Category Archives: culture

his and hers friends.

June 18, 2015

One thing about Saudi culture that is tremendously, unavoidably different from American culture is that in a marriage, there is often, if not usually, no such thing as a mutual friend group. The husband will have his group of (male) friends, and the wife will have her group of (female) friends, and rarely do the groups interact. Like, most of the time, the wife of a Saudi guy is not going to sit around with her husband and his friends while they watch a soccer game, and and a wife is highly unlikely to sit her husband down with her friends and have them evaluate him (as is, of course, practically a rite of passage in the States. If you like a guy, you have to run him by your friends and get their opinion).

Like most Saudi husbands, mine doesn’t know most of my friends well, especially the friends I have here in Riyadh. He knows of them, because I tell him about them (not like, incredibly detailed life stories, but general facts). And he does personally know several of them, because, unlike many Saudi men, he is usually (albeit grudgingly) willing to do group dates and things like that (like, every once in awhile he will go out for dinner with me and my friends and their husbands). But there are quite a few of my friends whom he has never met at all.

I don’t know his friends, either—we’ve been together for seven years and married for almost four, and in that time, I have met precisely one of his friends. I met that friend when Mr. Mostafa and I were on our first trip to New York together—the friend was also in New York, on a business trip. Saleh said that he could trust this friend to meet me; he’d known him since kindergarten.

On one hand, I was excited to finally meet a friend of Saleh’s. On the other, having learned a little bit about Saudi culture, I was worried; if he was really serious about me, why was he letting his friend meet me at all? At that point, I knew a bit about the Saudi belief in the ayn, the evil eye; I found myself thinking, “Does he not think I’m pretty/smart/funny enough for his friend to envy him? What does this mean for us?” Still, I reasoned that he knew what he was doing, and he did seem at least somewhat nervous about letting his friend meet me—he seemed to regard it as a necessary down side to the otherwise awesome experience of taking a trip to New York with me.

a new york skyline.

(Side note: this photo, and a few others, including a couple selfies we took in this same time and place–dusk in Central Park, if you’re wondering–are the only photos I have of this trip. I have no clue why I didn’t take more. But I do know that I regret it, because that was a nice little trip.)

We had a bit of trouble finding the guy where we were supposed to meet him; New York is a busy place (duh), and the crowds were huge. But finally, at one point, as we were crossing a street at a bustling intersection, I realized I was walking alone. I turned around to see Saleh and his friend shaking hands and hugging and cheek kissing in the typical Saudi greeting routine, all while they both jabbered in Arabic, and all in the middle of the intersection.

I hurried back to them and placed my hand on Saleh’s arm. “Um, you guys…?” I said, pointing to the traffic signal, which was now on a solid “Don’t Walk.”

So I got them out of the intersection before they got run over by a herd of taxis, and then I was introduced to the friend. We went to dinner at a little Turkish restaurant on the Upper East Side. The guys talked about business and financial things, and Saleh was interested in hearing about the training sessions on Wall Street that his friend’s company had sent him to attend. After that, we walked around Times Square a bit, as is pretty much a legal obligation when visiting New York. (Yes, even for super cool anti-tourists…even though we are neither super cool nor anti-tourists.)

When Saleh and I were ready to go back to our hotel, we went with his friend back to his hotel room for a few minutes, because he was going to give Saleh some of the materials that he’d received at his training. Once we stepped into the hotel room, the friend grabbed some papers and booklets and handed them over to Saleh, and then he motioned toward the minibar and said, “Are you thirsty? Hungry?”

Mr. Mostafa politely declined, but the friend grabbed a bottle of Volvic water and a Swiss chocolate bar and shoved them into my hands. I was impressed and horrified; I was raised with the understanding that hotel minibars are equipped with NASA-developed motion sensors and thus your hands must not come within two feet of any item in a minibar or you will be required to sign over the rights to your firstborn child before you are permitted to check out. In other words, in my world, hotel minibar items were not to be touched. For any reason.

Old habits die hard; I still feel that way about hotel minibars, although when we travel, Mr. Mostafa will partake in the very occasional minibar splurge. But grabbing random treats from the minibar to give our friends, as a gesture of goodwill? Nope. Neither of us are on board with that. Sorry, friends. If you ever happen to visit us in a hotel room, help yourself to the miniature toiletries, but we’re not about to defy space technology for the honor of giving up our firstborn for you. (We kinda like her.)

Anyway, Saleh and I thanked him. They shook hands and said goodbye. The next day, Saleh and I flew back to Missouri. On the drive home from Kansas City, I happened to glance over at his left hand on the steering wheel. In those days, we both wore rings on our left ring fingers, which represented our commitment, even though we weren’t married yet. I know engagement rings for men aren’t the cool thing, but God love Mr. Mostafa, he willingly wore his everywhere. It wasn’t expensive; just a simple titanium band with our initials engraved on the inside. But it was important to both of us.

And that’s why when I looked over and saw no ring on his hand, I gasped, “Where’s your ring?”

“Holy shit,” Saleh said. He pulled the car over and began to search underneath the seats. As he did so, he growled, “I knew it was a mistake. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I knew I shouldn’t have let him meet you. He envied me. I knew something like this was going to happen. That bastard gave me the ayn.”

In the end, we tracked down the ring at a Backyard Burgers just outside of Kansas City, where we had stopped to grab something to eat on our way home. It was found there and turned in, and we were able to get it back. But since then, I haven’t met any more of Mr. Mostafa’s friends.

I’m cool with that. It’s a cultural thing. He prefers not to meet my friends, either, but like I said, he’ll occasionally agree to go out for dinner with me, a friend of mine, and her husband. It tends to make him uncomfortable, and it’s not his favorite thing to do (at least, not here in Saudi Arabia. In the States, it’s different; outings consist of my very closest friends and family members, people who have been a major part my life for years, if not decades. He knows those occasions are part of the deal, for better or worse, and that by extension, those people are part of his life now, too). But he’ll do it because he gets that for me, it’s also a cultural thing. I need that bit of what I intrinsically regard as normalcy. And luckily, most of the time, he actually ends up enjoying himself.

toddler app love.

June 11, 2015

Here’s a confession nearly tantamount to literally having a skeleton in a closet: we are not, and never have been, a “no screen time” family. Lavender has been exposed to children’s TV shows since before she was a year old. We’ve never encourage her to just park herself in front of the TV, but when she was smaller and would throw a fit when she had to sit in her car seat, we consistently chose to load an episode of Peppa Pig on an iPhone for her rather than let her cry herself sick. To this day, even as an educator, I’ve never felt bad about that. She also loves Bubble Guppies, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Doc McStuffins, and Super Why! In Arabic, she loves In the Night Garden, Special Agent Oso, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates (which show on Baraem, the Arabic preschool channel…nowadays, they’re also showing Doc McStuffins in Arabic, and she loves it in both languages). Again, we don’t park her in front of the TV for hours at a time, but if she’s playing like a madwoman around bedtime, I’ll put on an episode and sit in the rocking chair with her to wind her down. Or if she is having a fussy day, sometimes a treat and a show and some snuggles are all it takes to calm her down again.

Despite research that suggests that children don’t retain anything from television prior to the age of two, my personal experience has demonstrated otherwise. One time, when Lavender was about 18 months old, we were out and about and we came across a puzzle of farm animals, and as I was pointing to the animals and saying their names, she pointed to the horse and announced, “Neigh! Neigh!” I looked at her, shocked; I hadn’t taught her that. Then she pointed to a cow and said, “Moo! Moo!” And let me tell you, I felt like a failure as a mother. Because Bubble Guppies had taught my child animal sounds.

So, yeah. We watch TV in our house. But beyond TV, we also use apps with Lavender. A lot. Usually not when we’re at home, but when we’re traveling, absolutely. She has her own iPod Touch (which used to belong to me, but got transitioned to toddler use), and let me tell you, it was a godsend when we were traveling to and from the other side of the world. Not to mention on our cross-country road trip. And when she does use apps at home, she’s usually sitting in either my or Mr. Mostafa’s lap, and we’re interacting with her about what she’s doing or watching…and research has shown that such experiences, academically referred to as joint media engagement, can make screen time beneficial for kids.

Again, I don’t care what anyone says…apps are wonderful. “But Nicole,” you might say. “Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play with iPads!” True. But that doesn’t mean that such tech is necessarily completely bad for little ones.  Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a man of ridiculous genius, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a bit shortsighted when it comes to the technology he unleashed on the world. Can you imagine Johannes Gutenberg saying, “Yeah, I invented the printing press, but I don’t let my kids play with books”? He probably would have said that, actually. Because when the printing press was invented, folks were alarmed and worried that civilization was headed on a massive downslide because no one would memorize anything anymore. When the radio was invented, everyone worried that no one would read books anymore. You see how this has historically gone down, right?

So, yeah. This is the world we live in. That being said, apps should never, ever replace books and the experience of reading to your children, and it’s important that parents are involved with their children’s media consumption, rather than just sitting them down with a device for hours on end. (And quite frankly, we adults shouldn’t be sitting in front of devices for hours on end, either.) And because of apps, Lavender can already identify letters (I haven’t sat her down and quizzed her on all of them, but when I’ve asked her to name a letter in a book or on a sign or something, I’ve yet to point to a letter that she can’t name). She can identify numbers, colors, and shapes. She’s working on learning the Arabic alphabet now, as well. Despite my background in education, I didn’t sit her down and teach her these things. All I’ve done is read books to her…and I reviewed apps, loaded them onto her iPod, and handed her iPod to her when she was having a meltdown about having to sit in her car seat or stand in an airport security line. That’s it. I feel confident that her time spent on the apps we’ve chosen for her is not in any way wasted. As I’ve pointed out, research is starting to back that up, as well.

So, if you’re interested, here are the apps we keep on Lavender’s iPod. Especially since it’s summertime and that means lots of traveling, this list may come in handy.

20 learning apps for toddlers.

I think this is a great selection for toddlers on up to around preschool age (Lavender started really interacting with apps at around 18 months or so. It will depend on your child). Of course, as with anything, moderation is key. At home, she’s usually so busy playing with me or her baba or with other toys that she doesn’t think about her iPod much. And I tend to limit heavy use of the iPod to car trips, restaurants, and other times when it can be asking a whole lot of a toddler to expect her to sit still.

First Words Deluxe. There is a free version of this, but it’s well worth the five bucks to buy the full app. This is the first spelling app that Lavender ever used, and I love it because it can grow with her. At first, I had it set to only phonetic, three letter words; now I’ve changed it to the random setting so that she spells words of various lengths. You can also set it so that the child has to place the letters in the order they are spelled in the word; I haven’t done that yet. It’s a great app to start out teaching little ones the concepts of spelling and letter placement, because when the child moves a letter anywhere near the correct spot, it automatically sucks the letter into its place. It’s a great precursor app for…

Endless AlphabetEndless Alphabet is a much cuter, more colorful, more creatively developed app than First Words Deluxe, but it’s also a pretty simple, straightforward app; for each word, you move the letters to their correct place in the word. It’s a bit more difficult than First Words Deluxe, because the words are more complex, and the child has to move the letter to its place and drop it where it’s supposed to go. But Lavender prefers it over First Words Deluxe, because as you move the letters, they yell out either their names or the sounds they make in a very silly way. (To be honest, my mom and Mr. Mostafa both find this entertaining, as well.) Like First Words Deluxe, there is a free version, but it’s totally worth it to spring for the paid version (you get all the words, plus automatic updates as they add new words).

Endless 123. This app is designed with the same aesthetic as Endless Alphabet, but it teaches numbers in various ways. It has kids count in different sequences (twos, threes, tens, etc.), and it also has them complete math problems by moving letters and symbols (plus, minus, etc.) to the correct place in an equation. The free version only goes up to 5; the full version (called the “School Edition”) goes up to 100. Definitely worth it.

Endless Reader. Have you caught on that we love the Endless apps? They’re made by Originator, Inc., and everything they make is worth a download. Not even kidding. They have a free version of all their apps, and although the paid version of their apps can be salty, we’ve found them to be worth it. Endless Reader is the most expensive one (the “School Edition” costs $30, unless you buy it in a bundle with other full versions of their apps). It’s a whole lot like Endless Alphabet, except after the child spells the word, the app then offers a sentence using the word and asks the child to place words in the correct place in the sentence. Lavender has been working through the words and sentences in the free version, so even though it’s a hefty chunk of change (I mean, for an app), we’ll be pulling the trigger on the “School Edition” soon. There’s also an Endless Spanish app that is just like Endless Reader…except, you know, it’s in Spanish. We just downloaded that one a few days ago.

YouTube KidsThis is a version of YouTube that is specifically designed for kids–no ads, no questionable content, which means you can let your little one scroll through the options and choose for themselves without worrying they’ll stumble upon something you’d prefer they not see. It requires wifi, so it’s mostly limited to naptime/bedtime for us.

YouTube. Even though YouTube Kids is much more kid-friendly when it comes to letting your child navigate the app and choose what they want to watch, regular ol’ YouTube is also a really terrific source for children’s videos, and it’s worth a download, as well. If Lavender isn’t watching something on the Super Simple Learning channel, she’s watching something on playlists curated by Mr. Mostafa and me. Mostly, those playlists are full of clips we loved watching as kids and really want her to appreciate, too…especially old Sesame Street sketches (a couple of Mr. Mostafa’s favorites are here and here; if you grew up watching Sesame Street in English, you might recognize them. As for me, I’m really partial to Jelly Man Kelly and A-B-C-Cookie Monster! Luckily, Lavender seems to love them as much as we do). Like YouTube Kids, this app requires a wifi connection.

PBS Kids. Like the YouTube apps, this app also only works when your device is connected to wifi, so it’s mostly a bedtime app. It shows ad-free episodes of some of Lavender’s favorite shows, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Super Why.

Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes. There are six different Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes apps, and one in Spanish. We have them all (some are free, some are paid apps). Each app presents two different nursery rhymes in sections where kids can follow along with the words and turn the page on their own. Lavender has loved them for ages. They’re simple, tried, and true.

Little People Player. I hate the title of this app. That being said, it has several little song videos with the Little People characters (you know, Little People is a set of toys from Fisher Price) that Lavender loves, and I don’t mind letting her watch them because the songs are just adorable and have a good message. Like, “It’s great being silly!” And, “You don’t have to be a girl to twirl, twirl, twirl…spin, spin, spin, and do it all again! You don’t have to be a boy to jump for joy…jump, jump, jump, jump in!” Yeah. I like that. Also, even though this app is all videos, you don’t need a wifi connection for it.

Daniel Tiger’s Day & NightLavender loves Daniel Tiger, and I don’t blame her. It’s such a cute, sweet show! (In fact, one time, as we watched it, Mr. Mostafa said, “This show makes me sad that she’s not going to be this little forever.”) In this app, you get to help Daniel go through his morning and bedtime routines. Lavender’s favorite thing to do is help Daniel tie his shoes and help him brush his teeth.

My First Alphabet PhonicsThis is a great, straightforward little app for learning to write both uppercase and lowercase letters.

Little WriterThis is another lovely tracing app, with the same concept as My First Alphabet Phonics, except that kids can trace numbers, shapes, and words, in addition to uppercase and lowercase letters. Even though it has many more things to trace, I actually recommend starting with this one before My First Alphabet Phonics, because it breaks the tracing down into simpler steps that are less overwhelming to little ones.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! Do you know the Pigeon books, by Mo Willems? If not, go buy them. Now. (In fact, go by anything by Mo Willems.) Because they are wonderful. They’re simple and brilliant and Lavender loves them. And go buy this app, too, because in it, you get to make your own Pigeon stories.

Now, obviously, these are all English apps (and a few Spanish). However, we do have several Arabic apps on Lavender’s iPod, as well. These were vetted by Mr. Mostafa to ensure that they teach at least reasonably native-sounding Arabic (because, well…a lot of Arabic learning apps don’t).

Zee’s AlphabetThis app teaches Arabic letters, in addition to vocabulary words that begin with that letter. I like the music, too. It’s very jaunty.

Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors GamePretty self-explanatory, right? It’s simple and fun!

Learn Arabic Numbers GameMade by the same developers as Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors game, this app follows the same concept. Except this teaches both Arabic and English letters. Pretty great! (Especially for me, because even though my Arabic is getting stronger every day, I still get Arabic numbers mixed up! I think my brain is just not wired for math, in any language.)

Fun Arabic Learning for Kids & Toddlers. This is the Arabic app that Lavender spends the most time with, hands down. She especially loves the Arabic letter puzzles. Some of the sections require you to pay (colors and other vocabulary), but others (letters and shapes) are free. Either way, it’s definitely worth a download!

So, there you have it. These are the apps that are currently on the front home screen of Lavender’s iPod. I’m sure the lineup will change over time, and probably sooner rather than later. But for now, these are the apps that keep her entertained…and learning!


becoming a tree.

April 23, 2015

As any parent can tell you, one of the things that happens when you have kids is that you start to really wrestle with your own mortality. Before you have kid, all you can see is an endless vista of possibility and opportunity. Adventure is out there, my friend!  But after you have a kid, suddenly, you realize that this little person is your legacy, and someday, you will be dead.

That’s really depressing.

But hey, such is life. You can’t have life without death. Death is a part of life. And something that I didn’t realize before I met Mr. Mostafa was that when you marry someone from another country, you have to think about death more than people in most average monocultural families do. This is especially true if you marry a Saudi.

Now, I know some people who don’t worry a bit about this. “Bury me in whatever country I die in,” they say. “Doesn’t matter what happens to my body after I go–I’m dead!” I wish I could be that cavalier about it, but I just can’t. When I die (which, let’s be clear, I’m hoping will not happen for a very long time–in the words of Jack Dawson, I want to die “an old lady, warm in her bed.” I’ll never let go, Jack! Although, if I do live to a very old age that fully entitles me to not giving a shit about what I say and how I say it, as if I weren’t bad enough already, me not letting go is likely to be more of a scary proposition to my family than a reassuring one), I want to have a final resting place where my children can come and sit in the grass next to what’s left of me.

I used to think that American cemeteries were tremendously creepy, depressing places. I mean, dead people are below your feet. Shudder. But then I moved to Saudi Arabia, and I’m like, hey, American cemeteries are actually pretty beautiful! And comforting! Or they can be, anyway.

In Saudi Arabia, cemeteries are very different. There are no elaborate headstones that announce who is buried where. In accordance with Islamic tradition, when someone dies, the body is given a ritual wash and then wrapped in a cloth and buried as soon as possible after death. There are no family plots; you get buried in the next open grave in the cemetery, next to the person who died just before you did. When you die, the sacred rituals are observed, and that’s it. You’re gone. Maybe your children might come and visit your grave a few times throughout their lifetimes, but it’s not any sort of ceremonial observance. And everyone in Saudi Arabia is buried the same way, including kings. There are no Mao-esque mausoleums for Saudi monarchs.

In theory, I understand this. The Saudi way of burial emphasizes our inescapable, basic equality (we all die. Every single one of us…rich, poor, black, white, smart, stupid. Doesn’t matter) and discourages grave worship. It’s what Saudis are used to, I guess.

But it’s not what I’m used to. And thus, unlike Mr. Mostafa, I find the Saudi way really, really depressing. I mean, even more depressing than the topic of death in general.

Nowadays, when I visit my paternal grandparents’ grave, I’m struck by what a beautiful place the cemetery is, whereas before, I just thought of it as…you know, a cemetery. But it’s on a dirt road, next to a little white church, on rolling green hills. It’s so…pretty. And welcoming. And comforting.

american cemetery.

Mr. Mostafa doesn’t like to talk about plans for what will happen to our bodies after we die (I mean, who does?), but he knows that if, God forbid, something happened to me in Saudi Arabia, I want what’s left of me to be sent back to the Ozarks, and he has agreed to take care of that. Which is a relief. But it’s also a source of worry. Because Mr. Mostafa can’t imagine being buried anywhere other than Saudi Arabia, just like I can’t imagine being buried anywhere other than the Ozarks. To him, this is not really a big deal; I mean, if we were both buried in Saudi Arabia, it’s not like our final resting places would be next to one another, anyway (unless we died simultaneously…like in a car wreck or as two old people in bed, like in The Notebook), and it’s not in his cultural framework to expect or want his children to visit his grave after he is gone…at least, not several times a year, as is common in America. But me…I was raised in a tradition of husbands and wives being buried next to one another. Of children and grandchildren coming to place flowers on our shared headstone, especially on holidays and birthdays. Of some means of families ceremonially acknowledging what’s left of loved ones, even if we know, of course, that the soul of the person who once inhabited that organic matter is no longer there.

To be honest, when I die, I want to become a tree. How awesome would that be? After I go, my kids and grandkids can come have picnics in my shade. They can climb in my branches. They can carve initials in my trunk. And if they need my wood for a house or a boat, they can chop me down into a stump, and then they can sit on me and rest.

Yes, I can’t think of a bigger honor than to be The Giving Tree after I die. The only way it would be better is if Mr. Mostafa were a tree next to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become a tree, but yesterday, as my parents were insisting on reviewing their final wishes with me for when the time comes (which, hopefully, will not be for a long, long time), I let them know that if something should happen to me, I’ve asked Mr. Mostafa to make sure that I’m sent back home to be buried.

“And Saleh is okay with that?” my dad said.

“Oh, yes. He understands that’s what I want,” I assured him.

Later, I told Saleh what my dad and I had discussed. He said, “Yes, honey, I promise. But can we not talk about that again? I love you so much. I don’t want to think about that. I want to think about us buying a house. More kids. Beaches. I want to think of beaches, babe.”

Obviously, we’ll have to revisit this topic as we get older, and we’ll see how things have changed then. But yeah, I’d prefer to think about beaches, too.

be kind.

April 9, 2015

In my experience, one of the most common complaints that travelers tend to have about other places is that the people who live in those places are rude, snobby, or otherwise unapproachable. I’ve mentioned before that one of the most common search queries that brings people to my blog is, “Why are Saudis so rude?” In that same post, I also mentioned that I was warned that French people are rude, as well, and for me, that was proven incorrect. Even so, I admit that I’m totally not above thinking that people in a certain place are largely unpleasant.

For example, a few years ago, when Mr. Mostafa and I were road tripping through southern California, I got it into my head that people in Los Angeles are rude. I had basically one experience that led to this conclusion. We were stopped at an intersection near the beach; I could smell the salty sea air in the wind blowing through the windows. A BMW convertible pulled up next to us in the right lane, driven by a middle-aged man wearing Ray-Bans. A woman sat next to him in the passenger seat; she was cute, with short dark hair, maybe in her early 30s. After the initial glance to my right, I looked forward again and waited for the light to turn green. When that happened, the man gunned the engine of the BMW and peeled away from us, tires screaming, as the woman threw her head back, looked at me, and laughed uproariously, with a tinge of cruelty.

And that was it—I decided I wouldn’t ever want to live in southern California. People there are snobby.

I’ve gone over that moment many times in my head, and after the initial inexplicable sting wore off, I started to break it down in a more forgiving light. Maybe the man had just told a really great joke. Maybe she had read something really funny on her phone. Maybe the woman really was laughing at us for some reason—but the thing is, even if that were true, it had nothing to do with me. I’m totally fine, even if she did find me worthy of being laughed at, scorned, or belittled. Why in the world did I let that one jarring experience cloud my entire experience in California? Why would anyone let a single bad experience cloud their entire experience anywhere?

The truth is, on that trip, we met plenty of really nice people in California. I remember Mr. Mostafa having a long conversation with the friendly concierge who welcomed us when we stayed on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I can’t really remember what they talked about. I also remember that we had a very nice waiter at the restaurant in Malibu where we ate dinner on the beach. But those memories aren’t nearly as clear as the color of the hair of that woman who threw her head back and laughed while looking at me as the BMW she was in left tire tracks on the asphalt next to us. I don’t get why, especially since I know that people in California are, on the whole, not any more rude than people in the Ozarks. But knowing that didn’t keep me from bracing myself for the unfriendliness I stubbornly expected to encounter once I crossed the state line on my road trip to California with my mom and Lavender.

I didn’t find it. I mean, sure, there were some people who weren’t super chatty with us, especially not at first. But who is super chatty all the time? No one, that’s who. And on our road trip, we encountered very few people who remained standoffish even after we did our best to engage with them in a pleasant way. Lavender was a bit of an icebreaker, as well; I mean, how can you resist this face?

road tripper.

But I’m happy to report that when it comes to interactions with strangers on this road trip, my memories will be almost entirely happy ones. When we smiled, people smiled back. Everywhere. The lady who maintained the breakfast area in the hotel where we stayed in Kingman, Arizona was so sweet and helpful. At the Hoover Dam, we had a wonderful time chatting about horses with a small, adorable family from the Bronx. Everyone in the San Francisco Zoo was nice. One of the clearest memories I will take away from our cross-country road trip is all the smiles­—both from me, my mom, and Lavender as well as from all the people we met along the way.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in life so far, it’s that there are really very few people in life who are honestly, truly mean to their core. There are misunderstandings. There are ideological differences that people allow to cloud their interactions with others. Sometimes people are just having a bad day. But even when people aren’t kind or friendly, as long as I am, I’ve done my job. Whatever happens after that has nothing to do with me.

It’s so tremendously liberating to finally understand that. I can only control myself. What others do, how they react to me and interact with me, is entirely up to them. And I’m happy that so far, no matter where in the world I am or what culture in which I find myself enmeshed, it seems like there is always warmth to be found, as long as I am willing to reach out for it and accept it when it comes…and ignore the rest.


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.

wearing niqab.