By Deb Avery
The sights, sounds and smells of the Muslim world I lived in for over four years will always remain fresh within my memory.
I will never forget how brightly the stars shined over the Red Sea on the coast, or the smell of the shawarmas (gyro-type wraps with veggies, goat, or chicken) cooking on the open rotisseries along the sidewalks. The noisy souk (open markets) where you could buy everything from newspapers to gold.
The shouting in Arabic, Urdu and the many different dialects of Arabic, along with traffic noises and horns blaring, permeated the downtown area. Yet five times a day, all shops were closed. Everything came to a standstill while Adan (the Islamic call to prayer) was heard from all corners of the city by the Imams.
I lived in one of the newer, five story flats in the city center. It was a mixture of modernity and antiquity—a lot like the city itself.
The flat had marble floors, yet it was raw, unpolished marble that did not shine no matter how many times I mopped. The kitchen was very small, and very under furnished. A propane equipped stove, very small metal sink, and an undersized refrigerator were it’s only additions. The floor and wall were tile, much like the bathroom, with a drain hole in the middle of the floor.
But the view outside the windows was breathtaking.
The Southern side of the city was laid out before me with the mountains in the distance. The ruggedness and harshness of the land was softened only by the landscaping and artwork in certain areas. The native style of dressing, with little change over the many years, clashed with the noisy little cars and trucks speeding by on main street.
I felt as if I had stepped through a time machine when I first arrived in this ancient land.
That feeling stayed with me throughout the duration of my stay. I suffered from culture shock when, once a year, we travel back to the states for vacation. It felt like going from a leisurely stroll to hitting a treadmill at full speed.
The way of life was very different, and very simple for the average citizen. The way of life for women was one of subjugation, and often very difficult. It made me realize just how far the Western woman has come on her journey, even though we still have a ways to go. Most of all it made me grateful to know that when I returned, my life would go back to normal.
Sadly this was not true for the women I knew.
Leaving the friends I made while there was difficult. They longed for just a taste of all the rights we often take for granted. And here I was, leaving them to their fate in this world of ancient beliefs, and going back to a way of life they could only dream of.
It did not take long to learn the acceptable behavior for women. Being American I was slightly more tolerated, and I must admit to trying to bend the rules a time or two, very often with a rock or similar object being thrown at me from one of the teenage boys from the school next door.
There was a school right across the street. And of course it was boys only—something that had we known beforehand, we might have chosen a different location.
Teenage Arab boys and independent American women do not blend too well. They are at the age of flexing their male superiority, and I had several run-ins on the way to the grocer during my stay. Some were benign, some were not. But the shop workers, (mostly expats like myself, only from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or elsewhere) always came to my defense.
Soon, those along my street became used to this strange woman from another land. Some of the boys from the school however never did accept me.
What I learned in those years has touched me deeply and has stayed with me though the years and I hope they always will. I met people from every walk of life; the wives of the men my husband worked with whom had never met anyone from America before, the doctors and medical staff, who were mostly Egyptian and trained in Europe, and the common everyday people who ran the shops.
What I learned was basically this: Despite our differences, despite how beliefs, or lack of, we are all the same.
We all had loved ones that meant the world to us. We all had lost someone we loved. We all felt compassion for one another and would help where we could.
I taught them, and their children, a little English, they taught me a little (very little) Arabic.
One of the first questions that was always asked of me from the women (translated by their husbands, or one of the children) was this: Have you worked outside the home in the United States? As my answer was yes, it was always followed by: What is like, do the men not harass you, are you not afraid?
Then the inevitable: Why do you wish to do this? Or, You are very lucky.
This varied greatly by age with the older less impressed with this detail of the Western woman. Independence was an alien concept for them. They, and I, were forbidden to drive in this country. It was, and still is, a very male dominated culture with very little freedom for the women who live there.
Yet, even with so many differences in culture and religion, we connected. We were kind and caring to one another. We looked past our differences to the things we did have in common. We loved, we suffered, and we hoped for a better world. In my circle of friends, religion was rarely an issue, or even discussed.
I remember my last shopping trip to the souks. I would be leaving soon to return home. An American friend accompanied me, and we walked down early to buy souvenirs for our family and friends back home.
I had been eyeing these unique walking staffs which were hand carved and polished to a beautiful, fine, almost mahogany sheen. I was determined to carry one of these home to my grandmother, and keep one for myself. So after we were finished with our other purchases, we headed for this one particular shop.
When I picked up the staff, a little over four feet tall, I noticed the shop owner looked a little odd. But he didn’t miss a beat and soon we were haggling over price and both, I and my friend, were on our way back home with two of the beautiful staffs.
It was not unusual for the local men to watch the American women. First of all, they seldom saw women without veils. Secondly, while we wore the loose abiya (huge black cape like thing which literally resembles Batman’s cape), we seldom covered our heads.
The Imams soon became used to this strange American woman and her friend, and let us go on our way without harassment, but this was only obtained after a few run ins concerning parts of our arms showing, or no head cover. Most of this was simply ego; they wanted to show their authority. And never once did they harm one of us, in any way.
On the way back that day I noticed something was different in their attitudes. The normal looks were replaced by shaking heads and much elbowing and giggles. Yes, it was somewhat of a shock to see these men in their long, flowing robes giggling like school girls, but that is precisely what they did.
While it wasn’t a particular long walk, that day it seemed to take twice as long. There was no misbehavior or anything of that nature, only amusing looks and good natured laughter among the men.
By the time we reached my flat, my friend and I had examined each other closely more than once to make sure there was nothing stuck to our clothes or anything out of place. Having found nothing we had simply proceeded on our way with puzzling smiles now and then for all these smiling/giggling men.
As we walked inside the building the caretaker/manager, who spoke fluent English, stopped dead in his tracks and looked first at me, then at my friend, each of us holding a beautiful wooden staff. He immediately broke into a huge grin and asked if we had experienced any trouble coming back from the souk. After telling him about the unusual walk home he became even more amused.
It seems my beautiful staffs were muhtahwah (local dialect for Imam) sticks. Usually only the Imams, or some of the more influential men carried these, not for walking staffs, but as ornamentation and show of authority. And never, ever, did women carry them.
I tell this story for this simple fact. While I know things have changed since I was there in the 80’s, I know that there are good people in all countries, races, religions, and the non-religious. I know this because I have held their babies, ate at their tables, and sat silently as I waited while they spread their prayer rugs and did their obligatory prayers.
I know because I have lived beside them, shopped beside them, and walked among them, carrying a muhtahwah stick.
I know that underneath all the controversy, the hype and the hate that is spread daily throughout this and other countries, there is a divinity in all people, in all beings of the Universe.
We so easily forget the barbaric dark ages of our ancestors. We have become much more educated and less superstitious over the many years and we are not those people any longer. Or are we?
If we can hate others simply for the fact that they are different from us in race or creed, then maybe we aren’t as sophisticated or as educated as we like to think we are.
America has some pretty infamous characters in our own history. I would put Timothy McVeigh right up there with the top terrorists of today. Just because he didn’t terrorize in the name of a religion, it doesn’t change the fact that many people were killed, maimed, and their lives changed forever. A terrorist is a terrorist, no matter their reasons.
We must stop the hate. When we meet hate with more hate there can never be an end to the vicious cycle. Only when we stop and change our destructive, reactive ways, will we be able to stop the madness.
Our president was recently ridiculed and bombarded with hatred when he even suggested some of the things I have just stated. I may be as well. But the fact remains—our current struggles with the war on terrorism is not working.
We are playing right into the hands of the extremest. It’s time to try a different approach. It’s time to stop making the world blind with an eye for an eye tactics, if we want this cycle to stop.
Shouldn’t we at least try? What if we spent half of what has been spent on war in the past 14 years to help educate, feed, and encourage the end of hate.
Would we see a change?
I don’t have the answers. I only know this: I have been a stranger in a strange land and they took me in and accepted me in the best way that they knew how. I have seen the humanness of those the world likes to lump together and hate.
And I know it’s time to change.
Editor: Dana Gornall