In Part I Maha Noor Elahi, of A Saudi Woman’s Voice, shared with us “The Biography of a Saudi Fraud”, an introduction to her own cultural identity, and to a projected book about Saudi cultural identity.
Maha is a Saudi national, born in 1971, and is now married with 3 children. She is a Lecturer in the English Department at Dar Al-Hekma College, Jeddah, and a creative writer. Here, in Part II, she will address some issues left in suspense with her 2007 biographical introduction in Part I, and share her views on being a professional woman, and a creative writer in Saudi. Below in her own words is Maha’s update and expansion on her June 8, 2007 biography’s promise.
The Nine Muses
Further reflections on my (auto-) biography
I don't consider writing the biography in 2007 an act of the past because I am still working on it. So far I've finished 3 chapters, and I am so determined to finish the book and publish it. Every time I read my biography, I feel so enticed to finish it, but I am not in a hurry; good things need time to be produced.
There is just one important thing that I'd like to clarify here. Coming from non-Saudi origins is a very common thing in Jeddah and Makkah. In the Hijaz Region, it is very common that people come from Indian, Syrian, Egyptian, or Indonesian origins.
I've been active in the internet world since 2005, but stopped for a while to focus on my new job at Dar Al-Hekma. Now that everything is almost settled at work, I feel that I have the time and energy to participate in blogs.
Back in 2000, I started writing English poetry and started posting it on different American and British poetry websites. Later on, I felt that I need to document my work to protect my copyrights, so I created a site for my poetry under the name Wallada's Salon .
Come along with me and enjoy the inspiration of the desert women. Read my poems, express yourself, or read others' works...The caravan is waiting, so let's sail into the heart of the warm sands.
I had not discovered blogging then. Two years ago, I came to know about blogs, but I wasn't interested. I felt that it won't add to me, yet my loyal friends kept encouraging me to have my own blog. So, I created both my English and Arabic blogs upon the encouragement of many of my friends who truly believe in me—and that of my biggest supporter, my husband.
I am so proud to have married a man who is a descendant of the Prophet; so proud because I love the Prophet Mohammad, and it honors me to be the mother of his descendants; I hope I can raise them to be up to the level that pleases Allah and the Prophet.
I got married in a very traditional way: his mother saw me, and saw that I might appeal to her son. Later, I met him and we clicked immediately. The chemistry was very obvious between us, from the beginning, despite our differences; but that's the beauty of it. I mean, what's the point in marrying someone who is a copy of you? So boring, I believe.
We stayed engaged for about a year, and then we got married. We were both the same age—then in our early twenties--and we both had to finish our studies, but it was more difficult for him because he had to work as well.
The Muse of Poetry, Calliope
We built our life together and we both worked so hard to maintain our marriage. I believe every couple must work hard to keep their relationship surviving. As any couple, we had our differences, our disagreements, and our ups and downs, but he was always willing to develop and do what's best for both of us.
At the very beginning of the marriage, I faced a few challenges because I've come from a rather open family that is not considered Saudi in terms of traditions and attitudes. Yet I was determined to make the marriage work because I loved my husband very much. His cultural identity had a kind of negative impact on the marriage at first, but then gradually we started to blend creating our own family culture apart from his family and mine. Together we decided to adopt the best of the two families, and try to avoid their drawbacks, adding our own beliefs and vision about life.
This sounds flowery now, but at that time it took a great deal of patience, tolerance, and a strong will to understand a whole new world.
The Muse of History, Clio
He knew everything about me before the marriage, and obviously he had no reservations about it. In fact, he wanted to marry a non-tribal girl who is open, educated, and willing to adapt to life's changes. He felt that a girl from a tribe might have specific conservative attitudes.
Regarding my career and writing, he has been my greatest support; greater than my own mother and father. He was the first one to believe in me; to believe that I am different from other girls. He could see that my interests are different from other girls whom he used to view as superficial and dull. Without him, I couldn't have been anything. He has empowered me in every way a man can empower a woman. To him, my writings are the best, and he considers me his favorite writer. Nevertheless, when needed, he gives me very profound criticism about what I write; and, so many times he has inspired me to write a lot of good articles and poems.
The Nine Muses
Like any mother (I guess), my 3 children are my life. They are the real achievement in my life. The eldest one is 16 years old, and he is a computer genius (masha’Allah). He is part of the gifted students program in Jeddah, and he might join KAUST when he graduates. My second child is 12 years old, and she seems to have so many talents. She's very much into animation and she adores the Japanese culture; she even learned Japanese through the internet. The youngest one though seems to be rather troublesome. He is six years old and very naughty.
All my children know how to speak English as I was keen on having them go to schools with very strong English programs. However, I was also keen that they learn Arabic very well. The most important thing for me when dealing with my children is to help them to set goals, to believe in their abilities, and to respect education and work.
The Nine Muses, Libya
On Saudi Career Women and Work/Life Balance
I got married when I was a sophomore in college, and I had no plans for working or resuming my studies. I just wanted to finish my BA and then be a housewife. That was my first choice, which everyone disagreed to including my father and in-laws. My mother, though a working woman herself, had a rather mixed attitude towards the whole situation. She wanted me to be a perfect housewife and at the same time, she believed that I have great potential to pursue a career. My family and my in-laws wanted me to pursue my education and have a teaching career, but my decision shocked them a lot, especially because I was an A student in college. Despite their disapproval of me being a housewife after graduation, I went on with my plan with the support of my husband. It was my choice, and he was always (still is) supportive of any decision I take regarding my career.
At that time, I deeply believed that I needed to learn a great deal about being a wife, a housewife, and a mother. I believed that I needed to (study) my husband and my new life thoroughly. Now I have no regrets; it's the best thing I have ever done in my life. It's the thing that made me establish my relationship with my husband in a very profound manner. I remained a stay-at-home mom for 9 years after my graduation, and I was so content with my life. However, during that time, I never stopped reading, painting, and developing my thinking skills. I also started studying for my Master's degree. At first I was reluctant about it because I didn't want to leave my son with a maid, but my husband kept discussing the matter with me until he talked me into resuming my studies. Luckily, I had my mother who helped a lot in taking care of my son.
Now that I have experienced being a stay-at-home mother and being a working woman, I can say with great certainty that every choice we make in our lives has its advantages and disadvantages; we just have to try everything out to make a decision on which path we are going to take for the rest of our lives.
Being a mother and a housewife brought me great joy, and I never felt bored or tired of it, especially because I was in constant search for creative things to do for my husband and my son. Nevertheless, living in a society where housewives are expected to be only housewives in the traditional sense didn't appeal to me very much, which in turn made me have a social life with women who didn't share the same interests and ambitions.
When I decided to work, almost everyone was so excited about it except for my mother who knew very well that I was going to struggle in order to make a balance between my house and my career. Regarding my creative writing, my mother, father, and husband have always been supportive and have always encouraged me to publish my writings. My father even believes that my English poetry should be taught in colleges. :)
My children used to complain sometimes about me leaving them for long hours, but I always discuss the matter with them until we reach a conclusion together, and I always try to make it up for them. Now that they've become teenagers, they started having their own interests and started to understand what I am doing in a better way. The young one, however, is still my spoiled baby.
They like my writings and they are very proud of what I write and of what people say about me on the internet, especially in Arabic.
I have a rather quiet life with minimum social encounters, and this is due to my demanding job, but fortunately, my relatives and friends understand my situation and don't have problems with that. At first, a few couldn't accept the idea of me not attending their gatherings or occasions, but then I had to explain my working conditions to them, and they understood. However, I have to admit, it is not easy to live in a society where everyone expects you to visit/invite them regularly and have a career at the same time. And again, it's all about the choices that we make; we can't have everything and we have to take this as a basic fact of life. A woman can't be successful at work and open her house for social gatherings on a regular basis. Work needs time and devotion; it's not that I go to work to have fun or spend some time because I've been bored at home. I go to work to fulfill a mission in life, and this mission conflicts with having a social life that is based on showing off one's skills as a cook and housekeeper.
Once I started working, I formed my special circle of a few yet great friends, who don't judge me just because I couldn't attend one of their cousins' wedding parties. Actually, most of my friends are working women who have their own responsibilities and completely understand what it is like to be a wife, a mother, and a working woman. All my friends have goals and ambitions related to their career; and we all empower and encourage each other. Had I stayed a housewife till now, I could have been spending my entire day sleeping, shopping, or watching Turkish series. I am not saying that all housewives live like this, but the societal trend drags many wives to become unproductive and demanding at the same time.
Yet I have to emphasize that, if I weren't working in a healthy and productive working environment like Dar Al-Hekma College, I would have preferred staying at home.
I have to admit that my readers in Arabic are a lot more than my English-speaking readers. This is because I have been focusing greatly on Arabic through participating in different Arabic forums and through being directly in touch with many Arab writers and readers. We are in an Arabic-speaking society, so it doesn't shock me to have more Saudi and Arab readers who follow my work.
I used to be an active participant in a website called OWCP, and it had a great effect on me, but focusing on English blogging wasn't my plan; my plan was to publish my first poetry compilation. So far I haven't done so due to the fact that I haven't found an English or American writer who is willing to write the foreword to my book. In addition, poetry with its complicated nature as compared to the fast rhythm of our lives today does not have a lot of fans or readers. Yet my Arab friends, Saudis and non-Saudis, always read my English poems and articles, and encourage me greatly.
Writing, to me, is a means of self-expression and a means of breathing fresh air when things get rough. When I write, I don't plan on writing in English or in Arabic; I just follow the language of my inspiration; if it comes in English, I write immediately in English and do not try to translate it into Arabic. Even the topics that I deal with in English are different from my Arabic topics. It's not just a language issue; it's a cultural thing. Some topics are just not meant to be written in Arabic and vice versa.
My students are as varied as any group of students in any college or university. I have promising and intellectual students, who are a source of pride for any Saudi, and I have other students who just want a bachelor's degree to please their families or to fit society's requirements. Many of Dar Al-Hekma graduates have continued in higher studies, and some of them work in leading institutes around the world. Some have opened their own companies and businesses, which seem very promising and successful. Of course, others have married and decided to live their social life freely, but those are very few.
The best thing about my students is that they always challenge me; it's a give and take relationship. I give them my knowledge and experience, and they keep me updated on the latest trends and philosophies of youth, which keeps me in an on-going journey searching for better and more creative ideas for teaching and conveying profound messages to my students.
I think every working and married woman faces many difficulties and challenges regardless of her nationality or culture. Even the advantages and disadvantages are almost the same despite the cultural gap between the two countries; USA and KSA. What I mean is that being in a negative surrounding puts you down, and being in a positive environment helps you ascend high. It's the woman's call; to look for the suitable environment or to refuse being part of a destructive and frustrating community. And if she cannot find a constructive community, she should create her own; she should never give up no matter what.
In America and/or Saudi Arabia, women have to struggle in order to prove themselves worthy of positions and great responsibilities. It's still a man's world in spite of all the changes, and the invisible ceiling is over our heads; the difference is that in America it is starting to be less invisible and therefore easier to fight and attack. In Saudi Arabia, women still don't understand that men in the workplace, not at home, are their greatest obstacle. Maybe this needs an entire article to explain! I highly recommend reading two of the most eye-opening books on women's condition in the workplace: Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian; and, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittenden.
Saudi women are struggling in a world of men, and a world of foreign employees who surpass them in experience and knowledge. If Saudi women don't work hard enough to assert themselves and their abilities, their future will be at risk. We do have many outstanding Saudi women (working in Saudi Arabia) like Dr. Suhair Al-Qurashi, Dr. Mervat Tashkandi, Ms. Maha Akeel, Mrs. Naeema Nawab, and so many others who really make us proud.
However, I hope to see more women in Saudi Arabia who work for the love of work, for the sake of a mission greater than their personal interests, and I really hate seeing Saudi women in the workplace showing off their degrees and certificates without having a real understanding of what they are doing. I believe the new generation of Saudi women is better than my generation in this regard, and I wish them all the best. They are the ones who will determine the future, and we wholeheartedly support them and count on them.
For non-Saudi women, there will always be a workplace in Saudi Arabia despite the Saudization movement. As long as we are short of experts, there will be non-Saudis working with us, and I truly believe it's a healthy thing to work in a multi-cultural atmosphere. Yet the problem emerges when some Saudi companies prefer non-Saudis just because they cost them less, or because they are better for the overall image of the company; not because of their unique qualifications. When qualification is no longer the criteria of hiring employees at any institute or firm, then the whole concept of work, quality, productivity, patriotism, and progression becomes a lost case. Work then transfers from a goal to be achieved into a suspicious realm where aspirations are shattered and beliefs are shaken.
I think I've already spoken more than I should have. :) I just want to sincerely thank Chiara for giving me the chance to express myself and share bits and bites of me with others. It has been a pleasure dealing with Chiara. Thank you!
How much work is required for a successful marriage? How many people know this before they get married?
How important is one spouse’s support for the other to thrive?
What options are open to a woman living in Saudi who wishes to both pursue a career and have a family? Are these different if the woman is non-Saudi or Saudi?
What are the pluses and minuses of a creative career?
How does a mother’s career impact her children, positively and negatively? What factors are at play, on the mother’s, the father’s, and the children’s sides? Does being Saudi or in Saudi alter this? How?