Saturday, June 28, 2014

My Life in America: Looking at People

"Traffic is really backed up this morning adding 5 minutes to your drive."
-Radio station KFKF on morning rush hour traffic in Kansas City, Missouri, USA
The Walmart cashier smiled. "What's your favorite thing about being home?" he said.
I considered: the open road - where four cars at a stop light is a traffic jam and a five minute delay is an inconvenience…that I can trek to Walmart and home again in under 15 minutes…blue skies…clouds…rain…green…cars that merge, drivers who don't block intersections…worms in black earth under a mountain of wild daylilies…jogging in the street wearing shorts…different nationalities, races, religions, ideological outlooks living, working, existing side by side in (relative) harmony…
these beautiful people:
and that - in my little corner of the world, at least- we look at each other.
Gape, gaze, goggle, peep, scrutinize, wonder, glance. We consider one another by appearance, body type and posture. We evaluate strangers based on dress and assess people using external information: he's a businessman in a suit, she's a mom in sweats, there's a sullen teenager hunkered over her phone and that harried homemaker wearing dirty shorts and scrubby tank ran out of mulch while working in the garden.
We regard, weigh, contemplate, examine and review. Is his hair color natural? Cute dress. Bratty kid. Muffin top. Sweet couple.
Tall, short, fat, thin, rich, poor? There's sinful judgment in shallow appraisal: he's a hard worker, slacker, health freak. She's alcoholic, overeater, underachiever, mogul, homeless, confident, shy, chic, uncouth. Lookit those Baptists with crosses and Catholics dangling rearview mirror prayer beads. There are Muslims in hijab, Amish in long skirt with tennis shoes and whatever religion wears those little white caps over long, gray beards…
Some cultures go to great lengths to discourage looking as it can harvest misconceptions, inaccuracies and wrong impressions.
not looking in Doha
When nourished with a smile and a greeting, however, looking breeds connection.
What are you planting? Where do you work? What kind of phone do you have? Where do you get your hair done? Do you eat here often? How old are your kids? Ever been to a Royals game?
In Missouri we smile and say "hello" to joggers on the street. We wave at neighbors out of windows accessible to sidewalks dotted with people. We chat with strangers at Quik Trip, exchange business cards with folks we don't know, say "Pretty Day, don'cha think?" and "How about those Chiefs!" and "Do you know where the laundry soap is?"
university prof talks to strangers
Sure, life's not perfect, not even in America's heartland. There's crime. Inflation, unemployment, divorce, haves and have nots, Obamacare. But there's comfort in a community that connects with a glance and a grin.
I see you
The cashier smiled. "Nice to meet you, have a nice day," he said.
I shifted the bag of mulch over my scrubby tank and dirty shorts, stepped into the blue sky day and admired the clouds.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Two beautiful Western women on red couches,
ma sha allah!
The room is full of chattering Western women in jeans, skirts and tee shirts. They sit on red and black cushions placed in rows on the floor, facing a wall sized screen where two Asian men with beards huddle over a computer and projector.
In a corner, a shrouded figure stands quietly against the wall. Of course it's a "she" - a black scarf is draped over her head and face. The sheer fabric shields her features, hides the curve of her shoulders, neck and chest, until it meets her abaya which conceals the rest of her from arms to toes. She is silent behind the veil, calm, unmoving. I have to look twice to realize she's a person and not part of the wall.
I search for the shadow behind the curtain. I smile. "Salaam alaykum."
"Wo alaykum salaam," a voice whispers. She chuckles and I know her. I say her name with a question mark. We hug.
She's not separated herself from me; I know this. She's stepped away because there are men in the room and her traditional interpretation of Islamic principles inhibits interaction of any kind between non mahram men and women. The covering is one expression of her conservative Islamic beliefs.
A woman's mahram is a person whom she is never permitted to marry because of their close blood relationship (such as her father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc., and her son, grandson, great-grandson, etc., her paternal and maternal uncles, her brother, brother's son and sister's son)…
I feel the curiosity in the room, hear the whispers as women peek at her and wonder to each other: Who is she? Why is she hidden? Doesn't she want to be free? Who told her she had to cover herself?
Of course she knows what they're saying. She understands the discomfort and confusion and isn't bothered or offended. Her job is to teach, explain, enlighten Qatar's female visitors. Her mission is to share Islam.
I want to go from person to person and introduce this amazing, bright, enthusiastic, intelligent woman no one can see. I want to tell them how she's a diplomat's daughter who's travelled all over the world and speaks three languages. She has a university degree. She's an accomplished presenter and writer who is happily, joyfully married to a man she adores. She's fun, funny and smart. She has a large, loving, welcoming family who, if you were fortunate to visit in their home, would ply you with sweets, coffee and tea. They would intervene when your daughter is asked if she'd consider marriage to a local man ("she's focused on her studies at this time") - and send you home with a bag brimming with chocolate.
I want to tell them to look beyond the veil and the differences it represents.
But instead I find a spot against the wall, sit.
After the men leave it's just us girls. The veil comes off and personality takes its place. Questions are answered. She is a warm and welcoming representative of her country and culture as well as a bridge to understanding both Qatar and Islam.
Curious? No need to whisper. All you gotta do is smile and say hello.
**Not her real name, of course.
Yes, my blog is late this week. Thank you to everyone who wrote to let me know! I'm spending the summer stateside where I will be very busy jogging in the street, working in my green, green garden, fixing my house, eating Chipotle and watching Big Bang Theory with my beautiful (ma sha allah) children. Plus and especially, loving on the two most wondrous grandbabies God ever made (ma sha allah!). As such, my blogging schedule may be less routine - and more eclectic - than usual. Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Read Arabic: Four Easy Steps

Arabic Calligraphy made out of Arabic Calligraphy
It was a simple list of Arabic words, neatly typed in easy to read font, evenly spaced and aligned in a column. "What does it say?" said my friend.
I recognized letters, identified familiar words, comprehended general meaning. But understanding shrouded itself in my mind like a fortress sealed for battle. I returned the page in defeat.
"That's okay." She shrugged. "I'll ask someone else."
As I see it, there are four steps to reading Arabic:
1) Identify letters.
The language does not utilize capitals or "cursive," but there are three shapes for each of Arabic's 28 letters, plus vowel markings, dots and sometimes dashes. There's stylized and sloppy writing, contracted spelling, stacking, dropped dots, added curls, lines, circles, hooks.
two ways to write Daad
And there's Arabic calligraphy with its flourishes, lines, circles, vowel markings and decorative symbols:
this says: "Al Jazeera"
this says "Al Jazeera" too
Reading Arabic is often a rousing game of "Where's Waldo" but with letters instead of people.
2) Read the word.
Congratulations, you've located the letters! Now you're in a position to make sounds. In English this is the part where your index finger hovers over diphthongs, blends, consonants, vowels. Is the sound long or short, hard or soft, speak its name or remain silent?
Reading in Arabic requires the same step, only without vowels, which, by the way, do not commonly appear in the everyday literary Middle East scene - ie, newspapers, street signs, television commercials, correspondence, textbooks, event flyers.
"(Vowels) are for babies," said Teacher. "You will understand from context."
Kitty likes her harakat (those squiggles over the letters: vowels)
"Kitten," from an idea by Andrea Dami, illustrations by Tony Wolf, Text by Silvia D'Achille

Oh yeah, you're expected to elucidate vowels when reading. It's just that they're not provided (once you graduate from board books).

3) Comprehend meaning (of individual words).
Way to go! You've identified letters and applied sound. Now you may translate.
Only…factoring in the million or so Arabic dialects, Koranic use, invisible vowels and what happens to meaning when you add "the," conjunctions, prepositions or adjectives…each word in Arabic has approximately 400 different definitions. (I might be exaggerating but only slightly.) Some meanings are literal and unique like, for example, this word:
which may mean poetry, to feel - or hair - depending upon where your mind applies that missing vowel.
اشعر الشعر و الشعر.
I feel poetry and hair.
Other meanings are less literal, like this word:
which is pronounced "fakkr" (yes I know what it sounds like in English) and means, generally, "to think" (along with variations on the theme like "contemplate, idea, intellect, consider…")
(When a different invisible vowel is applied) this combination of letters also refers to a prayerful thinking-on-God activity called "fikr" where observant Muslims caress prayer beads and speak God's name over and over. This form of contemplation results in heavenly reward.
prayer beads
"One minute of fikr is equivalent to a year of worship, and one hour of fikr competes with 60 years of worship."
4) Understand.
You've found the letters, recognized words and have a general idea as to meaning. Now, relax. Drink tea. Release understanding into your mind in the way that steam floats from a mug of sweet Arabic coffee to warm cold fingers on a snowy day.
Snow in Egypt, 2013
At least that's the idea.
words shaped like a flower
Hours later, long after my friend and I had gone our separate ways, understanding danced in my head like rain over the Sahara: too late.
Arabic isn't just nouns, verbs, adjectives (and a bunch of other things that don't translate). It's more like an orchestra of colloquialisms strung together by sound. You don't translate as much as absorb the secrets in the melody and rejoice in the harmony of understanding.
But first, you must locate the letters, drink tea - and wait.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Machbous, Prayer and God

Each guest received a laminated cookbook
The voice echoed pure, smooth, clear off stone walls and tile floors, sailed into the glass dome that fed light into the majlis space, filled every corner of the larger-than-my-apartment rectangular shaped room. Full, rich, angelic. Trills over a monotone, alto to soprano, singing but not.
More than 50 women from France, Germany, Spain and other countries settled into couches along the walls. Voices quieted. Movement ceased. Conversation ended. The only sound was the smooth, honey textured voice.
A rustle hummed beneath the melody, just a whisper. I searched the room for a microphone or stereo, but there wasn't one. All eyes seemed to be focused on the high arched entryway, just outside my field of vision.
We'd been invited to attend a presentation about prayer and Ramadan offered by the Qatari Women's Association (QWA) for ladies from organizations throughout Doha. I'm not a member of any group, but learned about the program through a Qatari friend.
ready to learn about Ramadan and prayer
I emailed interest and provided the name of our inviter. I received a map to our host's home: a walled villa the approximate size of a city block located just outside town.
The gate was ajar. Inside, a freshly dug garden surrounded a wide covered porch and concrete patio. Thobe-wearing little boys with skateboards scattered as we approached. We climbed the stoop, pushed the glass door, stepped over the threshold.
Inside, a group of Qatari ladies dressed casually in jelabiya, suits and dresses circled a wide entry. Thick rugs were placed neatly over tile under a high ceiling. Warm arms enveloped us, pulled us close for hugs and kisses and passed us from one woman to the next. How are you? Where are you from? We're happy you're here, welcome, welcome! Please sit, would you like something to drink?
We twisted, turned, hugged, squeezed, kissed, touched cheeks, chattered in the traditional Qatari greeting - until we popped out of the huddle through the arched opening and into the tile floored, domed living room/majlis/meeting space.
QWA women made their way around the walls of the majlis shaking hands and offering kisses. Our hostess's young daughters offered tea, water, soda and bright, welcoming smiles.
In Islam, a smile is considered a charity and a gift
Our speaker sat in a chair at one end of the room. There was tea and soda and low tables for cookies and drinks. There were familiar faces, new friends, questions, answers, good conversation.
And then, without accompaniment, microphone, or introduction - this sweet voice.
I left my cushioned seat, stepped into the middle of the room, turned toward the arched opening.
In the entryway before the front door were three lines of women wearing black abaya and sheyla. They stood shoulder to shoulder, eyes closed.
In the middle of the front line a young woman raised her head and her clear voice sailed forward.
In Qatar, a woman may lead the women's prayer.
She receives no special training
and is called an imam, just like the leader of the men's prayer.
In a private home, the imam is usually the hostess
but may be anyone who knows the "rules of prayer."
The Maghreb prayer always has an imam.
It's better to pray congregationally than alone
but either are acceptable.
Following the angelic uttering, each woman's lips moved silently. All together, in harmony, synchronized through years of piety, they stood, kneeled, bowed, head lowered to the floor, stood again. Behind the last row, two women sat on plastic chairs near the front door. When lines of ladies' heads bowed, the sitting women lowered heads too. When lines of ladies stood, sitting women sat high in seats.
How to Pray
From My Prayer Book, Darussalam
I'm not Muslim and don't know the prayers or rules of prayers but from the looks of things (and factoring in my own biases), I imagined the young imam uttered the Muslim version of this:
"Now we'll do the part where we pray for special intentions…"
"Bend at the waist, ladies…"
"Tap your knee once here…"
"Raise palms to your face and lower them while saying Allah…"
"Kneel and say this…"
"Get ready to stand…"
"Turn to the left and then to the right and repeat after me: salaam alaykum wo rahmat allahee…"
How to Pray
From My Prayer Book, Darussalam
A final note and then, it was just - over. Eyes opened, lines dissolved. Some ladies sat on the floor where they'd ended, others gathered in groups or wandered off.
Only an echo remained. God?
saffron and cardamom donut holes-ish fried in honey
melt in your mouth deliciousness
Later, the wide entry was stocked with long tables and food: chicken and lamb machbous, harees, madrouba, louqaimat and more. Each member of the QWA had brought a local dish, potluck style. Take away tins were provided so guests might share the culinary wondrousness with the folks at home.
Tea, conversation, information, friendship, machbous, prayer and God. What could be better?

 QWA Machbous Recipe
QWA Machbous Recipe
(My favorite Qatari dish)