East Meets West

A Scandinavian journalist met a bookseller in Kabul, Afghanistan and subsequently moved into his family home for three months to write a book about him.  It became an international bestseller and after gobbling it up I was thinking, I wonder if he sells it in his shop?  It’s not that it was particularly well written.  I was, afterall, reading a translated into English copy.  Yet the story compelled me and thrust me back to my time in the Middle East. 

I don’t know what it is that draws me to Islamic culture so much.  I don’t even know if “Islamic culture” is the most accurate or politically correct way to describe what it is that I’m drawn to.  The landscape, the culture, the language – it simply fascinates me in this way I can’t fully describe.  Reading this story made me want to rush to Afghanistan, don a burka, and be chaperoned to the bazaar by a male relative.  Ok, I’m exaggerating.  Slightly. 

I kept being hurled back to thoughts of Wadi Rum, the tiny village 12 kilometres away from the camp I lived and where I would go every few days and clean in the camp owner’s house.  Memories that I haven’t thought of in years come back with vivid detail: the feeling of cold, windowless rooms and my own naivety; electrical lights being turned on with a twist of a wire and a spark; unrelated men not being allowed through the door past the front parlour into the rest of the house.  I can’t count how many times I was stopped from washing teacups with soap – the never ending flow of visitors and travellers being engorged with sugar laden tea whose cups had only a rinse between each user.

One of my clearest memories is talking with the oldest daughter the first time I went into the village. The widower Mohammed’s second wife and some daughters had gone into Aqaba, the city nearby.  I met his oldest from his first marriage.  We got along extremely well from the start, I promised to help her with her English which she could already speak quite well.  She spoke of her dreams for her life: to travel the world, to see the pyramids, the Taj Mahal.  While we were speaking one of her young siblings was pulling at her leg, clearly wanting something.  They must have spoken some unintelligible lyric Arabic before the older understood what the child wanted.  She casually plucked the kitchen knife from the counter, out of reach for the little one, and handed it to her with a gesture of “leave us now, you’ve got your toy”. The moment was fascinating and the toy, luckily, as dull as all of the other knives I found in that kitchen.

I would sing as I worked, “Je ne comprende pas” which, I found out years later, is not the actual correct way to say “I don’t understand” in French but nevertheless was a channel for the mix of captivation and astonishment I felt for the social norms I experienced.  Looking back now I see, as I said, my naivety over it all.  I see just how different this culture is in ways that never fully penetrated while I was immersed in it.  And I would absolutely love to go back for more.  The concept of material comfort is experienced in simply a completely different way than what I know.  Sleeping on a mat with a room full of siblings for the entirety of my life before marriage is not very appealing to me. Especially when that mat is the only furniture in the house.  Like the family Asne Seierstad stayed with while collecting experiences for her book, Mohammed’s house had very little furniture.  No beds, no dressers, no western style dining room table. (My God I love eating on the floor; a plastic-backed table cloth protecting clothes from spills, no need for cutlery, just dig right in!) And, like Asne’s bookseller in Kabul, Mohammed was extremely rich compared to his fellow country-men.  I was witnessing a household whose way of life had altered dramatically in only the last two generations.  Tourists were what made Mohammed “the King of Wadi Rum” yet to stay clamped in one village, catering to their desire to see the vast desert, after generations of nomadic Bedouin life is hard to fathom.  Maybe I wasn’t the only one that didn’t understand.

I may have been feeling particularly existential as I marinated in memories, gobbling up the rest of the book in the late afternoon of my reflection day, but I couldn’t help but wonder, just where do people find purpose and meaning in their lives?  Unfortunately the opportunity to even think about these questions let alone take the time to fully investigate and experience them is not always given.  Would that 17 year old managing a household of younger siblings ever get to see the Taj Mahal, see Egypt?  Would it give her life meaning even if she did?  I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had just come from Giza’s Great Pyramids, that the Sphinx was smaller than I thought it would be, and that crossing a busy street one night in Cairo was the most exhilarating experience of my life.  Would she live out these experiences through the veil of her own perceptions? (no pun intended)  Would she fulfill her dreams, would she find meaning and success?

I’ve been thinking about successfully living a meaningful life lately.  What it means to succeed, how to match my temperament with the overzealous ideals of ambition and action equating to success, and what truly makes me happy.  The great Yogis say that we create our worlds.  I can’t help but think that which gives our lives the most meaning is exactly what it is in front of us; exactly what it is we’ve created.  I feel like this knowledge gives me a little secret that I carry around with me everywhere.  It links me to that 17 year old as she dreams foreign visions.  Meaning is found right in front of me.  I need not fear falling into some prescribed way of being: succeed this way, find happiness by looking under this rock.  The greatest secret to the universe is hidden right in front of my very nose: I create my reality and that truth, by far, offers me the most meaning for my life.   

It’s this search for meaning that’s got me feeling so grateful lately.  I can’t help but look at different cultures, look at the way women are treated as less than men, and feel grateful that I’m a woman in the West.  This gratitude isn’t loud and boisterous.  It’s a delicate gratitude that holds the story of gender roles in all parts of the world with this arms distance away, with this awe that we’ve created such ingrained views of looking at the world.  The truth is the men in the Middle East are just as oppressed as the women.  They’re as locked into their roles as a burka-clad female, unable to behave, act, or think any differently than the social norms without being completely ostracized.  Do they have time to ponder the meaning of life, look deeply at their dreams, hopes and fears, or to question the motivations behind their actions?  Well, they certainly have as much opportunity to as anyone else does.  Having the courage to face the lies and illusions our culture builds up around us takes the same tenacity in any country.

I’ve returned the book to the library and in doing so found a bunch more about women in Islamic culture.  I really don’t know what it is about this topic that jazzes me up so much.  Must have been a Muslim in a recent past life.  We’ll see what other gems await me.

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