Maha Noor Elahi, of A Saudi Woman’s Voice, seems to have burst into the Saudi-themed blogosphere with her intelligent, insightful, and articulate comments on a number of blogs, and with the introduction of her own blog. In her About section, she gives a detailed profile of herself. A Saudi national, she was born in 1971, and is now married with 3 children. She puts her Masters degree in English Literature (Drama) to good use as a Lecturer in the English Department at Dar Al-Hekma College, Jeddah. Her interests include reading, writing in English and in Arabic, music, fine art, cooking, and sports.
The Dedication to her blog is a poem that transmits well her view of Saudi women:
To all the struggling and intellectual Saudi women,
You gave me the strength and the vision that I needed.
To all women in the world,
An average Saudi woman is a being who
And has all the paradoxes in the world within her heart;
A Saudi woman is simply just a regular woman even though she wears a veil!
However, the most striking aspect of my first visit to her blog--to congratulate her on her mastery of both Saudi and Western culture that makes her articulate contributions such welcome additions to the dialogues elsewhere--was the tab entitled: “The Biography of a Saudi Fraud”. There, I discovered a much deeper introduction to her own cultural identity, and to a projected book about Saudi cultural identity. This stunning portrait of herself and Saudi inspired me to invite her to share her personal story. Maha kindly agreed to do so, and to share here that striking biography, slighted edited, before updating us from its June 8, 2007 promise, in Part II of this post.
The Biography of a Saudi Fraud
According to deep-rooted Saudi standards, beliefs, and traces of family trees, I am not an original Saudi as I do not belong to any Bedouin or Najdi tribe of the Arabian Peninsula--nor any other Arabian tribe. So far, I am not complaining; actually, I see it as a blessing sometimes. Matters of borders and limitations of nationality and origins have never been of my concern. I have been raised by my so-called Saudi family upon believing that Islam has no nationality. I’ve always seen myself as a Muslim woman who belongs to the Holy Lands of Makkah and Madinah along with millions of Muslims from all over the world. That is enough for nourishing my humanity, spirituality, and humble mentality.
Yet the bitter fact about me, despite my rejection of any “passport discrimination” among people, is that (by law and birthplace) I am a Saudi. It is a fact that I cannot deny, but at the same time I cannot utter with pride. I am definite that at this very moment my words are being approved by many unoriginal Saudis like myself, and applauded by some Saudi secularists who will use my words against Saudi Arabia. And I won’t be alarmed if some prejudiced Saudis are ruling me out at this instant as an ungrateful outcast who does not deserve the estimable Saudi nationality.
Also, at this very moment all my plans are being put on “pause” for I have suddenly decided to reveal to the world some mysteries of a Saudi fraud; of me and a few others who share the same untraditional Saudi background. To those who applauded, cursed, or raised an eyebrow while reading my words, I say: “You all got me very wrong!” This is not going to be a book against Saudi Arabia. I want to be proud of being a Saudi, but I can never feel proud of my Saudi nationality until I live in a united Saudi Arabia; a country that has a true Islamic identity with no prejudice and judgmental nature.
Although I am considered a fraud by Saudis because of being a descendant of an ancient Indian family who emigrated to the Holy Land of Makkah in the nineteenth century, I am still respected by every Indian I meet. I’ve been told by some of them that I am a descendant of a royal family in New Delhi who ruled some regions of India four hundred years ago. “So that’s why we’re so dignified and beautiful!” commented one of my brothers sarcastically when he heard the story of the New Delhi ancient rulers. Whether this piece of information is true or not, it doesn’t matter to me, and I am still considered a fraud according to Saudi standards.
The word “fraud” might seem harsh or irrelevant to some non-Arab readers who don’t know much about the Saudi culture, but I’d rather be called a fraud than called “tarsh bahar” or “pilgrims’ remains”. “Tarsh al-bahar” is the most commonly used Saudi taboo to insult an unoriginal Saudi. If a person is described as a “tarsh bahar”, it means that he/she has no origins and no roots; he/she is like “vomit” that has come from the sea! And since many Saudis are originally pilgrims who arrived in the Holy Land by sea to perform “Hajj” or to make a living, half of the country is being stigmatized as being “sea vomit” and “pilgrims’ remains”.
My ancestors crossed oceans and seas to reside in the Holy Land of Makkah; not in Saudi Arabia. It was not just my Indian ancestors who suffered to reach Makkah two hundred years ago; it was also thousands of immigrants from Egypt, Palestine, Indonesia, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, Morocco, and many other countries. All those people with all their historical honorable backgrounds are simply called in Saudi Arabia “tarsh bahar”-- the vomit of the sea--just because they came to Makkah by sea to perform the fifth pillar of Islam. Ironically, a fact remains; all these “tarsh bahar” or unreal Saudis are ones who contributed to building the Saudi Arabia that we know today.
I am not going to bore readers by historical facts about the old Saudi Arabia, and I don’t want to offend anyone. This is not my point, and I hereby state that I have no prejudices against any tribe, region, or nationality mentioned in this biography. Observations and facts are the cornerstones of my book; no judgment is going to be committed. I aim at finding roots and I am not ashamed to say so. I am not considered a Saudi by many original Saudis, and I cannot go back to India from whence my grandfathers had come, for I know no home but Saudi Arabia, no accent but the Makkan one, and no languages but Arabic and English. Now, if I say this in the presence of typical Saudis, they will think that I am joking or that I am crazy. Some might pity me for (inevitably) admitting the undeniable truth about my Indian origins, but I look at the issue merely as a simple fact, one which an attempt to hide or deny would only make a fool of me, or worse: a liar.
I was born in Jeddah and lived my early childhood in Makkah of which I have faded yet valued memories. When I reached school age, I traveled to Denver, Colorado and lived there for a few years with my parents who were resuming their higher education. Those were the best of years. I can never deny this even if it annoys many anti-American Saudis. Later, I returned to Makkah with my family and started to live alternatively between Makkah and Jeddah until I finally got married and settled in Jeddah. These “cultural” shifts--Makkah-Denver-Makkah-Jeddah--have broadened my vision, added a lot, and also confused me a great deal. It might seem to some readers that Jeddah and Makkah are almost the same, but I must emphasize a fact about the two cities: Jeddah and Makkah are as different as Paris and Dublin.
To those of you who think I’m going to share my secrets with the world, I must remind them that this is a “biography” of a people; it is not an autobiography. However, it might be a different type of biography, maybe the first of its kind, as it records incidents in the lives of a variety of people. What I’m going to share is more important than the secrets of an unknown woman like myself. It reveals an aspect of Saudis’ lives that is usually overlooked, either because it is taboo or because, as some might feel, ineffectual. In fact, some Saudis believe that discussing the nature of this country’s peoples is a wasted effort. That’s where they fail to see the real Saudi Arabia, and the essence of the problems that threaten its stability, dignity, and unity.
Some might think that this book is going to record the life of an oppressed Saudi woman. Some might think I am another version of Rania Al-Baz calling for help from America’s number one lady, Oprah Winfry. “Being a woman in Saudi Arabia” is definitely an attractive interesting topic, yet this is not my objective. My primary goal is not to decipher the mystery of the Saudi woman; I will attempt that worn-out task only where it is relevant.
I don’t want to completely undertake such a mission because other writers’ books won’t sell if I do this. Maintaining some level of suspense is always useful in order to keep the Arabian enigma burning and alive. Arabian women, especially women of the Arabian Gulf area have been viewed by the most narrowing stereotypical vision. The world looks at Arabian Gulf women as either submissive humiliated beings, oppressed lustful females, or modern rebellious women who scorn traditions and rebuff religion altogether. The whole universe of Arabian women is confined to such a partial portrait.
As I will explain in this book, the real picture is not the one mentioned above. However, I would like to confirm to the reader that this is not one of those “women’s issue” books. The Saudi man concerns me as well. The search for the Saudi identity is the goal of this biography. I hope I can answer the everlasting contemporary questions: “Who are Saudis? What is Saudi Arabia?” Through answering these questions, I wish I could find a category that fits me, a world to belong to, and a root to cling to.
Maha has raised some key issues about cultural identity, and gender identity as well. Although she relates them to Saudi culture, and its particularities, they also apply more broadly.
How important is a sense of a coherent cultural category to self-identification? What constitutes coherence? Who decides on one’s cultural identity? How important is the perception of the “Other”?
How important are roots? How far back do they need to go?
At what point does someone become an original? Ever? How?
What particularities of Saudi culture complicate these cultural identities?
Is there an average Saudi woman? How would you define her? (Be careful how you answer! LOL :) )
Is there an average any type of woman? How would you define her? (Be REALLY careful how you answer! LOL :) )
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?
Coming Next…Part II Thriving