I’m writing this having just watched a documentary about the ideological battle between a mosque in Pakistan, promulgating the most dogmatic interpretations of the Quran, and a prominent education reformer who is re-energizing the anti-extremist movement in Islamabad. In the mosque, a boy of about ten years old is filmed shouting out a hate-filled, memorized script about sacrifice, jihad and martyrdom, wearing an almost comical look of forced fury on his young face. Upon completing his lines, he instantly morphs back into an innocent child, a shy but proud smile on his face as his eyes glance over at the Imam for a nod of approval. The Imam turns to the camera and says that he hopes the young boy will devote his life to waging war. The boy smiles at the camera, exposing his two missing middle teeth. It made me wonder which side would triumph in the future, the furious or the sweet, and if his timid but kind mother, eyes to the ground and body curled inward under her abaya, would fight to keep some of her compassion alive in him.
I almost always follow this stuff with YouTube clips of burping baby chimps riding around on pandas in China, or something to that effect. Helps keep the mind nice and balanced!
The documentary brought me back to the first time I encountered a group of women we called ‘the sisterhood’, and in particular, a member of that group called Fatima.
After a few weeks of teaching at the academy in Riyadh, I’d learned that there were more or less three different groups of teachers, albeit with a few exceptions.
First up were the westerners, working in Saudi mostly for the money and adventure. They’d infuriate our Yemeni guard, Hassan, by stumbling in at four in the morning reeking of home-brewed alcohol, wearing short dresses and high heels and blatantly flouting any social customs. I had recently become a part time member of this group in order to stay sane. And because I was 29 years old and single.
Then there were the Arab teachers, mostly from Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Many a night was spent chain-smoking, laughing, clapping and dancing to famous 90s Arabic songs in someone’s living room. It’s this group that taught me how to dance Egyptian-style, for increasing my daily tobacco intake to where I developed a frog-like croak (not my finest time), for gaining expert knowledge of the world’s best skin-whitening creams (not many Scottish girls can say that!) and for learning step by step how to prepare for wedding night consummation.
The girls were a fountain of knowledge in this area.
The third group was ‘the sisterhood’ – six teachers from the UK, Canada and the United States, most of whom recently converted to Islam, but one or two who were born Muslims. They wore abayas (the long, black robe-like garment that all women are required to wear in Saudi), but their abayas were a little different from the rest of ours, styled in such a way as not to show the outline of the shoulders, hanging directly from head to feet. Like black Russian dolls that fit inside one another and each decrease in size – they were all different heights but the tiniest one, who probably had to stretch to reach my shoulders, seemed to be the leader, and she scared the shit out of me. She was like an angry chihuahua, barking at anyone who got in her way.
The sisterhood always sat at the back of the school bus, in the row behind mine, and each day on the way to work they engaged in a detailed conversation about rules; rules being followed, rules being broken, new rules, old rules, rules that were no longer rules, rules that should never have been rules, rules that were written and rules that weren’t, rules that were rules yesterday but not today, rules that weren’t rules but totally should be rules, and rules that were set in stone.
Not the most thrilling of conversations, but when I wasn’t busy watching clips of baby goats on YouTube, I’d listen to some shit about rules.
“Why are you blowing on your tea? You shouldn’t alter the temperature!” said sister one.
“What are you talking about?” asked sister two, the one caught illicitly blowing on her morning beverage.
“It’s haram (forbidden) to blow on something that is too hot – or at least it’s makruh (disliked), I think.”
“No,” chimed in sister three. “That’s only if she makes a sound when blowing. If there is no sound, then it’s halal (allowed).”
Sister two nodded and said she’d try to be quiet.
“I can still hear you blowing – haram!” said sister one.
“Look, can you wait for your tea to cool down? Or better still, avoid the problem all together by making your tea cooler. Don’t boil the kettle to maximum,” said sister three, oh-so-wise.
I imagined a new topic for a Buzzfeed article: How to avoid making religious mistakes while consuming your morning beverage – 5 top tips!
I couldn’t help but tune into these morning advice sessions.
Sister two looked like she wanted to say something, then obviously thought better of it and agreed not to blow on her tea anymore. Nobody brought drinks to work after that.
“I heard something from sister one about you, and I don’t know if it’s true,” said sister four to sister three. “It’s like, totally okay if it’s true, I’m not judging you…”
I smell some passive aggression coming…
Sister three looked alarmed. “What did she say about me?”
“She said that when you went home to London, you took off your niqab (face veil) when the plane landed in Heathrow because you thought it was fine to show your face at that time. That means men in the UK saw your face. Is it true?”
There was a long pause before she answered.
Sister one how could you tell? So not cool…
“I did show my face, but I’ve always done that. I mean, ever since becoming Muslim I’ve only worn my headscarf. I wear niqab here to respect the rules of Saudi Arabia, but I don’t think I have to do that at home,” said sister three.
“Okay, that’s fine. Of course it’s your choice whether to follow Allah’s desires or not and nobody is judging you if you choose not to do what he wishes, if you think it is more important to reveal how you look,” sister four responded, smiling.
“I think there are different interpretations to what is expected…” sister three started to say.
“Sure, sure,” said sister four. “As I said, you have to do whatever you feel is best for you…I guess. We’re disappointed but we understand and we’re not judging you.”
Like hell you’re not!
“Well, what about gloves?” asked sister three. “Some people out there say that Allah wants us to cover all of our skin, and that could mean hands too. But you choose not to do that and I don’t judge you for that.”
Yeah, you tell her!
The next day all the members of the sisterhood got on the bus wearing gloves.
Yet another morning…
“You cannot always see the actions of those brave soldiers in Syria and Iraq as extremism. ISIL could actually be…misunderstood,” whispered one of the sisters to another.
It wasn’t quiet enough for the Arab teachers and one of the Egyptian girls stood up.
“You guys are nuts! Absolutely crazy! That is not Islam!” she yelled.
An argument broke out on the bus and I quickly went back to watching Jimmy Kimmel prank kids at Halloween.
“Don’t listen to their bullshit,” said one of the Arab teachers that afternoon, a cigarette in one hand and her seventh Turkish coffee in the other. “What those girls are talking about is not the Islam to which we follow. Most of them are new to it and they’re taking things way too literally and misinterpreting.”
The two groups had little time for one another, and back at that time, I had no idea where my own views lay because I didn’t understand enough.
“Sister five, did you buy some new kitchen utensils for your apartment? I saw a box of stuff on your counter.” asked sister two one morning.
“No, I got them from my neighbor because she’s leaving,” answered sister five.
“Who’s your neighbor again?”
“You know she’s not even Christian. She’s an unbeliever. Apparently.”
“What…like an atheist?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, you should give her that stuff back. You don’t want to use it.”
What did pots and pans have to do with anything?!
I do remember one of the members of the sisterhood well, because I got to know her after more than a year of working there. Her name was Fatima and she was British-Sudanese. The rest of the sisters had turned against her after an argument about…well I’m guessing it was about a broken rule.
She was forced to sit beside me one morning, probably as punishment. I remember reading something on my phone about Kim Jong Un blaming the Americans for a local power-cut in one of North Korea’s cities, and she commented on it.
“He’s totally brainwashed, and his people are brainwashed too,” she said. “It’s sad, because they don’t have a mind of their own.”
I nodded and said nothing. It took me about a full minute to decide whether or not to open Pandora’s Box.
I opened it.
“I imagine the North Koreans might find you and your friends to be a little brainwashed too. I mean, it depends on your perspective doesn’t it?” You’re fucking crazy too! Is what I wanted to say.
“You think we’re brainwashed?” she asked.
“Well, in the same way you think the North Koreans are incapable of choosing how to live, I can’t help but overhear some of your conversations and it seems very similar. You fight over what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and you all seem to judge each other. You might have a mind of your own but can you use it in the way you want?” I said. “It doesn’t always seem like you can.”
“We just help each other that’s all, by choosing the right path to be closer to Allah. You can’t understand if you’re not Muslim.”
“Fair enough,” I answered. I didn’t really know what else to say and I wasn’t keen on starting an argument with the Judging Jennies behind me. The sisterhood wasn’t my only name for this group.
I didn’t expect Fatima to sit beside me again but she did, and she never seemed to speak to the members of the sisterhood anymore. I wondered if she’d been excommunicated and I tried to imagine how it had happened.
“You disobeyed our rules Fatima, and for that you must sit beside the westerner who listens to our conversations, the one with the coffee stain on her abaya who watches baby animals on her smartphone.”
“The one with the chipped nail varnish who comes in drunk at weekends and sometimes snorts when she laughs.”
“Oh shit, her! Fine, okay.”
After a while, Fatima and I started making conversation and talking about work, life back in the UK, previous jobs and other kinds of vanilla topics.
One day she said she was thinking about getting married. It was the first time she’d ever talked about something bordering on personal. She explained that she’d never met him and had only seen his picture, but that he was a good Muslim, without any previous bad behaviour and was devoted to God. She’d spoken to him on the phone a few times and he was okay.
“Is he fun to talk to?” I asked.
“Um…” she hesitated, pursing her lips in thought. “I suppose…I mean…not really, but he’s a good man.”
“He’s not fun?”
“He’s…no, not at all. He’s a little boring. But…”
“So you’re thinking of spending the rest of your life with a guy who bores you?”
“Well that’s not the most important thing in a partner,” said Fatima.
“No, I guess if you get bored with him, you can always call those girls for a bit of fun,” I said, gesturing over to the black canvas of Russian dolls and their chihuahua behind us. They weren’t talking this morning and sat staring straight ahead, motionless.
Fatima burst out laughing. It was the first time I’d seen her really crack a smile.
A few days later, Fatima took off her gloves to apply some hand cream. She didn’t put them back on and instead pulled at her abaya sleeves to keep them only half covered.
The day after that, she got on the bus wearing an abaya that outlined her shoulders.
A few days later, she took off her face veil – her niqab.
I’d never seen Fatima’s face up close before. She uncovered at work of course, but she was always in her classroom and I never really saw her much. She mixed in different circles and was never on break at the same time as me. She was very pretty, and I saw that she was actually wearing mascara. I never once commented on her changes, for fear of drawing unwanted attention to them. The last thing I wanted was for Fatima to get embarrassed and change her mind! I was too scared to even compliment her new appearance, although perhaps I should have.
I think the biggest turning point came when, one sweltering day in July, I was looking out the window at the usual bleak, dusty environment when I saw a seriously good-looking Saudi man step out of his car and start to cross the road. He looked like something out of a Ralph Lauren advert – and it was rare! But what was even more surprising than this walking Adonis, was the fact that Fatima whistled and held up her hand to give me a high five. At first I thought she might be waving at him! I stared at her hand for a second.
“Don’t leave me hanging girl!” she said, with a big grin on her face.
I returned her high five and started laughing. I’d never seen this side of Fatima before and it was a moment I never forgot.
Fatima and I never became friends exactly – we only ever talked on the bus. We never spoke outside of that twenty minutes every morning, and we never debated about who was right and who was wrong again after that first conversation.
I don’t know if Fatima ever married Mr Dull because she left our school after the summer break and moved to another part of Saudi Arabia. I hope she’s making her own choices and determining her own path, without pressure from other people to conform. I want the same for my Saudi students, but that’s a whole different challenge.
I don’t know what happened to the rest of the sisterhood.
They’re probably around somewhere, talking about rules.
Now, about that incident with the religious police that I mentioned…