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book takes place in ancient Baghdad, but for many of them, the stories about their parents and cousins in the Iraq war superseded the literature.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.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When Did April Start Going This Fast?

Holy crap...  in five weeks I'll be wheels up.  I'm flying out on the 26th of May, and I'll arrive in Istanbul via Frankfurt the next day.  My end-of-training exam (eep!) is next Friday.  I have a hard time motivating myself to study - I feel pretty good that I'll get the required 2/2 without any problems, but there's no way I'll make it to the 3/3 level of language incentive pay, either.  So I'm just floating along.  As happens every time I approach another move (8 since 2004), I think of all of the things I haven't done that I wanted to do.  This time it's road trips outside the city that I wish I'd done more frequently.  Ah, well.  I hope I get to do a lot of those in Turkey, and I'll be back in DC soon enough.

This job has a lot of ups and downs, things that I love and things that make me want to slice myself.  One of the perks is how many awesome people you get to spend time with at work, and how strong your friendships are.  The downside, of course, is that after a few months you all split up and head to your separate posts.  It makes vacations easy (I don't pay for hotels, honey, I stay with friends), but it's a constant stream of goodbyes.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Things We Carry, Part 1

In contemplating my next move, I have been looking over all of my stuff and deciding how I'm going to divvy things up - what goes in the first shipment, which will arrive a week or two after I get to Turkey, and what goes in the second shipment, which will arrive 2-3 months later.  And, of course, should any of that go awry coming through customs, I'll just have my two suitcases to live out of for a few months: so I'll need suits, medications, my favorite tea mug, photos for the fridge, a life-sized plastic doll's leg, and the collection of random items (toy horse, small hand bell, a ceramic cat) that sits on my desk at work.  

Wait... what?

This may sound slightly familiar, and it certainly does if you've ever been in my apartment.  I have a lot of stuff.  Decorative stuff.  Tchotchkes.  Kitsch.  It's stuff I've been dragging around for years in some cases, and I keep it because it all means something to me, and because it reminds that no matter where I go, I have a piece of my loved ones with me.  There's stories behind a lot of the stuff, inside jokes and souvenirs of trips I've taken or events I attended.  And, in the vein of Peteykins' sadly defunct blog (of which I may have been the only interested reader), I'm inflicting story time on everyone else.  After all...  story telling is probably what I do best in life (should have stuck with the original plan and become a writer), and props are always helpful, right?

So first up, I have my carved and painted art from Oaxaca, Mexico.


These were given to me by my friend Carol, who lived next door to me when I was growing up on the farm in Arkansas.  Carol was my surrogate aunt for ten years, babysitting me when my parents were out of town, hiring me to care for her animals when she was travelling, and telling me stories.  Endless stories, fabulous stories, and stories that opened my eyes to things I'd never considered.  Carol followed the Grateful Dead for a few years, in addition to living all over the US and Latin America, and she was the first person I really knew well who had travelled far and wide.  She had seen things and lived experiences that blew my ten-year-old mind, and she let me raid her huge book collection whenever I wanted.  She opened my eyes to the magic of travel and wonder in the world.

One year she was in Mexico and Cuba all summer, and I was given the responsibility of feeding and playing with her animals (horses, cats, dogs, chickens...  I think nine pets in total at that time).  When she came back in the early fall, she brought me these horses and the frame - that's a photo of me and Carol in the frame, the summer after I graduated from high school.  My mother got a hand-woven wool rug that to this day hangs in our house, under a poster of Mexican artwork.  This is the first real taste I got of tchotchkes, and they've been with me in every place I've lived since then.  My taste for really colorful, bright art probably developed out of these pieces and the things she had in her house.  Careless movers in DC and Riyadh have meant that the bigger horse has trouble wearing his ears and tail simultaneously, but them's the breaks.

After I moved off the farm, Carol moved to the West Coast to get an MBA, which she got from one of the top schools in the nation while battling - and defeating - hepatitis C.  I helped her move back to Memphis a few years later, carrying on a tradition of me being the cheap labor she used to help her move (that was the third time I've carried those damned books around, albeit the longest journey).  

And here is Oaxacan art with curious kitty.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lessons Learned from a Year in Saudi Arabia

I won't pretend that a tour in Saudi Arabia is as difficult as serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  However, it wasn't a walk in the park, and while I learned a lot from the experience, it was also one of the most difficult times in my life.  After I'd been back in the US for a few months, I was able to collect my experiences in Riyadh into a few main points that I think may be applicable across hardship posts, high-stress environments, and life in general.
  • Maintaining family ties and relationships with friends outside the stressful environment is paramount.  I don't know what I would have done without Skype and AIM to keep me in touch with my loved ones at home, who kept me grounded.  They gave me perspective, encouragement, and laughs when I needed them the most.  (Care packages of comfort food and good books help too.  Anne and Sarah, Katelyn, my mother, and Aleksei...  you guys are my saviors.)
  • Forging ties with other social groups is crucial.  Even if you can't socialize normally due to security restrictions, make friends with people in another secure compound.  My coworkers were incredible, and I count many of the people from my time in Riyadh among my closest friends.  However, spending 12 hours in the office, 2 at dinner, and then going home to the same housing compound with the same people six or seven days a week is not healthy - it means that you can't turn off the office.  A few months after I arrived, I connected with a number of US military members posted at the military installation on the other side of Riyadh, and going there on weekends served as the pressure release valve I needed when I couldn't think about work anymore.
  • Get out of the pressure cooker regularly.  There is no email so important that you can't let your out-of-office reply handle it for 36 hours while you get away from it all every two months or so.   Bahrain was my favorite getaway, although I went to Jeddah a few weekends to see friends there and to enjoy a comparatively relaxed city.  
  • Go home.  You're of no use to your employer if you're driven to the point of exhaustion.  If you're still at your desk at 9 PM and the president is not arriving for a visit in 2 days, then you need to pack up and leave.  
  • Be kind to your staff.  There's a special place in hell for people who abuse the ones they supervise (one circle below animal abusers, I believe).  All those things they told you in A-100 about being kind to your local staff?  Absolutely true.  It's amazing how often a hello, a thank you, or a pat on the back will improve moods and in turn make your job easier (and it's telling that these simple gestures can mean so much).  The corollary to this is that if you aren't bringing snacks to your office at least once a month, you're failing your team.  Dust off your grandmother's mixer and make some cookies, spring for Dunkin Donuts, or even just leave a sack of Hershey's Kisses by the door.  We had a weekly breakfast spread for my office - the Americans rotated turns for about $30 each week and got a favorite local breakfast treat for everyone in the office.  It took no more than 15 minutes out of our day, and it was a chance for everyone to sit around the same table and relax together.
  • And finally, no matter how stressful things get at times, keep it all in perspective.  You're leaving soon.  You can learn something from every situation if you have an open mind and a flexible attitude.  And after all, you could still be working the crappy job you had in college.  Remember, this is what you signed up to do, right?