My first year in Morocco, at 21 years old, I was rambling out in the streets of the old medina of Marrackech, searching for adventure. I spoke to almost anyone and was up for diversions, digressions and a good wander off the beaten path. This approach to Morocco put me in contact entirely with men. Although Morocco was new to me, I was not new to Morocco. Years of French, Spanish and Portuguese colonialism followed by years of European and American tourism meant that Morocco knew exactly what to do with me. It treated me like a man. Public social realms in traditional Marrakech were not ideal places for respectable Moroccan women to spend their time. I met male friends in the streets and cafes. We smoked and drank and bless those guys, they were my cultural guides, my protectors, my French teachers and my very first Arabic teachers.
When I was invited to the homes of my new Moroccan acquaintances, (and when I say new, I mean that I found myself in the sitting rooms at the family homes of young men I had met only hours or days earlier)I was always led through quiet, empty hallways and up staircases to terrace-top chambers to sit with the boys and men of the house and enjoy the parade of refreshments: mint tea, hot buttery croissants, sweet sesame coated biscuits, blended juices (avocado with sugar and milk! oh!) and furnished with an ashtray. I loved it. I was a Queen! I got lots of attention in the beginning. To some it could have been annoying but I was mostly thrilled to be privy to the intimacy of these meetings. I was an accidental anthropologist, invited into the heart of the soceity I had come to observe. Or so I thought.
As time wore on, I became persistently more aware of the boundaries of the rooms I spent time in. The view into a hallway from a door left ajar revealed evidence of another world. The hem of a brightly colored dress floated past, a girlish giggle followed my contact with two or more sets of bright young feminine eyes peeking through to see me. Once, upon waking from a nap in the family home of a male friend, I opened my eyes to find a small collection of pre-adolescent girls assembled at the edge of my bed, just looking at me. As I tried to open up conversation with them in a terrible mash-up of languages (French-Arabic-English), an adult female appeared and shoo-ed them away. She smiled apologetically at me and was gone as soon as she came. I listened to her scolding them good-naturedly in derrija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) as she made her way back to wherever it was that the women of the house conducted their lives. Where was that female place?
It took me a matter of months to fully understand that my normal American social conduct was regarded as male behavior in Morocco. It took me years to slowly recognize that I wanted to explore my own feminity in Arab-Islamic culture.
Meeting my husband, becoming close with his family and spending time over meals and tea and holiday celebrations gave me some more access to women through his sisters, aunties, nieces and mother. But my friendships and my day to day contact was still primarily with the young men who were his friends. It was not until I moved to Abu Dhabi, at 28 years old, that I experienced a complete immersion into the female culture of an Arab-Islamic society.
I came to the UAE as a teacher. I worked with a consulting company on a government-initiated education reform program and I was assigned to a team of teachers of various primary and secondary school subjects. My team and I worked in a boys’ primary school. We went to school every morning and stayed throughout the day, following the school schedule, working alongside the local teachers, administration and students. We ran pedagogical training sessions, we modeled good teaching practice and we even served playground duty in our efforts to meet the outcome goals determined for success of the program. My specific role was to hold English language classes for the teachers and train them in using English as the medium language for teaching math, science, IT and, of course, English classes to the children.
Every day for three years I went to work with women. There were the 6-9 other women on my consulting team. They were from England, South Africa and Australia with some Iraqi and Egyptian Arabs as well. The rest of the people in the building were native born Emirati nationals and some Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Tunisian, Syrian, and Yemeni teachers who were employed directly by the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Education. All women.
In the course of my work with creating schedules for English class meeting times, other meetings and observing the teachers in action in their classrooms, there was a lot of “downtime” spent sitting with them in their staff rooms, drinking endless cups of tea, very weak coffee brewed with cardamom and saffron, juices, and more. We nibbled on cakes and chocolates, Lebanese savory pastries, and sometimes whole family-meal style dishes of rice and meats, pasta with spicy Egyptian tomato sauce and so on. We talked about everything. They felt free to ask me questions and I asked them as well.
This was all part of the work. If you think about it for only a moment, it is easy to imagine that some aspects of our teacher training program were not very much welcomed by the teachers. Some of these women had been teaching for more than 20 years and any change can be intimidating, espcially when it is being administered by someone 15 years younger than you, someone from the other side of the world.
I knew my social time with these women as an essential part of the relationship building that would be necessary if I was going to be able to do my job. But more than that, I began to fall in love with these ladies. They gave me much respect for already having spent a good deal of time in Morocco (where I had been, on and off for almost six years, when I met them). They actually called me “Moroccan” sometimes – they were fascinated by my marriage to a Moroccan – and asked me about how Arabic was used in Morocco, differing vocabularies and pronunciations, for example – as though I was some kind of expert.
When they saw that I had made an attempt to color my hair with henna – they brought me huge bags of the green powder: “This is from Yemen, where my mother comes from. she only uses Yemeni henna, try this one next time, you’ll be beautiful. Your husband will love it.” When someone’s cousin or niece or sister was getting married, they invited, brought me ball gowns of their own to try on and choose from, brought me to a salon to have my hands and feet hennaed the way they did.
Eventually, some of them began to invite me to their homes. This time, I was in another room – the women’s room. We sat on beautiful tapestry-covered furniture, sipped more tea, played with children, talked about families and our cultures and Islam. There were risky conversations, frank moments of disapproval(their of me) and shy but curious questions. Then again more weddings and family parties, more food, more make-up and laughing and falling asleep in the mid afternoon – to be woken by the steam and aroma of more tea and coffee, hot flatbread made by the Filipina house maid with homemmade butter from a cousin’s camel farm.
As I write this, I realize that it is only an introduction to all I need to say about the amazing women of the Arab world who have taught me much about female camraderie, the feminine role in a family – as daughter, mother and wife and of course, about women in Islam. I am brimming now with the stories I need to share. And I will continue to do so in this blog. For now, though I would just like to thank all of my women friends and family – and particularly the Arab and Muslim women who have helped awaken my feminine consciousness and recognize the feminist identity that I am now growing into.
Thank you ladies for your care, your attention, your good food. Thank you for accepting me even when I must have seemed so strange! I miss you all terribly and I pray, ncha’allah we will be together again soon. Happy International Women’s Day.