Since moving to Saudi Arabia, there are some things that I have become accustomed to, things that would have profoundly distressed me once upon a time.
One thing is the way Saudis are not detached from the origins of their food (much like in China, where I got used to seeing cooked chicken being brought to the table with the head on the platter and fish being served with skin, eyes, and even teeth still intact).
Now, I am not one to argue that this is an altogether bad thing. If you’re going to eat something, ideally you should understand and respect where that food comes from. And in the Ozarks, the American region that built me, people have more of a connection to their food than most. Kids grow up catching and cleaning fish, gigging frogs (it feels weird to type “gigging”…no one goes frog gigging. They go frog giggin’), and shooting and skinning skinning deer, squirrel, rabbits, and even raccoons (although despite what you might surmise from the Ozarks episode of No Reservations, parts of which were filmed in my teeny-tiny hometown and featured people I went to high school with, raccoon is not commonly consumed in southern Missouri. According to reliable sources, during the raccoon-eating scene of the episode, Anthony Bourdain coached the participants to express appreciation for the taste of the raccoon dish, when, in fact, it “tasted like shit.” I can neither confirm nor deny that assessment, as I’ve never eaten raccoon at all, let alone raccoon cooked by Anthony Bourdain).
Still, if you go to the local Country Mart where I come from, you’re probably not going to see any complete, skinned rabbits on display for sale, as can frequently be found here in Riyadh, and which I saw at a supermarket here for the first time shortly after I found out I was pregnant with Lavender (and I froze, horrified, at the sight, before dissolving into tears and having to be led away by a panicked Mr. Mostafa, because I didn’t immediately recognize it as a rabbit, and weirdly, my first thought that it was a small dog…like Andy). Nor are you going to see any advertisements set up, announcing that in this supermarket, you can purchase your very own “local lamb carcase” on sale, as my mom and I saw outside Carrefour in Granada Mall this week. (Vegans, here’s your trigger warning.)
My first reaction when I saw this: “Where’s my phone? I need to take a picture!” Mr. Mostafa’s first reaction when he saw this: “A whole lamb for 350 riyals? God bless them!”
I can’t say that I’m ready to sign up for an unfiltered tour of a local slaughterhouse, but I’ve gotten used to seeing things like this now.
However, there are other things that I thought I would be used to at this point, and I’m not. Part of this is because I just haven’t had the need to become accustomed to such things, even though I might have expected otherwise, and a perfect example of this is encounters with the muttawa. I really haven’t had any sort of negative experience with them since I have arrived, and based on what I read about Saudi Arabia before I come here, I genuinely expected to be trembling in fear of them any time I left the house, to be endlessly berated for my decorated nails, my naked face, my messily but earnestly applied eyeliner. That didn’t happen, and I suppose that’s why when I finally did have a run-in with them a few days ago, I didn’t hesitate to get snippy with them.
On the same trip to Granada Mall that resulted in a photograph of the “lamb carcase” advertisement, all the shops were closed for dhuhr, the mid-day prayer. My mom and I were sitting on a bench in the middle of the mall, waiting for a restaurant to open so we could have lunch. Lavender was sleeping peacefully in her stroller. We weren’t being loud or otherwise drawing attention to ourselves in any way that I could recognize; in fact, I think we were just sitting silently on the bench when we heard a male voice behind us saying, “Cover your head. Saudi women cover the head.”
I turned around to see two men, obviously muttawa (short thobes, long beards, shmaghs with no iqals), standing behind us. One was older and seemed pretty disinterested in the situation. But the other was younger (late twenties to early thirties), and he was the one who was now trying to get my mom to cover her head.
“What?” I said to him.
“Cover your head. Saudi women, Muslim women, cover the head.”
I pointed to my mom. “She’s not Saudi. She’s American. And she’s not Muslim.”
“Cover the head,” he repeated. “Saudi women, Muslim women cover the head.”
“I’m Muslim, so my head is covered,” I explained testily, making a circle around my face with my finger. Then I pointed to my mom and said, “She’s not Muslim, so she does not cover her head.”
“Cover the head,” he said again.
“Okay, whatever,” I snapped, and whirled back around. Mom turned back around along with me (she did not cover her head), and the two men moved on.
For some reason, this incident really irritated me. I mean, I know I shouldn’t be surprised, and I know a lot of people would be surprised that it took me two years to find myself on the receiving end of a reprimand from the muttawa. But I just didn’t want that ten-second experience to be what my mom remembered most clearly about her (third) visit to Riyadh, even though I knew that she wouldn’t let it bother her nearly as much as it bothered me.
Later on, when Mom and I made it into the restaurant for lunch, I texted Saleh to tell him about what happened with the muttawa. He texted back with an emoticon wink, “She should be pleased. They thought she was a young Saudi woman who would tempt the men.” Then, “I’m just joking. Ignore them, sweetie. Don’t worry about it.”
When we got home from the mall, we told my in-laws about the incident. My brother-in-law laughed and said, “So, it was prayer time, and they were walking around telling women to cover their heads instead of praying?” He followed that up with a sarcastic, “Mashallah!”
But beyond muttawa encounters, one thing I’m still not used to, and I’m pretty sure I will never be used to, is saying goodbye to my mom. She’s about to leave Riyadh and travel back home to Missouri for the third time, and being separated from her never gets any easier. There are always tears (from both of us).
I’m aware that on some level, we are both a bit overdramatic at such times. But when I hug my mom for the last time in what will certainly be months (God willing, Mr. Mostafa and I are planning a trip back to the States in the fall), it does not matter that I have almost nothing to really complain about, that I love my husband, that my in-laws are the salt of the earth, that my life is a cluster of first world problems. I can’t think about all the people in the world (or even just in Riyadh) who haven’t seen their families in years. I just know that I love my mom, and I will miss her, and the smell of her coffee in the morning, and her hugs, and her laugh, and her jokes, and how she gets me, and everything else about her that makes her my mom.
It’s always hard. But as my mom always says, I am blessed, and this too shall pass.