Timing, process, and follow-through are matters of cultural relevance.
For example, Growing up in South American cultures, I learned early on “ahora” vs “ahorita.” In 5 minutes or in 5 hours. Used interchangeably.
Here, “no broblem, here now” from a taxi driver might mean, “I may or may not be on my way.”
Take your US note to the bank for exchange. Draw your number and wait while the one customer at the till has a cell phone conversation and 8 tellers mill about behind the glass and peer deeply into the pattern of their keffiyeh. Your number is called; at last.
“This money no good, only $100 bills or larger. Also, must be from year 2000 to now.”
Is it the American or the Common Sense in me which bristles? But what good comes of carrying frustration? After a spell, one wearies of pitching indignation. Resignation or adjustment? Or quite simply, self preservation!
Mafi mushkila, habibi.
Either way, this time around, the taxi did eventually show and Omi and I set out for a grand forray into Saudi.
Up to now, Omi’s ability to travel has been limited, as it is illegal for a woman to be alone in public without the company of a male family member. Though we have found that as an Omi/Binti team we are quite approachable.
Through the Al-Hassa Oasis, past neighborhoods of abrupt wealth discord, open fruit markets thronged by only men, to the fringe of a striking formation; the Al Gara Mountain. (also al Qara, as the letters are used interchangably).
The sandy rock, hewn by wind into unique formations, were an expansive garden of desert rock. Though there were signs of a developed entrance on the approach to the caves, this was far from Western notions of a National Park. We parked at the gate and walked up the paved path; unique natural beauty punctuated by walls of corrugated metal. The afternoon heat bore down until, turning a corner toward the cave, a cool breeze emanated from the towering, narrow mouth.
I imagined coming upon the likes thousands of years ago, after weeks or months of caravaning across sun-baked lands. Stories from the Bible and the Quran became quite vivid. David, hiding from his dear homicidal father, Saul. The story of the Seven Sleepers.
We wove deep within the narrow, networking passages; glimpses of sunlight cast through cracks from high above. Caves have been places of adullam (Refuge) and youlhim (Inspiration). It is thought David wrote Psalm 57 while in hiding in caves further west. Muhammad, peace be upon him, found inspiration for the Quran in such a setting.
Emerging from our explorations, a group of young men were heading in. Prepared to duck our heads and walk quietly past, as women are expected to do here (it is also ‘illegal’ to speak across genders here), we were surprised and delighted (though not so much our taxi driver) that they came over to strike up a conversation.
Amir and Hamdy are high school teachers from Egypt, who were out for a tour with two of their students. They greeted us enthusiastically and we commenced to chatting. One of the young men was daring enough to break the Saudi social norms. He stuck around and watched our conversation intently, smiled shyly when I brazenly look him in the face.
My interpretation of the exchange leaves me delighted. To witness men of one country demonstrating to their younger muslim brothers from across the sea that it may be alright to engage in cross-gender, cross-cultural conversation.
As I understand it, his upbringing taught him that to engage a woman as such is the height of disrespect. So, when we were all saying goodbye and shaking hands, he was tentative and hesitant but curious and heart-felt and, in a moment of drummed up valor, proffered his hand awkwardly into the midst.
You may not be your brothers’ keepers but you can be their teacher.
Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first.
-Muhammad (peace be upon him)
After this we went for a spin through the Hofuf camel market. It was a one stop camel shop out in the middle of the desert. Animals of all ages and sizes, hay for days, anything you might need to pen them. I was struck by the size of some of the beasts.
It was a weekday, so activity was relatively low, though on the weekends, this is a center of bustling industry. We got mixed reports regarding the presence of women. Though some say the Bedouin women will hold their place even on market days, others tell us women are never supposed to be here. Still others told us women are not allowed on market days. Whatever the actual position, female western faces mooning out of a car window were a source of great clucking amoung the idling laborers.
As we departed the grounds, Wilson the cab driver pulled off the road where a 6×8 cinder block habitation stood amoung pens of camels. Honking the horn, a fellow quickly dashed to our window and we ordered a bag of camel milk.
Cool, unpasteurized, and rich, the novelty struck us the most; it tasted much like cow milk, were we to be accustomed to drinking it at full percent. Though Andria assured us we would be struck down by fever and possibly the hand of Moses himself within 48 hours.
Besides the hump now growing on my back, I have noticed no such consequence…
And still the adventures continue.