Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!

Reflections: Halfway Through Saudi

So, we’re in the last few days of my first of two semesters teaching in Saudi. I thought I would take a moment to reflect.

As with all new experiences, there was so much I didn’t know when I first arrived. How to wrap a hijab, how to time my shopping and dining around prayer times, how to haggle for a taxi, and so much more. A visiting substitute teacher started reading my blog from the beginning today, sort of forgetting that my taxi experiences were back from late September and early October, he started giving me some advice on “the way things are” in Saudi. It was a little funny, because I realized how much those early posts must have shown off my ignorance, but at the same time, it was nice to see that I was able to share the real first time experiences so well. I worry sometimes now that I’m leaving out or glossing over things that a Western reader would find interesting or not understand, simply because I’ve become so used to them.

In the time since I arrived I’ve been snorkeling in the Red Sea, and ridden Asia’s tallest double loop roller coaster. I’ve had a marriage proposal from a taxi driver and a slightly less savory offer from an over amorous telephone salesman. I had my first drive by flirting. I went to an all girl gaming convention, a family party at an Istraha and a wedding at the town’s most famous wedding hall. I’ve visited a Saudi home, and been treated to a traditional Saudi meal. I’ve seen the Edge of the World and ridden to the top of the world’s tallest man made structure. And so much more.

Sure sometimes I’m bored or lonely, because my days are not one string of adventures after another, but those times of solitude are needed rest times, and also serve to contrast the excitement of exploration.

Getting back into teaching after a six year break has also been an adventure. It turns out that even though I didn’t get paid for it, I never really stopped teaching. My “teacher mode” is still alive and well, and has been commented on if I accidentally slip into it when chatting with my peers. There were a lot of things about the educational facility and the national system here that I found frustrating at first, and sometimes still do, but I feel like I’ve settled into a groove and nearly every day I enjoy my job, so that seems like a good sign for my present and my future.

Keep Calm and Inshallah

I think one of the more interesting things is my own changes in perception of time and plans. One of the biggest phrases used here is “Inshallah” which literally means “if God wills it”. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that I not only didn’t understand when I arrived, but found endlessly aggravating. I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just committing to a plan, but every time I asked if someone could do something, the answer was “Inshallah”. It didn’t seem to mean anything! Sometimes it was an excuse to say ‘no’ without being rude, sometimes it was a ‘yes, assuming nothing catastrophic goes wrong’, and it could be anything in between.

Before I came here, I was really big into plans, and confirming plans with other people. Are we gonna hang out tonight? If yes, great! If not, I’m gonna find something else to do. But “maybe” means I sit around waiting for you, and you change your mind at the last minute and I miss out on something else cool I could have done if you’d made up your mind earlier today? PNW people are notorious for replying “maybe” when they mean “no”, but you can never tell the one time they’re going to expect you to follow through because they said “maybe”. I still think that’s really rude, but I think I’ve found a headspace where I can be less bothered by it through the power of “Inshallah”.

Now I know that “Inshallah” works because the whole culture embraces it. Everything is slow, no one gets upset when things aren’t on time (except my driver when my plane is late), and if it doesn’t work the way you expected you can generally get someone to help you work it out anyway. For example, once I showed up to the airport a little bit late. The check in desk had closed. In America, this would mean I was s.o.l. I’ve heard my roomie who works for an airline say this often enough. But in Saudi, Inshallah, I can still get on the plane. And I did. It was a convoluted story involving several airline employees moving me from place to place, through security, from one gate to another, and finally hand writing a boarding pass for me, but I got on the plane, and I got back to Tabuk. Ilhamdulillah (thank God). I don’t think I can live by it in America the way people do here, because the whole society supports it, but I’m hoping it helps lower my blood pressure anyway.

The Shrinking To-Do List

Because of the way that everything is so casual about when it happens, you spend a lot of time waiting here. Whether you’re waiting in line at the store, or waiting at home for some news or for your driver, or for prayer to be over so you can go out… there’s a lot of waiting. I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that some of the worst time in the world is time spent waiting that you could be doing something fun or useful. I spent some time in the beginning waiting in that state. Then I realized no one but me expected me to do as much with my day as I had done in the states. I could spend hours watching tv while slowly doing my laundry (cause that takes forever) or take an hour to do a self pedicure a couple times a week, or just talk to my mom for 3 hours. I didn’t have to get anything much done, and more importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not accomplishing everything.

I’m not laying around all day every day, mind you. I still teach 5 days a week and go on adventures whenever I can, plus each one of these posts usually represents a solid afternoon’s work. Before, I treated down-time like any of my other mandatory health maintenance tools (like doing yoga, fixing healthy meals, brushing my teeth etc), I knew I needed it to stay healthy, but that was the only way I could “justify” spending an afternoon lounging around in my PJs marathon watching “Dexter”. Since coming to Saudi, I’ve learned that I don’t need to justify it. My to-do list doesn’t have to include a million and one activities just to look full or avoid “wasting time”, it needs to include the things that I genuinely want and need to get done, and if one of those is break out the Shisha and catch up on facebook gossip, that’s ok.

Happier and Happier

The last time I lived abroad for so long, I was still reeling from some pretty bad life experiences that I’m still not quite ready to publicly discuss. Suffice it to say, I was not emotionally/mentally healthy. So, I went through some pretty extreme emotional roller coasters caused in part by my own state, but in large part by culture shock. I felt bi-polar. I was actually really worried I was going crazy at the time, until I found out that it’s fairly normal to react to culture shock this way. (in later years I had a friend who went completely off the deep end within a few days of arriving in China and only managed to not fly home instantly because I could explain this phenomenon over a beer and convince him we could work through it). I would go through phases of loving everything and hating everything. I’d want to go out every day, or I’d want to hide inside and watch tv. I missed the people in Seattle so badly it was a physical ache. I had a six week break for the winter there and decided to go back to visit. Returning to China may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So when I was getting ready to come to Saudi, I reviewed these experiences and sort of braced myself to have some serious emotional roller coaster-ness. What I didn’t take into account was that I’d been actively learning the art and science of happiness since about the fall of 2012 (I swear, I’m going to write about that someday). I’d started from the basic idea that my main goal in life from thence forth was to be happy. I learned a lot about how to make that happen since then. And it seems to have made a big impact on how I experience culture shock.

To start with, the extreme mood swings simply don’t exist. I’d expected to have the new place euphoria for about 2-3 months and then maybe a slump, and that happened, but neither was as big as it had been in China. Moreover, the slump coincided with some very real-world causes for sadness such as the one year deathiversary of my friend, my first experience being censored, a very serious fever/flu, a new class of absolute hellions (which I did eventually figure out how to relate to and now love), and the impending holiday season in a place where such things are illegal. But even with all those things combined with the anticipated culture shock slump, it really only lasted a couple of weeks, and I was able to find center again as the events that contributed to the icky feelings passed or were resolved.

Secondly, while I think of my friends in America often, and miss them, it’s more like fondly remembering the past and quietly anticipating a future where we are reunited. It isn’t an ache or pain. This might change if I didn’t get to chat with them online or stalk them on facebook, so I’m grateful for all the internet has to offer, but I also recognize the change from needing these people daily to bring me out of depression and looking forward to talking with them or seeing them so I can share the happy times. Mental health win!

When you like Islam, the terrorists loose.

I can’t/don’t want to go into all of the things I’ve learned about Islam while living here in this post. I’m still working on my own understanding both of the culture here and of how my feelings are changing in response. I do want to say that before I came here, I had a solid intellectual understanding that Islam does not equal terrorism. I used to try to correct people’s misconceptions, and would say things about it that I’d learned in a book somewhere, mostly because I don’t like fear, hatred or ignorance about anything. But living here, making real emotional connections with my co-workers and students and seeing how they live inside their religion, and how the fear, hate and ignorance are hurting them has really caused me a deep shift in my emotional understanding.

I’ve found myself having much more emotion-driven responses to Islamaphobic media, and defending Islam and Saudi with much more feeling than I had done in the past. I don’t think I’m going to convert or anything, but I’m extremely grateful to be allowed to see and feel things from this point of view. Sorry, I can’t really get into details until I’m back in the land of free speech, because while my overall intention is positive and supportive, it’s not all roses and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers while I am a guest in this country. Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll be able to write more about what this has meant to me and how the transition has happened as well as list out all the good and bad things I see here with new eyes, but for now, I just want to say that I can feel myself changing, growing and deepening as a result of connecting with the people here.

Islamaphobia sucks. There’s some theories that terrorist groups are actually trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims so the (large majority of) non-violent Muslims are further isolated and driven toward the terrorists for comfort and support. So, piss of a terrorist and be tolerant of Islam!

What’s Next?

Well, now that I’ve gotten my feet under me, and jumped some of the biggest cultural hurdles, I have another semester to look forward to starting in a little over a week. My last real vacation is in just a few days, and I’m planning to get some stunning pics of two Nabatean Ruins and some parts of Dubai I missed last time.

I’m looking forward to the new semester in some ways and not in others. We’ve all learned a lot about the program and each other. We’re hopeful that a new batch of students means a fresh start to avoid our previous mistakes and improve on our successes. But I’m sad because so much of what went wrong this semester means that there’s a crackdown on rules like bathroom breaks and coffee in the classroom. I’m pretty darn tired of feeling like a prison warden when my students are grown adult women, some of whom are married with children of their own. But, since I don’t have any real control over it, I’ll take what I’ve learned from the first semester and just focus on doing what I can in a positive way.

The next semester doesn’t have any breaks for 22 weeks, oh and it’s an extra week long because Ramadan will fall at the end of the semester, shortening our days but lengthening our weeks to balance the hours. I have a few weekend trips I’m hoping to take, however (Inshallah) and I’m interested to see how Ramadan goes in an all Muslim country. I’ve gotten a lot of disparaging comments from the other non-Muslim expats around, but that happens fairly often, so I take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure if this country didn’t pay us so well, 80% of them wouldn’t be here. Besides, by then I’ll be happily planning my summer adventures!

So stay tuned readers, as we continue to travel, seek, teach and learn together 🙂

 

King Abdulaziz Historical Center & National Museum of Saudi Arabia

I love museums. I am a nerd.

I grew up partially in Annapolis, MD which is only a short train ride from Washington D.C. and America’s coolest museums, the Smithsonian. Many a childhood memory do I have of wandering the Natural History Museum.

My mother was really good at managing a tight budget and two kids. And one of the things we did everywhere we lived was go to the local museums, cause its a cheap way to spend the day, and who knows, maybe you’ll even learn something. Some kids may think this is torture, but I’m a nerd, so usually I loved it. And as an adult, I still seek out museums everywhere I go.

I even went to the Shandong Provincial Museum while living in Jinan. The Chinese have a very different sense of historical preservation, to be sure. Not a lot of climate control, and very little separating the patrons from the displays.

So when I found myself in Riyadh with no plans, some helpful internet denizens recommended the Museum. Which to my nerd self sounded way better than a giant shopping mall. So I booked my Careem cars and headed out to see what I could see.

The museum is a royal endowment, so it’s got tons of money and costs the people very little. (one day I’m going to delve into the strange political/economic situation here) img_0313The museum is one of many buildings set inside a sprawling park. Even with three hours set aside, I only got to see two sections of park and the museum. Its huge.

In addition to the lush green lawns, play and picnic areas, there was a water park. Swimsuits aren’t the thing here because of the modesty, so it isn’t like swimming pools and slides, but more like a huge interactive fountain. Kids were playing in the water and having their pictures taken by doting parents.

After some lovely strolling and strategic picture taking (to avoid getting any people in my pics) I made it to the museum entrance. I paid my 10SAR (about 2.50$) and began the tour.

The museum is set up in chronological order, so you start from the beginning of the cosmos and end at the present day. Yes, that’s right, the beginning of the cosmos. In the most religiously ruled country on Earth (not counting the ones we consider terrorists/therefore not countries), the big royal museum starts off with the Big Bang.

The section is called Man and the Universe, and it is basically about how cool Allah is for using such amazing techniques as nuclear fusion, gravity, plate tectonics and evolution to form the stars, planets and life. Who says religion and science can’t be friends?

img_0334

This is a really neat display of the cosmos forming. It’s actually a video screen surrounded by mirrors, so when you walk up close to it, it feels like you’re standing in front of a giant globe but without having to spend the space on making one. Pretty neat, I thought.

img_0341And this is a mammoth indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula. The entire prehistoric display was pretty cool. Culminating in the connection to the oil that has made Saudi rich.

There were a lot of artifacts of old human civilizations, which I also found really interesting, since I had been led to believe that archaeology wasn’t a high priority here unless it involved the Prophet. As it turns out there was extensive research and very detailed information about the pre-historical and pre-Islamic peoples with no attempt to impose post Islamic beliefs upon them.

I keep mentioning this because in America, there seems to be a war between science and religion, as though one cannot believe in God and accept the evidence of science at the same time. Considering how “backward” so many media outlets portray the Middle East and Islamic religion, I find it pretty darn cool that they don’t seem to have this problem that plagues supposedly advanced/civilized America.

I’m also not saying this museum was secular. Not in any way. Aside from reminding us that Allah created the Universe, the important events of the history in the Quran are referenced often.

Along this wall, a replica of the Taima Wall made in part with stones from the original site, there is a timeline showing the different Empires and ruling tribes of the Arabian peninsula, side by side with the names of the important prophets, Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and of course Muhammad (PBUH).

There was a whole wall dedicated to the evolution of writing on the Peninsula (the linguist in me loved that part), and there were tombs and excavations of these ancient civilizations explaining how historical sites teach us about what people used to believe about life and the afterlife.

There were cases and cases of pottery, tools and jewelry showing the development of the techniques and craftsmanship over the last several thousand years. It was really well cared for and very clearly displayed with descriptions in Arabic and English, as well as time and place markers.

I have like 200 pictures, and I put 100 of them up on my facebook page, because I can’t possibly get them all on here with limited space, so please feel free to check those out.

After a wonderful show and tell history lesson of the pre-Islamic times in Arabia, we moved on to the Life of the Prophet section. Even as a non-muslim, I found this section very nice.

img_0422In contrast to the ancient desert feel of the previous sections, this section was almost sci-fi. This long wall tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Arabic and English. It really is a good story, it explains many things about the conflicts within Islam as well as the attraction so many find in it. I’m still not converting, but I enjoyed the display.

Also, unlike Christianity, Islam has a lot more historical evidence for its main prophet, so while its still clearly a hagiography, it is a better documented one that we’re used to seeing in religious displays. Plus, there’s a clear boundary between the sections, marking Muhammad’s arrival and the introduction of Islam as an historical event within the greater context of the museum, and not isolated religious propaganda.

The next section, the expansion of Islam, is where we start to get a feeling of religious bias that up until now has been happily and conspicuously absent. Clearly, the folks who dedicated, designed and above all paid for this museum do not feel that anything that happened before Muhammad is a threat to their legitimacy, but somewhere around the Sunni/Shia split all bets are off.

img_0449The display tells about the “rightly guided Caliphs” referring to the Sunni side, and focuses exclusively on that version of historical events. (If you’re not up to date on that one, the Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start) There are more artifacts, beautiful gilt Qurans and early inscriptions dedicated to Allah. There’s also a huge full wall map showing the scope and reach of Islam in its heyday, just in case you needed reminding they used to rule a huge chunk of the known world.

There  are instruments of art and science, reminding us also that Islam wasn’t always at war with the world, but shepherded the math, science, art, medicine and literature of the Hellenistic world while Europe went dark.

The next section is where the propaganda starts hitting hard and fast. Some of you may know what I only recently learned, that Saudi Arabia is actually a very young country, not in the sense of a “modern” country, but that the ruling family, Al Saud, has not been in charge for all that long. This section is about the first two shots they had at taking over the peninsula. They refer to Wahabism (also called Salafism) as the “true Islam”. Words like “purity” and “heresy” are invoked. It gets a little creepy.

This was happening around 1726-1814, so the Ottoman Empire was still the dominant Islamic power in the world. img_0476Saud managed to take over a swath of the peninsula by graft and force, and while the museum certainly couches his actions in terms of righteousness and purity, the displays in this section are pretty much all weapons. Gone are the beautiful jewelry, pottery, art and science of former ages of Arabia, replaced by guns, swords and spears.

Then again starting in 1901 and lasting until the formation of the current country in 1931 there was once again a lot of turmoil as a Saud descendant tried again. This display is actually an interesting cultural collage of the different people that were “unified” into Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting choice, but not surprising. They’re trying to celebrate the people that make up the new country, to include them rather than make them feel subjugated. I don’t know how well that’s working, since there still seem to be fairly strong tribal lines here, causing the culture from one city to another to vary greatly.

Finally, the last section was especially nice for me, since I will never be able to visit them in person due to religious restrictions keeping non-Muslims out, the Two Holy Mosques.

 

There were miniature models of the mosques in Mecca and Madinah as well as many artifacts from the area and models of the Hajj pilgrimage route.

All in all, the museum was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and it makes me really happy to know that Saudi families in Riyadh have access to such a wonderful park and educational facility.

Check out the rest of my pictures on the facebook page, and read up about my other adventures in Riyadh at GCON2014, the Al Faisaliah Spa and the Globe Restaurant.

🙂

The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.