress.com Mrs B

      Risi, I am glad the lady gave him what he deserved, stupid bigot! As Sally said, the world is no longer as kind as it used to be and to be able to see a little kindness from complete strangers no matter what their perceived interest are is just luxury. I am so happy to read this post, feel all warm and fuzzy.

    • http://mommyofmoon.wordpress.com Mrs B

      I am certain the man doesn’t even know that Navajo are among the few real Americans.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      ha!

  • Risi

    Thank you Mrs. B. The world has not been kind to native folks around here for quite a while. I’m all for people acquiring as many languages as they can. But ours was forbidden ( along with our religion…yep,outlawed…in the land of “freedom of religion”..didn’t get full rights again until the 1970’s… Banned as was most of the culture,ceremonies,etc) and if you were caught speaking it or doing any of the traditional stuff you’d get in a lot of trouble. Most of our grandparents remember the forced boarding schools where getting beaten if not worse was the order of the day if a native word was overheard, having to get off and walk in the mud of the road if white folks wanted the sidewalk ,and if they killed one of you..too bad…you had no standing in court and could not testify against them. We still have tons of problems with the dominant culture today. This isn’t the place to go into all that. I will say that the Arab exchange students sure get another vision of America if and when they hang out with my kids. One said ” your daughter,,,it’s like she’s a Palestinian”! Fortunately, we now have language classes and the ceremonies are being revived, so there’s hope. But with so much of the native population still mired in poverty ( only a portion of the tribes have any wealth from casinos or any other venture) it is an uphill battle.
    What’s really funny is when the wox’won argue with you about your own language. One teacher in the local school told the non-native kids that a whale was called a certain word. My daughter was a student there at the time and told them that the word the teacher gave was not the word for whale, but for dolphin. She then told them the correct word for the desired species and was promptly told she was wrong because the wox’won teacher had to be right! Lol! Well, I was happy they could not understand what she said to them next….

  • Risi

    Forgot to wish Nicole happy times learning Arabic. Sounds like a interesting language.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      thank you! :)

  • http://gravatar.com/momofmoon Mrs B

    Risi, although I am on the other side of the world, I am a huge supporter of Native Americans for I truly believe they deserve justice. I hope progress on restoring your communities culture and bringing about awareness that the Natives truly so deserve will one day cease to be a struggle. Warm hugs from Kuala Lumpur!!!

    Nicole, have fun learning!

  • Risi

    Had an interesting question for Nicole if she checks this telating to religion. So I do have one acquaintance who is a muslim…a ” born” muslim. Her family has been muslim since the heyday of the Ottoman Empire. (Albanian) As far as I can tell, she is active in her muslim community. But she is blonde, blue-eyed, wears what she wants, moves easily in American society. Wonder how the Saudis would react to her if she showed up there.

    • http://mommyofmoon.wordpress.com Mrs B

      Nicole is an American and although not blonde or blue eyed, she sounds exactly like that Albanian and ends up living with Saudis…happily too mashallah from the looks of it. There’ll always be a few rotten apples but so far Nicole seems to have wonderful experiences in regards to Saudi interactions.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      your friend demonstrates the diversity inherent in the world’s muslim population, although i’m guessing most people wouldn’t be able to guess that diversity exists if viewing through the lens of most mainstream western media. i’m sure if she came here, she’d get a lot of people assuming that she’s not muslim, but as soon as she explained that she’s albanian, saudis would just go, “ohhhh.” saudis are pretty aware that they are not the only muslims in the world, and that there are other ways that other people practice islam, and even though i’m sure many of them think that those other ways are incorrect or whatever, they believe you when you say you’re muslim, even if you’re not covering your head or your face or whatever. i mean, i have blue eyes (and am thus “blonde,” lol…anyone with blue eyes is “blonde” in saudi arabia), and even though i cover my head, saudis still ask me all the time if i’m muslim. :)

      also, i want to be careful with the concept of certain muslim women “wearing what they want”…because most of them do, even if that means covering one’s head or face. and i think many westerners are acculturated to believe that certain items of clothing are appropriate or necessary in certain situations, just like people in other places are acculturated to think different things are appropriate. although i get what you’re saying, considering that women in saudi arabia are required to wear an abaya (although not a headcovering) in public. :)

      • http://mommyofmoon.wordpress.com Mrs B

        U have blue eyes? Opps :-) they looked green in your pictures.

  • Risi

    Was just curious…considering you said a person might not have ” sufficient Muslim cred” there if they don’t appear to be Saudi or speak Arabic. I thought that was curious since so many muslims from everywhere travel to KSA. So I was wondering how she might ” read” to them if she went there. She gets it from both sides….here people always assume she’s a convert. Lol! Thanks for answering!:-)

    • Risi

      Oh, sorry! To clarify…the “wearing what she wants” doesn’t come from Westerners for her…sorry to say…she gets slammed from other muslims ( especially converts…which appears to be a phenomenon with any zealous converts to any faith)’as well as having to deal with Westerners telling her ” you don’t look Muslim!” I wince when I am with her and hear that,if it comes up. Love her saying “Really? Exactly what does a muslim look like?” Of course, she points out that the upside is that when she’s out with our family, she jokes that she should drive…because she’s the only one that won’t get “profiled “and pulled over by the police.:-)