Abaya Shopping in Seattle

So, I decided that I should buy an abaya before heading over to Saudi Arabia. Although many people in Saudi said that I could enter the Kingdom dressed simply in conservative clothing and a head scarf then go abaya shopping once I was there, I personally felt that the awkward stares in the airport combined with the fact that I did not know how soon after my arrival I would be able to go shopping or be expected to show up at work meant that having at least one acceptable outfit before leaving.

Searching the internet and asking around lead me to find that there are a few “boutique” shops that sell Islamic clothing around, and the prices range from 70-200$. ouch. Online shops were less expensive, but having zero experience in wearing abayas, I was quite hesitant to order something, no matter how descriptive the measurements were.

Finally, I discovered a tiny little Somalian shop in White Center. I GPSed my way down there last Friday (completely forgetting this was the weekly holy day *facepalm*), and pulled into a very empty parking lot with several small immigrant run shops. There was a lady in abaya/hijab sitting on the curb in front of the shop with her cell phone tucked up under her hijab so as to reach her ear without exposing it. She nodded politely at me as I passed her, presumably thinking that I was heading to one of the other shops. When I tried the door of the Somalian store, and peered in the window disappointed that it was locked, she looked up in surprise.

“Oh! you wanted to come here?” she exclaimed, “What do you need to buy?” I explained that I needed to buy an abaya for my upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, and she grinned broadly, quickly opening up the shop and escorting me inside. “Of course, you need black.” she said, her English was good, but clearly accented and marked by the occasional misplacing of small articles and prepositions that many EFL learners struggle with.

Suddenly it became a dress up game. We were like little girls trying on fancy dresses as she pulled out abaya after abaya for me to try. Initially, I had felt very strongly that I would prefer an abaya that buttoned or zipped up the front, because the idea of shuffling in and out of an over the head floor length gown several times a day seemed so unappealing. My school does not require us to wear the abaya for work, but we have to wear them between home and work, so I would have to put it on and off at least twice every day. However, the front buttoning abaya styles were clearly designed for women less busty than myself, and the buttons strained across my chest.

“If you wear a long hijab,” she informed me, “it will not show.” Nonetheless, i decided I would at least try some over the head styles before I gave in to that compromise. Some were indeed very difficult to put on, but these were mostly the fancy (and heavier weight material) “evening wear” abayas. I was quite surprised after trying several on that it became a simple matter to shrug them on and off over my clothes and hair.

I tried on at least a dozen, some were rejected outright for difficulty to put on, or ill fitting sleeves. I was amazed that such a simple garment could have such a wide variety of fits! For the ones that felt comfortable enough, I bustled back to the fitting room we weren’t bothering to use to look at myself in the mirror. All the while we chatted about my upcoming trip. I told her I was going to teach English, and she told me about her daughter who had been raised in America and wanted to return to the Arabic world to teach as well. This was a little sad, because most of the countries in the Middle East require a great deal of certification and experience to hire someone, which her daughter had not obtained yet.

Finally, we found a very light weight abaya with a very breathable fabric. It was a major relief, because just trying on some of the abayas in the shop, I was starting to sweat a little, even though Seattle heat is only in the low 80’s (that’s about 29 C), which is nothing compared to the heat I will be facing in Saudi. The abaya was a perfect fit; it didn’t even need to be hemmed,  and the sleeves bore a pattern of maroon and creme with tiny crystals picking out a flower and vine pattern above. It was perfect.

Now for the hijab. This is the head covering, not to be confused with the veil/face covering which is called a niqab. She asked me what kind I wanted, and I replied I had no idea, having never purchased or worn one before. Years before, for a class in grad-school, we had to attend a Mosque and write about the experience, but I had simply used a regular scarf to cover my head that day. Using a scarf suited for Seattle in the Saudi summer was not going to work. Additionally, I hoped that there was something simple enough for me to put on correctly without having to master a complex folding, wrapping and tucking technique.

I expressed that it would be nice to have a hijab in a color that matched the accents on the sleeves of my abaya, for although the abaya must be black in Saudi, it can have colored trim, and the hijab may be colored. She found a creme colored swatch of cloth and helped me to put it on. So simple! It was a tube of cloth, wider at the shoulder end than the face end. You just push your face through like a turtleneck sweater, only instead of pulling it all the way over your head, you adjust the edge around your hairline.

10574270_10152225365041646_4307585225450516666_nI ducked back into the changing room with the mirror and tucked a few wisps of hair back under the hijab, then examined the complete picture. I was amazed at how different I looked. I could have been a completely different person, but somehow, the covering garments did not make me feel hidden or oppressed. I felt that these clothes were my cultural passport into my next adventure, affording me the ability to travel in and possibly even be accepted in the country I will call home for the next year.

I made a few final adjustments to the bottom collar of the hijab, settling it in a deep scoop across my collarbone then stepped back out into the main room smiling at my achievement. The shopkeeper immediately broke into a wide grin, “Oh!, you look so beautiful dressed this way!” she said to me. I thanked her for the compliment and all her help as she rang up my purchase. We chatted a little more about my departure date, and the upcoming Hajj, and her own dreams to make the pilgrimage some day.

As I drove home, I thought more about the compliment she had given me. It seems so difficult for me sometimes as a well-educated, liberal leaning American woman to remember that the clothes these women wear are not always prisons. Many women choose to dress in abaya and hijab, or even adding a niqab or going full burqa. Here in America, this Somalian woman surely chose her dress style, and to run a business catering to other women who do the same, for no Mutawaeen will ever find her here and shame her into covering her hair or hiding her body. Her compliment was genuine. She felt that in that moment, rather than concealing myself,  I truly embodied her own cultural ideal of feminine beauty.

I am extremely glad that I decided to buy my first abaya here in Seattle from a store and not online. Not only because it turned out to be necessary to try many on before finding the right fit, but because I got to touch lives with the vivacious Somalian lady with the nut-brown skin, infectious laugh, and deep sense for the beautiful that broadened my own.

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The Visa Saga: One Letter Away

My adventure in Saudi Arabia has yet to get its boots on the ground, but it is no less challenging just because I’m still in the U.S. As previously written about in Clash of the Bureaucracies, the process of obtaining an employment visa to the Kingdom is long and tortuous. While that post dealt primarily with the paperwork I could obtain for myself here, this post is a summary of the one elusive document that *had* to come from Saudi itself: the Visa Block/Letter of Invitation.

This is representative of the long time during which issues continued to mount with increasing contradiction and consternation, and often long polite roundabout emails and exchanges are paraphrased for brevity and/or levity.

May 11, 2014

Welcome email, including instructions on how to log into the employee portal to fill out information and begin early training.

The link to the employee portal doesn’t work…

May 12

A Google doc with (later to be contradicted) instructions is shared with me, and a timeline which turns out to mean absolutely nothing, encouraging me to hurry hurry hurry and get my documents in line. I am warned that once Ramadan begins, everything is very slow, so we should try to get my application in before this. This doc also includes the name and address of the visa agent in DC, and an introduction letter to include when I send him my paperwork.

May 14-15

Contract received, signed and returned electronically.

May 15

A dizzying conversation about contradictions between emailed instructions, the Google doc instructions, and the Saudi Embassy website, the upshot of which I am told

“The website information takes precedent over all.  The rules and regulations tend to change drastically and unpredictably.  So always defer to the website. Our document is only a guidance – the web information is what has to be followed.”

June 7

Another reminder to log into the employee portal which is still not working…

June 10

While inquiring about the details on the very unclear Saudi Embassy website, I am told that “The original letter from the company in Saudi Arabia sponsoring the applicant, certified both by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” will be a document sent to me from Riyadh. It will be in Arabic and show your name and passport number in English.

June 18-19

I report that all my paperwork is in, and I was only awaiting the Visa Block letter from the school to be able to send off my application.

I am told this is amazing, and I am the first teacher to have all my documents in order “Gold Star!”, and I should be receiving the letter soon.

June 29

Ramadan begins.

Also, I get an email from the office in Riyadh asking to confirm my address because they have a package to send to me. Joy! I think, this must be the letter finally.

July 1

A check in email from the school, to which I respond again, I am only waiting on the letter from Riyadh.

July 7

I finally get my package away from FedEx to discover that it does not in fact contain the letter I was expecting, but rather the original contract and a photocopy document in Arabic. I email off for advice on what to do with these.

July 8

I am told to use the electronic version of the contract that I received in May.

July 9-10

Trying to sort out what this all-Arabic paper is:

Me: “This is definitely NOT an original, doesn’t seem to have my name on it, so I’m really doubtful this is the document I need.”

Them: “This could be the certificate that they are asking about. When you get ready to send your visa documents to DMS include this document.  If they need it they will have it, otherwise they won’t. I’ve also sent a note to our office in Riyadh to determine the contents of the document.  I’ll be in touch.”

Me: “I have all my other documents ready. I’m only waiting for the letter. So if that is it, I can send it now. But if it isn’t, I have to keep waiting.”

Them: “This is what the extra document is for.  You surmised correctly.”

What? Quickly review the conversation… what did I surmise? Is it the letter or not?

Riyadh Office: “This is the company’s commercial registration certificate. It was required for the visa application so we sent copies together with the original contracts to the teachers.”

Me: “Sorry, but it still doesn’t meet the requirements listed on the Saudi embassy website, I sent you a copy of the requirement. Will they send the original document with my name on it?”

Them: “They will be sending the visa slip as soon as they can get it prepared. The certificate is not always required, but occasionally.  Just send it with your visa application and all will be well.”

July 22

I had planned a cross country visit to see my family before departing. Given my earlier expectations of timeline that I would have been able to send my paperwork in June, or at least before Ramadan, or maybe the beginning of July? I had planned the trip for the end of July. So I send off an email to let the school know that if they plan on sending the letter while I’m out of town, please let me know so I can arrange for someone to receive the package.

The response: “Nice to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well and that this great adventure is appearing more and more exciting. Nothing is likely to happen between now and August 3, as the Riyadh office (and embassies) are closed for the Eid holiday.”

August 5

Another check in from the school to ask how I’m progressing on my visa application.

No really, still have all my materials, only waiting on your letter…

Great!

August 7

Another email from me to them, pleading that with only 2 weeks left until my supposed start date, there is still no sign of the letter. I cannot tell my boss when my last day is, I cannot tell my roommate when I am moving out, and my medical paperwork (that they urged me to get as soon as possible back in May) expires on August 26th!

The response: “After reading your email, I’m still trying to determine exactly what
you need. What letter of invitation?”

!!!!!

I once again refer them to the Saudi Embassy website.

Oh, that letter…. Hopefully you’ll get that this week.

August 11

Once again, they check on where I am in gathering my other materials. Once again I say, yes, have them all, have done so for over a month now, and my medical papers expire soon…

August 12

Them: Good news (addressing me by the wrong name), you should receive the letter tomorrow! We also found out that you must use this visa agent (name and address) — who is the same one from the Google doc back in May. And we’re emailing you the letter.

Me: Actually, my name is …,  and (for the Nth time) the Saudi Embassy website says “original letter”, an email doesn’t seem like that…

Them: “I think we are not sending applicants visa blocks after all because
the Saudi Consulates prefer to work only with Visa Agents.”

At this point, I believe the brain explosion could be heard several blocks away.

August 13

“Dear applicant,

Hope this email finds you will [sic].

Please confirm the name and contact information for the visa agent in your country that you would like to pass your visa application through. We have already applied for the work visas and we are expecting them sometime next week.

If you don’t have a visa agent yet, then we will be using  https://www.vfstasheel.com/ where you will need to book an online appointment with them to pass your application.

Please make sure that the visa agent that you will use is certified by the Saudi Embassy in your country. Otherwise, we can just go with  https://www.vfstasheel.com/.

We will also be sending you Wakala letters (invitation letters from sponsor), certified by the Saudi Chamber of commerce via email to support your application.

Thank you”

Ok. Nevermind the fact that I’ve twice been told what visa agent to use, if you visit this website, you’ll see that it does not have an option for Saudi Arabia listed in its services. And also, email, still not original.

August 14

It is explained to me, in further direct contradiction to several previous exchanges

-Yes, use the visa agent we told you in the beginning

-The original contract (that I was told not to send) is where the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certifications are, so send that.

-The emailed version of the visa letter is certified, but since we’re sending original certifications on the contract, a color printout of the visa block letter is ok.

AND!

I finally got the email of the letter of invitation!

Image (4)

So, here I am, all the paperwork finally. Inshallah, unless they respond in the next few hours with some new contradiction, I will be sending the visa application to the visa agent tomorrow.

Who knows, I may actually make it the Kingdom this month. Whether I’m still sane when I get there is another matter entirely.