Sunday, March 16, 2014

An Invitation to a Private World

From our travels in Central Asia
I have been extremely fortunate in my adult life, that I've been able to meet and befriend people from all over the world. Growing up in suburban Long Island in the 1970's, *I* was the diversity: a Jewish girl in a majority Christian school district. I don't think I saw a single face that wasn't white, other than on television and in movies for much of my childhood.

When I went to college, I started to meet students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, both from the US and from abroad, but there wasn't a lot of discussion about race or class. I know I didn't have the vocabulary or the understanding to talk about privilege or representation or code-switching. And as much as I prided myself on [cringe] having a ________[fill in the blank] friend, I didn't understand how that was still an attitude steeped in privilege.

It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I started to have a glimmer of how my isolated background had sown the seeds of discrimination, no matter how unintentional. As part of my clinical work as a physical therapy graduate student, I was required to do fieldwork. My first fieldwork experience was doing home care in the South Bronx.

I was a fairly young, and very naive suburban white girl terrified to set foot in the 'projects'. That was a word I had always heard either in a whisper, or with disgust from people around me. My parents wanted me to request reassignment, on the basis of safety. Even as ignorant as I was, I knew that wasn't all they felt. There was an unspoken class issue at play: how dare the school assign *our* daughter to *that* environment.

But this was graduate school, and my parents, as well-meaning as they might have been, had no place in talking to the administration, and I refused to. So I did my fieldwork, under the wing of an experienced home-care therapist and what I found was both remarkable and utterly non-remarkable. Yes, the physical conditions of the 'projects' were deplorable: broken elevators, trash-strewn hallways, dark, dank buildings that often reeked of urine. But behind the doors with a dozen locks lived people who wanted for their children what my parents wanted for theirs - education, basic safety, a better future.

I emerged from that experience a little less ignorant, able to challenge the assumptions I had been raised with.

Digression number 1: If this sounds like I think I did something special, it's not. And I don't believe I 'deserve a cookie' for starting to act like a human being.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and to bring us to the photo I used to illustrate this post: we opened our home to an international student from Kyrgyzstan and she lived with us for almost 2 years while pursuing her master's degree at a local university.  It was a culture shock on all sides, as she had never been in the US, and we had never known anything about Central Asia, but Nurjan quickly became part of our family and I consider her the daughter I never had.

Fast forward again a few more years, and our family traveled to Kyrgyzstan to attend her wedding. We traveled through the country for 3 weeks (if you click the label 'kyrgyzstan' in the right hand window of the blog, you can find more about our trip). The photo is of me (on the left) and Nurjan's American mother in law, both of us in head scarves, as is the local custom.

Digression number 2: The issue of what it means to cover up or not cover up is beyond the scope of this blogpost, or my own education. When I was in parts of Kyrgyzstan where it was customary for a woman to wear a head scarf, I did so. I didn't have to, but I felt it showed respect to our hosts. 

So all of this is a terribly long preamble to the real point of this post: last evening, my husband and I attended a wedding for his Saudi medical resident. In the invitation was a note talking about the conventions of the wedding, explaining to their American guests that there would be two parties; one for the women and one for the men. That bowing to American expectations, women would be allowed to visit the men's party if they chose, but not the other way around.

At first I was nervous. Most of the guests would be people I didn't know - either friends of the bride, the bride's family, women my husband worked with, or female guests of his co-workers. I get social anxiety in large gatherings, especially if it's people I don't know, and rely on my husband's gregarious nature to help me. And I was afraid that in my ignorance, I'd say or do something to offend my hosts.

For the first part of the evening, I was seated at the table with all the other Americans, and I experienced a rare sense of being in the minority. All around us, most of the women were Saudi. They came to the party in abayas and headscarves, but once the door was shut, shed their layers to reveal stunning party dresses, ornate hairdo's, and glittery jewelry.

In the privacy of the women's party, they danced and the dancing was sensual and lively without a hint of self-consciousness. The women were dancing with other women and for other women and there was a freedom and an exhilaration to the dance.

At one point, we were informed that the bride and groom would be visiting the women's party. Most of the Saudi guests covered up again, as they had been upon arriving. I watched their body language and interactions change, become more muted, until the groom left and the party re-started.

When I got up to dance (one of the few American guests to do so, despite my awkward dance moves), I was embraced by the Saudi guests, both literally and figuratively, as they hugged and kissed me and encouraged me to keep dancing.

It would be easy to place a value judgement on what I saw, from my position as a feminist, American woman, and that judgement would be wrong.

When I did later visit the men's party, it was clear where the fun was. And it wasn't there. There was no music, no dancing, no verve. Just a bunch of men standing around talking. Since children, both girls and boys, were part of the women's world, I would imagine that most of the Saudi men had childhood memories of the dancing and laughing and uninhibited liveliness of it. It struck me that they must, on some level, have known what they were missing.

And so, after a brief conversation with my husband, and the chance to thank the father of the bride for inviting me, I returned to the women's party and danced with abandon until the final song.

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