Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Explaining Saudi to Ten-Year-Olds

On my last day of home leave last August, I went to a local middle school to speak to an advanced lit class about my experiences living in the Arab world.  Their teacher is an old family friend (and my second-grade teacher) who invited me to the classroom because the book the students were reading.  Shadow Spinner is a loose adaptation of 1001 Nights, retold and toned down for an adolescent audience (that is to say, the frequent, graphic sex and violence of the original are traded for a teenage heroine who helps save Shahrazad's life).

The kids were bright, but for most of them, the world described in the book was so foreign that they couldn't square the scenes they read in the pages with what they saw on television about the Islamic world.  They knew that the book takes place in ancient Baghdad, but for many of them, the stories about their parents and cousins in the Iraq war superseded the literature.  And frankly, the descriptions of clothing, food, and traditions were so alien to them that they didn't have any idea how to imagine the book's scenes.  My job wasn't to do a PR whitewashing job for the Arab world, or to validate all of the worst ideas they might have absorbed from the evening news.  I just tried to give them some context about an Arkansan living in a very small part of the Arab world.

I explained in a few sentences what I did there, then let them ask me questions.  It was a little slow at first, but as they warmed up to me, and I showed a few photos when they reminded me of things I had images of, the questions got better, and the kids were more interested.  The boys, unsurprisingly, were focused on a certain type of question.  'Do they have Playstations?'  'Do they all ride camels?'  'Do they have cars?'  'Do they have air conditioning?'  Luckily the teacher was able to head off most of the questions in this vein before they got too out of hand!

The girls, on the other hand, generally asked insightful questions.  One question that stopped me in my tracks - "What do their homes look like?"  It's a simple question, but it is so telling.  No windows facing the street, high walls around the home, and separate sitting rooms for men and women - those housing designs say more about social values than any stories ever could.  Other girls asked about food: if families ate meals together, what types of food were normally eaten, if they really drank as much tea as the characters in the book do.  Another girl asked about names - if children are named after people in their families, or saints, or another type of tradition.

Of course, clothing was something all of the students were curious about.  I'd brought my abaya and one of my veils with me (no niqab, as I don't own one), so the show-and-tell part had to happen.  While I was getting into my ninja suit, the teacher mentioned to me that one part of the book they were reading talked about the main character wearing a veil so that only 'the moon of her face' showed.  As I buttoned the abaya and tucked the veil around my hair and chin, I explained that comparing a woman's face to the moon is a compliment to her beauty.  When I lowered my hands, and the kids saw my (very pale) face peering out of the black veils, the girls all went, 'Aahhhhhh!'  They understood the description finally...  whereas the boys just giggled and wanted to try it on themselves.  Boys will be boys, I suppose!

Questions like these really let me think about my experiences in Riyadh through a different lens.  How do I talk about a very different place in a way that these kids, most of whom had probably never met a Muslim, would understand?  I think I did a decent job...  my teacher-friend said that the discussions of the book were a lot livelier over the next few days.  Maybe I'll get really lucky - maybe one of the kids got the travel bug from me!  (To the parents of Crittenden County, sorry for stealing your children.)

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