The Verse of Light, the 35th verse of the 24th sura of the Quran:
“Allah is the Light of the
heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a
niche wherein is a lamp –
the lamp is in a glass, the
glass as it were a glittering star-
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light
whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.”
I bought two souvenirs while in Doha. One of them is a prayer rug. On it, a mosque is depicted in light blue against a dark red background. Its windows glow in golden thread – a reference to the Verse of Light – while the mosque’s turrets are intended to point towards the Qibla. For me, the rug represents the beauty of a culture that appreciates aesthetics in architecture and quiet dedication in art and prayer.
It’s difficult for me to enjoy my stays in Arabic countries, where I see women walking like shadows behind their husbands, lifting the face-mask part of their bourkas with their left hand while forking food under with their right, and jogging in long-sleeves and hijab (while I eyeball them, wondering how they manage to exercise without breaking a sweat). Here men will chat you up in the hotel lobby and then excuse themselves to bring their wife – who is standing over there – up to their room, but you wait here he’ll be right back (this actually happened to a friend of mine). I try to understand. I read books about Islam. I’ve read “Girls of Riyadh.” I buy salt and pepper shakers to make light because that is my way of coping with the world we live in. I try, in general, to be like Hugh and Pauline Massingham’s born traveler in “An Englishman Abroad”:
“the man [or woman] who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticize, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognizes that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance.”
I was standing at the hotel’s beach bar in my bikini, waiting for the iced coffee I’d ordered, when this German guy (red swim trunks, gold chain, mid-30s, aviator sunglasses which he eventually took off) started talking to me. He had lived in Dubai for two years and was saying how much less conservative it is in comparison to Qatar. “True,” I replied, “but I still feel like I get a lot of weird looks when I’m in Dubai.” “That’s because all the women there are for sale,” he said. He went on to tell me how Asian, African and European women come to Dubai and Qatar to work. They send most of the money from their day jobs home to their families, and then earn a little extra on the side for themselves.
“But Arabs particularly like German women,” he said. “Why’s that?” I asked a little perplexed by the conversation’s topic but terribly curious. “Well, German women have a reputation for kinky, promiscuous sex” (of course, I should have known). Then he proceeded to tell me a story about an Arabic man he knew who was very pleased when his German lover unpacked not only a dildo for herself but another one for him.
“Well it’s no wonder that they have to look for interesting sex elsewhere when they suppress their own women’s sexuality,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“I know a Sheikh who is a Germanophile,” he continued, “Last summer he went to the Bodensee and rented half a hotel for fifty people.”
I tried to steer the conversation in a different direction by asking what it’s like to work with Arabic royalty. “Is there some kind of etiquette you have to follow?”
“Oh no,” the German guy said, “he’s not like that at all. He’s very down to earth, not as conservative as some others. He doesn’t drink alcohol when he’s at home, but when he is in Germany he will drink his two bottles of wine when we are out for dinner if he feels like it.” He paused a moment and then boomeranged back to his favorite subject, prostitution.
“You know there are German women, in their mid-thirties, divorced, who fly to Dubai in the summer to earn some extra money. They were used to a higher standard of living when they were married and in Dubai they can work two nights a week, earning 8,000 Euro a night. They do this for two months and can live off of it the whole year. And you know – the Arabs, they don’t take long. These women don’t have to work hard for their money.”
As intriguing as this conversation was, I decided to excuse myself at this point. I returned to my beach chair to work on my tan while listening to the saddest music I could find and staring at the calm Persian Gulf, the dusty palm trees, and the impressive, unchanging skyline.
What surprised me the first time I was in the region was how much it looks like the US. People don’t walk, they drive SUV’s; there are strip malls and Starbucks and skyscrapers. There are golf clubs. It could be Texas.
Glass and steel towers rise out of the desert sand. From the hotel beach it looks like they rise straight out of the glittering sea. They were designed by some of the world’s best architects; there is a building with a ball suspended between two towers, a building that looks like a razor, and a cone-shaped building that lights-up at night in undulating blues and reds.
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) was designed by the same architect responsible for the Louvre’s glass pyramid, l.M. Pei. It looks like an abstract cubist rendering of adobe houses, glaringly white against the indigo blue sky. Inside, everything is symmetrical: the light fixtures, the stair cases. When you walk up the atrium’s three flights of stairs you can look down upon a star-shaped, black marble fountain in the middle of the museum’s cafe. When you look back up, you can look out of a floor to ceiling window and see the skyline steely sparkle on the other side of the bay.
I walked through an exhibition about the women of Qajar, an Iranian dynasty dating from 1785-1925. The exhibition rooms at the MIA are very dark, the floors and walls and ceilings are black, just the artwork is lit. Plump, mustachioed, uni-browed veiled women stared down at me from black-and-white photographs – they were considered the beauties of their time. Traditional, colorful, paintings portrayed courtesans and servants as they danced, or reclined on pillows playing sitar-like instruments. Reading a placard, I was confused by a reference to their “overly feminine clothing.” These ladies were wearing what looked to me like high-collared parsley print pant-suits.
The sun descended behind the hotel. I grew restless, tired of sad music, and a bit chilly in my bikini. Once again, I’d been mulling – about the decisions and mistakes that I’d made, about the future and what decisions and inevitable mistakes could possibly lay ahead. I thought I might try to lighten my mood by dancing at the hotel club that night, having a drink and maybe even a laugh or two. But when I walked into the darkness of the club, instead of a good time what I found were mostly expat western men with extension-wearing, short-skirted, stiletto-heeled African or Asian women on their arms. And I, a freshly separated and soon-to-be divorced German-American in her mid-thirties, suddenly felt vulnerable and not much like partying at all.
In “Girls of Riyadh,” Rajaa Alsanea writes of four young women, each conservative or liberal to varying degrees, each trying to somehow find love and happiness (the book has often been called the Sex and the City of Saudi Arabia). In Saudi, men and women don’t date, but if they do, as the most liberal of the Riyadh girls does, they must do so in secret; marriages are traditionally arranged.
I remember one scene in particular because it surprised me so much. Gamrah, the most religious and conformist of the four female characters, is walking down the aisle in her wedding dress, thinking about how much rather she’d be wearing her bourka. She can feel the others’ eyes on her – not only men’s but also women’s – and their judgement. This is what struck me: it had never dawned upon me that a woman might actually feel comfortable in and protected by a bourka. “For outsiders,” writes Ira M. Lapidus in A History of Islamic Societies, “it is difficult to separate their own values from the conceptions of dignity, security, and love that prevail in Muslim societies.”
“Girls of Riyadh” is just a work of fiction (and one that is compared to Sex and the City). But when I asked a modern young Saudi woman attending college in the US if the book is true-to-life, she said that it is. Since then, she has moved back to Saudi Arabia. She lives with her parents and has a chauffeur who drives her to work. The glass ceiling, she says, is not much different in Saudi compared to other western countries – she has a career and opportunity for growth as much as anywhere even if she wears a bourka.
The Waqif souk is a bazaar that has been rebuilt in traditional Arabic fashion. It’s the only place (aside from the MIA) that I really like in Doha. One afternoon, I followed my nose down winding alleyways between adobe houses and under shade-providing thatch to a small bread shop. I ate warm, naan-like bread filled with spinach that had been slapped to the inside wall of a stone oven and then removed by a long metal rod, and it was delicious.
While I ate, I watched two boys try out bikes from a corner shop while their little brother, white-robed Dad, and bourka-clad Mom stood nearby in the shade. The boys were so happy, except for the little one who got upset at one point and had to be comforted by Dad. I listened to the chirping chatter of the birds: they not only sell bikes in this part of the souk, but also parakeets, parrots, and finches in addition to turtles in plastic cases, goldfish in bowls, and puppies and cats in cages (rather disturbingly). A pair of siblings walked past me down the alley, each carrying a rabbit in a case; the girl’s bunny was wearing a tutu.
Many shops at the souk are closed in the evenings: the hardware shops, the spice shops, the Qatar-themed clothing stores. But the winding alleyways are always lit. Groups of men spend their evenings smoking shisha at cafes and restaurants, people watching, while families share mezzeh, drinking tea and lemon mint juice as their kids run riot, shrieking in delight. If you sit for a while, you will notice that women wear different kinds of bourka: some cover their eyes completely, others partially, some not at all, and some have flowers or geometric designs stitched upon them; all of them are black. And the women are no less beautiful.