I watch as the camera pans the awesome landscape of Arabia. I listen as correspondents surmise this and that about the Saudi culture. I see the inevitable overhead shot of an Arab city, the most holy call to prayer resonating in the background. And I am transported back to my first year in Arabia, back to the spring of 1980, to the Arab family that so graciously accepted the American wife of their prodigal son, back to a time . . .
Whahad, thelatha, ithnain, I learn to count again. They are arbitrary sounds that do not connect with anything else in my experience. The girls laugh. Not meanly, they laugh because it is strange to hear an adult try to count and not do very well at it. It is strange to hear someone say "one, three, two," and mean one, two, three. I am frustrated because it is so hard to remember which sounds come first and which second. I start over again.
I am immersed in this language of the Arabs. I have left everything in America. I have left my American independent spirit in America. We Americans glorify self, independence, creativity. I have left all that behind. I am in the midst of a culture where independence is aberrant behavior.
I know so very little of this culture. I made it a point to read nothing and hear as little as possible about Saudi Arabia before I came. I wanted no preconceived notions shaping my experience. I am glad of this. It is hard because there are no directional signals, no clues to warn me. But I am glad because it has given me a clean slate.
Sometimes I feel walled in. The walls loom into the air, whitewashed, stark. They protect us from harsh north winds and hold us in. Behind them, we live and laugh and cry.
We sit on the step in front of the majalis (sitting room), outside, but within the outer wall. We sit in the shade. Always we seek the shade. Someone flips the switch on the water pump. It whines, catches and then settles down to a steady rhythm. We have no piped-in water supply. A truck comes by and fills the tank outside the front wall. From there, water is pumped to a reservoir on top of the house. We gain water pressure through gravity. There is a small water heater but in the summer months we don't need it. The water boils in the mid-day sun. No showers at noon.
The houses have flat roofs enclosed by walls. Inside these walls, the steady whitewashed monotony is broken only at street side by cinder bricks with geometric designs that allow me to peek through. From here I can look down on the street. It is not paved and is dusty in the dry weather and a swamp when it rains. Every day goats graze the garbage cans, which are 50-gallon oil drums with no lids. The garbage men come twice a day, and in between the goats rummage around. Sometimes I see people, mostly men but now and again a woman scurries here or there, her black abaya (cape) billowing out behind her. Sometimes I build a ladder with old cast-off wooden fruit boxes and climb up and look over the wall to the east. From here I can see the gulf, pristine, shimmering against the sun . . . beckoning.
The roof is a playground for me. I like to come here in the early hours of the morning and watch the day come up. The light trips up as if regulated by some universal switch. I can feel the heat waiting. Now and again there is a rush of wind ricocheting off the walls stirring up little cyclones of dust. The sounds of the day begin slowly. I hear a rooster off in the distance. The street lights have dimmed and an earwig tries to hide under my skirts. Someone turns on the water pump. Invisible birds chirp.
The roof is a playground for me. We hang our clothes here to dry. We have coffee and dates here in the late afternoon when the sun has dipped below the wall and a shadow is cast for us to sit in. Sometimes we drag our sleeping mats up and sleep away the night under the stars.
From the roof I can peer down to the lower level of the house. It is also enclosed by a 10-foot wall but from there, there are no bricks that allow me to see the outside. There are many doors in the lower wall. Double doors made of solid black iron, heavy and hard to open or close, strategically place around the perimeter. The wall makes a breezeway between it and the house.
We bring out a straw mat and lay it down in the breezeway on the side of the house that has no sun at the moment. We always seek the cool shelter of the shade. We have a pot of coffee that smells like camphor and is the color of liquid gold with a tinge of green. I am trying to count. It is a long process and my mind and body are assaulted with the newness and strangeness of it all.
I point to this object and that. Somehow we have agreed that this means I need the sounds associated with each object. Strange guttural sounds at which my throat rebels. I try to see how their tongues move and how they hold their lips. It seems to me that if I mimic these movements I will be able to form the words. If I can only remember the sounds associated with the words.
The women often grow tired of me. I often grow tired of them and go off to my room. They think I am strange and something of a hermit. There is a difference in our concepts of aloneness. They are never alone. I don't understand their community. Their capacity to be together is limitless. Even after I have learned the language and have become part of them, this is hard for me. They yammer on endlessly. They tell stories. Wonderful stories, boring stories, funny stories and yammer on. I am sure they are hTC still telling stories about me and they probably will for generations. Remember when the American . . .
But it isn't true that they don't understand aloneness. They don't understand my concept of it. I think their privacy is in their minds and speech. Often I sit among the women and no one will say a word for what seems to me an interminable time. It makes me squirm. I am mortified. Someone, please say something. Everyone else seems quite comfortable.
It occurs to me that we Americans talk about everything. We have so very few taboos. Here, it seems more complex. They are gracious and forgiving of my flaws. I am often quiet, I do not want to offend. There are rules that change everything I have ever learned. In English, it is polite to refer to you before I refer to myself, so I say, "You and I." Now I must remember to refer to myself first and say "I and you." I am often struck by how frequently our cultures are opposite.
I have heard it said that language shapes the mind. I am convinced of this. The rituals of speech define my behavior. I am learning these rituals . . . salaam aleekum, kaif haalak, kaif al awlaad . . . I have trouble remembering the order of these phrases. I don't know their meaning and it is difficult to remember how the sounds precede one another.
There is the matter of gender. Tittering accompanies my mistakes. When I speak to a man, I must remember to use the masculine construction of words. This is no easy task. Every word in the sentence changes. I learn my language from women. All my experience is feminine and the men chuckle and, joking, ask me if I think they are women when I talk to them with the feminine constructions. I am shy and embarrassed and become very quiet.
I am trying to learn to write. The children help me with this. I use their school books and demand lessons when they return from school. I think they feel very important when they do this to help the American learn to write and it helps me to learn new words. I write from right to left. It is like artwork to me. Gradually, as I learn the individual letters, different words begin to make sense.
In the children's school books, there are pictures beside the words. It is not always clear to me what the pictures mean and we have long exasperating sessions trying to explain some concept to me like "chasing." Many of the words in the children's books have to do with farming or country life . . . gathering wood . . . harvesting . . . roasting coffee. These words shape my environment.
Day after day, they talk. In the morning after the ithan and prayers are finished, coffee is served in brass delahs shaped like two pears standing stem to stem, with dates and sometimes fire-baked bread. It is dawn and we sit in a circle with the woman of the house pouring coffee into tiny cups. The men and women tell stories, recent stories, old stories, gossip from the ages. I listen.
Later in my life here, when I understand the talk of these early morning gatherings, I am fascinated by the way they weave elaborate stories from the fabric of everyday life. They ask me why I never have a gussah, a story. I fumble at first and imagine that these village people would not understand my references. I am arrogant and do not realize their stories are universal and drawn from the core of humanity.
The women gather again, mid-morning, to gossip and tell stories and drink cardamom coffee and eat dates and sunflower seeds. Sometimes I listen and try to make out the sounds and words but they talk so fast, it is difficult. I grow tired and bored and exasperated that this learning is such a long process. I wonder if I will ever to able to participate. I wander off to my room.
We bring out a straw mat and lay it down in the breezeway on the side of the house that has no sun at the moment. We always seeks the cool shelter of the shade. We have a pot of coffee that smells like camphor and is the color of liquid gold with a tinge of green. I am trying to count. It is a long process and my mind and body are assaulted with the newness and strangeness of it all.
I worry because I lose track of the days. They are the same. Always the same. I cannot leave the compound. I want to see the gulf. I want to see something green and growing. I want to see something besides the whitewash of the wall around the villa. I plant seeds in cast-off fruit boxes and wait for them to sprout. I learn all the words associated with flowers . . . pots . . . seeds . . . seedling . . . dirt . . . flower . . . dead . . . growing.
Patricia Alquraisha writes from Sacramento, California.