Monday, April 28, 2008

Morning in an abaya

I went on a mosque tour with a friend the other morning. We were told to dress modestly (of course) and to make sure all of our curves were covered (I think I have about one), as well as most of our skin and all of our hair. I was lamenting to a neighbor that I had nothing to wear and she said I could borrow her abaya, which she had received during a mosque tour. Problem solved.

Before we went into the first of the three mosques we visited, I climbed out of the van and slipped the abaya on then struggled with the head scarf. The Muslim women leading the tour were so delighted to see me in it, I felt comfortable immediately. Except, of course, for the heat factor. It was in the 90s and sunny, and I was wearing a long skirt, a t-shirt, and the abaya and headscarf. You do the math.

Which brings me to this post.

5 things I learned in an abaya:

(1) It's hot in there. I don't care how loose the arms are or how flowing the gown itself. It's hot. My friend asked why the men get to wear white thobes but the women must wear black. She said that those are simply the traditional colors here. In other countries, it may be blue or white or multi-colored. She also said that black is less noticeable than white, and women should be inconspicuous when they go out. Ron and I suspect it's also a means of convincing the women to stay home, which is where we were told our place is. Men are expected to attend the mosque for the five daily prayers because their place is outside the home. Women are not expected to attend because their place is inside the home. More and more mosques today, however, have women's sections--generally a balcony area--since it has become more acceptable for women to work, shop, and socialize beyond the boundaries of their own homes.

(2) I didn't feel invisible. Of course, I didn't feel like people were staring me either--at least not past the initial reaction of the women leading the tour who were so excited to see me in the abaya. I realized that I don't pay a lot of attention during the day to who is or isn't looking at me when I'm out shopping or running errands or walking the kids to and from the bus stop. It was a nice realization, even if a bit delayed. Must mean I'm growing up.

(3) I have a small face. When that's all that's peaking out, ya kinda notice it.

(4) There's a reason God gave me hair. I look much older without it.

(5) You have to believe in something to put an abaya on every morning before leaving the house. And you must really want to leave the house.

One of the women guiding us was a Filipino convert and was a Catholic nun before converting to Islam. She wears gloves and socks as well as the full body and face coverage. She said that if men see even a little bit of skin on your hand or foot, they will be enticed to wonder what the rest of you looks like. I realized that some of these women must really live in fear of what the other half of the population is thinking about all of the time and must feel incredibly objectified. Another woman there said that Westerners "teach their daughters from a very young age to dress provocatively." (Apparently she never saw the clothes my mother bought me when I was a teenager.) My initial reaction was to feel defensive and a little bit slapped in the face. But frankly, how many of us buy bikinis for our toddlers and think it's adorable?

So I bought an abaya for myself today, as well as one for Emma. But I won't make her wear gloves--at least not in August.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Time is winding up

I took a couple of bluegrass harmony classes several years ago. (Bluegrass harmony has its own rules, which can be applied to any song, not just bluegrass songs. I won't bore a single one of you with the details.) In the second of the two classes, we had to teach the class a song and then we all worked on figuring out the 3- and 4-part harmony together. For other non-music-nerds out there, trust me: this was a lot of fun. Except for the song "Time Is Winding Up" that one of the women taught. It's well known in bluegrass circles (don't laugh; they exist), and I can't figure out why. It sounds like a lot of moaning to me (again, no comments, please) and is just plain depressing. I think it's supposed to be about preparing for the Second Coming or death or both. Yes, I know a lot of bluegrass songs are depressing, but at least they're also pretty.

And I caught myself humming the tune to myself yesterday while I was thinking about what we have to do to get ready to leave here: go souvenir shopping at least once more, get some boxes, pack what we don't need our last week or so, finalize travel plans, officially withdraw the kids from school here, stop our mail at home from being forwarded, and a number of other things I'm sure I'm forgetting.

Frankly, I'm understanding the feel of that song now--not so much that I'm walking around singing it out loud, but enough that I can admit I'm a little blue at the thought of leaving Doha. Yes, there's no place like home, but home is always the place you can go back to. We won't be coming back to Doha.

So, in honor of the knowledge that we'll be back on the other side of the world this time next month, here are some of the little things I'll miss:

The yogurt. Dannon and Yoplait got nothin on Arabic yogurt. It's like a different species entirely.

Filipinos. And I hope this doesn't make me sound racist. But the Filipinos I have met here are the warmest, hardest working, most optimistic people I have ever met. One friend I've made has a Master's in education, taught school back in the Philippines, but couldn't afford to raise her family there. So her 3 children (all still in school) stayed behind while she and her husband came here two years ago. She can make as much money nannying here in a month as she made in a year back home. But she misses her kids like mad, and she's just one of more than 100,000 Filipinos who come here to try to make better lives for their children. I don't know how they do it, but I admire the hell out of every one of them. And I don't ever want to hear anyone back in the States ever tell me that they're too good to take a job flipping burgers. After seeing what sacrifices people here make, I could choke on the disgust I have for pride. Okay, the soapbox has been put away.

Fresh and delicious produce, generally for less than we pay in the States. Granted, it's subsidized here and I don't want that happening back home. But I have definitely taken advantage of those subsidized prices while we've been here.

The Garden. Holy cow, this is the best Southern Indian food I have ever had in my life. We've been going once a week, and I'm going to go through serious withdrawal when we leave. Plus, the service is phenomenal, meaning, for me, that the people who work there love my children and don't cringe when they act like, well, children. In fact, if the manager is there, he takes Ivan around the restaurant and into the kitchen (shhh) while the rest of us eat.

The compound. Now, I know I've had my gripes about compound life, and my saying I appreciate compound life as well doesn't erase those gripes. But the one thing really worth loving is that my kids can leave our villa and be gone for hours without me worrying about where they are. Yes, I have to still follow Ivan around if he's alone, but if he's with the other kids, I can just check on them every half hour or so. The speed bumps within the compound help, as do the guarded gates and the fact that Ivan can swim now, so if he happens to fall into the pool, he can get out. (No, I don't let them go swimming without me.)

The diversity. Beyond the Filipinos, the eye-opening, mind-stretching cultural benefits of living here are obvious. We'll never experience anything like this again. And that makes me the saddest of all, scarecrow.

To end this post on a high note, however, here's what the kids are looking forward to:

S: his friends, school, bagels, and American football.
O: sleepovers, his friends, his teacher, and Chrissy and Dave
E: her friends, pizza, her teacher, and Chrissy and Dave
I: Nothing, because apparently he has completely forgotten we ever lived in Pittsburgh.

As for me? Target and a bed with box springs. Oh, and of course, my friends.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Last night Ron and I attended dinner at his dean's house. Before we ate, the dean gave us a tour of the home. Ron joked that he had considered bringing his camera along for the evening, and now I wish he had just so I could put some pictures up here of a traditional Qatari home.

The dean is currently renting the house, and he and his wife are not Qatari. They're American. Just thought I should throw that out there for starters. Also, this home is small for a Qatari home. Got that? Small.

When you enter the gated walls, there's a small swimming pool on your left with a fountain in the center. Granted, it's not a giant pool meant for pool parties, but it's deep enough for diving, and who can resist that fountain, for crying out loud? The patio is big enough for any neighborhood get together you could possibly imagine, and it's nicely landscaped with palm trees and other "local" plants.

Marble steps take you into the marble-floored home. Ron and I both went in through the same entrance, but there are actually two entrances: one for the men and one for the women. Qatari gatherings separate the men from the women for the entire time. This allows the women to take off their abayas and just relax. There are also separate entrances into the kitchen for the same reason.

Make that separate entrances into the first kitchen. Despite the marble floors, this isn't a deluxe kitchen you would necessarily want in your own home, especially since the oven is in the other kitchen. Sure, it's a large kitchen with plenty of counter and cupboard space, but since this is a room meant "only" for the maid, it's by no means a fancy one.

Now onto the second kitchen, which you have to go outside to get to, though just a few steps away. This is where the cooking and baking is done so as not to heat up the rest of the house. And there's no dishwasher. That's what the maid is for. (I never said there was no well-defined class system here.) Also in this other mini-building is the laundry room.

In total, the house has 7 bedrooms and 7 bathrooms, as well as a double sink in an alcove on the first floor, meant to make washing for prayer time more convenient when the house is full.

Before returning to the dinner party, Ron asked the dean what was on the third floor. The dean said, "The roof. Don't you have marble steps leading to your roof at home?" A bit excessive, sure, but I also found it interesting because in traditional Arabic homes--back when "traditional" meant the animals slept inside with you and there wasn't even a word for "home" because "home" was not your house. You slept in your house, but you cooked, ate, worked, and socialized outside. And when the weather permitted or you had guests you couldn't accommodate inside, the roof was part of the house. That's where you would sleep. Sure, there were no walls, but it was every bit a part of your house as the inside was. As beautiful as the evenings here are, I can easily imagine climbing a ladder or marble stairs or whatever it takes to get to the roof and lie down to sleep.

I have to say that after an evening of shop talk, I think there's a lot to be said for separating the men from the women. There were four of us women there--including the dean's wife--who are "simply" the wives of staff and faculty members. One woman works full time for CMU-Qatar, so I'm not counting her. She understood and could participate in all the shop talk. But the rest of us? Not so much. I told Ron after we left that although I'm not at all offended, I'm noticing more and more how, at his work functions, no one ever asks the wife what she does. It seems even more pronounced here, where the assumption is easily made that if a family can uproot itself for four months (or three years or 20 years), then obviously the wife doesn't do anything but take care of the husband and kids, so what can you possibly want to know about her. Is it just me who finds other people interesting, regardless of their gender? I don't fault the hosts for this divide. They were quite nice and they couldn't be expected to direct all conversation. It's just a natural divide, I suppose, that the traditional Arabic culture has decided to allow to remain.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Happy birthdays and henna'd hair

Ron's 40th birthday is tomorrow. He's a handsome guy, and still will be when he hits 80. My favorite feature of his when we first met was his hair. It's dark and wavy and even before he became a professor, he looked like one, which, for some reason I'm not really interested in delving into, was sexy to me. Okay, wait. I'll delve, but only for a moment. It's because I had a crush on my 11th grade English teacher who had a Ph.D. So he was always my idea of what a professor was.

Back to Ron. I even wrote a silly poem to him for one of his birthdays, back before we had kids, about his hair. Silly as in I meant for it to be funny.

His hair is still dark and wavy, and long and slightly unkempt again, just like it was when we met. Only it's mixed with some grays now. And on him, it works.

I, on the other hand, have colored my hair for more than 10 years. My first gray popped up when I was 21, right smack dab on my 21st birthday, as a matter of fact. And it wasn't the last. Jane D back in Pittsburgh has gorgeous gray hair and a gorgeous complexion to match. Tired of coloring mine and tired of pumping it full of chemicals, I decided to let it grow out, see what kind of gray I could end up with. The result wasn't what I would call gorgeous. I figured, that's okay, I would just embrace the gray and my age and revel in what the years had taught me.

Turns out that what the years have taught me is that having a five-year-old point out how gray your hair is turning isn't necessarily all that embraceable. It's not vanity, it's . . . okay, it is vanity.

In an effort to convince myself I was coloring my hair to make it healthy looking again, I bought some henna. See, I believe I'm a natural redhead who accidentally ended up with light brown hair. There was just a mix-up somewhere along the way, and henna is the natural, healthy solution.

Only when you first color light brown (splashed with gray) hair with henna, it's not red. It's orange. Bright orange. Bright, flashing orange, as in the color of orange Listerine. I know because we had a bottle sitting on our sink when I was drying my hair. When Simon saw me he said, "Did you mean for your hair to be that color?"

So until my hair fades to a more acceptable shade of Thanksgiving Dinner Sweet Potato Pie, I've decided I may as well make the most of it. As I said, Ron's birthday is tomorrow. And I believe no 40th birthday party is complete without a hired clown. Besides, I could really use the cash to buy some head scarves. How convenient to know just the country where I can get them.

Happy Birthday, Ron! You'll always have better hair than me, but I promise to never resent you for it. I love you!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My favorite joke

Here it goes:

These three guys were out on a jungle safari when they were captured by a band of vicious cannibals.

"We will kill you, and then we will use your skin for our canoes," the leader of the cannibals said. "But we will let you decide how you will be killed."

The first of the three men stepped forward. "Viva la France!" he said. "Give me the guillotine!" So the cannibals built a guillotine, beheaded the man, and skinned him for their canoes.

The second man stepped forward. "Those poison darts always seemed like a pretty cool way to go. Give me one of those."

So, pfft, the cannibals shot him with the dart, waited for him to die, then skinned him for their canoes.

The third man stepped forward and said, "I would like a fork."

"A fork?" the cannibal chief asked.

"A fork," the captured man repeated. So the chief got him a fork and handed it over, then the entire troop watched to see what would happen.

The man held the fork in his hand. "I don't really care how you kill me. But you're not going to use my skin for one of your damn canoes," he said as he stabbed himself all over.

In order for the joke to be funny, however, you have to see it told. It just doesn't have the same effect written down. That's another version of a geographical joke: you have to be there.

Kinda like our experience here in Doha. I can write posts about it, and Ron can take pictures, but it's hard for me to really show what it means to be here. I think that's what life is about in general. I'm a writer and an editor and a compulsive reader, and I'm all about trying to capture life with words. But you can't. Not really, not completely, and sometimes not at all. That admission occasionally makes me a little sad, like "alone" is a pretty easy place to find yourself, especially in a land of abayas and black face scarves with slits for the eyes and a language that is beautiful but completely incomprehensible to me.

Usually, however, I think that beyond the words, our experiences are pretty universal. And maybe sometimes we need to stop trying to describe those experiences, and just accept that we all get the joke, whether we laugh at it or not.