Category Archives: islam

pigs.

January 17, 2016

My mom left Riyadh on Friday night. She headed back home to the States, after a two-week visit. It was wonderful having her here. For the two days prior to her departure, we both bawled pretty consistently in anticipation of her leaving.

This is one thing that I wish I had understood and been more prepared to deal with before I moved to Saudi Arabia–leaving my mom never gets easier. And it’s just never going to get any easier. I guess I expected that on some level, I’d get used to it. Like, I figured I’d develop some sort of emotional scar tissue that would let me not waste the last two days of my time with her (and other members of my family) on crying jags. I figured I’d be okay after awhile. But I still cry every single time. And so does she. It never gets easier for either of us.

The ironic thing is, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it more than once here on the blog over the years, is that if I only had a bad relationship with my mom, with my parents, then this negative part of life in a foreign country would be completely eliminated. But I adore my parents. I think they’re the most wonderful parents that God could have given me. I’m grateful for them every day. And I’m also grateful for the incredible technology that we have nowadays that keeps me connected to them–I’m pretty sure I would not have survived this move if there were no such thing as video chatting.

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niqabi-curious.

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.

i like pants.

December 3, 2014

Every Monday evening, my mother-in-law attends a Qur’an study group. This is almost exactly like an Islamic version of a Bible study group, and I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on her group a few times when the meeting was held at our house. I didn’t understand every single thing, of course, since it was entirely in Arabic. But as I sat and watched the ladies chat and snack and sip cups of gahwa, my heart was warmed. No one talked about the permissibility of birthday cakes. No one worried about hearing music (one lady shared a funny YouTube video with music in the background, and the phone was passed around the room so everyone could see. Everyone laughed–or at least smiled–and no one “advised” her that music is haram). And then a teacher sat at the front of the room and read Qur’an aloud, and the ladies discussed the meaning of each ayah and how it could be applied to everyday life. I wanted to take pictures of the gathering and post them (although I never would, of course, because it was an abaya-free gathering), so that people in the States could see just how much this resembled an American Bible study group. I just sat there thinking, “How is it possible that there are people who cannot see just how alike we all are?”

But as alike as we all are, I know that there are essential differences in how many of us see the world. And that’s okay. Still, this can leave some of us feeling quite isolated a lot of the time.

See, I’m Muslim. (I mean, just in case you didn’t know.) But I wasn’t always Muslim. I grew up Catholic in the Bible Belt (i.e., surrounded by Protestants). I found comfort in my Catholic faith, and I honestly never envisioned leaving it…until I found Islam, which to me, embodied all of the comfort I find in sacred ritual while tying it up with a theology that actually made sense to me. Accepting Islam didn’t feel like the ridiculously huge step that it may seem like from the outside. It felt like a homecoming of sorts, which I suppose is exactly how converting to a religion should feel. It felt this way in so many respects, both big and small…even in the way I dressed. I never wanted to be a nun, but I always admired the very identifiably Catholic way in which many nuns dress, and I always wanted to wear a mantilla at Mass, although I never did out of fear of being judged for it. But as a Muslim, I could even wear a headcovering without others in my religious tradition thinking that I was a nutjob (as for those outside my religious tradition…well, that’s a different story).

But it’s hard to be a convert in any religion, and Islam is no exception. You have to learn to pray in another language. I mean, you can pray to God at any time and in whatever language you wish, but for the ritual of the five daily prayers, you need to know some basic Arabic words to perform them (just like until around 50 years ago, Catholics had to know the basic Latin words to pray in Mass). You can learn those words privately and at your own pace, but even outside of prayer, suddenly people all around you are using random Arabic words in everyday conversation and you’re struggling to keep up. It can feel like a secret club…one in which people throw foreign words at you like rocks in order to demonstrate that you should listen to them because they know more than you. Stir in the myriad cultural variations that inevitably color the practice of Islam, and it gets even more confusing and potentially alienating.

But when you join a new religion, more than anything, you want to feel that you belong. This leads converts to join what is affectionately (or at least, sometimes affectionately) known as the Haram Police–they spend an inordinate amount of time “advising” their fellow Muslims as to what is permissible and forbidden. (But always, always calling you “sister” while they do it.) I know that for some people, focusing on certain little things is what makes them feel like they are truly a part of the religion. I get that. But for me, that’s not what religion is about, and it’s not what enriches my life. For me, it gets exhausting, and it’s hard to find a community of converts to Islam that doesn’t fall into the trap of wasting time debating whether or not it is permissible to wear pants in public.

I don’t care about the permissibility of wearing pants in public. I don’t want to know what you think of my Christmas tree. I don’t give a fig about how you feel about having a dog in your house. I couldn’t care less about what instruments you think are permissible before the sound they make qualifies as haram music. And I don’t have any interest in what you think about parents who let their children watch Peppa Pig.

It’s not about the little things.

Nope, I just want to talk about faith. I want to talk about the big picture. I want to feel encouraged. I don’t want to feel alone. I want to feel closer to God. I trust myself to adopt and maintain the earthly rituals that make me feel closer to God, and pants have nothing to do with them. (Well, I mean, I guess they kind of do. I do wear pants. Mostly jeans. Jeans are my favorite.) Arguing about pants doesn’t make me feel closer to God. It makes me feel like God is rolling his eyes at me.

There are elements of Christianity that I love and miss and wish they were more a part of mainstream Islam. One of my favorite Instagram accounts currently belongs to a Christian college student who makes beautiful/adorable sketches in her Bible that illustrate important verses on the page; I want to highlight and make notes in my Qur’an without being scolded for desecrating it. I want to be able to admit that even though I don’t consider the Bible to be the unaltered Word of God, I do find wisdom and comfort in it alongside the Qur’an. (And I kind of want to commission that college student to make sketches in a Bible and Qur’an that illustrate the verses that are most important to me on each page.) I want to open a devotional book and read words that strengthen my faith, not present judgment on my plucked eyebrows. I don’t want to be on perpetual defense because I wear pants (yeah, I’m really sticking to the pants example). I’m already on perpetual defense because I’m Muslim.

I’ve thought about starting a Facebook group for other Muslim convert women who feel the same way, but in my experience, groups like this tend to implode on themselves because they inevitably devolve into a mess of bickering. If I did start a group, there would have to be rules. Like, no copying and pasting fatwas from Islam Q&A. No asking other members, “Do you think *insert mundane practice here* is permissible?” Figure out what works for you there on your own. You’re a grown woman with a brain that God gave you. I’m not going to waste my time typing out to you exactly why my conscience doesn’t trouble me when I wear pants.

I don’t know. If there’s interest, I may start a group. Send me a message or leave a comment if you would be interested. Maybe we’ll get something going. Although I can’t guarantee that it won’t go down in a blaze of birthday cake debate.

I guess I’ve been thinking about these things especially because it’s that time of year again…that time when my Facebook newsfeed is filled with pictures of Christmas trees, snow, twinkling lights, stacks of presents, gingerbread men, holiday music, all of which bring on pangs of homesickness and the occasional round of sobbing…alongside the reminders from my more conservative Muslim Facebook friends that Christmas is haram.

I don’t know if those folks realize what they are saying when they attempt to “enjoin the good” by announcing that any sort of activity related to the holiday season is haram. I know they don’t mean it this way, but to me, they are basically saying that my childhood is haram. My happiness is haram. The memories and the love and the warm fuzzies of a now-secular season (to me) that I cherish are all haram, because I am Muslim now, and that should erase all that came before.

Well, it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. And I don’t want it to. So there.

holy books

 

a history lesson.

September 3, 2014

If you went to school in America, you learned about Germany, the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust. We know these historical events intimately. Our textbooks are filled with haunting images of prisoners in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Even in flyover small-town southern Missouri, where the vast majority of us grew up having never even met a Jewish person, we knew that during World War II, Jewish people suffered in ways that words can’t fully describe.

I read Anne Frank’s diary multiple times and I bawled like a baby each time. I still have my worn, beloved copy; it’s here with me in Riyadh and I hope Lavender will read it and value it someday as much as I do. I want to visit Amsterdam someday just so I can go to the Anne Frank house and pay my respects to one of the few dear friends I came to know in a book that actually existed, actually lived, and was actually stolen from the world.

In school, we learn a bit about how Hitler came to power, but it’s significantly glossed over in comparison to the actual war, as is World War I. But when it comes to explaining how there came a point where Allied forces found themselves discovering rooms filled to the ceilings with the shoes of murdered Jewish people, our education is (or at least, was) woefully incomplete. We just know it happened…and never again. Because of course. We don’t need to know how it came to pass in order to be convicted that it should never, ever happen again.

But World War I is inextricably linked to the rise of the Nazi party. World War I absolutely decimated the German economy (as commonly happens to a country on the losing end of a war). The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, required Germany to pay heavy reparations to countries it had fought against, in addition to making Germany admit that they had been at fault for starting the war. Germany had to give up large chunks of land, and its military was almost completely dismantled. The German economy was so poor that only a fraction of the required reparations were actually made, but even those payments were a heavy burden. After the Treaty of Versailles had been signed by Germany, President Woodrow Wilson announced, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!”

Naturally, the Treaty of Versailles was not a popular document with your average German. Inflation was at ridiculous levels. Jobs were scarce. It was in this environment that Adolf Hitler began his rise to power as a member of a small fringe political group, known as the German Workers’ Party. He attempted a takeover of the German government in 1923, an event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Multiple people were killed in the attempt; Hitler was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to five years in prison. He only served nine months, though, and during his time in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf and he honed his platform and his propaganda strategies.

Once released, he rose to power by playing on the average Germans’ soft spots. He constantly reminded them about the great history of Germany, and he promised that under his reign, the glory of the German people would be restored. He promised prosperity. He promised respect. He drew your average, everyday German who just wanted to feed his family and live his life into the Hitler vortex of crazy, by fostering a sense of collective pride in the culture and characteristics shared by many Germans. And as a result, most people rallied behind him–or at least, didn’t actively oppose him.

But even though Hitler claimed to be building a world empire based on this concept of the perfect “Aryan” race, there were plenty of Aryans who were fighting against him—namely, from the United States, France, and Britain, among other places. These were people who could have easily joined Hitler in the Aryan fight, if they had chosen to do so, but instead, they opposed him, many of them sacrificing their lives in the process.

Does any of this sound familiar? Like history repeating itself? Because it totally should.

The Iraqi and Syrian infrastructures were both decimated by war—in Syria, there was a revolution and subsequent (and ongoing) civil war, with American officials throwing their support behind revolutionaries that would later go on to spawn ISIS. And in Iraq…well, any American over the age of 18 knows what happened there. Whether or not we want to admit it, we Americans created the Iraqi power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS. And when that power vacuum collided with Syria’s…well, it was what folks call a “perfect storm” (except, of course, “perfect” actually means “stunningly horrible and destructive”). The same thing happened in Afghanistan and gave rise to the Taliban. Have you ever seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War? There’s this perfect line where Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) says, “We go in there with our ideals and we change the world, and then we leave. We always leave. But that ball…it keeps on bouncing.”

That’s exactly what we did with Iraq. We went in, essentially tore down what established infrastructure they had, and then we left. And what we left behind was a power vacuum for crazies. Of course, it’s not entirely that simple (if you want to read more about how America was involved in breeding ISIS, you can do so here and here), but that’s the short story.

I don’t know exactly what ISIS is doing in their captured territories. I do know that if the mainstream media’s treatment of Saudi Arabia is any indication of how seriously they approach fact checking their information (and offering retractions and/or clarifications when they get it wrong), it’s safe to believe about half of what is widely reported. But even that half is bad enough, and ISIS is certainly a bloody mess to whose cleanup America is obligated to contribute.

But the difference between World War II and now is that back then, no one really worried about blonde, blue-eyed Americans, even those of German descent and/or with German last names, joining up with the Nazis. Of course, Japanese-Americans were another story; they were deemed suspicious. (Just ask George Takei.) Japanese people were easily identifiable (as many Muslims also are by virtue of our clothing choices…but, contrary to stereotype, this is not always the case. In fact, many, many Muslim women don’t wear a headscarf, just as many, many Muslim men don’t wear long beards), and so they were rounded up and made to live in internment camps for the duration of the war, even though there was no reason to suspect that they were in any way disloyal to the United States.

But Germans? Nah. No one worried about them, even though there were quite a number of Nazi sympathizers in the States (in fact, there’s actually an abandoned compound in Los Angeles that they set up to welcome Hitler to America. Not even kidding. You can visit it if you are so inclined). And in the end, the American government issued an apology for having essentially imprisoned all Japanese Americans during the war, because we had to admit that it was totally, indisputably wrong, nor did it even help the war effort or make our country safer. It was just…racism.

So, naïve as it may be, I just don’t get why so many people are unwilling to believe that these “Islamic State” nutjobs don’t in any way represent the tremendously vast majority of Muslims around the world. If you’ve never feared that your blonde, blue-eyed relatives are going to be radicalized by right-wing Aryan extremists (which, if you’re an American hoping to eliminate terrorism, as we all are, that actually should be a concern), why would you suspect Muslims everywhere are just ripe for the ideological pickin’ for this extremist movement? ISIS is doing the exact same thing that the Nazis did during their rise to power. They are playing on the soft spots of your average Iraqi and Syrian, reminding them of the glorious history of Islamic empire and promising them stability and prosperity–education, medical care, jobs–in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people, even as they are being opposed and actively fought by other Muslims, just as many, many other “Aryans” fought the Nazis and their evil, genocidal empire.

Islam is just the shared characteristic that ISIS uses in their attempt to unify the people and rally them to their cause, just as Hitler used the history and widely shared characteristics of Germans in order to build support for his own regime. If the resources and power were up for grabs in a land where Christianity was the dominant religion, then this group would consist of Christian terrorists, and they would be claiming to follow their true religion as they obeyed brutally violent, context-stripped, cherry-picked verses from a holy book. If ISIS was operating in a land of mostly unreligious people, they would still find common characteristics to crow about as a means of bolstering their brutal power grab. Just like Hitler did.

I understand that it may be convenient to attribute the violence to Islam–after all, that’s exactly what ISIS is telling you, so why should you believe otherwise? And Islamophobia is a booming business. But Americans, Brits, and other “Aryans” outside of Germany didn’t believe Hitler when he said that he fought for “truth and justice” because he called himself a Christian, nor did they jump in lockstep behind him because he claimed his atrocities were Jesus-approved. So why do we believe ISIS about the source of their ideology?

For anyone who lives in a Muslim family, or is actually willing to listen, get to know, and embrace their Muslim neighbors, it’s obvious: ISIS isn’t about religion. ISIS is about power, money, and control of lucrative resources (and they’re certainly not the first to wage war in Iraq for those reasons under lofty ideological pretenses).

So please, do me a solid and keep these comparisons in mind. When you’re tempted to ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS?”, please know that they are. The question that you should be asking yourself is not, “Why don’t more Muslims oppose ISIS?”, but rather, why don’t most mainstream media outlets find it relevant to amplify the vast multitude of voices that do?

I’ve said it before: go talk to a Muslim. Invite a Muslim to dinner at your house. Listen, learn, and teach one another. Hug a Muslim, ya’ll. Make the world a better place. Please. If not me, then for my kid. She’s really cute…and even though she hates being buckled into her car seat, she totally knows where her tummy is.

minaret

every time we say goodbye.

May 28, 2014

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 dhuhrthe 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.