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Hand of Fatima

Hand of Fatima

Oops, I did it again! I complemented a woman on her beautiful bracelet. She instantly removed it and insisted I have it. I resisted. I apologized for admiring it. She forcefully opened my hand and placed it in my palm. She told me she wanted me to have something to remember her by. Finally, I acquiesced, embarrassed, but not wanting to make a scene. I thanked her profusely and told her how much I would treasure her gift.

Another cultural blunder. This is not the first time this has happened to me in Saudi Arabia. I keep forgetting that a complement must always, always, always be followed by the phrase, mash’Allah.

The prophet Mohammed said that the Evil Eye is real. What is the Evil Eye? It is a powerful gaze that harms the person or object it stares at. It stems from jealousy or envy. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. When admiring someone’s new baby, you must repeat, ‘mash’Allah’ after every complement. It translates, loosely, ‘God has destined it.’ It acknowledges that God is the one who has bestowed the blessing of a beautiful baby or a lovely piece of jewelry. Neglecting to say, ‘mash’Allah’ puts the person being admired at risk.

There are talismans to ward off the Evil Eye, but the prophet Mohammed forbade their use. In spite of that, the Hand of Fatima jewelry appears around the necks of Muslim women here, in the kingdom. The  Hand of Fatima is named for the prophet’s daughter. The symbol actually predates Islam, just as the belief in the Evil Eye predates Islam.

In my culture, complements are a way of recognizing someone’s good taste or good fortune. I think everyone deserves to feel pretty or special from time to time. I still have a lot to learn.

 

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The interior ministry of Saudi Arabia recently released a list of 50 names that parents cannot give to their newborn babies.

Most of the banned names fall into three categories: names that are perceived as offensive to Islamic sensibilities, names affiliated with royalty and names of non-Islamic or non-Arabic origin. Some of the names are common in Saudi Arabia.

Has the ban created anger or amusement among those already bearing these names? Perhaps a little of both.

Names such as Malaak (angel), Rama (Hindu god)  and Amir (prince) fall into the first two categories. Some of the names are controversial because they can be interpreted in multiple ways. Alice and Linda make the list. Non-Arabic names, yes, but why those names and not Tiffany or Emily? Has there been a trend toward babies with Western names? I have yet to hear of a Saudi baby named Alice.

Benyamin, which is on the list, happens to be the name of the Israeli prime minister. Abdul Naser, another name on the list, is the name of the famous Arab nationalist ruler of Egypt, who was at odds with Saudi Arabia. Coincidence?

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Typical manufactured prayer mat showing the Kaaba

Typical manufactured prayer mat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prayer breaks are a part of daily life in Saudi Arabia. They shape the day. Rather than watching the clock, I find myself checking the prayer schedule online and jotting it down for the upcoming week. Before I arrived, I was aware that Islam required the prayer ritual to be performed 5 times a day. What was surprising to me was that the prayers are not scheduled by the clock, but by the sun and the moon. The times change from week to week, as the seasons change. I can’t memorize the schedule because it is always changing. It is only a few minutes difference each week, but over time, those minutes add up. As the days get shorter, the time between prayer shrinks, as well.

So, what does that look and sound like? My friend, who lives directly across the street from a mosque, is awakened every morning around 4:00am, when the first call to prayer is broadcast over a loudspeaker. If I happen to be walking on the street during the call to prayer (not, however, at 4am), I hear a distinctly middle-eastern chant with rising and falling vibratto. The mournful wail echoes throughout the neighborhood. Men in white thobes, often with sons in tow, hurry toward the mosque.

In the mall, shops and restaurants lock their doors. People scurry around to finish their business before the shops close and the lights are dimmed. People continue eating their meals or walking around, but the benches quickly fill with abaya-clad women, who chat, while keeping an eye on their children at play. Men, all in white, sit in the coffee shops and watch the world go by. Even the fountain in the center of the mall shuts down during prayer. There is a mosque inside the mall, as well as women’s prayer rooms, and many people go to these during prayer time. Islam allows prayer to be performed as soon as possible after the call to prayer, and not everyone chooses to pray at the mall. Many, like me, window shop or sit and rest during the thirty-minute break.

The university where I work has a carpeted prayer room, enclosed in glass. But, not everyone uses it. Some will pray in a corner of an empty classroom. The teachers’ office is overcrowded and noisy with laughter, but I am now accustomed to seeing a teacher put on her abaya and hijab, lay out her prayer rug and pray in the midst of the chaos. I have also observed the female cleaning crew using the prayer room for naps, and I don’t blame them. It’s carpeted and quiet. I’ve learned to schedule breaks around prayer times. Awkward when class begins at 3pm and prayer is at 3:15. But that is life in the kingdom. I am also accustomed to students occasionally reminding me that they are overdue to pray.

The city hums along and continues to function, in spite of the prayer breaks. Hindus from India drive many of the taxis. Catholic Filipinos operate many of the restaurants. Business owners must adhere to the prayer schedule or risk attracting the attention of the religious police. The grocery store can’t really shut down completely, but the cashiers lock their registers and lower the metal security gates. By the time prayer ends, the lines at the registers are six deep. Restaurants allow people to exit, but not enter.

The rhythm of life in Saudi Arabia is slow. The call to prayer ensures it remains that way. I find myself slowing down because of prayer. Type-A personalities struggle with the culture. Things get done, but not right away. Mexico is known for its ‘manana’ (tomorrow) attitude toward life. The Saudi equivalent is ‘in shaa’ allah’ (if God is willing). I don’t hurry out the door to shop if I know it is close to prayer time. I may find myself lingering at a restaurant or just sitting on a bench until prayer is over. I find myself thinking of Daniel, who prayed 3 times each day. Not a bad habit.

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Press Refresh

"Restart Button" offered by U.S. Sec...

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot

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universal potting soil
Tulip, 2005 Floriade, Canberra

From such humble origins, a tulip bursts into life.

What do we, as humans, share with those bulbs?

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Trunk of Giant Redwood

Giant Sequoia Tree grown from a seed pod that is the size of an egg.

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Stedman Graham

Pope-rah's Concubine?

In a stunning series of events this week, the Vatican announced its nomination of Oprah for sainthood. Amidst the excitement generated by Oprah’s last appearance on her long running talk show, the Pope was quoted as saying, “The woman has miraculous powers that can only be attributed to a divine source. No one but Oprah could have made Stedman Graham a household name.” Rumors abound that the Holy See was  inspired by the appearances of  Tom Hanks, Madonna and Dakota Fanning, among others. Beyonce sang a rousing tribute to Oprah, wearing fish net stockings and a skin-tight tuxedo jacket. “Women everywhere have graduated to a new level of understanding of who we are!” declared Beyonce, without irony, proving that bootyliciousness is no barrier to female empowerment. Scientologists Tom Cruise and Will Smith represented Oprah’s spiritual side, while Aretha Franklin and Usher offered rousing renditions of Amazing Grace and Oh, Happy Day, When Jesus Walked. A teary-eyed Oprah resisted the urge to announce an altar call, which could very well have created a stampede toward the stage. She proclaimed to her worldwide audience, “Your presence in front of your television honors me.” Fans everywhere have vowed to remain seated before their televisions for the foreseeable future. Harpo Studios acknowledges that Oprah’s unofficial title of ‘Pope-rah’ will not be officially adopted by Saint Oprah. “Don’t be silly,” said Gail, Oprah’s BFF. “There have been many, many popes, but there is only one Oprah. Why would she change her brand at this stage in her career?”

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