UAE

Reaching Beyond the Limits of My Own Feminine Consciousness

 

Okay, I cannot ignore the fact that I am publishing this post on the day that the US presidential election awarded the highest office in the country to a man who is now widely known as a sexual predator a for his vow to restrict or even completely block entry of Muslims into the USA.

Quickly this morning I was able to recognize that – as with everything else I am currently experiencing in life – it will be in my best interest (perhaps ALL of ours) to see how this situation is working FOR me and NOT Against me. Echoing many friends and mentors, I will point out that this choice did not all come together in one day. We have been leading up to this for some time now with our collective negativity, complacency and general reluctance to fully stand up for what we believe and know to be true. I know some people have put lots of effort and blood/sweat and tears into it but as a collective nation, we are clearly quite divided. And I am certainly not innocent! I have taken too long myself to finally get it together and share my stories and the things that are dear to me.

I see this election outcome now as an opportunity to be inspired, to organize and unite with Americans and international communities alike. I have no idea exactly how to do this. I suppose I will figure it out along the way. I will start by opening my mouth and raising my voice right here. Singing my song for everyone to hear.

On that note:

The following is a reflection on ways  feminine spaces in Islamic culture have taught me about community, trust and support and the importance of pushing limitations and boundaries.

Living in Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates over 10 + years from 2000-2010, my continued relationships with the cultures through my marriage to a Moroccan man, my love for Arabic language and the Arab – Muslim friends and acquaintances I have grown close with around the world exposed me to the magic that can happen when women regularly gather together to work, live, raise their children and go through life inwomen-only spaces.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know this thought is loaded with politics. I know that some of this separation of women and men in Arab-Islamic societies has been a way of controlling and keeping women down. I know so much of it is unfair – BELIEVE me! I have been down that road. I rejected and resisted entering these women-only spaces for a very long time. For several years,  I barely dipped a toe in – the hammam (public steam bath) in Morocco, which I visited only once in my first year in Morocco and at the weddings and parties I was invited to in those first couple of years – I stayed close to my male friends with only a brief nod in acknowledgement of the women who were sitting on the opposite side of the room. I feared those spaces. I thought being with the women would somehow make me smaller and even restricted. And I acknowledge that from valid perspectives in certain contexts, this is exactly what it would be.

However, there is a realm I had never imagined. A level of collective, supportive feminine consciousness that nurtured my soul and taught me how to be a member of a group – something I had never known as an only child to a single mom in the USA, moving from state to state every few years of my childhood. I was very good at being alone, justifying this with a prideful independence. That independence has served me extremely well. In fact, it facilitated my inclusion into the female collective I now describe.

In the UAE, I worked inside Abu Dhabi public schools where all staff are female through primary school and in high school male and female students are separated into different schools with male staff for the boys and female staff for the girls. For three years, I went to work every day with only women. The security guards and a maintenance man here and there were the only exceptions. These men had to announce themselves – standing just outside of a doorway with eyes averted – before entering a room, giving the women inside time to cover their heads and sometimes even their faces before he entered.

Inside those rooms I was welcomed. My otherness was recognized and acknowledged but for the most part did not hinder my inclusion. My deep interest in and experience with Arab/Islamic culture and my willingness to listen earned me their trust. Every day we shared food and coffee, stories about our husbands, children and lifestyles. (I did not have children yet so they loved to offer their wisdom about what to expect in the future – some of them were a bit worried about my age (I turned 30 the first year) and the fact that I still hadn’t had a child. They were fascinated by my knowledge of yoga and meditation. Some of them were even so brave as to join me in group guided meditations in the school gymnasium – though they weren’t so sure this was an activity approved by Islam.)

I was invited to come to their homes, developing am especially close friendship with one woman mentioned in the previous post. Through her, I was able to witness and participate in cultural and religious gatherings: weddings- which are also female only in the UAE, the men’s party taking place on a different day or in a different location – birth celebrations, trips to the mosque, or lazy Sunday afternoons hanging out watching Egyptian soap operas and drinking more tea and coffee.

There were women who got a wistful and faraway look in their eyes, asking me what it felt like to be on the beach in a bikini. There were other women who stifled laughter when they asked me why American and European women felt okay going jogging in the street in their underwear (shorts and a sports bra/tank top). As my interest in Islam began to grow, and when I eventually declared my own belief in Islamic practice (while meditating at a yoga ashram on a Thai Island – that’s another story), there were some who wondered about my sincerity – asking me to recite various parts of the Quran – which I did – and others who worried for me and my decision not to wear the hijab – not covering my hair as they did. Still they welcomed me, every day. They embraced me. I prayed in mosques in rooms full of women at times savoring the profound collective energy of a group feminine meditation. At other times I found myself in mosques suspiciously empty in the women’s room – indicating that for many women their duties inside the home or other cultural (patriarchal) restrictions related to womanhood required or made it easier for them to just pray at home.

Women in these cultures often shared the care of their children. In Morocco it was not uncommon to see breastfeeding women feeding the infants of their cousins or sisters. I met grown men who introduced me to their “milk brothers,”  – a close friend who was otherwise unrelated and had been breastfed by the same woman (one of their mothers, another woman all together, etc). I have had Moroccan mothers on long train rides pass me their infants to hold while they ran to the toilet or got up to stretch or rummage through their bags for food, a diaper change, etc. In the UAE more women had foreign housemaids to mind their children but the Emirati mothers were never far away and in the beginning I would lose track of which child belonged to which woman since all of the extended family freely blended together and women took responsibility and care for all of the children.

And at the risk of rambling on – how awesome is it that there is a separate – much shorter line for women at the bank and the DMV!?!?!?! (Some of them with curtains so you are totally free from the leering eyes of men! Yeah there are leering men all over the world!)(Yeah, I’m stifling a joke about the new president elect.)

I left the UAE and returned to the USA in 2010, when I was still pregnant with my first child.For many reasons the last six years of living in the US and being a mother have been a strange and challenging transition. Something I have missed most about living in the Middle East/North Africa is that sense of community. It has been lonely at times raising my kids in the USA where it can be very natural for Americans to isolate themselves in the hustle of the lightning-speed of the daily grind. I have fantasized about all of the community I would have had available to me in mothers in Abu Dhabi or in Morocco that sometimes only translates to text messages with other overly busy, overworked, overtired American mom-friends over here.

What to make of this? In my personal experience, I have been fortunate to explore my American feminine consciousness as highly independent, a solo traveler, a rebel in some cases, a trail blazer. All of this has beautifully led me to see and know some complementary, harmonizing aspects of Middle East and North Africa feminine consciousness. I learned what it looks like to belong to a group, to steep myself in feminine energy, issues, and practicalities where before I tended to avoid understanding what it is to be a woman.

Reaching beyond the limits of my comfort in these ways has incited a personal expansion, a deeper compassion and understanding for others than I could have developed if I had insisting on clinging to what I thought was comfortable – what I thought was the “right” way. And in turn, I have inspired others to challenge their own boundaries – as in the case of the women who adventured into yogic meditation with me, those who dared to learn to speak English with me, invited me into their homes, allowed my different ideas to spur conversation a their dinner tables.

I regard all of this as deeply significant at a time when my original country – the USA – and the rest of the world – is in dire need of unity, healing and a renewed sense of connection – with the self and to others. There are plenty of illusions, distractions, falsehoods disguised as truths that parade through our lives. We latch on to those – recognizing differences and allowing fear to dictate our responses to those differences at the encouragement of media, politics, and others with questionable, selfish agendas.

What is possible when you push the limits of your perceived boundaries?

What is revealed when you pull back the veils of perception and assumption?

What’s left when we strip away labels, “shoulds,” and attachments to identity?

Honestly, the simple answer to this is: Truth. Love. Purpose. Potential. Literally everything is possible when we remove limits and fear.

What will that look like for you? What will you do?

“Recognize the other person is you.” -Yogi Bhajan.

 

“The degree to which your Consciousness expands, is the degree to which you understand yourself and the universe.” ~ Gina Charles (Artist: Alisha Lee Jeffers) ..*:

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Categories: Feminine Consciousness, Inspiration, Morocco, UAE | Leave a comment

The Next Move

An ancient photo but it looks about right. Complete with the strange guy peekng over our heads in the background!

An ancient photo but it looks about right. Complete with the strange guy peekng over our heads in the background!

We’re moving! That is what we keep telling everyone.  Moving is what we do. In the past, it seemed that our desire to move in and out of countries and cultures has often been stronger than our need for a home. With two children now, the need for some kind of is gaining priority but the urge to move on at least just one… ok, maybe two more times is a light that never goes out. So we are going. To Morocco. No, New York City..or Abu Dhabi, UAE… or New York City. Wait, what about Spain!? This is part of what happens to people who have few mental, and cultural barriers that would keep most people in the place they are familiar with. We have experienced feeling familiar almost everywhere and equally unfamiliar or foreign in the countries we were born and grew up in.

Some people around us are on the edges of their seats. Many more are rallying around us, encouraging us to make this choice or that choice. Lately we are wondering if the choice is even ours. We have to find jobs  or at least one job first. We have to know that there will be childcare and schools that are good for our kids. With so many moves and experiences under our belts at this time, we have the added dimension (pressure) of trying to make sure we learn from the past.

Fifteen years ago I moved around the world by throwing a dart at a map. Today it’s much more complex. That complexity is completely throwing me for a loop this time! It can be so challenging on certain days that I get trapped in a circle of questioning and comparing pros and cons. Every morning I wake and say “What will happen?”

That’s where it all lies here on this darkening winter Tuesday afternoon. Where will we go next? Will we go at all? Does it matter where we go? If we go?

Have any of you moved abroad with small children? Had you lived abroad before? how did you choose where to go? Tell me your stories!

Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Nomadic Homesick Blues

When you are a nomad, what does it mean to be homesick?

 I currently take Harvard Square for granted. Today, I walked into the Harvard book store and read five pages of a book that made me cry. I looked around the room and I saw this very cozy, very warm and stable room, anchored down with books. Ten years ago I sat here all the time. I would come and pull a pile of books and sit on the floor and read them. I’m not sure I was supposed to do it that way, but no one ever told me not to. Then I went away. Like I have told you before, I went to Morocco and Turkey and the UAE. From those places, I went to India, Thailand and Oman and maybe some other places that are slipping my mind for the moment. And while I was in those places, I would think about the Harvard bookstore. I even had a friend take a photo of it for me once and bring it to me when she came to Morocco. I stared at that photo and I felt homesick. I longed for Harvard Square. I missed the familiar feeling of it. I missed the people around me reading books. How those people have many different thoughts and perspectives and how it is often possible to sense that those people accept the differences among them.  I missed it being a place where I could go and disappear. In most of the countries I named above, it is incredibly difficult to disappear. Everyone stares. Americans don’t stare nearly as much as they must want to. Don’t we want to?

So now I am back here. I even work in Harvard Square. I walk past the Harvard bookstore every single day. I rarely go in, due to my grown-upfulltimejobmotherhood lack of free time. But it’s there. Here. It’s here and I am here. And today while I waited for the bus, I looked out across Harvard Square and I realized that I take it for granted. And for a moment I stopped. I looked at it and I felt the feeling of it -the lovely brick buildings, the ideology of American education that is Harvard University, the gutter punks, the tourists, the shops and the famous old newsstands, the subway station and the Unitarian church with the rainbow flag waving. I breathed it in. I am in one of the most liberal cities in the USA. I love all this.

But damn, am I homesick.

Moroccan taksheta.

I haven’t hennaed my hands since before my son was born in September 2010. My clothes have gone quite conservative – jeans and trousers, turtleneck sweaters, blazers, and clogs as I naturally begin to blend in with those around me. My Indian “suits” have slowly disappeared from my wardrobe, along with my long flowing scarves, catching the wind behind me as I glide through an Emirati mall or an Indian bazaar. Our hefty collection of oil-perfumes: musks, frankincense and amber is dwindling. My husband never wears a djelleba or a gondora here. I miss the endless cups of tea and the circles of women, gabbing or the circles of men playing drums, drinking wine. I am mashing all of my countries together. I am missing everything and also very specific things. Aren’t I from these places too? Wouldn’t it be better if…? Wouldn’t I be happier, wouldn’t I feel fulfilled, won’t things have finally all come together when we finally get back to….. Fill in the blank. I seem to say these things about every place I have lived in and then left.A Turkish engineer in Bursa once referred to me as Marco Polo. The Arabs have their own Moroccan born Marco Polo, called Ibn Battuta, travelling the globe, fitting in – finding himself everywhere he went. So the legend says.

Do the Bedouin long for the seaside in the winter while they camp in the desert? Do visions of the chilly winter desert nights tug at their heartstrings while spending their summers fishing in the Gulf? Is it possible for a nomad to ever be completely in the present? Hasn’t she left little pieces of her heart everywhere she has been?

Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Henna: Beauty and Border-Crossing

I had this henna done by a woman in the street in New Delhi.

I first encountered henna in the Djemaa El-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco. This is a large public square that has been around, thriving in varying degrees for give or take 1,000 years. There are snake charmers, acrobats, kiosks selling dried fruits and fresh squeezed orange juice, and in the evening the place fills up with wheeled restaurants serving up traditional soups, skewered kebabs, a variety of salads and sweets, even  roasting whole sheep heads, so you can eat the brains and the cheeks directly from their origin! (I have not indulged in this particularly delicacy). The place is a circus. A beautiful, enchanting and mysterious mix of traditional North Africa, the tourists milling through it and everything that happens in between…

An important feature of the Djemaa El Fna buzz is the population of “henna hustlers,” so accurately dubbed by Lisa Butterworth, master henna artist, or naqasha,  in Arabic. These ladies are covered from head to toe in a djelleba and face covering of opaque anonymity. In my first experience – my henna hustler approached me (everyone approaches you in Morocco and this is exponentially true in the Djemaa El-Fna) and offered to henna my hands. It was only days after I had arrived in Morocco for the first time. I was with my closest friend at the time and the two of us were reeling from the feeling of having stepped through the looking-glass. To make a very long story short – our naqasha had cornered us in an alley just off of the main square and forced a childish scribble of black henna onto our palms. She then, in all essence, robbed us of most of our cash for the day – her fee. I couldn’t possibly tell you how much we paid for this first henna treatment. I’ve told this story so many times over the last 12 years that I am sure I have exaggerated and anyway it would be far too embarrassing. Later that day when we met up with some new Moroccan friends – “the boys” I wrote about last – we were teased endlessly for letting that happen. We’d been taken in the Djemaa El-Fna. A mandatory rite of passage.

Later that year, we met a PhD student from Montreal who was living just off the square herself, studying Moroccan women in the workforce- with a particular focus on the henna hustlers of the square. She spent hours everyday, sitting with them on the black tarmac, overturned milk crates as their chairs. This student became a naqasha in her own right and she came to henna our hands (mine and my friend’s) more gently and artfully than our first experience.

Traditional Moroccan henna -Berber Style

In spite of this poor introduction, henna struck a chord in my heart. Though I sported a black blobby stain on my palm for weeks, I was surrounded by examples of exquisite henna design. I was invited to weddings and other gatherings where I saw women’s hands and feet delicately swathed in swirling flowers or the geometric asymmetry of traditional Berber style henna designs. Never one to wear lipstick and mascara, I was smitten with this ancient, traditional make-up.

My love for henna grew. To me, it represented tradition and beauty in this North African/Arab world. Typical of the bulk of my time in Morocco, I admired Moroccan women and their henna – brides and older ladies, mostly –  from afar. In Casablanca where I later worked and lived, women only hennaed their hands on very special occasions and the women of my generation were working, dressing in modern western style fashion and not so interested in this traditional art.

When I went to live in Abu Dhabi, I encountered an intensified henna culture. With more money and more leisure time, Emirati ladies can generally  afford to go to salons or even invite the Indian, Filipina and Sundanese naqashat to their homes for the serious business of creating stunning designs. I immediately joined them. It wasn’t long before I would go alone to the henna salon, where it reeked of some crazy chemicals – I can’t imagine what they were using to make the stain darker and longer lasting. I did not care. Beauty and femininity were my agenda and like many women before me, I was willing to take a risk for it. This was another element of my bond with Arab women in the UAE. I learned which salons employed the best designers, offering the best prices and what time of day to go in order to avoid a long wait.

from a popular salon in Sharjah, UAE

Like I said, some of the younger Arab girls and women have been perplexed by my fixation with henna. For them, it seemed comical for an American to feel fine going around at work and  in casual public settings covered in henna. And this is where my thoughts pool. Right here. I have thought a lot about the aspects of Arabic or other “oriental” cultures I choose to adopt. I have a closet full of traditional Moroccan robes and dresses. In the UAE, I wore some of them to work, on other days I wore Indian sarwal kameez, which I had made for me from scratch at the Pakistani tailor, guided by my Pakistani friend who took me around the fabric shops where we drank tea while the shopkeepers unfurled roll after roll of beautiful prints, cottons and silks for us to scrutinize and choose from. For all of my life until my encounter with these cultures, I wrinkled my nose at typically western beauty traditions. In Morocco and the UAE, I embraced these traditional things with an avid passion, willing to spend time and money to perfect my look.

Applying henna often happens in large groups. The salons of urban UAE are always swarming with women of all ages. Brides from India to Morocco and many places in between sit for hours a day or two before their weddings surrounded by friends and family while the beautifying henna is carefully applied to hair and skin. Community, story telling, songs, teasing and caring (and for me, language acquisition) bloom from this tradition.

Walking down the street, an Arab woman will notice the henna on my hands. She will recognize me. A secret language between the two of us. It says: “I know a little more than you might have thought I would.” She’ll speak to me,  ask me questions, I’ll get to practice my Arabic, be invited to another female social function.

Henna has been more than just an aesthetic pleasure for me. Wearing henna has often been one of several keys into a realm that may not have been wide open to me otherwise. Without any effort at all – boundaries have been broken down. Two women who may not have had anything in common were suddenly chatting: “Which salon did you go to?” “Oh, no, no, next time go to the one on Airport Road, they only charge 50 dirham for both hands.” “but your color is really beautiful.” “Next time we’ll go together.” And bam! we could suddenly feel comfortable where we thought we never would. Bam! We are sharing stories, asking shy questions, learning languages and really knowing for real that we are a compatible pair, that our differences are irrelevant – even if only for the few hours spent in the henna salon.

Categories: Feminine Consciousness, Morocco, UAE | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Happy International Women’s Day

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.

Categories: Feminine Consciousness, Morocco, UAE | Tags: | 1 Comment

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