One recent Friday evening, I left work and went to a bookstore to make a purchase, and pass the time before seeing a film. In some ways the bookstore adventure proved to be more enlightening than the film, though not as entertaining. I thought to share the experience here, both to give some indication of what it might be like to be a Saudi student abroad, and to share ideas about how, and how far, international students should accomodate to their new environment, and what constitutes inappropriate behaviour from their hosts, as well as positive coping strategies.
This is rather timely, since more students will be traveling shortly to their new university destinations, and Canada and Saudi have a renewed exchange agreement that will see more students than previously coming to Canada. It seems as if there are more in my city already, and I will have another post on other meetings, soon. Meanwhile, please read about the incident described below; and, share your own thoughts on it, and any experiences you may have had, in the comments.
The Dynamics of Seating
After I found the book I intended to buy, I picked up 2 others to flip through in the store, and headed off to the seating area provided for that purpose--sort of. The seats there are like wooden park benches, 2 of them side by side. When I approached I saw that one was occupied by a large, as in tall, strong, and thickly set late middle-aged woman with a rather formidable grey-coloured, old-fashioned, topnot hairstyle, and similarly old-fashioned, serviceable style long-sleeved top, longish skirt and serviceable shoes. She seemed vaguely familiar, but more importantly seemed to well-dominate the whole bench. On the other bench was a young black man, an African Canadian of probably Afro-Caribbean origin, who was sitting forward on the bench reading one book and seemed to have masses of books all around him. No worries, I set off to find other seating areas in the large store, quite sure that the children's section would be a boon if no where else was. Indeed they had chairs and tables for little and bigger people, but they were full of the same.
Undaunted, I headed back past the original seating area to the other end of the store where there was nothing. I was about to head in other directions, but, when I passed by the benches again, the African Canadian fellow motioned that there was room for me so I gratefully joined him on his bench. He had moved some of his books and we shared the bench absorbed in our own reading.
Suddenly, the woman on the far side of the other bench began speaking loudly to someone, who answered her, and then finally came in to view. Ah, yes, he was more distinctive, and thus more memorable, than she. He was of a similar age and physique, had a very stiff bearing, and wore an old-fashioned almost bromberg style hat, low on the forehead, and with long thin hair straggling out the back, in that half page boy hair cut that suggested a bald pate beneath the hat. He also had on rather sturdy looking serviceable clothes--white shirt and brown pants--and shoes.
The 2 spoke loudly to each other as if no one were around, but I still couldn't identify the language beyond Eastern or Northern European. I remembered having seen them in the same store the last time I was there, which was some time ago (months, a year?), and they had the same appearance and somewhat unusual behaviour then, too. Eventually the man sat on the other end of the woman's bench, with his back angled away from me.
Meanwhile, "my" African Canadian got up and left, and was rapidly replaced with another young African Canadian man, who was so quiet it took me a while before I noticed he too was gone, and I could sit on the far side of "my bench" and have my books to the right of me. After a while, a young woman arrived with a mega-stack of books on fashion, sewing, and crafts, and asked if she could sit. I said of course, and put my books on my lap, but there was no real need. She had room, and preferred to put her books to her right on the arm rest of the bench.
Minding your own Business
I noticed the woman beside me was wearing a lovely headscarf of a light weave, a white colour background with floral motifs in green and tan scattered through it at about 4 inch intervals. It struck me as a motif that was rather reminiscent of evergreens, although the motif was abstract. She was also wearing a (hoodless) jilbab in a light beige colour that went well with the scarf she had tied fashionably but not ostentatiously.
For quite a while we just flipped through our respective books. However, I did notice that while her book arrangement was initially fine, the man on the other bench later kept backing in to them, no matter how she arranged them or straightened them. He never turned around, just continued his conversation with his wife, and nudged into the books periodically. She finally began to shift books away from there to the floor in front of her or to her left side, that is, between us.
The Value of Chatting
In the course of her shifting the books over we began to chat. I asked her where she was from, and she did the characteristic pause, and then said "Saudi Arabia". "Oh, nice, where?" "The west part." "The Hijaz?" "Yes." "What city?" "XYZ." "Oh, I know of that city." And then the usual back and forth. She is in Canada studying English to pass the TOEFL before applying for Master's programs. She has been here 4-5 months, and will stay in Canada, feeling safer here than in the USA.
We had a very nice conversation about our respective countries, and shared interests. I told her about the programs that were the best for her field, and wrote the names of the universities out; she told me about different aspects of Saudi culture about which I had specific questions, giving very thoughtful answers, and apologizing profusely for her very decent English. We discussed the French burqa ban and the niqab, and she said that many Saudi women do one thing in their own country and another outside, based on their own choice and sense of comfort. She told me of a Saudi woman who doesn't wear even hijab here, but whose character is good in both places. We were both enjoying the exchange, and had an affinity for each other's points of view.
The Adhan--A Call to Prayer that Some Hear as a Call to Arms
While we were chatting the sound of the adhan came softly but clearly in that unmistakeable, "someone's cellphone just went off" way.
The adhān (Arabic: أَذَان Azan/Ezan [ʔæˈðæːn]) is the Islamic call to prayer. It is a brief textual summary of the main tenets of Islam melodiously recited by the muezzin (caller or crier) from the minaret of the mosque at each of the 5 obligatory prayer times. As this call to prayer is also a creed, the Sunni and Shia texts are slightly different, and the fajr (morning prayer) adds an extra "wake up" line. The primary intention is to provide a summary of the faith to all Muslims, and a reminder to obligatory prayer at the appropriate times. In eras pre-dating modern time devices and reminder tools this was an extra service, particularly for those in urban centres where reading the sun wouldn't necessarily be a honed or readily available skill. The adhan is also a summary for non-Muslims of Islamic beliefs, one that perhaps in the early times of the spread of Islam served as an Arabic language message to non-Muslim Arabs, and continues to do so in mixed faith countries. A second call, the iqama, follows, reminding Muslims to line up and get in place, ready for the prayer to start.
A muezzin must be of good character, have a good voice, and skill at the technique of melodious recitation. The first muezzin was the slave and companion (in the sense of believer and contemporary, sabah) of the Prophet Mohamed, Bilal ibn Rabah Al-Habashi, an Ethiopian born in Makkah, later among the slaves freed by Abu Bakr. He was chosen for this role because of his good character and excellent voice. The fact of his slave status, his race, and ethnicity are often cited, along with the Prophet's Last Sermon, as evidence of pluralism and acceptance in Islam. Prior to mosques and minarets, Bilal would go about the town announcing the creed and calling the Muslims to prayer.
Adhan, Call to Prayer, with Arabic and English titling
Indeed, it must have been my bench companion's cell phone sounding the adhan because she said, "Oh", as she started to grab for it, and turned to her purse on the other side of her, while I said "Prayer time?" and she said, "Yes", by now somewhat frantic to find where it was in her purse and turn it off--even though almost no time had passed. The man--whose back had been to us, as he sat on the next bench turned towards his wife, who was farther along the same bench--turned around and looked down at her with a very unpleasant face, and said something in a gruff tone. She said, "Pardon", and he sat in the same position, with the same hostile look, and repeated it, no more comprehensibly to either of us, but with a distinctly nasty tone. She looked at me with a pained and puzzled expression, and I indicated by my face that I hadn't understood either. He turned away, and she said to me "Why do they do that?". I mouthed "They're weird", but she was distressed and insistent, and said, "No other people too, they do the same, why are they so upset, my friends have the same things happen all the time."
I explained to her that some people do not know what the adhan is, and they have it confused in their minds with more negative images. Then I told her the story of a conversation I had with a friend who has an MSc and is ABD (all but dissertation) for a PhD, as well as being a sub-specialist MD, and who has traveled the world visiting her sister whose husband is an "oil engineer". In other words, she is brighter, and presumably more culturally aware, than average.
One time we were talking on the phone, and she was speaking about some international event involving Muslims. She said to me, "You know how they do that war cry in the background?". "War cry?" "Yes you know, every time you see them on the news, you can hear that war cry in the background". "You mean the call to prayer? My FIL used to do that as a part-time job to put himself through school. He has a huge voice, is a good singer, and he didn't need a mike to make himself heard in the neighbourhood of the mosque." "Well it sounds like a war cry." "You watch too much CNN, you're scaring yourself without reason".
A few weeks later I saw her and asked if she were less anxious about world events, and she said "Oh, I stopped watching CNN, I don't think about it anymore. Have you ever heard of Edward Said?" I used him for part of my doctoral thesis, but she didn't know that. She had gone to the university bookstore to get better informed on Middle Eastern events and cultures.
At the end of my story, the young Saudi woman beside me in the bookstore said, "But how can people think that, for us it is beautiful, and spiritual. I put it on my phone so I can hear it and feel peaceful, and calm". We stayed talking until the store closed, and we parted ways as we gathered our purchases and non-purchases.
The Pot Calling the Kettle Black
As well as being unpleasant, and a glimpse into some aspects of life for women wearing hijab, or having the adhan on their phone, this incident struck me as highly ironic. The couple in question weren't just odd in their behaviour, they were signifying by their appearance, and their language choice, their otherness from the mainstream of Canadian society; and by their behaviour, their assertion of their right to do so, loudly, either oblivious to or in defiance of others. They seemed either Mennonite (Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, who immigrated north to Canada in the 19th century, or Russian Mennonites who began arriving in the late 19th century) and most likely Germanic speaking, or Eastern European Jews, and Slavic speaking. I'm not sure which, because their behaviour was odd for either group, and their appearance wasn't classic for either group. For sure they were not WASP, French Canadian, or Amerindian.
In any case, they were enjoying and asserting their full rights to dress as they please, speak the language of their choice, and presumably worship in the faith of their choice--as all residing in Canada, whether tourist or native born, have the right to do--international students included. Yet, they didn't seem to believe others should enjoy those rights in peace.
So, I would still chalk this incident up to "weird", except that the Saudi woman was insistent that this happened relatively frequently, and from a variety of types of Canadians. This just leaves me then with the unpleasant experience of being part of this type of incident that other visible minority friends have described, particularly around women wearing hijab, or young brown men walking in groups. I am also experientially aware of on campus issues about prayer, and prayer spaces. I have never heard of any "adhan on the phone" stories though.
I have discussed the incident with a few people, and that was an interesting experience, too. One Saudi woman student said that the young woman should learn not to be too obvious. She approved of the lighter coloured clothing as being less "in your face" than black would be (she herself wears colourful hijab and modest clothes), but kept wondering if the adhan on the phone was too loud, and suggested that it should be turned down very low. She was familiar with the type of unpleasantness or negative attention that wearing a hijab can entail. She saw this as a learning experience for a relative newcomer, who should make further adaptations, and thought it was good that I was there to help her make sense of it, and feel less alone with it.
A male Muslim friend, who has lived in Saudi, thought that she and I should have confronted the man, and stood up for her rights as a Muslim. He didn't think either of us should have been intimidated by size or demeanor. On that I beg to differ, but then I have spent more time in psychiatric emergency rooms than he has. I know that even seemingly "non-psychiatric" people can blow faster than you think they will, and that not showing fear, but being non-confrontational, is often the best course of action. People who breach normal etiquette in some ways, and are oblivious to others, are more likely to indulge in other inappropriate behaviours. However, I agree with him that Muslims need to stick up for their rights.
What are your impressions of this incident?
What would you have done in her place?
What would you have done in my place?
What do you think of my respective discussants' opinions?
Has anything similar happened to you?
How did you handle it?
How do you wish you had handled it?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, and experiences?
*Many of the illustrative photos here are from Free Islamic iPhone Wallpapers