I went on my last visa run to Bahrain, and I am feeling a little wistful that I will probably never see this country again. And as my time in the Middle East draws to a close, I do have some observations.
The architecture here is incredible. I wonder why we don’t have the spiraling and magnificent buildings like this in the USA. The beautiful colors, the different geometric combinations, the splendor of these buildings is just amazing. They are breathtakingly beautiful, and dot the skylines throughout what I’ve seen of the Middle East.
Heavily dotting the malls, stores and restaurants are children. The children are everywhere. I have never seen so many children in so many different places at so many different times. They are running through the airports unchecked, skating and skateboarding in the aisles at the supermarkets and malls, screaming at the top of their lungs in restaurants at 11:00 p.m. and running all over everyone. Not one, I kid you not, ever said to me “please”, “excuse me”, or I’m sorry.” I didn’t get it when I first arrived, and I still don’t get it. They take “be fruitful and multiply” very literally. Of course, their version is probably a bit different in the Quran, but the result is truly the same.
Arabic people are without a doubt physically beautiful. The men are the best looking I’ve ever encountered, and the women are just simply gorgeous. I have felt attracted to more men in the past year than I have in the USA in the past 15 years. Of course, dating is non-existent in Saudi Arabia. You are either married or single. Divorced women are kind of half counted.
And on that note, the sexism here is very real and pervasive. Believe it or not, it’s not always a bad thing. In long lines, I’m waited on first, given seats, and generally not allowed to lift anything over 5 pounds. The security guard in my building has shooed cats away from my door and killed creatures in my apartment that I was too squeamish to even consider killing. On the other hand, I can’t drive in the Kingdom, men have at times jumped in front of me in lines, and I have been asked to leave fast food places because they are men only. When that happened, and they heard my accent, I got profuse apologies.
I’ve learned that American women are different. Not better, but different. We have a confident air that is almost unmistakable. It’s not arrogant or demanding, just a confident aura, and a swagger that is unlike any other. At times, it can seem aggressive, especially when compared to the way Arabic women carry themselves. But I can always pick out an American woman, even in a hijab.
Arabic people are friendly and helpful. They have a love/hate relationship with Americans. I have found that it is mostly love, and sometimes the love is mingled with envy. I have had more than one Saudi, men and women, express a wish to be in America, or hold an American passport, which they see as the land of the free. Of course there are also the haters. But fortunately, they are few and far between.
My students have been wonderful. They are a wide age range, from 12-45, and they usually have a true love for learning. Some of the women I have taught are very conservative and believe that things should
remain as they are for women here. Some are in the process of what I call an inner “unveiling” and they are shedding the old beliefs and adopting new and more modern perspectives on women’s rights. I have met women who told me that their mother married at 10 years old, and 35 year old women who are not yet married, and are not remotely interested in getting married.
Of course my most amazing experience has been living without racism hanging over, under and around me. I am ambiguous. I am Arabic, Sudanese, or Egyptian, until I speak. Then I am simply American. Not a Black American, African American or Afro-American. Just an American. My experience here has been reminiscent of my childhood, where I grew up in a segregated town, and knew nothing of racism. I knew nothing of prejudice, bigotry or hatred between human beings based on skin color. I did not “know” that until much later, and my experience here has re-taught me that there is no difference in people based on their race. My belief that racism is a trumped-up, diseased social paradigm has been reinforced. The knowledge that it is truly a mental illness has been reinforced.
The Saudis have a similar construct of course. Their social construct is based on nationality and gender. If your father is Saudi, then you are Saudi. If your father is Iraqi, that’s what you are. Skin color, however, never enters into the equation. This is also not a religious construct, but a cultural one. My hope is that they will banish this, just as they have lived without the sickness of racism. They are in the process of moving away from the sickness of sexism, but they have a long way to go. My optimism is based on the fact that they have started the journey.
All in all, my experience here has been an education for me, and I never want to stop learning.