Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When all the little things add up to One Defining 4

A week after the wedding/engagement party, in which I had my first taste of henna (aka black mess plopped into my hand), a week in which I basically sat upstairs in my room watching the hands on the clock move until he came home...he came home and told me we were going out. Yippee!!! I was like a child on an outing....excited and full of questions. He took me to a large pet store owned by a friend of his. He knew I liked animals and actually took me there just to look at them while he discussed some business with his friend. As soon as we pulled up into the large parking area and got out of the car, a little scrap of a puppy came strutting around the corner straight for us. He appeared to be about 8 to 10 weeks old and showed no fear as he stopped a few feet in front of me and gave me a once over. He was adorable with his brown scruffy coat and evil little twinkle in his eyes. I couldn't really tell what sort of dog he was but it seemed he was rather like a golden retriever mix.

I fell in love on the spot....and I wanted him.

I immediately begged my husband to buy him for me and was so happy at the thought of having a companion...something to liven up my day and make me laugh. The way he scampered back around the corner had me grinning from ear to ear already. I was determined not to leave without this little puppy that already had engraved himself on my heart.

Husband told me that Muslims are not real big on dogs..many of them considered dogs forbidden to having one in the house might be a problem for him (all though he himself didn't mind dogs). Not to mention the fact that we didn't have a yard to speak of...just the roof. I heard all that but it went right in one ear and out the other...I wanted that puppy despite the cons.

We went inside and he found his friend and asked about the puppy. His friend told him that the puppy had been specially bred and ordered by another Bahraini and had arrived a few days ago but that the Bahraini had changed his mind and refused to come get him. In other words, the pet store owner was stuck with him because nobody wanted to pay the high price of having a specially bred dog. The puppy was a mix between a German Sheppard and golden retriever (I have no idea why that particular mix was required but I didn't care just then) and was left to run in and out of the store as he pleased as it was geared more for fish, birds, and other caged or tank animals.

It was during this exchange that I came to first learn about Arab generosity and largess. For anyone that doesn't know...Arabs are hands down the most generous people when it comes to giving up something they own to someone else. When I say give up I mean, give YOU simply because they wish you to have it...they want you to be happy with something you might have admired...and it's very hard to refuse something once an Arab offers it to you because they will basically pack it up and put in your hands, car...whatever. They don't take no for an answer...or you have to really refuse to take it and be insistent.

This gift giving isn't seen the same way as how I understand many Americans view it. For instance, one time I was with my husband admiring some full blooded Arabian horses that a friend of his of them was just exceptionally beautiful. Took my breath away how he flexed his neck and cantered around neighing and snorting. His mane was blowing in the breeze and he looked so damn proud of himself. Amazing!!! I whistled at the horse and he immediately came to the railing and gave me his head to pet. Without thinking I said out loud...more to myself really...that I would die to have a horse like this (we had horses when I was young so wasn't a novice around them and can ride) and almost before the sentence was out of my mouth his friend shouted at one of his employees to bring around the horse trailer and load up the horse for me. NO LIE PEOPLE!!! He was smiling from ear to ear and giving orders for this beautiful horse, obviously a prize of his, to be given to ME. My husband had to do some serious refusing to get his friend to change his mind. Not even telling him that we lived in a very tiny house with NO place to keep a horse stopped him..."I will keep him here and you come see him...but he's yours to do with as you please"...was his answer.

Flattered as I was I knew I couldn't accept such a gift. We barely escaped with the friendship still intact he was so upset at my refusal to accept the horse. When it comes to Arabs...that is not the exception...that is the norm. For most of them, what they own is just a loan from doesn't really belong to them and so giving it away isn't viewed the same way as, I'm sure, many Americans would view it...and it truly does upset them when you refuse the gift...not because you are refusing it really but because they feel they now "own" something that really should belong to someone else now (the one that admired it or whatever). It really is hard to explain unless you understand the Arab thought process on this sort of thing. (not all Arabs are like this but it really is a an amazing trait shared by many)

However, on this particular day I had no idea about Arab generosity and was wondering just how much this puppy was going to cost...that is if my husband agreed to buy him. The friend had ordered the puppy and agreed to sell him to the other Bahraini for BD550 (around $1200) as he had to pay to bring him into Bahrain, vet care, papers etc. My heart plummeted because I knew we didn't have that kind of money...least of all for a dog.

Just when I figured all was lost...I saw money changing hands (NOT BD55o either) and the puppy was collected and put into my arms. I was too happy for words and didn't quite understand how he came to be mine so quickly...but I wasn't sticking around for minds to be changed...I practically ran to the car and waited for my husband to come out.

When he did he told me his friend had given the puppy to me as he seen how much I wanted him (WOW) and the BD25 he gave his friend was for the paperwork he would need for vet care and the food he had bought.

I didn't really care about all that...all I cared about was the squirming body, wagging tail, and wet little tongue kissing my face. I actually felt happy for the first time in the 2 weeks I had been in this country. I had a puppy. It was a good day.

We got home and I entered the house remembering what he had said about Muslims and dogs...wondering what they would say. I was determined to keep him upstairs ALL the time if I had too...just taking him out with us when I could. I was pretty damn tense about it but it turns out they were pretty cool about the new member of the family. His mother took the longest to warm up to him...she would never really like him to come into the majlis or anywhere she on the rare occasions that he did go downstairs...he just ran back and forth between the doors of the rooms...sticking his head in and grinning at everyone...tongue hanging out and tail wagging.

I named him King and little did I know just then that scrappy little puppy would grow up to be a beautiful copper colored, broad chested, just as regal as his name sounded, with a chest full of long blond hair and an actual mane of hair on his head and down most of his back. Hair that was longer than the rest of his body and which would actually stick up when he was tense or on alert...just like a lion's mane. He was awesome and I loved him a lot.

King did so much for me that first year in Bahrain. I laughed whenever I took him out and this little tiny puppy actually made grown men leap out of the way, falling over themselves to get away from him. His yippy little barks chasing them as they literally fled my little lion. I was amazed that people were so afraid of him...this little puppy that couldn't hurt them if he tried....but it was true what my husband had said about dogs...most Muslims hate them...won't have anything to do with them...and are just plain scared of them because of that.

Remember the story about me and the meat market...well try imagining that same scenario but with me coming in with a puppy in my arms. I went with his sister again and I figured that since cats were in abundance, not to mention the multitude of flies that didn't seem to phase anyone...that a puppy in my arms was no big deal.

I was wrong. It was if I had brought in a rat with the plague or something. Looks of horror were everywhere and people scattered like bowling pins...I seriously wanted to laugh at the complete insanity of it but figured it wasn't the best time for retreated back to the car and waited. Never took him there again.

As he grew, his full beauty started to show itself and he was awesome to look at. A real show dog if I had been inclined...or if Bahrain had such things back then. (with the huge influx of foreigners like Brits etc...dogs are more popular in Bahrain now..and they do have shows etc for them) The family became more comfortable with him, the nieces came upstairs to play with him a lot (helping to break some barriers between us) and we took him out with us whenever we could. (he loved chasing the seagulls at the beach or pawing at the crabs).

If there was one drawback to King it was his inability to get along with Indians...or Hindis as Bahrainis called them. I have no idea why he found them intolerable...or even how he knew a Hindi from a Bahraini or any other nationality...but it never fails that if one came to the door and knocked...he turned from a docile loving dog into a ferocious all up..mane at attention. He was a sight at times like this...and it took a lot to calm him down...and he never reacted that way to any other people. I never understood it. He also never acted that way outside the house...he was curious about people...and of course they would still flee in horror when he playfully approached them...but he was never vicious with anyone outside our home...only when they came to the house..and only Hindis.

I was very lonely that first year in friends really..just people he introduced me too but nothing after that. I had little contact with my family then...and spent a great deal of time alone upstairs as already his mother and sister were set on making me as miserable as King really saved me in many ways. He gave me a reason to get up in the mornings when nothing else really seemed worth it. He made me laugh when laughing was the last thing I felt like doing. He sat beside me on the bed and just having him there was enough to push the loneliness away for awhile.

When my first baby was born...and grew...he allowed her all sorts of indignities with him. She pulled his hair..climbed over him etc and he never so much as raised an eyebrow to her. He was so patient with her and he was still pretty much a puppy at this point..barely a year old...he was a wonderful dog...a wonderful pet...and pretty much my only real companion back then...then one day he was gone.

His father was a rare presence in the house for all the years he was alive back then. He came from work...smoked his pipe and watched the news while eating his dinner...then went to the beach where he sat with friends or tinkered with his boat. I had very little to do with his father in general but he was never mean to me...and on a few occasions even reprimanded his wife and daughter to treat me better as I had left my whole family and country and this family was the only one I had now etc...and he tolerated King for the most part..though spent little time around him.

One night King was barking at something...he usually didn't bark that much and I had no idea why he was barking so much this night. He just wouldn't quit...then suddenly it was all quiet and I assumed he had given up and calmed down so I didn't bother going to check on him (he was outside on the roof) The next morning when I went to bring him in for breakfast he wasn't there. I looked downstairs and he wasn't there either. I asked the nieces where King was...did my husband take him out or something?

They didn't seem to want to answer me and it was awhile before the youngest told me that her grandfather (my FIL) had opened the door in the night and kicked him out because of his barking.

I was shocked. That was MY dog. He had no right to throw MY dog out of the house. I ran upstairs and threw on some clothes with the intention of going out to look for him. It would be the first time I ventured out alone and had no idea where I was going to look etc but I knew I was going...regardless of the consequences. When I stomped downstairs the neices tried to convince me to stay...they were horrified at the idea of me going out alone...but could see I was one of them came with me.

We walked all over the neighborhood for 2 hours looking for him...we asked boys if they had seen him and were given a mix of information which lead to nothing. It was very hot and I was burning from the sun...but kept searching. My heart was squeezing closed at the idea that I wouldn't be able to find him...that he was lost to me. I knew how the locals treated dogs...especially the boys. Throwing rocks at them or locking them inside make shift enclosures then setting it on fire. I had seen this with dogs and cats...and was horrified at the treatment animals received here...not to mention the police routinely shot dogs they found outside. Most of the time not even bothering to check if the dog was actually dead from the it wasn't unusual to see wounded dogs...or dogs lying in the street...shot but still alive. Nobody caring about them. I had to find him.

At some point my husband came screeching up in his car...jumped out and stormed over to me...he shouted at me for coming out in the street without him. I felt like a child caught by her parent...he embarrassed me so much in front of all the people looking on. His niece was nearly in tears and we were ordered back to the car. I pleaded with him to let me look for King but he was so mad at me leaving the house that he wouldn't listen to anything I said.

We arrived back at the house and with much door slamming and shouting I was told never to leave the house again without either him or his sister. I was made to feel like a prisoner that had tried to escape. I was mortified and hurried to my room so I wouldn't cry in front of them...and to cry over my lost dog. My companion and friend.

The thing that hurt almost as much as losing my much loved dog...was the fact that my husband said nothing at all to his father about his actions. King was my dog...losing him left a huge hole in my heart. While I wrote this post tears were streaming down my face at the remembered pain I felt then...and apparently still feel...over the loss I suffered. And this loss was only one of many that this family inflicted on me in so many ways. So many times things were taken from freedom...without so much as a single thought as to how it would make ME feel. I was the last one consulted when another piece of me was ripped off...I was the only one who felt the loss of me...of what belonged to me...of what meant anything to me.

Much of my pain that stems from living in Bahrain comes from the fact that for nearly 20 hopes and very existence...was held in the hands of 3 people (husband, mother in law and sister in law) who cared little if nothing about me, the person. I was a possession to my husband...and an object for abuse from those two women..for what reason I don't know. Losing my dog was not seen as a big deal to anyone but me...because what mattered to me...what hurt me...was inconsequential to them....and that never changed.

I never saw King again...but I've never forgotten him....and my relationship with his father....and with my husband...was never the same after that.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

When all the little things add up to One Defining 3.

I sat on my bed and cried for the first of many many times during my life in Bahrain. I felt alone and unable to make sense of where I was and how I had arrived in that place. I wondered why my new mother in law hadn't asked anything about me (asked niece to ask me that is...with her hesitant and simple English). In fact, nobody had showed the slightest interest in me while we all sat waiting for lunch. Isn't that the whole game of getting to know someone...asking about them, their family, how you met their son? Anything???

I really wanted to call my mother right then but there wasn't a phone in the house. Because of the $2000 bill he had made calling me before, the house phone had been turned off. No mobile phones back then and, I would come to learn, that public phone booths that were in working order were hard to find. Destruction of public property in Bahrain was a common occurrence. Also, calling America from Bahrain back in the 80's cost a hell of a lot more then than it does now. Phone calls home would be rare and at one point I would actually go a whole year without hearing from my family.

I waited for him to come home so I could have someone to talk to. When he finally arrived he wasn't very happy. It seems his mother had given him an earful about me...already? It seems that me wearing shoes into her majlis wasn't acceptable...AND eating with my left hand even less so. My husband asked me if I were left handed. After all this time he didn't know what hand I primarily used? Reminded me once again how little we knew of each other. I'm right handed but I do use both hands to eat with when called upon...why? Well, turns out Muslims don't eat with their left hands, something about eating with devil...that hand being dirty...using it to wash up with in the bathroom etc. Ok. I get that...but what has that got to do with me? I'm not a Muslim, and I generally wash my hands after going to the bathroom as He told me it was considered bad manners to eat with the left hand in front of Muslims......

Hmmm? So not greeting me when I newly arrived from the airport is ok...but eating with my left hand is considered rude? I didn't like where this was going. I asked him why his mother got so mad at was I supposed to know all that as nobody had told me. He said something I would hear a hell of a lot over the years..until I wanted to scream.

She is an old woman, just let her have her way. It's easier.

First of all, she couldn't have been more than early 50's then...and does "old" age give one the right to be rude? And secondly, I had to "correct" my behavior to please them?...but it sounded like they didn't have to do the same to please me? Not good.

Then I asked him how come they were calling me Layla? Who was Layla? Didn't they know my name was Lee Ann? He said that he told them my name was Layla because saying Lee Ann would have been difficult for them. But I don't want to be called Layla...that's not my name. I wouldn't even realize someone was talking to me if they called out Layla. 18 years of my life I've been Lee it or not...that's me. Not to mention, Layla and Lee Ann didn't sound all that couldn't be anymore difficult to say or remember than the other. Right?

Unlike me, who now had to learn and say a whole houseful of strange on the tongue sounding names...were they going to change their names to make it easier for me? hmmm?

It did no good to argue my case. From that very first day I was Layla, and Layla I would remain...and little did I realize just then that it was only the first step in erasing the American born and bred me...and turning me into his idea of what a good little Muslim/Arab wife should be.

The destruction of my identity had begun with my name and would continue until I met a lady 20 years later who asked my daughter what my name was and my daughter said, Layla, and she that her American name, and my daughter said "no, that's just what everyone calls her." This lady, soon to be my very best friend, said....I want to know what her REAL name is. She was the first person that had even bothered to ask me what my real name was in all that time. It felt so strange to hear my name coming from her mouth after hearing Layla for so long. Eventually her whole family called me Lee Ann...and somehow it helped the transformation from the enforced Layla back into my much missed Lee Ann to take place.

But I digress. More on that later.

My husband showered and laid down to take a nap. Something he would do pretty much everyday after he came from work. Bahrainis were big siesta takers..the heat of the day making it nearly impossible to enjoy yourself outside for any length of time. It also meant the rest of the house also went to sleep. I was not a nap taker...and so quite often prowled restlessly around...waiting for someone to wake up so I could have some company. This was pre-computer and Internet days, pre-bookshops with books I could read days....pre having anything to do but watch t.v. channels that had nothing but football or news on Arabic....days.

Those early years in Bahrain gave new meaning to the word "bored". Some days I would quite literally go to bed at night having done nothing more energetic or intellectual then reading the labels on medicine bottles or food containers. It WAS that bad at times. I lived in a very small little house in a small little room. I had no books, no t.v., no phone...and nobody to talk to for the most part. They didn't speak English very well (all though in time I would learn that his sister actually spoke very passable English...just chose not to with me) and, of course, I didn't speak Arabic. For days on end the only time I would speak was when he was home...and awake.


The next morning he told me his sister was going to take me out with her so I could see more of Bahrain. I was excited to be able to see more of my new surroundings in the light of day...having only seen it in the dark coming from the airport. We sat in the car not saying a word and she stopped at the local meat and vegetable market. For those unfamiliar with this set's a very large open area with many vendors selling pretty much the same thing...and screaming to get your business. It's loud, messy, smelly, and with about a million flies and as many cats wandering around trying to get a meal.

It's chaotic and your eyes get tired trying to take it all in.

Did I mention it's generally about 95% males?

Did I mention that of the 5% females that might be there...4.99% of those were wearing the black abaya and hijab and (even more often the niqab) of them wasn'

Friends, I wish I could adequately describe the scene that unfolded next as we walked in out of the bright sunshine into this loud smelly building. The noise level is deafening...the voices all shouting to be heard over each other..the various push carts and slamming doors...the few kids running and screaming...and the occasional small pickup that inched its way in to off load some more produce.


And then it wasn't. Simply put....all noise stopped. Almost as if the conductor of a symphony had tapped his wand for attention...and all band members had stopped practicing, tuning, or otherwise engaging with their instruments to give him their full attention.

It turns out I was the band leader...the meat market vendors and customers were my symphony...I had their full attention....a 1000 pair of eyes on me waiting for my cue. Talk about nerve wracking.

The quiet was shattered when an orange came out of nowhere...rolling along the floor to stop quietly at my feet. I have no idea if it was rolled deliberately at me or just happened...whatever it was it signalled for the "music" to start...and the quiet was destroyed at the market returned to its business.

All eyes were still on they would be wherever I went for a good long while (me, the invisible middle child, suddenly found more attention than I ever dreamed possible...irony?)

On the way out of the market I saw a little tiny bookstore. I asked his sister if we could check it out. I had no idea of her level of English then so spent quite a bit of time speaking dysfunctional English with her assuming she couldn't understand me...before realizing that she could. At any rate, we went inside and it was a small dusty little shop that had about 3 things in English. Just little kids books for learning English. Nothing else. However, there was one book that had English and Arabic phrases...English on one side and Arabic transliterated on the other. I took that book assuming it would help me learn some Arabic. Turns out it was Egyptian Arabic...and Bahrainis would laugh whenever I attempted to twist my tongue around a phrase I had painstakingly learned.

Bahraini and Egyptian Arabic sound nothing alike and each makes fun of the other for the most part. However, Egyptian Arabic is considered the fall back Arabic dialect...if you can speak that just about anyone who speaks Arabic can understand you...though you might not be able to understand their dialect as there are many Arabic dialects....and Arabic itself is just a hard language to conquer...speaking personally.

Instead of going home she took me to a clothing store and I had never before seen such a chaotic shopping atmosphere before. Women with children in tow were blazing trails through the store...literally picking up and then throwing back clothing as they "shopped"? It was NOISY and children ran EVERYWHERE. Eating sweets and touching all the garments...throwing their refuse all over. Employees (I assumed) were running behind them picking up the garbage or removing soiled clothing...but not saying a single word to the women....such as ...mind your children?

I stood there in complete silence...amazed at this level of rude behavior. I know for a fact that in America you would be summarily shown the door if this sort of behavior occurred...yet the employees were completely silent...other than the raised eyebrows and clenched teeth that were quickly seen then gone.

His sister told me that we were going to a wedding so I should choose something to wear. A wedding? Whose? I had never been to a wedding before...much less a Bahraini wedding...but I was pretty sure these sorts of dresses weren't worn to weddings. Hmmm? These were just ordinary wear anywhere sorts of clothes....but what did I know. I ended up choosing a shirt and long skirt...making sure it didn't have food stains on it.

Later that night we all prepared to go to a wedding. It would be my first experience at Arab "timing". Arabs view time rather differently then Americans...or anyone else as far as I know. They are pretty laid back about time and never consider a meeting, date, appointment, or even a wedding, to have a "fixed time". It's pretty much whenever they show up. For us time conscious Americans it can be something incredibly hard to get use to...but eventually you have no choice. Arab time in the middle east is what everything runs by....except the banks..that's something else.

We show up at his aunts of his cousins is getting married...this is, in fact, her engagement party. Not the actual wedding, all though it is seen as being legally valid...when its over, they are considered married but probably won't live together just now. Rather hard to explain.

If anyone has ever been to a an Arab wedding/engagement party then you know how absolutely ear shattering the music is. It was impossible to hear my own thoughts the music was so loud. Ironic in a country in which so many consider music forbidden (something else I would learn eventually). Women stopped chatting (how could they hear each other I wondered) and turned to look at me. While the music didn't stop, a sudden silence did most of the ladies turned to take in this new face. A few women were introduced to me...but their greetings and names were lost to the music....I was introduced as Layla. *sigh* The nieces ran off to be with cousins and his sister went and sat with some women. I was left standing there alone, and had no clue what to do with myself.

An elderly lady came and took my hand. She had one of the softest hands I had ever felt. She had a kind face and was speaking to me a mile a Arabic mind you. It seemed to not occur to her that I had no idea what she was saying to me...even if I could hear her properly. She indicated for me to sit and then sat beside me....still chattering away. She took my hand, spread the palm open, then plopped a huge disgusting black mess into it....then closed my hand around it. All the while smiling and chattering. I wanted to snatch my hand away and get that "gunk" off..whatever it was it smelled horrible. Sort of like gasoline and lemons....but she held it firmly...smiling and chattering. Eventually her attention was taken by another lady and she left me (I would later learn she was one of his of the few people in his family that would be nice to me...though in the few years she was Arabic would never be good enough then to really converse with her. She was known as Solt-Arab..or Radio Arab...because of her non-stop talking).

Once she left me I was completely alone...surrounded by what must have been 200 people. Ladies in fancy dresses, wild make-up, crazy hair styles (for me anyhow)...children running so loud my ear drums were thumping in my head...and I felt alone. We were inside the house but in a courtyard type setting so I could look up and see the moon. It was full and white...and had a strange glow about it. I felt tears sliding down my face and I couldn't stop them. The overwhelming sense of loneliness was ridiculous considering all the people I was among...but other than the curious glances and hesitant smiles now and then...nobody approached me.

It was a situation I would learn (sort of) to get use to.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When all the little things add up to One Defining 2

The first week I spent in Bahrain was an eye opener in many ways...and an early indication of what I could expect in the days, weeks and months (wasn't even thinking years at this point) to come.

I'm going to mention a very personal aspect of my marriage here simply because it played such a huge part in my life there. My every day existence boiled down to this ONE thing...or so it seemed to me on my very worst days.


From that very first night, after an exhausting 22 hour flight (all combined), in which I barely had time to take a shower and situate myself...he called me to bed...and for the most part expected me to "be prepared" whenever and wherever he chose for the next 20 years....but more on that later.

I fell asleep with my mind whirling with the "what ifs" of the unknown....only to be awaken by the sounds of a VERY loud cow...or so I thought. I jerked awake completely terrified, and shaking him awake too, trying to understand what that SOUND was. It filled the air and echoed off the walls. I heard myself practically shouting at him...WHAT is that...what is it????

Turns out it was my first experience listening to the fajr (morning) call to prayer, or the adhan. The nearest mosque was barely a stones throw from his it seemed as if the loud speaker was right IN my bedroom. It scared the hell out of me with that first rude awakening...but in time I would come to love hearing it...and miss it when I didn't. Also, with would awaken me naturally...better than any alarm clock ever could.

He woke me up around 7 am wanting more sex and then showered and went off to work...which was the BDF, or Bahrain Defense Force. The Emir of Bahrain's attempt to have a military that did little more than dress up and "play" soldier as far as I could determine (over the years mind you). Before he left he told me to go downstairs at any time...they would be waiting for me.

I showered and dressed...even put my shoes on (had no idea about the "no shoes in the house" thing at this point and old habits die hard) then sat down on the bed and wondered what to do. I considered putting my things away but I didn't really see anywhere to put them and he hadn't indicated a place before leaving. I turned on the little t.v. and flipped through the channels...all 7 of them. 6 were in Arabic (I assumed)....1 was in English but it wasn't broadcasting yet. It was just an audio recording of a man reciting something...eventually I would learn this was the Quran, of which I knew nothing about at this point. I turned off the t.v. and looked for something to read. There was nothing at all. Another thing I eventually learned is that my husband was not a reader. His only dealings with books were auto books that showed him how to fix engines etc. Looking back I can only recall a time or two that I witnessed him reading the Quran. Even during Ramadan he almost never opened one. This discrepancy in our reading habits would also eventually fan the flames of our ever increasing heated relationship.

I opened the door of our bedroom and was greeted with a sun that must have been no more than 7 feet over my head. Bright and hot...sending a burst of light right into my retina. I was blinded momentarily and jumped back into the safety of the room until my eyes adjusted to the glare. I hesitantly stepped out again and got my first good look around in the "light" of day. I could feel the heat tingling my arms and instantly little beads of sweat popped out on my forehead. It was like instant time to get use to it. One moment I was inside the room...relatively cool and comfortable...the next I was panting for a breath and feeling like a potato baking in an oven...and this was ONLY April. Little did I know that this was still Spring by Bahrain standards.

Around me I could see other roofs of houses. Those that were higher than ours that is. T.V. antennas and washing lines...not to mention the occasional rooster standing on a wall crowing the morning away. I could hear some birds chirping and the ever present sound of traffic. Traffic sounds were something that never ended on that little street. Morning noon and night the sounds of horns, brakes, bad engines and back fires were a constant background noise to whatever else may be going on. It never ever seemed to be totally quiet there. Even at 3 a.m. cars and peoples voices were the norm. Because the streets were so narrow...those sounds always seemed to be right in our bedroom. After having spent years with my father, who tried his best to build a proverbial moat around his family to maintain his idea of proper distance and privacy, this sudden closeness and feelings of having no privacy were overwhelming.

Right outside my door to the right was a small waist high wall. When I looked over it I could see down into the house. All the rooms were are built in a on each wall of the house (3 rooms on 3 walls) and the outside door on the 4th wall...with an open "court yard" type thing in the middle of all this. Though it was barely longer than a large type car and not much wider. This house was SMALL. It was all quiet downstairs even though it was around 10 am by this time. Another thing I would learn...this family never really got started until around noon on any given day.

Over the years I would use this little vantage point as a way to get the vibes from downstairs...if I could hear my name mentioned frequently (though as my understanding of Arabic improved I realized my name wasn't always what they referred to me by) I would know they were upset about something...and could safely stay upstairs and out of firing range. At the moment the only thing that stirred down there was a cat. Not a cat that belonged to the house but a street cat. These cats were quite bold and would enter houses to steal what they could before bolting up the stairs and jumping on our wall and over to another and be gone. They were usually followed by a thrown shoe or other weapon of choice. Bahrain's unofficial mascot seemed to be the street there appeared to be thousands of them. In later years my children and I would play the game of Count the Cats we would see during an outing...we counted 52 one time before giving up...and that just while leaving our neighborhood.

I walked around the corner of the was shaped like an the far wall. The wall was about 6.5 feet tall so I couldn't see over it...but there was a small ledge I could put my toes on and by grabbing the wall I could pull myself up and look out into the street. I looked down at my first morning in Bahrain and saw children running and on bikes (eventually I learned most of these were Pakistanis or Indians) and the occasional car speeding by...which was amazing considering the street was barely car width wide...and the doors of houses opened directly onto the the children and men on bikes in that space...but that appeared to be the normal speed of travel in Bahrain...full steam ahead regardless of the dangers.

I stayed perched on that ledge until the heat of the sun made the wall too hot to handle...but not before I noticed others noticing me. At some point some children saw me and stopped dead in their tracks, open mouthed and silent...watching me watching them. I could imagine the sight I made...a head barely visible over the wall...with red hair and fair skin. As yet I had not seen another soul that had anything but varying shades of or skin. The interest of the children caught the attention of some passer byes and they too looked up to see what was so interesting....and stood equally silent and opened mouth. I pictured myself throwing peanuts down into their open mouths as my sisters and I use to do...and that made me giggle. My first humorous thought since I had arrived...things were looking up.

Being stared at by the children didn't bother me at all but watching the half dozen men gathered standing there so openly staring at me was rather disconcerting. They didn't seem to comprehend what they were looking at. A complete look of amazement covered their faces. Hadn't they seen a woman before? Well of course they had...hadn't they seen a foreign woman before? Who knows...maybe not.

Eventually I would learn (as always) that they were probably struck more by the nerve I had to be looking down into the street at all. Women didn't DO that. Then again...I had very short hair then...they might have mistook me for a boy...just an odd colored boy compared to everyone else. I was 18 then but I could pass for 14 and I was very boyish looking according to some...then and now actually. I've never been a very girly girl.

Eventually I grew tired and hopped down but I would eventually spend many many hours balanced up on that tiny ledge...holding on so I didn't fall and just look down into the wasn't much of a view but it was the only one I would have...for many days at a time it was the only view of the "outside world" that I would get. Until his father "caught" me one time..and sealed it off so I couldn't do even that.

It was very hot and my skin was already glowing red...a sure sign of impending sunburn..something I had been forced to deal with all my life. I burned at the slightest bit of sunlight..and now here I was in a country that seemingly did nothing but radiate UV rays All day Every day. ugh! Talk about irony. bitch!!

I looked downstairs again and heard some voices but was too shy to go down there. I retreated to the room and shut the door...and wondered what I was supposed to do with myself now that I was here. I went and opened a suitcase and pulled out some books..and went and laid down on the bed to read.

Suddenly the door burst open and my husband strode in. I was happy to see him simply because I was bored to death...and rather scared to be alone so soon after arriving. He kissed me in greeting them told me he was in a hurry...he had made up an excuse to leave work (aka military) and had come home with one have sex with me. And he did. When he finished he zipped his pants and advised me to go downstairs again before hurrying out the door with a slam. This particular scenario would be played out many many MANY times over the course of the years. He would pop in out of nowhere...quickly have sex with me...then be gone. Many times I had to do little more than bend over for him until he was through...then a light kiss and he was out the door again. Might I remind you of my earlier statement pertaining to what I though was my actual "purpose" of being there. This was one of the many reasons why I felt like that. It seemed he viewed me as little more than a receptacle for his sexual urges...that could strike at anytime of the day...or night. It seemed he also believed those urges should be met WHEN they occurred and not a moment later...hence his coming home from work at all hours..or waking me in the night...nearly EVERY night of our marriage. He never seemed to get enough sex....more on that later.

About 10 minutes after he left there was a knock at the bedroom door. His sister was at door holding a tray with some food and milk on it. She greeted me with "good morning, Layla"...Layla? Who was that? set the tray down and left. On the tray were eggs and kobuz...or fat torteas when I described them to my mother at some point....and a glass of warm milk. Warm? ugh! Who drank warm milk? For the next week she would bring me that same breakfast...and I would eat the eggs and kobuz...but would pour the milk down the sink. I would note later that not another person in that house drank warm milk...not to mention, I told my husband to tell her I didn't like warm don't bother to give it to I have no idea to this day why she kept bringing me warm milk. Did she think Americans liked warm milk? I have no idea.

A few hours later the youngest niece, around 11, came and timidly knocked on the door. She knew just a few words of English..."good morning, Layla"...yet again. Why were they calling me Layla? I told her my name was Lee Ann but she just smiled at me and told me to "come"...then went downstairs and looked to see if I was following. Swallowing a huge lump in my throat I went down.

She led me into the majlis...I stepped inside and was immediately shouted at...I had no idea why..not understanding Arabic...but I know when I'm being shouted at. Turns out I had my shoes on still...and was making his mother upset that I hadn't removed them. I stepped back and slipped them off...then came inside...burning with humiliation. The niece indicated I should sit down on the only piece of "furniture" in the room...other than the bed and cupboard. It's called a doshag...and is little more than a long thin cushion...with pillows leaning against the wall. There are more elaborate ones...with thicker cushioning etc...but ordinary ones are pretty basic. In America we generally are not comfortable sitting on floors. Yes, kids will sprawl on the floor during slumber parties...and home work sessions...but for adults to sit on the floor during a time of socializing...doesn't happen too getting used to sitting on the floor was a habit I never really acquired...just hurt my bottom and back too much. Not to mention when I was pregnant, made standing up nearly impossible....but I sat.

The mother and 4 nieces were there...the sister was in the kitchen preparing lunch. Nobody said a word. I was busy trying to not notice the smell and dirty look of the place...wondering silently what my mother would think to know I now lived in such a place. Ironic considering the number of times my father had pulled me from sleep to clean yet again an already pristine bathroom or kitchen. His house had to be military now I was wondering what my FATHER would think of this much less my mother. Irony seemed to be my constant companion now.

The nieces ranged in age from the oldest, around the youngest...11. I noticed one of the nieces sat in the corner...her hair a wild mess...her toenails and fingernails were inches long...her eyes rather crossed. She stared at me, and would continue to stare at me whenever I was around...for years and years. I learned she was mentally disabled...but would also learn that they treated her as if she were completely incapable of even the smallest task...and she wasn't.On a scale of 1 to 10...10 being completely dependent on others...I would say she was a 5 or 6. She could learn...if anyone took the time to teach her things. Through the years I would take that time...taking a risk in the process. For she would also be the cause of several of my "dramas" in the house...she didn't like me then (though her dislike would often disappear at times)...or ever.

We sat in complete silence for about 10 min until the sister brought the lunch. A plate of well as the usual Arab food...rice with some form of meat or chicken etc. After it was all set out on the floor (another thing I had to get used to...its not really easy for me to sit on the floor and eat from plates on the floor...again..especially while pregnant)...I reached out and took a sandwich..again his mother seemed hostile about something. The youngest niece quickly took the sandwich from my LEFT hand and placed it in my right. I looked at her puzzled...and she just smiled at me. His mother continued to complain (so it seemed)..and I found I wasn't quite able to continue eating with them after that. It all seemed so tense and unsettling. I knew I had made a mistake of some kind..but no idea what. I did little more than nibble on my food before I excused myself and fled back to my room.

continued in next post

© Lee Ann Fleetwood, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

When all the little things add up to one defining moment.

Whenever you get caught up in a group of Muslims, specifically women, and they know you converted to become a Muslim...the first question they always ask is...Why did you convert? What made you become a Muslim? I've answered this questions many many times in the people as well as on the net in various places....but truth be told I never told the whole truth about my conversion. I told the basic truth...but not the deep truth. The deep truth as to why I converted is painful to remember and reminds me of a time when all seemed lost. Not only is my conversion a painful time in my de-conversion was even more so. When I converted to Islam I thought I had saved my soul from self destruction... not from Hell perse'...more from the downward spiral I was in at the time. Islam, the Islam I thought I was converting too, saved me from the deep dark abyss that I was swan diving into. Becoming a Muslim at THAT time surely did save me...but in time I would come to realize also destroyed me.


"Fate" Comes Calling

Oct 5th, 1986 I was a newbie in the Air Force. I was at a training base in Chanute, Ill and was loving my new found freedom...away from my abusive father for the first time in my life. Other newbies found military life hard to handle and spent far too much time on teary phonecalls to home...I did actually have one such phonecall to my Mom, but more because I missed her so much not because I couldn't handle military life. After all, when you grew up in a house with my father and survived that, everything else was cake.

On a previous post I talked about how fate came calling and how I found myself sitting at a pizza parlor on base, playing pool and listening to music...rather than in my room at the dorm studying as I had planned. My future husband was across the room from me playing pool alone...I pause when I write this because it still makes me angry that people with mental problems do not always show those problems in an obvious way. Rather like a cancer, hidden deep within the body but corrupting and destroying everything it touches. We can readily see deformities of the limbs...and spend a little time with someone and you might realize they have a deformity in their intellect...but when someone is an abuser, a rapist, a child molester etc...what is there to show us that this deformity exists within them when we are looking across the room at them? How do we recognize a soul that harbors a beast merely by looking? Sizing them up. Deciding whether they are worth the bother etc. Where are the red flags then?

23 years later it still angers me a great deal about our "chance" meeting. If you believe in God then you do not belive in chance. Everything happens for a reason. I've heard that so many times among Muslims (and non) that I would seriously like to do harm to the next person that says it to me. Seriously.

5 months later almost exactly, Feb 6th, 1987 we were married. He was returning to this far off country of Bahrain, which sounded rather exotic when he described it, and demanded we marry before he that I could follow him there. I didn't want to marry him. I hadn't even decided at the time whether I actually liked him or not. He had already shown signs of extreme jealousy and had punished me several times in ways I would soon come to know very well. At the time I didn't recognize them for what they were....a continuance of exactly what my father had done to me. I soon realized I had actually married my own father...except that this one used Islam and Arab culture to abuse me while my father used Christianity and his own demented beliefs.

I married my father. bitch!!

Now, people might ask...why did you marry someone you didn't love, didn't even like for the most part. You had a choice, right? So? Well, unless you grew up in my house, abused by my father and "brainwashed" believing what I was forced to believe then you might not understand what had actually happened to me. My husband told me years later that I was the perfect wife for him at the time because he realized when he first met me that I was a "greenhorn" (his favorite name for me at the time) and that I was a "blank slate" so to speak. He could make me into whatever he wanted...all though he couched it in terms of in he saved me before I was corrupted by society into what every western girl eventually became...a slut...a whore...a bitch. He saved me, he said, and expected me to thank him for that over and over again throughout our marriage.

In other words, my father had raised me (if that is the word that fits) to believe that women did not open their mouths to men, did not disagree with whatever the man wanted...did not argue back and certainly didn't express an opinion or thought contrary to what the man said etc. In other words, my brain (which was smart as a whip when it came to intellectual thinking etc) was to be turned off when it came to men. When my soon to be husband said "lets get married" never crossed my mind to say no. Not even that I COULD say no. Inside I may have been screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! I don't want to marry you...but for those words to cross my lips was not something I was even close to being able to utter. So yes...I was forced, in a sense, to marry him.

And I'm pretty sure he realized that about me. At that time he knew me far better than I knew myself. He was 27 (possibly, never was sure of his exact age) and I was 17 when I met him, barely 18 when we married. I was a greenhorn remember...and he took every advantage. I never had a chance.

At anyrate, we married and he returned to Bahrain...but called me daily, several times a day, to "keep tabs on me" make sure I was all right. I learned later that his phone bill was over $2000 by the time I arrived in Bahrain a few months later. His sister had to pay that bill...could be why we got off on the wrong foot? Maybe.

I'm pretty sure while sitting in my dorm room at the base, by this time I was in Luke AFB outside Phoenix, that I would never have followed him to Bahrain, married or not, because I realized as soon as he was gone that he was as good as gone for me. If I never seen him again that would have been fine with me. I didn't feel married to him, certainly had no loving feelings lingering to make me miss him...and was already considering just letting him know I wouldn't be coming. Plus, the military isn't quite so happy to let you go as they are to sign you up. I had already been told I had to finish out my service before I could get released. That was quite all right with me but when I told him that he became quite angry. It was my first look into the ego of this man who thought the USAF should bend to HIS will and release HIS wife simply because HE said so. He demanded I go to the Base Commander and plead my case. As if I would.

Unfortunately it was about this time I learned I was pregnant. To this day I have no idea why I told him I was pregnant. It set the wheels in motion that would dictate the next 23 years of my life. If he had never known I was pregnant, we might eventually have just let it be, annuled our marriage and got on with life....but once he knew I was pregnant there was no stopping him. Turns out the military allows female soldiers to get out early if they become pregnant. Choice is up to them...or him in this case. He called the base himself from overseas and made sure everyone knew I wanted to leave the military because I was married to him and now pregnant with his child. By the end it seemed as if they were practically kicking me out just to get rid of the pain on the other end of the phone. It was me that signed my military discharge papers...but it was him that made the decision and "forced" it on me.

I discharged from the USAF April 3rd, 1987 (I remember there were many military personel trying to convince me not to go over there. They HAD been to Arab countries and knew what I was headed for...but he caught wind of this and called many many people causing a huge stink...threatening to sue the military for trying to convince HIS wife not to all died down eventually)....I was stepping off the plane in Bahrain April 11, 1987. I hadn't told my family, my mother...nobody. For some reason I felt I couldn't. I knew my mother would stop me from going. I knew she would put a spoke in the wheels of this out of control bus I was on...but for some reason I couldn't call her and tell her. I felt HIS will was stronger...I felt that I couldn't fight father had taught me well. He said I came.

I arrived in Bahrain and was met at the airport by a man in a long white garment and head dress. I didn't even realize it was him at first. He looked handsome and regal in my eyes and I felt a faint stirring in my heart that maybe I could learn to love him. He was commanding and austere. No smiling as he conducted the business of my visa etc. The first thing he asked me, no greeting or anything, was whether I had any money. I did. He took it all. For all of our 20 years of marriage he never let me have more than pocket was something I would get used to..not like, but get used to.

His sister and four neices were there as well. The sister greeted me with her soon familiar cold air (and it was my first real look at a woman wearing an abaya that sat on the head and was clutched together with one hand)...the girls were still young and giggly and one even curtsied when she shook my if greeting royalty. The airport, at that time, was small and uninteresting...eventually it would become one of the top Duty Free spots on the planet...Bahraini's love their luxery items. Outside was green grass and palm trees...taxis waiting...and various unrecongnizable languages. The weather was still fine for April...I had been in Texas for training so I knew what hot and humid felt like...but it was nothing compared to that first taste of a Bahrain summer that was just around the corner. But for the moment there was a pleasant breeze and everything looked...."ok"...normal.

Not a camel or oil well in sight. hmmm?

As we left the airport I watched out the window at the scenery passing by. It may sound strange coming from me as others may know by now that I am an avid reader. I will read anything and everything and my mind is much the better for it in my opinion...but I realized at this point that I had not bothered myself to read a single thing about Bahrain. Other than the stereotypical "oil wells and camels" I knew nothing about the Arab world. I have no idea why it didn't cross my mind to read up on this country I was leaving mine for...I had only his discription to go by. According to him it was about as western as one could get and still be in an Arab country. I eventually found out that was true...depending on where you lived. There are pockets of extremism in Bahrain, mixed among the more tolerant areas where more foreigners and "open minded" Bahrainis live...but where I was headed was not one of them. Into the heart of of the oldest settlements in Bahrain...where the streets are barely car width wide, where the houses are practically on top of each other...where greenery has no chance to grow...where hearts and minds are closed like a steel trap on anything perceived as bida..or innovation.

Turns out marrying a foreigner, especially an American one who is thought of as little more than a whore or considered bida...and didn't I come to learn that pretty damn quick.

Welcome Home?

As we drew near to his home my heart grew quiet at the surroundings. It seemed as if I were leaving the modern familiar world and was going back in time...everything became older, decayed, dark and dreary. People stopped and looked at me..and they seemed sad, tired...burdened. It was then I noticed I didn't see very many women outside..and almost no girls. Boys ran all over, screaming and playing and causing mischief...but the only girls I seen were very little ones. VERY little ones. It wasn't long before I learned that Arab women love their children very much...but seemed on the whole to be rather blase' about their safety. Very small children ran the young as 2 or 3 years old...without so much as a bigger sibling in sight. Which I found ironic considering all the derogatory remarks I would eventually hear about how Americans raised their children.

We stopped in front of an old decayed building...sandwiched between equally old and decaying buildings. I could barely open the car door the street was so narrow. There was no color to speak of...other than the multitude of colorful chips bags or coke cans that littered the area. Everything was brown, or tan, or off white. People may find it hard to understand this (or not)...but color plays a huge part in our lives...when you are sad color lifts your spirits...when your in a playful or happy mood you dress in colorful clothes or paint a room to match your emotions etc. The color of life is Green. Love is Red. Ovygen is Blue and so forth (for me anyhow) and so to suddenly be thrust in a world that seemed to have no color was, for me, quite a shock. Not so much as a lick of paint to distinguish one house from another...even most of the cars I could see were white...others were black or dark blue...but nothing bright or eye catching anywhere. Other than trash..and that was in abundance. I felt like I had stepped into the proverbial "ghetto" that I had heard about on TV so much. Funny enough Muharraq was known as the ghetto of Bahrain...but I didn't know that just then. *sigh* (ok I realize some of you, particularly Arabs or even Bahrainis who might be reading this, might be saying...she is painting a very bleak picture of Bahrain...its not like that. All I can say is..this was my impression on my first night in Bahrain 23 years ago. It was what it was)

When he stepped out of the driver's seat he looked at me and said some truly cryptic words. "Don't expect too much." Don't expect too much? What did that mean? Expect too much of his house, his family, his life? What? I felt even further dismay at how things were progressing. He had never used words like that before when I had asked him about his family etc. hmmmm?

I entered through the narrow half door that is typical of most older Bahraini homes and took a few faltering steps into the "foyer". My first thoughts were...My God this house should be condemned!! My second thought was...I want to go home NOW!!!

Of course I said neither.

I looked around at a very small....very broken down interior of a house. Thick dust coated everything. Small rocks and pebbles laid around where they had fallen from the walls or ceilings. Dust coated spider webs, or cobwebs, hung from every nook and cranny. It was a badly made house for the most part. The floors were like hills and valleys, the walls sloped alarmingly, one stair case looked like a broken neck waiting to happen. (considering how many times I would eventually go up and down those stairs...even while heavily pregnant...I still find it amazing that I never did fall. Not everyone was so lucky tho) It was dark and gloomy and had the air of desolation. And the smell was dank and gave me the feeling that the sun never found its way inside. Inside I shivered and felt my skin crawl. I felt "dirty" just by being in there...and I was supposed to LIVE there???

He led me to a small little cave of a time I learned that this was the majlis..or main sitting room etc of the house. It was the only room large enough for everyone to sit on the floor in....though we would be cramped. If I had to guess I would say that room measured about 7 ft wide by 15 to 20 feet long. It had one bed taking up one wall and some cupboards taking up we only had the center of the room to utilize. Not much room to do more than sit Indian style if more than a few people were in there. And because this room had no windows...the smell hit me like a slap in the face. Old and dusty...unaired bed clothes and carpet on the floor that had not been changed in years.

I ducked my head and entered to find his parents sitting on the floor watching TV. I didn't realize it at the time of course, but after viewing many Arabs greeting each other...even the way those that are strangers to each other...I know that they are lavish greeters. Much hugging and kissing and asking about families etc. Of course we Americans greet as well but not on such a noisy exuberrant scale. Putting all that aside...greeting a stranger into your home is something ALL cultures do, regardless of what brought them there. When it is your son's new bride, one would expect a little something extra...yes?

I got nothing. Not so much as a head turn from them. Almost as if I didn't exist for them. My husband said something to them in Arabic and his father turned and said something to me. A greeting? I have no idea. The mother didn't look at me or say anything. He covered for her and said she was shy. I would have to get use to him excusing his mother and sister's abhorrent behavior towards me...there was ALWAYS a reason they behaved the way they did..I just had to be the "better person" and get over it. *sigh*

After a few uncomfortable moments he took me upstairs to our room. We lived on what use to be the roof...but he had made a room up there some years back. I was able to see the sky from here at least...something I would spend a lot of time doing over the years. Sitting outside my room looking up at the sky. The floor and walls were just as crooked up here...and this was where they hung their laundry etc so there wasn't much room...but I would consider it my oasis in time. A space away from his family and thier constant abuse. When I entered his room, our room, I was expecting much of the same as downstairs but was pleasantly surprised to find it fairly modern and clean. Sunny too as there was a window. It had almost the same dimensions as the room downstairs as it was directly overhead...but it looked like worlds apart. There was a bed, a TV and table, and a cupboard. No space for anything else. I wondered where I was going to put all my things....but that was worry for another day. I was exhausted, and secretly terrified I had made the biggest mistake of my life by coming here.

I felt like I was on the far side of the moon...far from everthing familiar to me...far from everyone I loved and loved me...but most of all far from reality. It was as if I were in a dream. A long very elaborate dream...but a dream all the same.

I went and sat on the bed...the only place to sit (a great many rooms in houses in Bahrain I would eventually learn used beds as couches always felt rather odd sitting on a bed you knew the occupants had sex in...but that was how it was and it didn't seem to bother anyone but the time. LOL)

I looked around. Sighed deeply. And prepared for my first night in Bahrain. If only I knew what awaited me...I might not have stayed glued together quite as well as I was at that moment.

Continued next post.

© Lee Ann Fleetwood, 2010