I was so ready to leave Saudi Arabia. It hadn’t been the best of experiences and certain events threatened to taint the overall adventure of living in the Middle East. In fact, when we landed in Los Angeles after our 14-hour flight from Jeddah, I purposefully left my abaya piled in one of the seats on the plane.
The redeeming component of our Saudi Experience was the fact that we ended our time in Jeddah during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. Ramadan permeated every aspect of the day. Students and staff, along with the entire country, were fasting from sunrise to sunset for the entire month. School started late. All discussions centered around Ramadan and topics of self-control, devotion, and compassion for those less fortunate. Students clearly loved the time with family and the night time feasting. Businesses and activity opened at 9 p.m. and the entire city was a hustle and bustle all night. One could go shopping at 2 a.m. if one wanted. It was a crazy time but Ramadan became special to me through a dear friend, “F”. On three separate occasions, we fasted together and then shared the Iftar meal together.
On the first occasion, my family and I went with “F” to a typical western restaurant, the Cheesecake factory to have dinner. It was “F”’s first time eating out during Ramadan and it was our first time sharing the Iftar meal, the meal to break the daily fast, with others. During Ramadan, no food is served before Iftar in any homes or restaurants in Saudi Arabia. The doors of the Cheesecake factory opened at 6:00 p.m. and people were seated and able to select their menu options. Then, at 6:50 p,m, dates and water, the traditional items eaten when breaking fast, were brought to the tables. At 7:02 p.m. as everyone in the restaurant (which was now at full capacity) partook of dates and water, the meals are delivered en masse to the tables. The room was full of couples, families, and friends sharing in the ‘same’ meal and celebrating the blessings of life together.
On another evening, “F” and I partook of Iftar at a Turkish restaurant. There, the meal was set at one price and the same feast was served to all who were in the restaurant. Again, at 7:00 p.m. dates and water were on the table. After the dates and water, “F” slipped away, along with several others, for the Maghrib prayer. While she was gone, the food kept filling up our table. And upon her return, we had a true feast before us. We spent the evening sharing our gratitude for friendship and the many wonderful things that had happened to each of us during our time in Saudi Arabia.
“F” also invited me to join her and her family for Iftar one night. This proved to be a journey of a lifetime.
We met at 6:00 p.m. as it was necessary for us to arrive well before the Iftar time to ensure our taxi driver could make it back to his home in time to enjoy the Iftar meal with his family. He dropped us off at the corner of a dusty dirt road intersection. White-clad men and black-shrouded women filled the streets, often pausing to stare at me, an obvious foreigner in these parts.
Despite my friend’s assurances that I was a welcomed guest, I still felt nervous that I might be imposing and I simply was not sure what to expect. We made our way up the stairs to the apartment where we were very warmly received. I slipped the sandals from my feet and entered the room reserved for guests. Upon my entrance, the men and boys scattered and I didn’t see another one for the rest of the evening, as it is not appropriate for men and women who aren’t closely related to mix. The room was brightly colored and the furniture big and comfortable. I met the sisters first. One was engaged in a pre-arranged marriage and works in the hotel business. Another just spent a year teaching in Malaysia and speaks excellent English. And one that studied business, she’s full of laughter, smiles, and curiosity. Two younger ones also appear. And they are all radiant and beautiful. The matriarch, a mother of 14 children, is warm and magnanimous. There is the talk of the upcoming wedding. They tell me the future husband has visited their home twice: once to meet the sister and a second time to arrange the marriage. I ask what would have happened if he had decided he’d rather marry one of the other sisters. They break out in laughter, “Oh, he hasn’t seen any of the rest of us. We’re protected.” He is related to the husband of the oldest sister. They live in London with their children. After the marriage, sister number 2 will also move to London and begin a new life there. And, the marriages will continue to be arranged from oldest to youngest.
Then, the table is pushed to the edge of the room and plastic spread out over the rich Arabian carpet. Food fills space and aromas entice the appetite. We settle down on the floor around the food and continue our discussion and enjoy the meal together. It’s clear that it’s important to them that I try everything. Though they eat without plates or utensils they push a plate towards me, recognizing my potential unfamiliarity with their ways. Each bite is a pleasure. When we are finished, those who didn’t cook clear away the food. When I ask about how the labor is divided they go into great detail about the fact that so-and-so is menstruating so she can’t fast so therefore she cooks. They talk very openly about this aspect of being a woman in their culture and how awful it is to later make up the lost fasting days when Ramadan is over and no one around them is fasting.
We then prepare to go to the Mosque. The mother adjusts my hijab and pins me up. I look like a nun, and even “F” laughs in agreement. We walk to the Mosque together. As we approach the building the younger girls run ahead in excitement. We go upstairs to the women’s section where women are already lined up in preparation to pray. Niqabs are removed and their faces are radiant with anticipation. They all stare at me. We line up together and begin our praying. I try to follow along and find the rhythm of the standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostration. After each round my friend places her hands on my shoulder exclaiming, “Ma’ sh allah”, you made it! You did it!” My ankles are hurting and I am finding it difficult to find a comfortable position - all those around me notice and offer up suggestions of other ways to kneel. A woman turns and asks my friend where I’m from and whether I’m converting to Islam. There is obvious curiosity regarding this strange foreigner in their midst. By the end of the prayer my friend is glowing with joy. Both joy in her own prayer and joy in my presence. As we leave the Mosque, her ‘sister’ asks, “What did you feel as you prayed?” I’m careful but honest with my words as I do not want to offend, “I was comparing to what I know.” she presses further, “But did you feel anything special? Did you have any certain feelings?” Perhaps she is saddened by my response, “I am a scientist so I like to think about things and observe before forming opinions or focusing on feelings” but accepts my honest reply without showing disappointment and without visible judgment. She genuinely and warmly smiles as we make our way back to their home.
Desert is brought out and discussion continues. At one point I ask one of the sister’s her age and she laughs and avoids a direct answer. She also informs me that discussing age is such an intimate topic. I chuckle a bit too and tell her that, in my culture, speaking of menstruation is also an intimate topic. To this incomprehensible thought she bursts out in boisterous laughter and genuinely baffled, asks, ‘but how is that even intimate?’
Towards midnight I’m feeling tired and wonder when we’ll go home at which point my friend says, “We still have to do our henna!” I can’t believe it but we start the process at about 12:40 a.m. and the joyous one begins to plan a design with the input of her sisters which she largely ignores. She goes to work with ease and the perfectionism of a true artist. I instantly love her work. She handles my arms and legs with gentleness and love. Though it’s late I thoroughly enjoy the company of these women and their conversation. The lack of men has an interesting contribution. There is a level of relaxation and intimacy that couldn’t be there with men in the room. I don’t get home until 2:30 in the morning (and still have to get up at 7:00 for work!) but my heart is touched and warmed by my Iftar feast with these remarkable women.
The strangest thing for me in my return to the U.S. the week after this experience was the total lack of awareness of Ramadan in the daily routines. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s not like I was aware of this significant Muslim time before living in the Middle East. Suddenly I realized that even though I was so eager to leave my abaya on the plane, there were aspects that I missed!
It seems so far away. The heat and sunshine I can recollect. But the essence of the country remains distant. The fading henna was a reminder that it was all real. And my WhatsApp correspondence with “F” signifies our continuing friendship. A friendship that, unlike the henna on my hands and feet, will not fade. As with all locations, what makes an experience meaningful is the relationships formed. In addition to friendships with Westerners and those from the far East, Arab and Muslim friends made our time in Saudi a warm and enriching experience.