Margari Aziza

December 5, 2007

Back, well sort of

Filed under: Black Women, Black Women Travel, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Travel — Margari Aziza Hill @ 1:58 pm

 I’m back, well sort of. I’m back in Kuwait from my two week trip to Egypt. Fourteen years ago, I used to only dream of visiting places like al Azhar and the pyramids.  I definitely could not have imagined living in the Gulf.  I became Muslim shortly after the Gulf war ended Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. I definitely could not have imagined that I would thrive here of all places. Like every dream I’ve had and been able to live, my dream of seeing the Middle East turned out so much different than what I expected. Even with this trip to Egypt. It was really a lifetime dream. It was so much different but so much better than I expected. Slowly, over time, I am getting to know Egypt. I am learning how to get around, to find places I love. I’m learning how things work. How things don’t work. And I’ve learned a lot in a short time. I’ve learned that I’m prone to erupt in tears when hungry and frustrated. I’ve learned how much luggage I could lift just to avoid feeling jipped by someone demanding bakteesh. I’ve learned that I can meet people on common ground. I’ve learned to cross the street while cars are racing by, as if I have some force field to repel cars. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned more the obstacles I face in life (the biggest one being myself) and a bit about what it will take to overcome them. I’ve learned that I am here because of the goodness of my brothers and sisters (regardless of race, religion, or creed). All that goodness comes from one source, and for that I am truly blessed.

Taking real trips, avoiding tourist traps, going alone and seeing the down and dirty you get to experience real life. A few years ago, I was able to  see how poor and Middle class Moroccans live. I have mingled with the upper middle class Egyptians, spent way several evenings in city stars, visited a family in the City of the Dead, experienced life in the suburbs of Cairo. I have met religious and western trained scholars, teachers and educators, everyday workers and craftsmen. I have spent 8 hours with a taxi driver conversing  in broken English and Arabic.  I have seen seen beach side resorts, watched a lively Alexandrian woman bargain to have a duffle bag handmade on the spot.  I have ridden on a felucca blasting belly dancing music, watching muhajabats bellydance. I have strolled old palace gardens, ate ice cream outside a pre-modern fort put my feet in the Mediterranean.  I have been on the receiving end of lewd comments and unsolicited flirting. I have had met men who were protective and made sure that I was okay.  I have been hustled and received kind gifts of generosity.

For me, traveling and living abroad is a chance to learn a different way of life. I believe we are made of different so that we can get to know each other, and as we get to know each other, we can learn from each other. I believe travel is a way of learning about yourself, about others. It is an ideal opportunity to transform yourself (and I don’t mean just going native). Some of the things I have experienced really make me want to be a better person. Arab hospitality is something that I have really come to admire.  Years ago, I first experienced it when visiting my Libyan American friends. They fed us hearty North African food, couscous served with savory tomato based stew, lamb soup with cilantro, tomatoes, and pasta, sweets,  Ahmad tea with milk served in beautiful cups. My Muslim friends made us as comfortable as possible frequently asking me to stay the night in order to avoid a long drive in the dark. I never felt unwelcome or that my presence was burdensome. My experiences with Muslims from various cultures raised my bar for hospitality. For fourteen years, I have had high standards to meet. Sometimes I come short. But often, when I grocery shopping I buy something just in case I have a random guest drop by. At minimum, I have an elegant tea set to serve my guests. I love cooking,  I love having people over to share food with. But the pace of life in grad school often sucks up all my spare time. But the value of hospitality is something that I feel is still ingrained in my from my grandmother’s southern roots. The past two weeks in Egypt reminded me how hospitable Arabs can be. The kindness I was shown really warmed my heart. I know that if ever I have a guest, I will try my best to do what was done for me in the past two weeks.

Being away has been nice. It makes you appreciate little things. It makes you appreciate being able to let go of less important things. Walking the streets of Cairo or the malls of Kuwait, so much that seems heavy back in the states lifts away. It is break from the provincial thinking that many Americans have. For the past 7 years I have thought about where I want to live, knowing that I would spend a considerable amount of time in the Middle East and Africa, and maybe even Europe. While abroad reading blogs reminds me about what people are struggling with in the States. I think about those issues, and what type of life I want to lead. Sometimes the prospects and opportunities of teaching in some American University overseas some really great, especially considering the flurry of negative, unconstructive comments.   Although for the most part, my comments have been encouraging  I get frustrated sometimes. It reminds me that going back home means going back to a place full of baggage.

The first time I went to Morocco I felt a sense of relief. Honestly, I felt like it was a break from being Black. By that, I do not mean that I was escaping my Blackness. People did notice my skin color and I was treated differently than my white classmates abroad. I didn’t mind being nothing special on the street. I just kind of blended in.  People noticed my color, made reference to it, but my skin was in a completely different context. I wasn’t just another angry Black woman, nor did people assume that I was. Noone assume that I was from the hood, but they were surprised that I spoke “perfect” English and that my family didn’t immigrate to America. Many people assume I’m African, and a number who have said I look like a black Arab. Maybe because they haven’t been to America or they haven’t been exposed to all the stereotypes and the people who perform them perfectly to a “T.” But no one assumed I had a chip on my shoulder. If I had a grievance and got loud, that’s no problem because that’s what everyone does here. Arab women can be very dramatic bargaining or expressing complaints about services rendered. I never had to get too dramatic often ticket agents examining the size of my head luggage or forgiving the extra luggage would  say  things like, “I like to be kind to my American Muslim sister.” Many Egyptians and Kuwaitis don’t seem to assume that I’m un-marriageable. I meet women of various ages and they say things like, “Maybe  you will find somewhere here and stay” or “Marry an Egyptian and move here.”

I am not saying that this is solution to all my worries. But that not everybody is looking through a racialized lens every living breathing, waking moment. Nor do I claim that everything is perfect or that I’m living in a utopia. There are struggles, there are challenges, but I have been embraced by an amazing group of people. I miss my family like nothing else. But I’m not ready to go back to the States. Not yet.

November 2, 2007

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.

October 26, 2007

How Am I Doing?

You want an honest answer? Really?

One of the things I hate about my own American culture is the typical greeting, “How are you?” In truth, most Americans don’t really want the answer. In fact, it is rude to answer honestly if things aren’t going so well. The point is that “how are you?” is really a rhetorical statement. The inflection at the end of the statement is really just a formality. Sometimes it isn’t even there. People say as they pass by, “How are youuuuuuuuu.” voice fading as they speed by. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me how am I doing and then get really annoyed when I tell them the truth. I’ve had friends who call me up and get really annoyed or impatient as I talk about things I’m struggling with. I’ve had close friends who have shared their stories, who I have helped work through issues, who I have sat for hour listening and trying to understand, go off on me or shut down when I share my story. But at least I can write uninterrupted. I don’t have to spin my wheels worrying if my complaints will offend someone’s sensibilities before I can fully articulate what I’m going to say.

To answer your question:

Alhumdulillah…Things have been challenging and frustrating. I’m just coming out from some major upsets. Thins are looking better, but I’m still wondering if it will work out just as planned. Things operate differently here. And there are different levels of shadiness and ineptitude. Overall, it is a mixed bag. I’ve already written about boredom and being judged. I have felt homesick, isolated, disoriented, and lonely. It would be far worse if I lived on my own. I’m grateful for my friend and her family. They basically keep me going. But sometimes I feel intrusive and like a burden. There are times when I felt like packing up everything and going back home. And then I realize, I can’t because I don’t have anywhere to go back to–somebody’s subleasing my room for the year. Plus through the past few years many of my relationships and friendships back home had become strained or distant at best. The nice ones were ephemeral, kind of like “hi-bye good luck on your trip!”

Before I left for this trip, I had no doubt that I had to take this step. But I had trepidations. I felt like I was putting life on hold. But then again, I wonder what life? I have spent the past 6 years focused on getting into graduate school and then trying to survive graduate school. It consumed everything. Even my few diversions and leisure activities (including laundry, foot soaks, blogging, visiting friends) were just coping mechanisms for graduate school. Even my leave of absence was full of reading, researching, planning, worrying, re-planning, writing proposals, and preparing for graduate school. This whole leave of absence for French and Arabic study took a huge wind out of me.

Cramming a year’s worth of French in six weeks was a piece of cake compared to embarking on this trip. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy many things about being in the Middle East. But is absolutely frightening to know you don’t have a safety net. By safety net, I mean family members who will send you funds if you get ripped off or stuck in a jam. I know a Muslim woman who was actually stuck, really stuck, in some Gulf country. All our affluent friends did nothing to help her out in her jam. I suppose those car notes and bargain shopping had ran up the bills. There was even one brother all into tasawwuf with a site about sacred knowledge who treated this sister poorly. He ran into her at the house of some people who might have helped her and her children find a safe place to live until she could get a ticket back to the states. But this well known brother sent her packing and told her never visit those people again. I guess he wanted to protect wealthy Muslims from helpless and homeless American Muslim women who are stranded abroad. After a harrowing story full of drama, she finally made it out and eventually made it back home. You can have your passport lost, credit card stolen and personal items stolen, put in jail, or become really sick. I’ve known people who have gone through some tribulations and trials abroad. Some of their accounts speak to my worst fears.

I’m still working on my fears and insecurities. I still get embarrassed speaking Fushah in public. I still don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic and there are some days when your confidence in your language abilities gets knocked right out of you. I try to motivate and work harder despite the most recent setbacks. I try to think about the overall purpose. Learning Arabic has been a dream for 15 years. Going abroad wasn’t just important for my academic career, but my spiritual well-being. Maybe it was about letting go of some control–even though I finally had taken the reigns of my own life following my divorce. 5 years ago as I prepared for graduate school my adviser David Pinault said that graduate life was monastic. It entails poverty, lonely long hours, etc. He assured me that it was a good kind of poverty. You don’t starve, it is just a modest living. After a few years in graduate school I wasn’t in debt (except for those deferred student loans), I could pay my bills, I was even saving some money. I found history to be isolating. That was just part of the field, the long hours in archives, the long late nights writing, the time in the field. I knew that going abroad for graduate work was looming in my future. And it felt like a destabilizing force.

Two years ago I asked for guidance and support about graduate school and my requisite year in the field. One imam’s wife told me to look at graduate school like it was a prison–I was just doing my time. There are some mind trips about this training and the constant insecurity of graduate school. Academia is medieval in its structure, from the apprenticeship approach to developing your own masterpiece after demonstrating your worthiness to be in the guild of scholars. I haven’t even begun to think about the publish or perish world of tenure. My African American peers in graduate school tell me to keep up the fight. We’re so few, 3% of the graduate population at my university. With more African American men in prison than in dorms, I have to keep trying to make a difference. There are people who don’t want us there. There are people who don’t think I can do it. Jan Barker said that if we felt like we’ve been through a hazing in graduate school, it is because we have. Through the hazing process, my Muslim friends often tell me about having patience and faith. Keep going–it is a test. So, that’s how I’m doing. I’m in the middle of another test. I’m not sure if I’m passing. But I’m doing the best I can.

October 20, 2007

Why you all in my grill?

Filed under: Gender Relations in Islam, Hijab, Kuwait, Middle East, Morocco, Muslim Women, Uncategorized — Margari Aziza Hill @ 1:02 am

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The majority of women wear hijab in Kuwait. And there is a significant portion of women who wear the face veil. I am often dazzled by hijab fashions in Kuwait. I try not to stare, but I am intrigued by the whole face veiling. I find that face veil does not preclude sexual attractiveness, since a lot of niqabis wear tons of eye make-up and are dowsed in so much perfume. Some of their abayas are form fitting and attention getting also. I’ve already mentioned the ‘ho shoes. Don’t get me started on designer bags and the cat-walking in the malls. Maybe niqab is not about modesty, but about anonymity.
I think this really hit home today. As we left the Friday Souq two stylishly dressed, and presumably young, niqabi ladies were sitting on a bench. They spotted us and broke their neck to follow us as we made our way out the market. It must have been the English, plus the group of seven brown people running amok. Normally staring people look away when you look back at them. I looked up and stared back at them. Neither one broke their gaze. I said in English, assuming a greater than 50% chance that they’d understand me. “I guess niqab allows you to stare at people.”

I have noticed that niqabis will just stare you down–hard. They had the advantage tonight. They were anonymous and we were not. I noticed that niqabis stare down men too. For me, niqab isn’t something new. I have friends who have worn niqab in the states for years. I’ve even tried it on for kicks. But I have not seen as many niqabis as I see here. Nor have I seen the levels flash that is often associated with khaliji style veiling. In my short stay in Egypt, I saw black enveloped and brightly robed niqabis, alongside the many veiled women. In Morocco, I saw the traditionally dressed women in jallabas, with their veils tucked just under their nose. During my stay in Fes, I came to dread encountering them on the street. No matter how smartly dressed, how neat their jallabas were, they’d hit us up for money. If we didn’t have that, they’d take our cokes, if we didn’t have that, they’d take our water. Nothing like a crowd of niqabis begging harrassing you. After awhile, I scoped out the street before heading down the block I saw a old school niqabi lady chillin on a stoop someqhere, I went to the next block. I’d cross the street sometimes.

As a non-niqabi, when I see a striking person, I tend to lower my gaze. I may look a few times just to gain an imprint in my mind. But as for looking at men, as a I follow the proper decorum. I tend to lower my gaze. One, I’m not trying to catch eye contact. Two, I tend to be kind of shy in public. I’ve never been one to stare down a man. Well, not on the street at least. And I won’t talk about the few times when I did try to those come hither looks. But that’s not going down in the Middle East. I lower my gaze. I know enough Arab men to know that one mistaken look and some random dude on the street may think I have the hots for him. I mean, I could have had something in my eye. Maybe his dishdash was blinded my vision in its crispy whiteness. I could have been trying to identify my surroundings or trying to judge the distance between me and him so I don’t run into a pole or something.

I was walking with a friend who wears niqab. After we passed by two Kuwaiti men, she murmured, “I see you two Kuwaiti men looking at me friend.” I told her I didn’t see them looking because I was staring at the ground. She said something like, “Hey I’m wearing niqab and I can look at them dead up in their face.” Maybe this niqab thing is not so bad after all. You can be a bit bolder in your use of public space. I might try this niqab thing. While donning it I can stare at who I want when I want. All the while I can pretend I’m the most beautiful girl in the world. Ahhhhhhhhh, next purchase Kuwait!!

October 15, 2007

Eid Mubarak and Why I still Get Excited about Turkey Day and Christmas

Filed under: Black Women Travel, Islam, Kuwait, Middle East, Mothers, Muslim Women — Margari Aziza Hill @ 5:52 pm

In some ways Ramadan passed by quickly and in other ways it seemed like it would never end (or at least I would not be able to make it to the end). I guess I try to be festive, but I have to make a painful confession as a proud Muslim. My Eids have sucked in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. Don’t get me wrong. My family does not celebrate it for nationalistic reasons or religious. But it is a time when my mom cooks special foods and a time when we eat and catch up. There are lots of Muslims who are against celebrating the Pilgrims getting saved by Native Americans and then turning around decimating Native American populations. But even more than that, many Muslims are against celebrating a holiday that has pagan roots. But believe me, it is not like I’m going around praying to a Christmas tree. I’m just happy to be home and see my family and eat some soul food.

Last year, in my blog entry, Ramadan Around the Corner, I wrote this:

The Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan is by no doubt a relief. But I hate the anti-climatic end to my month long process of food and sleep deprivation. Usually I have to go back to work. Everything goes to normal, nothing changes, no visiting friends and family. It is about as much fanfare as, secretary’s day sometimes. I know, no one in my family celebrates Eid. I think I received an Eid gift maybe once in like 13 years. It is a struggle to feel part of a community during that time. In the large crowds I’m usually grateful to find a familiar face and give quick salaams. My Muslim friends are off doing their family thing. If I go hang out with them, I’m sort of like a fifth wheel. So, I just go home and dream of a time when I could have my own Muslim family and we can make up some traditions of our own.

l think either Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr for single converts can have the same effect as Christmas and Thanksgiving on single people who live far from their family. I remember having a conversation about the loneliness converts experiences with someone who was born into a Muslim family. She stated she doesn’t fit in and has felt lonely sometimes, especially when she went to grad school. But the simple fact is that she now lives near her parents, siblings, and in-laws, has a growing family of her own, and everybody seems pretty close-knit. She has people she can visit during Eid, and they’d be happy to see her, or visiting is an obligation, a duty. I remember a few years ago I asked a Desi friend what did they do after the Eid prayers. They got a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t supposed to know this. Like I didn’t have the secret handshake or password. After some prying they said their families had a function, normally with other Desi families. I don’t recall being invited to one of the Eid parties, or even the hajj welcome back parties. However, I’m invited to weddings and the parties where everyone from the entire Muslim universe is invited. But often I feel awkward as that one weird Black chick that people see around occassionally.

This Eid was better than my previous Eids. I’m not going to go into detail about why my Eids on the East Coast, with my now ex and now former in-laws. But they those three Eids sucked just as much as my miskeena Eids in California.
For years Eid traditions were a mystery. I mean, I know what you’re supposed to do before Eid prayers eat some sweets, (wear perfume if you’re a guy, but not if you’re a woman cause the pleasant odor of a woman will cause disorder and disruption), drive different routes there and back. But every culture has something different that they do in celebration of Eid. They have special sweets, traditions to delight children, clothing, and customs of visiting grandparents and family members. One of my friend noted that even though she would like to experience a Kuwaiti Eid, she has never been invited to a Kuwaiti Eid gathering. Normally they say, “See you after Eid!” So, we still don’t know what Arab, South Asian, or what ther Muslims really do for Eid, outside of what we hear on radio specials. Perhaps the imprenetable nature of the eid private family gathering over the past 14 years represented my outsider status. Many of the international students experience this when they study in the states. So, organizaitons like the ISSU at Stanford organize specially events to bring people to together. They are nice, but I’m like wow after 14 years I am still transient. Every year I feel like that poor undergrad who doesn’t have any money to buy a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving break. You know those undergrads who don’t have anywhere to go off campus, there’s nothing like cafeteria turkey to warm the heart.

I just gave up going to Eid prayer. But I still go to Eid functions with the other long-way-from-home Muslims. I still felt a bit dissapointed one Eid because I signed up for the secret Sheikh/a (kinda like secret Santa). So I was all excited that I’d get an Eid gift for the first time in like 9 years. But my secret Sheikha forgot me. It wasn’t about the gift, but just about the thought. Then, another Eid, I missed a funny presentation because of a 20 minute long argument that I had with an international student who insisted that Black people didn’t give a damn about Darfur and how that was so hypocritical considering what African Americans been through. I mean, Eid Mubarak! Nothing like other Africans in the Diaspora making you feel like crap during Eid. Maybe some of us grad students are so analytical and outraged by injustices we see, that we can’t find a way to be festive. I dunno. I’m trying to not let the festive holidays depress me or let crowded gatherings make me for lonely. I think that’s why I became excited when I found out that I didn’t have to attend Eid prayers as long as there were enough people to fulfill the obligation. But this time in Kuwait, I did want to go to Eid prayer. But I fell asleep late and didn’t wake up in time. I guess I have to catch the sea of black abayas and chadors next during the next Eid (that’s the big Eid al-Adha). There were several kid centric things going on for Eid. But I have always wondered if there were special bazaars, performances, and street food that people eat during Eid. And not all the time is Eid about children. Eids were also the big mixed gatherings that medieval Muslim scholars in Andalusia condemned because the young single people of opposite sexes could see each other. Gosh, the threat of social collapse due to young men and women intermixing and possibly flirting. Watch out now!

Seeing how scandal follows a single Muslim woman like doo doo draws flies, I decided to pass on the kid-centric picnick on an Island on Friday. After the kids came back from picnicking and spending money at an amusement park, they returned home. I sat with them to exchange gifts and unwrap Eid presents. I realized that this was the first time I ever really saw kids excited about Eid and doing Eid-like things. It was one of the more pleasurable moments. Since Thursday morning, several members of the family I’m staying with have come down with some stomach bug. So, no big celebratory feasts. Who has the energy for all that? But in order to alleviate my cabin fever, I I went to an Eid open house at the AWARE Center (Advocacy for Western Arab Relations). I was nice getting out, I ran into some students from Kuwait University. But still, more of an open house than the warm feeling of a holiday. Don’t get me wrong some people have fun during Eid. I think especially when you part of a family or have strong bonds with people who share the day with you, it can be really nice. Eid is less materialistic than Christmas, there is all the stress similar to Christians–the crowds, the rush to buy presents, clothes, and food. It is not the material things about Christmas or the feast of Thanksgiving that draws me to it. But it is the sense that I am sharing precious time with loved one. It is a sense that belong somewhere, as opposed to being a lost person in the crowds of communalism, that makes me want to make my Eids like Christmas.

October 12, 2007

You Don’t Know Me From Adam–Maids in Kuwait Part 2

Filed under: Kuwait, Labor Movements, Middle East, Mothers, Women's Work, Writing — Margari Aziza Hill @ 12:43 am

This is a continuation of the discussion on maid. In my previous post, I compared live-in maids with other servile positions–specifically slavery. This post is about the motivations that drive the institution and the types of maids.

There are many motivating factors to getting domestic help in Kuwait. One, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to get unskilled labor in Kuwait. Kuwait to get help legally than it is in the states. There are Kuwaiti citizens on top, then Westerners, then Arabs from other countries, and then South Asians on the bottom of the social ladder. Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is relatively close to Africa and South Asia. There are dozens of undeveloped nations in close proximity, making flights relatively cheap in comparison to travel to America or Canada. Cheap labor, and especially cheap domestic labor is predicated upon the economic inequality between oil rich nations and undeveloped nations. With foreigners consisting of 80% of the workforce, Kuwait is a highly stratified society. Kuwait also has a large population of immigrant male workers in skilled and unskilled positions. Maids, janitorial staff, retail clerks, hostesses, and waitresses are some of the few job opportunities that women from poor nations have in Kuwait. Kuwaitis and westerners, on the other hand enjoy a high standard of living. Part of the standard of living includes maids and domestic help.

So what motivates someone to get a live-in maid? Several factors drive the demand for maids. There is a higher premium on the home as a center of socialization in Kuwait. In addition to the burden of housework and child-rearing on women, women play a large part organizing family gatherings and diwaniyyas (gatherings of men who sit in large room and drink tea, coffee, and other manly stuff). Women’s time is often spread thin between child rearing, house-hold errands, social obligations outside the home, religious duties, and receiving guests displaying elaborate hospitality. A social visit can take hours and socializing is not just limited to week-ends. In addition, Ramadan is a month long. For the non-Muslims out there, Ramadan is like 30 days of Thanksgiving (including the hours you don’t eat so you can stuff yourself). A family may not be able to make excuses for not allowing company over or visiting friends during special holidays and special events. The husband may have impromptu guests. In addition, hospitality is very elaborate. While catering can be an option, preparing meals for guests can be overwhelming for a female head of household. This includes various time-consuming dishes, and elaborate deserts and intricate coffee and tea ceremonies. Add room set up, cooking, serving, clean up, to the normal household work and child rearing equals means that one 4 hour event can equal more than two days of preparation.

In addition, childcare for young children is often inside the home under the supervision of the mother. Women are expected to have many children and breast-feeding is encouraged. They often do not have family members living with them to help out. In addition, from what I have seen, children spend less time in front of tv or playing video or computer games. I don’t see too many walkers, playpins, or blockaded areas where infants and toddlers can sit unattended for periods of time. This means children are less zoned out and require more attention. Who watches the children while you cook? This is an especially important question in places where gas stoves explode or there are carbon monoxide leaks.

While there are many hardworking mothers who really need extra support to fulfill all the household work, there is also the laziness factor. Some children are closer to the maids than they are their own mothers. Some women may need maids to clean and babysit while they shop to they drop at one of the high end malls. Maids may take over the messy work of child rearing, feeding the baby, burping the baby, getting the baby throw up all over their maid uniform. That way, the mother can keep her nice rhinestone embellished black abaya looking really sharp. Some people want to be served hand and foot. I have heard of a family that has three children and three maids, one for each child. For some women, live-in maids free them from mundane domestic work, the kind that makes your hands hard or ruins your manicure. There is also a prestige to being able to afford maids, while the servile position is looked down upon.

For the maids not only is there a stigma to being in a servile position, but also domestic work does not offer upward mobility or career growth. What would motivate someone to come to a Kuwait without speaking a lick of Arabic and put themselves at the mercy of an agency and some random family? Women in developing countries have limited opportunities to join the work force in their own communities. This limitation is especially for women without education backgrounds. For numerous women, work in places like Kuwait is an opportunity to send money to support their families and children. There are some maids who are well educated and join a maid placement agency but are really looking for other opportunities. They figure that by getting to Kuwait, they can pursue better opportunities. Rarer cases seem to involve single women hoping that they can find a well-to-do husband in Kuwait. There are cases where maids do get married and become heads of households themselves. I personally don’t have the statistics.

There are live-in maids and part time maids. Part time maids are actually more expensive. Some households require maids to work long hours. The longest I’ve heard shift for a live in maid was from 5 am to 3 am the next day. Others allow their maids the evening off. Some households don’t give their maids a day off. But many give their maids Friday off. Some maids are given separate sleeping quarters or their own rooms outside the home. Other maids are given only a mat to roll out and roll up (later in this article I will talk about why do families not allow separate sleeping quarters or give their maids a day off). From what I know, starting salaries for live-in maids is around 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD = 3.5 dollars). But a part time maid is 120 KD. Part time maids come to your home for set shifts and leave by evening. Most of these maids have husbands who are working in Kuwait. One of my friends noted that part time maids are efficient and have professional attitudes and demeanors. Part time maids often have ambitions and demand a certain amount of respect. She pointed out that many of the live-in maids on the other hand, are often not trained and often act slavishly. They often have emotional baggage (suffering from fits, fainting spells, endless crying, weeping when told how to do a job correctly). Part of the baggage comes from the culture shock arriving in Kuwait, or from a negative experience with a former boss. Part time maids may take the job because they can use the extra cash.

Maids can fulfill a range of jobs, from cook, servant, housekeeper, launderer, to babysitter. The jobs can range from labor intensive to relatively light. Some families can have several maids, each with set duties. There may be a maid assigned to cook, a maid who focuses on laundry, and a maid whose only job is to care for children. Some families travel with their maids because they need extra help with children. Despite the multiple duties they fulfill, maids are given little training such as language training, customer service, kitchen safety, janitorial and housekeeping skills, child development, or CPR. I have also heard that some agencies train maids in rudimentary Kuwaiti Arabic and housekeeping skills. These agencies charge a lot more than the ones I have visited so far Maids can range in various levels of efficiency in performing household duties.

People often talk about maids like their countries are brand names. It is not uncommon to go to an agency and say, “I’m looking for an Indian maid.”Formerly, Filipino maids were popular until their country demanded salaries that reached close to a teachers salary. Now Kuwait is boycotting the Philipines. But there are still many Filipino maids whose visa have not expired and want to continue to work in Kuwait. In addition to Filipino maids, there are Indonesian, Indian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian maids. Filipino maids often speak English, so that is a benefit for American families. Often people will argue the merits of the maids from a particular country. Sometimes there are different fads. I have heard that right now, Ethiopian maids are in. Some countries have reputations, for example an Ethiopian maid said that Indonesian maids eat wiiiiiiiiiide (Kuwaiti for a lot). Other countries have reputations for being promiscuous. Filipino maids get that honor. I heard that after getting a few accounts of Filipino maids sneaking men into the house or running off with the KFC delivery guy from Egypt. Basically, maids are essentialized in their ethnic categories.

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand a live-in maid’s human experience is that there is a language barrier. As I stated earlier, there are many maids who cannot speak Arabic or English. Even if they do, few speak it well enough. But some Kuwaiti families prefer their maids to not speak an Arabic. I have heard accounts that say it is best to get a maid who had no previous experience, or worse, a returned maid. One Lebanese family living in Kuwait had an Ethiopian maid who didn’t speak Arabic when she started but within a year she was fluent, plus she learned to cook and clean just like, “madam.” But this is rarely the case. If a multi-lingual woman who has a smidgen of education comes to Kuwait as a maid, it is likely she has higher aspirations.

In the next section I will talk about the ways in which maids are in vulnerable positions and how people have abused maids. I will draw from stories I have heard and from news reports.

October 11, 2007

You Don’t Know Me from Adam–Maids in Kuwait Pt. 1

Filed under: Black Women Travel, Kuwait, Labor Movements, Middle East, Mothers, Social Justice, Writing — Margari Aziza Hill @ 2:14 am

Americans are largely unconcerned with problems surrounding domestic workers (maids, nannies, and cooks), outside of scandals involving officials using undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) and sex scandals with the babysitter or nanny. Yet in Western news reports on Middle Eastern countries there are sensational stories about human trafficking, physical abuse, labor without compensation, and forced captivity. Many of us Westerners were horrified to hear of cases where maids were beaten, given little food, or held captive without pay. Some maids are subject to cruel treatment, long grueling hours, and hard labor. Despite the downsides of maid service, thousands of maids come to places like Kuwait for opportunities to work in middle class and affluent Kuwaiti homes. Many American and Western expats in Kuwait rely upon domestic help. From my conversations with American expats and my own personal experiences with maids, I have seen how the intertwined working and living arrangements between well-off families and poor women gives rise to numerous ethical and social problems in kuwait.

Before I begin talking about live-in maids, I wanted to discuss some of the underlying assumptions and cultural attitudes that many of us share about domestic workers. Americans often have a negative view opinion of people who use domestic help. In the States, only affluent families or well off families can afford live-in domestic help. The general public see the women who rely upon nannies as lazy, indulgent mothers. Conservatives who believe that women should be in the home look down upon career women who rely upon nannies and maids to do domestic work. Stay-at-home mothers who hire nannies to help out with children are also viewed negatively. People see them as lazy indulgent mothers who don’t want to spend time with their children. A common view is that they are not caring for their children. While there are less negative views about housekeeping services, the general public generally looks down upon families that rely upon live-in maids. The most common view of domestic workers is that they are vulnerable and exploited by bosses who are too lazy to do things that normal people do for themselves.

As a servile position, the abuse of maid service has been compared to slavery by media and labor activists. While this essay makes no attempt of a thorough analysis of slavery and servile institutions, however it is clear that live-in domestic workers’ toils and tribulations pale in comparison to the historical experiences of chattel slavery in the Atlantic slave system or plantation slavery in Africa (West African [crop] and clove planations in Zanzibar). Maids have a much greater degree of choice and agency. A maid also maintains links with their family and in time can return back home. Slave systems worked because slaves could not go back home. There is no social death from free person to non-free person and their position is temporary (although some contracts can render a maid in greater debt when they leave). Maids have rights over their own children and lineage. A slave had no rights over their own production and biological reproduction.
Maids migrate to developing nations out of their own free will in order to seek better opportunities. The measure of free will depends upon if we can argue that desperate economic conditions still leaves an individual to choose freely. What happens once the maids arrive in a family’s home can differ greatly, depending on laws that protect immigrant workers and domestic help, contract, and temperaments of the family and the worker.

I intend to explore various issues surrounding maids, from the motivations that drive live-in maid service as an institution and the types of maids that live in Kuwait. After looking at some underlying assumptions we might have in the West, I will then consider the ways employers have exploited maids. I will then look at stories about unethical maids. Through anecdotal evidence, I hope to explore complicated issues that move us beyond a simple black and white picture of the difficult relationships between maids and the families that hire them.

Part 2 Motivations and types of Maids
Part 3 Maids as victims
Part 4 Scandals and the Maids who abuse the system
Part 5 Personal experiences, Reflection on the institution, and Conclusion

October 1, 2007

Getting Stuff Done in the Middle East

Filed under: Black Women Travel, Graduate Student, Kuwait, Middle East, Morocco, Travel — Margari Aziza Hill @ 5:23 pm

I’ve always struggled with time management. But I really like making schedules, both by hand and in my computer. I like to make little colored boxes where I promise myself that I’ll dedicate the block of time between 9 am to 1 pm Saturday to studying then 1 pm to 1:30 pm to a quick lunch, then 1:45 pm to 3 pm for organizing my room. But normally I wake up and read some annoying comment on a blog or think of something I need to blog about. That can last for a few hours, then I have my compulsive email checking, which can suck up another few hours. So then my little time slots are in disarray. By the 5th week, I stop following my pretty colorful schedules. But I still log in those study hours.

I normally made up for wasted time by taking it out of my sleep, multi-tasking (i.e. eating while reading or writing), or canceling social engagements (to my friends’ chagrin). Even now, I am writing, what I hope to be, a brief blog. But I have about 75 Arabic words to look up in Hans Wehr. Anybody that has used this dictionary can know how irritating guessing whether the word has a weak vowel or if you are getting the right definition out of the 30 possible definitions. It is especially bad if you don’t know half other words in the sentence so reading from context can’t help you. Plus, I need to review everything I learned in the past 4 academic years + 3 intensive summers of studying Arabic. Seems like everything is a haze, like I got Arabic amnesia or something. I’ll return to that thought as I transition this blog back to talking getting stuff done in the Middle East.

I find that the angriest travelers are those who come with their preconceived notions about how stuff should work in the Middle East. And the people are the most frustrated of them all are those who want to live their lives in the Middle East ordered in the same way as they do in the West.

During my first trip to Morocco, just about everything was taken care of. I was definitely spoiled, but I also learned to give up control. One of the graduate coordinators came to pick me up from the airport(a grad student from Arizona who I must say is one of the nicest human beings I’ve met) . We drove the four hours from Casablanca to Meknes, stopping on the way for a nice lunch. Everything was arranged, our housing, food, registration at the university. We had a driver who drove us from our lodgings in the countryside to the classrooms which were in a satellite of Universite Moulay Ismail. We had lunch at a nice restaurant everyday and dinner at a cafeteria. Our weekend trips were planned and we even had organized social gatherings. Once a week, our driver drove us to the new city where we could run errands, shop, go the ATM, get some sweets. While many of the other students (most of them had traveled abroad before) complained about this and that, I was pretty stoked to be abroad. One grad student began complaining from the very first day because the program was restrictive. Basically, she wanted to be able to wander around and possibly live elsewhere or make it to class on her own (i.e. stay out all night in good ole conservative Morocco). We had two graduate coordinators who did their best to see to all our needs and nurse us from the throws of gastro-intestinal illnesses brought about by microbes and possibly parasites. Over time, you learn to avoid food joints that will lead explosive diarehea (especially places where the cooks never wash their hands). I missed a couple of days from that intensive program. It sucked, but I managed to make up my work because so much of the footwork was done for me(from finding a late night pharmacy to shopping for yoghurt and water).

During this first trip, I fell into the stereotyped role of the ill-adjusted “Black!” girl Real World/Road Rules style with a group of 9 white women under the age of 26 and 1 white man. I got tired of the incessant complaining, and learned to just go with the flow. Everything was so well taken care of that I would have missed one of the most important lessons about living in the Middle East. Alhumdulillah, I decided to stay a week on. Plus during my final weeks, I took a trip to Fez with one of the graduate coordinators to interview students of sacred knowledge. It was during that trip that I learned my most important lesson in patience: if you got three things done in a day in the Middle East, you were lucky. Yes, this has helped me preserve my sanity during my three visits to the Middle East.

That important lesson became ingrained in me during my second trip. That was even with Maria’s help setting up our apartment and dealing with Alif Fez. We even had help from our good neighbors over at Julie’s Cafe (who helped make sure Maria got a reasonable price on the rent) and Lotfi and Haneen downstairs. But even then, there were things that had to be done. It took me three days to clean the kitchen to get it to a livable condition. I remember it was a struggle to get to the Bank, grocery store, and cook dinner in one day. Some days, it could take an hour to catch a taxi from the train station to our section of Medina Jadid. Even my research and writing came slower. I remember having a meltdown in 120 degree weather, trying to get out of Fez. I could barely type up an email. We were broke, so I washed all my clothes and the linens on the balcony. That took extra time, as well as learning to cook in a third world kitchen.

In the West, you can get a lot of things done. But time management is key. It is possible to set out with a day full of events and appointment. Here is a typical Friday:

  • 9 am Withdraw cash from Bank
  • 9:30-10:15 Oil Change and Car wash
  • 10:15 Pay electricity Bill
  • 11 am Appoint Dr. Benghazi (10 minutes early for paperwork)
  • 12-1:15 pm Lunch with Sofia @Chez Maroc
  • 1:30-2:30 pm Shopping LuLu Hypermarche (hypermarket, even though they have less stuff than our super markets)
  • 3:00- 5:30 pm prepare dinner
  • 5:30 Dinner with Rashida
  • 8:00-Book Tickets online
  • 8:15- 11:15 Work from Home, upload files

Seriously, in the Middle East this list isn’t going to happen. The Bank? You’ll likely be in long lines or somehow your wire transfer decides it isen’t going to show when you really need it. The mechanic could be having a bad day, or a better paying customer decides he needs his oil changed and car washed, so you time has been pushed back. Dr. Benghazi may be on ‘Umrah or vacation (without telling you), Lunch with Sofia is likely to take up 3-4 hours, getting to the shopping center is going to take you a good 1/2 hour to full hour (no matter how small the town is), Dinner’s not going to be done on time because you should have gotten the food the night before or early that morning. Rashida may come around 6, but she’s not going to leave until after a good 4 hours sitting. In fact, let that be your whole night. Now that your friend is gone, you may not be able to get online. The internet will likely decide to be down for some reason, depending on where you live there could be a regular power outage, the water stops running, or you cannot get DSL or even a phone line at home.

Even without the breakdowns in transportation, you have to be prepared for a slower pace of everything. Social and Business transactions can last for hours. Traffic jams are just the rule. Bureaucractic institutions means that you have to go from person to person just to get something basic done. You can’t just call to get information, a personal visit is often necessary. I’m still learning the rules. You may have to go to several stores. The items you may need may be spread over several locations throughout the city. Lines are long. You have to find delivery guys and spend a 1/2 hour negotiating with them. Just because things happen slower and at time, inconvenient, it does not mean that you can’t get jack done.

Normally for any appointment, I give myself an allowance of minimum three visits over a course of a couple weeks. Arabs also like you to come back to their store or office, and the more often the happier they are. They really want to know if you are serious about getting what you want. Plus the person who makes the big decision or has the most important rubber stamp is usually never there. The key is to find their higher-ups so they can put the heat on them. That way, you can get something done. Otherwise, you better hope that the person you gave the paperwork to happens to like you or happens to feel charitable that day. Otherwise, your paperwork will sit buried under piles and piles of papers.

Getting stuff done in the Middle East is really about balance. You have to be persistent, but never let them see you perspire. You have be firm, without being too harsh and developing a bad rapport with the paper-pusher or gatekeeper. In fact, they can be your vital advocates. If they don’t want to help you, you have to then find their superior who may possibly help you. Then, you have to seem important and well connected. Being the friend of some important people helps. Or they might help you and expect something in return (I believe that’s what’s called wasta). But then what happens if what they want,  you can’t give?Being American, depending on where you are in the Middle East and the proclivities of the person you’re dealing with, may help you or hurt your cause.

I definitely survived my first trip to the Middle East because a lot of people were looking out for me. I’m not rich or well connected.  And there are times when people bust out in some local dialect and I’m like WTF?? There are times when I get tongue tied and feel stuck and overwhelmed. I also feel shy with my broken and mistake laden Fushah. To get a lot of stuff done, I rely upon friends and family that are looking out for me and advocating for me. I am learning through our shared trials and tribulations that when you set out to do something here (and anywhere else), you better say insha’Allah. And you better mean it.

September 28, 2007

Driving in Kuwait

Filed under: Black Women Travel, Kuwait, Muslim Women, Travel — Margari Aziza Hill @ 1:01 pm


I don’t know if I have the guts to drive in Morocco, and surely I lack the patience to drive through the chaos that is called the streets of Cairo. But I have driven in Kuwait. And even though the streets are clean and everything is well organized, it doesn’t take too long to realize you are driving in the Middle East. Even walking can be a hazard. There are rules, speed limits, fatalistic cautionary signs like, “Speed Leads to Death!” The US Department of state reports:

Driving in Kuwait is hazardous. Although Kuwait has an extensive and modern system of well-lit roads, excessive speeding on both primary and secondary roads, coupled with lax enforcement of traffic regulations and a high density of vehicles (one vehicle for every 2.8 residents), leads to frequent and often fatal accidents. In 2005, reported vehicular accidents rose again over the previous year to 56,253. In 2005, there were 451 traffic-accident-related deaths, also an increase over the previous year. The average age of death was between 21 and 30 years. There are now over one million motor vehicles registered in Kuwait. Incidents of road rage, inattention and distraction on the part of drivers, poor driving skills, and highway brinkmanship are common in Kuwait, and can be unsettling to Western drivers in Kuwait who are accustomed to more rigid adherence to traffic laws.


This website, Life in Kuwait faithfully depicts the hazards of Kuwaiti driving. But the scariest thing are the roundabouts. The first time I encountered one, my friend told me to go straight. I didn’t know what that meant, there was only left and right. I almost drove into the center divide. Whew, but she meant follow the road to the left, then turn off right. So recently I found this guide to roundabouts. One piece of advice goes:

Never come to a full stop while waiting for your turn; stopping is a sign of weakness. When attempting to enter you must be fearless. If the other cars detect that you are not confident in your attempts, they will make sure you never get by.

The advice helps. You have to have courage to drive in Kuwait. The first time I drove my friend had her entire family make du’a. The kids were suprisingly silent so that I could focus. We all breathed a sigh of relief when I made it to our destination. Just like airplane take offs and landings, driving in the Middle East makes me  especially religious (conscious that the end may be near) and my prayers more fervent.

Along with all the women driving in Kuwait, when I’m out running errands or heading to school, I’m spreading untold corruption and eroding social mores as I navigate Kuwaiti roads. That’s the argument that the opponents to women driving in Saudi Arabia make. Here’s what the latest report from New York Times has to say

Some Saudi officials and religious men agree with the women that Islam does not forbid women to drive. In the past, Saudi women were able to move freely on camel and horseback, and Bedouin women in the desert openly drive pickup trucks far from the public eye.

Clerics and religious conservatives maintain that allowing women to drive would open Saudi society to untold corruption. Women alone in a car, they say, would be more open to abuse, to going wayward, and to getting into trouble if they had an accident or were stopped by the police. The net result would be an erosion of social mores, they say.

See the rest of the article here, Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel

September 25, 2007

Two Arab Beaches

Filed under: Black Women Travel, Gender Relations in Islam, Kuwait, Morocco, Travel — Margari Aziza Hill @ 1:52 pm

The other night it was a cool 96 degrees. The temperature is dropping and soon we’ll be able to do outdoor activities in the daytime without feeling like we’re about to drop dead from heat exhaustion. We went to the Beach at night. I put my feet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf for the first time. Too bad people think sandy beaches are one big ash tray. Despite the litter, an evening on the beach was really nice after iftar. Big ships passed by and from a distance they looked like constellations drifting farther and farther away. My experience contrasted with my daytime experience in Casablanca two years ago (I fell in love with Morocco during my first trip three years ago. But like any healthy relationship you recognize your love’s merits and postive traits, as well as their flaws and shortcomings).

Me and my friend Maria took a four hour train ride to Casablanca in order to escape the heat of Fez. There was a pool in our hotel. But I really wanted to find a nice beach. The beaches were packed with men and highschool age boys. It was really around 20 men per woman. There were a few girls in bikinis, but they were clearly with male relatives. We didn’t plan on swimming. So, we walked fully dressed, me in an ankle legnth long skirt and t-shirt and Maria in loose jeans and tunic, to the water.
All I wanted to do was put my feet in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, I swam and body surfed the waves of Atlantic city and I even have vague memories of Chesapeake Bay. So, stepping into the Atlantic on the Coast of Africa had a special meaning to me. Mind you, Morocco as much nicer beaches in the South, but for that time Casablanca had to do. But, the beaches were dominated by men hanging out soaking up the sun. Men laying out walking. And there were of course a few families. But through the whole length of the beach, there were impromptu soccer games that stood in our way to the water. It was scary dodging soccer balls launching across the beaches and men running back and forth. Plus, I had to spend the whole time looking either at the sky or ground and avoiding eye contact.

Both me and Maria got a lot of cat calls. Although Maria is from Bahia Brazil (with all Brazilian flair to go with it), we look like sisters. A couple of times, a few guys sang, “Tamainunil asmarani…” Sometimes the guys would call out, “Soooooooooooosie!” or the standard “Pssspsssspspspspspspspssss! (that cat calling sound)” or “Zwaina!” Sometimes they would ask us questions as we passed by, “Where are you from? Are you Moroccan? Can I just talk to you?…” You learn early on that it is better to ignore an unwanted admirer. Even responded “No.” encourages them. Normally they will follow you, but I never really felt physically threatened in Morocco. This contrasts with the harrassment in I experienced in East San Jose, San Francisco, and East Oakland. I would get called all sorts of B***es and ‘hos. But one time we did get freaked out. A guy started following us. He kept speaking in rapid fire Moroccan, “Where are you from? What’s your name? Please I just want to talk to you? Can I just talk to you?…etc.” We kept walking away, trying to ignore him. Then he grabbed my arm. We both freaked out because this was the first time and only time someone invaded my personal space. We had no place to go but in the water to get away from him. Maria’s pants got soaked to the knees. I don’t know how I didn’t get soaked. After we escaped the over-enthusiastic guy, I tried to spend a few moments experiencing the Atlantic from the other side. That meant blocking out that recent close call, the learing eyes, the soccer games, and the male dominated public space. There are beaches and swimming places dedicated to women. But that day we didn’t make it. For the rest of our trip, me and Maria didn’t attempt to visit the beach again. That was enough for us. We went swimming in the hotel pool and got stared at by random guys on the third and seventh floor.

So, that account of my time on the public beach in Casablanca differed greatly from my experience on a Kuwaiti beach. First, women just don’t walk alone at night in places like Fez. But in Kuwait, it is common to see a woman get her jog on, speed walk, or hustle and bustle to one place or another in the evening. In a way, it made me hopeful that the Muslim societies can allow space for women to move freely without fear and intimidation. I saw a few couples relaxing on the beach. Women were out too. Sometimes in pairs or small groups. Numerous women walked along the path for evening exercise. A few times I saw a woman walk alone. I saw a fully veiled woman with chador flowing from her head to toes and niqab. I also saw regular girls and young women wearing abaya and the loosely wrapped head scarf walking in pairs. I saw Western women walking and an Asian woman in tight jeans and baby-t speed walking. All the women walked unharrassed, even as they passed by small groups of men.

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