Tuesday, September 18, 2012

American Girl in an Islamic Land

At the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.  Nasif is in top right, Debbie in bottom left.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bur Dubai.  This was truly an amazing and eye opening experience.  In the few hours that we were there, I feel as though I gained a completely different perspective on many aspects of the Islamic culture that we are exposed to as Americans. 

I am told that at these luncheons they often have an Emirati man and woman who volunteer to answer your questions and disprove many myths you may have heard regarding the Islamic faith and culture.  Since I was expecting this, I found it to be a bit of a surprise that the woman leading the discussion was actually an American Muslim woman named Debbie.  What surprised me most about this woman was that she was dressed in the traditional abaya and hijab/shayla.  (Abaya = the long dress; hijab/shayla = head scarf that covers the hair and neck).  It was her choice to wear the black dress and head scarf that we so often perceive as oppressive; her husband did not force her to wear it and she was not just dressed in costume for her job. 

Traditional male clothing. Ghutrah thrown back in modern style.
The topic of dress was the first discussion we embarked upon.  To start with the more simple side of things, I will discuss the men first.  The traditional dress for the men is the dishdasha (the white "dress") and the ghutrah (white head scarf) with the black camel tie.  The dishdasha is solid white and Ben regularly has made fun of me for trying to figure out what the men wear underneath saying that I am checking them out.  Really, I am/was simply curious since it can be a struggle for women everywhere to find the right colored undergarments to go under white or other light colored fabrics.  Lucky for me, Nasif, the Emirati male present, was kind enough to explain to us that they wear a white kilt underneath the dishdasha, although I have been told that on occasion some men just let everything go free.  (I was told this by a woman who dates a man who in fact does do this at times.  I'm hoping his dishdasha is made of a very dense fabric. . . ).  Nasif also answered questions about the different ways in which the ghutrah is worn.  There are three main variations that I have seen: the sides down and flowing, the sides flipped up over their head, and the sides tucked into their camel tie.  Nasif explained that the flipping back of the ghutrah is merely to appear more fashionable.  Men over the age of 60 will not wear theirs that way - this is a more modern style.   For cleaning, since the dishdashas are white, Nasif said that bleach pens come in handy and regular washing.  There are also men who wear a tan colored dishdasha which were often warn in the past to blend into the dessert.  This was helpful for hunting or in times of war. 

The fabric the clothing is made of, for both men and women, is imported from Japan.  This came about when the Arabs traded uncultured pearls with the Japanese.  In return for the pearls the Arabs received the material.  The fabric is light and high quality.  The color of the material has shaped the look that we are familiar with when picturing typical Muslims.  They were provided with white and black fabric, so that is what they used.  This tradition has carried throughout the years. 

Abaya and shayla. Debbie's abaya is more fashionable with the silver.
Now for the women.  The traditional dress for the women is the abaya (black dress) and the hijab/shayla (head scarf) which covers the hair and neck, leaving the face exposed.  The more conservative Muslim women will wear the burqa which covers the entire face.  I think the biggest myth about the conservative dress of the women is that it is forced upon them.*  As I mentioned earlier, Debbie, the woman who spoke to us, chose to wear the traditional garb.  To add more to the shock, or it was to me, is that she is AMERICAN and chooses to dress this way.  The women, and men, dress in the same style of clothing to maintain equality and to preserve the faith of those around them.  Nasif gave the example that when going to mosque, the focus of every Muslim man and woman is to surrender everything and pray.  They should not be worried about those around them or distracted by some one's beauty, stunning clothing, etc.  To be a distraction is to hinder someone in their worship.  The clothes also serve as an equalizer - it does not matter how much money you have, you are the same as the person next to you.  The rich travel into the next life just as wealthy as the poor.  While this idea that men and women should be conservative for this purpose may seem extreme, take a look at Christianity - we do the same thing.  I attended a church camp where dresses and shorts had to be a certain length, tank tops had to be three finger widths wide on the shoulder (no strapless) and there was no PDA (this includes hugs - only side hugs were allowed).  I remember them saying that you shouldn't sit on boys laps or be flirty.  They told us all of these things can create impure thoughts in young men, even though that may not have been our intention.  It was not just at this camp that I heard such things, but also in churches and I know some Christian colleges have strict rules regarding the conduct of men and women.  How is this so different from what the Muslims believe and do?

Aside from the women wearing the abaya and shayla for conservative religious purposes, they also wear them because of their convenience. (This goes for the men as well.)  We had to laugh when Debbie told us that she loves the abaya and shayla - especially on mornings when she has a hard time getting out of bed so she doesn't get to shower before taking her boys to school.  "No one knows I'm still wearing my jammies underneath. . . ".  I have heard the same about Muslim men.  I know of a man that does not wear his dishdasha everyday, but if he is feeling particularly lazy he will throw it on to run to the store or grab coffee.

Let us not forget one of the key reasons that the dishdashas and abayas are still around - it's hot.  The Arab people have been living in the desert since before Christ, so they know how to dress for heat.  (Speaking of, what do you think Jesus wore?  Jeans and a t-shirt?  Unlikely.).  The long flowy clothes protect their skin from the hot sun and keep them cooler.  Exposed skin is more uncomfortable and hot than the loosely clothed skin.  (Seriously.  I've tested this theory.)  The shaylas and ghutrahs keep sand out of their mouth, nose and eyes.  While we commonly believe that black attracts heat and traps it in, it actually protects the skin from harmful UV rays.  There may be a slight temperature difference between the white the men wear and the black the women wear, but it is not as significant as we have been led to believe.  Nasif told us that the men did not choose black for the women - they chose it themselves.  We all looked at him questioningly when he mentioned this and he responded, "How many of you are wearing black today?  Isn't it hot out?  So why do you wear it? Because it is attractive and fashionable, right?" What truth he spoke.  Why do we tend to sway towards darker clothing?  Because it is slimming and it goes with practically everything.  Are Arab women any different?  Don't they want to feel slender and fashionable?

Left to right: Donut hole-style dessert, white rice, delicious diarrhea soup stuff, "leftovers"beef, tabbouleh, "leftovers"chicken.

Aside from the clothing we went through what a typical meal would be like in the home of an Emirati.  We were served Arab coffee (flavored with saffron and cardamom) in the little cups you get when you drink tea in a Chinese restaurant.  They were filled only part of the way - this is done so you do not burn your fingers (no handle).  We were served by a silent servant and when he came around for seconds if you did not wish more you would rock your cup back and forth a couple of times between your fingers.  After the coffee we munched on some dates.  Dates are very, very common here.  And delicious.  The food was arranged in the center of our seating area and we served ourselves.  You are not offered as many plates and utensils as in the States because if you dirty more dishes you use more water which wasn't always plentiful in the desert prior to the urbanization of this land.  For lunch we were fed traditional Arabic dishes.  There were two dishes that are called "leftovers" (I cannot remember the Arabic name) and it is a typical dish made on Thursday evenings.  Friday is the beginning of the week in the Islamic calendar, so Thursday the women would clean out the fridge and make what they could.  The dish consisted of seasoned rice and chicken.  There was also an option of the same thing with beef.  We also enjoyed tabbouleh which is a mixture of parsley, tomato, onion and oil.  I'm not too fond of this by itself, but if you pair it with naan it is quite tasty.  There was also white rice with a veggie soupy thingy to go over top.  It looked like diarrhea but was crazy good.  For dessert we had donut hole type things with date syrup.  Everything was delicious!  To close the meal we had tea.

Going back to the coffee - when you visit an Arab home, it is very typical for you to receive coffee or hot tea as a refreshment instead of ice water or iced tea.  Can you guess why?  It is because drinking the hot liquid will make you feel more comfortable in the heat than the iced drink would.  The hot temperature warms your body and makes the heat more tolerable while the cool drink does the opposite.  I completely understand this logic but it is so hard for me to grasp since in the heat of the summer I only crave freezing cold water.   O, and their flavored coffee = AWESOME.

Another topic that peaked interest in the group was education.  Maybe because the other women in attendance were all teachers? Hmm? When Emirati children reach grade five, boys and girls are separated and go to separate schools.  Nasif gave the explanation that girls distract boys, at no fault of their own, and therefore the boys distract the class.  By separating the young boys from the young girls you allow the girls the chance to succeed and excel without disruption.  They want their women to succeed and do well in life.  According to Nasif it doesn't matter one way or another for the boys if they are separated - they will be distracted by something, anything, no matter what.  (Chuckle. . . ).  Nasif told us that despite what many people think, women are held in high esteem in the Islamic faith.  "Behind every good man is a good woman." If the women are well mannered, respectful and educated, their children will be as well.**

Nasif addressed the topic of arranged marriages and multiple wives with us briefly.  Yes, arranged marriages do occur but are not forced like they once were.  Couples meet prior to marriage and can say yes or no to their parents.  Having multiple wives is not as common as one might believe.  In order to have multiple wives it is required that the wives receive the same of everything.  Their homes should be of equal value, they should receive equal gifts and equal amounts of clothing, jewelry, etc.  The husband is required to spend an equal amount of time with each wife.  I'm sure you can imagine how costly that would be.  One wife is expensive enough for a man.

Entrance to mosque.

After our discussions in the Cultural Centre, we walked over the mosque.  We had to bring shaylas to cover our hair and neck and we took off our shoes before entering.  It is important to be clean/pure when entering the mosque, hence the removal of shoes.  Plus, you are going to be on the floor and praying - the less dirt the better.  Inside the mosque was beautiful.  There was a large chandelier in the center of the room and the carpet was plush and soft.  I was under the impression that unless you were Muslim you were not allowed in the mosque.  This is not the case.  Debbie said that it is likely that you would not be bothered so long as you were covered and did not cut in front of anyone.  You might have someone ask if they can help you, do you want to become a Muslim, do you want/need a Quran, that sort of thing.  I was/am excited to hear this because I would very much like to attend a service at a mosque.  I think it would be a very enlightening and really give me a taste of the culture I am living in.  Men and women generally do not pray in the same area.  Most of the time there is a separate room for women and separate room for men.  If men and women do pray in the same room, the men are in front and the women in back.  This is so the men can focus and not give their attention to the women but to Allah.  I really wouldn't mind that arrangement.  Men tend to smell worse than women so not being surrounded by them would be a plus.

I gained a new respect for Ramadan from this educational experience.  During Ramadan you are not allowed to eat, drink, gossip or have relations with your spouse from dawn 'til dusk.  (Roughly 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.).  I thought of this much like a Christian fast where you use the time that you would normally do these things to spend in prayer.  While this may be part of what Ramadan is, it is also for you to gain an appreciation of the things you have.  Nasif's example was that if you are not allowed to have relations with your spouse, this will arouse desire and desire will help you to see how precious a thing you have.  Ramadan is also a time for charity and to share your wealth and good fortune with others.  It is required in Islam to be charitable and share your blessings.  I found it interesting that if you make a mistake during Ramadan and have a drink of water or smoke a cigarette because you just can't wait, you have to give enough food and clothing for a certain amount of people (I cannot remember the exact number but I'm thinking 30? Or as many as you can if you cannot afford that much.).  You also have to increase the length of your fast.  If you break the fast because you know you have the resources to fulfill the charity, you are to fast for 60 days and your required charitable giving increases.

I feel so incredibly blessed that I am able to live in Dubai and gain a better understanding of the Islamic people.  The media and even our own churches have painted such a negative veil over my eyes, and the eyes of many, many Americans, that it has been wonderful to see another side to it all.  What many people do not realize is that Islam is just like Christianity in that there are the peaceful followers and the extremists.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas that goes around to soldiers funerals and protests and has an extreme hate for homosexuals.  There are "Christians"who have killed people and claimed that God told them to do it.  We may not have a violent religious warfare going on in the name of Christ, (which by the way - has happened in the past. . . ) , but I think the hate that many people carry for Muslims is crippling to both sides. 

I find it important to point out that Muslims have a skewed view of Americans as well.  They, too, have heard the negative media and do not know the good in Americans.  Nasif is passionate about outreach and educating Westerners of the Islamic faith and culture and told us that he also has to reach out to Muslims and educate them about Westerners.

This was a truly enriching experience and I am SO glad that I went.  The Cultural Centre has other things to offer and I am ready to go back and learn more.  I think it is necessary for me to learn as much as I can about the culture here so that I leave with a better understanding of the people I lived with for a year or two.  I feel as though I left much out of this, even though it is a bit of a novel.  I cannot wait to learn more!

*  The Islamic faith is just like any other religion in that there are many interpretations of what the Quran says to do.  There are regions in which the women are forced to cover themselves and it is very oppressive.  What I am discussing in this post is what I learned from one group of believers.  I do know that in Saudi Arabia the women are required to wear the abaya and burqa, covering themselves completely.  If you are interested in learning more about other beliefs than just what I have discussed, I highly recommend reading the Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson.

**  I would like to believe that Nasif is right and that women are held in high esteem by the men in this culture.  We did not discuss the roles of women as much and as in depth as I would have liked.  There is still much more that I would like to learn.  I think I still need convincing to believe that women are treasured as much as he led us to believe.  If you read the Princess Trilogy listed above, you will see where my doubt comes from on this subject.  There are men throughout the series (the books are nonfiction) that think of women as objects, only here for sexual pleasures and children.  House maids are brutally raped; girls are married at very young ages to men many years their senior; women are bought from poor families and kept as property and sex slaves.  I do realize that this is likely a minority and that it is hard for me to grasp that women are valued in this culture after the years of negative media that I have been exposed to.  I look forward to more time spent in this Islamic world to gain my own knowledge and personal experience to form my own opinion.