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 well...so? 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 me...how 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 Ann...like it or not...that's me. Not to mention, Layla and Lee Ann didn't sound all that different...one 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 said...is 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 them...in 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 up...it'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)...one of them wasn't...me.
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 me..as 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 do..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 house...one 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 occur...as 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 minute...in 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 aunts..one of the few people in his family that would be nice to me...though in the few years she was alive...my 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 everywhere...music 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.