Sometimes I surprise myself! Unless I’m in the classroom entertaining students or telling wild stories, I’m often shy around strangers. But, on this particular late summer evening, I would step outside my own box once again!
Over the past few years of teaching at a language institute in Pasadena, California–I have had my first real encounter with Saudi Arabians. In the beginning, I wasn’t always sure of what to make of the ladies donned in various head scarves and sometimes long black dresses covering them from head to toe. But, I noticed they were good-natured, humorous, eager to learn, and compliant in class! (qualities any teacher appreciates)
Last year, one particular Saudi lady I will call “Amy” came to my classroom. I couldn’t tell how old she was, but she seemed to like me. And all the other students also seemed to warm up to her. A few months later, Amy revealed that she was pregnant and that this was her 6th child! We had no idea, because we couldn’t tell under that long black dress covering her body. She also said she was 42 year old!
Quickly, some of the other teachers and I agreed that we should offer to host a baby shower for her and show her how gracious Americans can be when we want to be. She quickly agreed, but said that SHE would like to host the party. Well….”OK”…we replied despondently. “If you’d like to…”
Within weeks, colorful creative invitations were delivered to each of us…and one thing in particular stood out–the times for the party! We balked when we saw the times…4pm –12am. WHAT?! Surely this was a typo! I mean, come on now–everybody knows that showers are something where you show up, do your two hour duty, bring some gifts, play some games, and be done with it! But THIS was to be no regular baby shower.
The day of the shower arrived. We all showed up on time (all the Americans..and some other brave international students). Amy answered the door–looking quite different than we had ever seen her before. She was (as we say in the South) “all dolled up” with bright colored make-up, pink lipstick, long dark hair curled and loose around her shoulders, wearing a very stylish outfit, with clanging bangles on her wrists–looking cuter than any pregnant woman I’ve ever seen. Our eyes popped out in the sheer shock of it all!
Quickly, Amy escorted us all to sit on the couch. My eyes panned the room–exquisitely decorated, very tasteful, spotless. She quickly whisked over some Saudi Arabian coffee served up on a silver tray, and passed another silver tray around the circle covered with wrapped chocolates, figs, nuts, baklava, and various other Saudi delights. I swooped up a few of them and went to town. I noticed only her 16 year old daughter, and one other petite lady dressed in a conservative dress suit were assisting Amy with the hosting. Both of them were in high heels, hair done just right, perfect makeup on, and very tailored colorful clothing. I thought to myself, “Is this it? Where is everybody else?? And where are the head coverings??”
Slowly, ladies began to trickle in. I noticed an odd trend forming: they would gingerly knock on the door, peek their covered head around the frame, quickly kiss-kiss each other on each cheek, and then bolt for the kitchen with the stealth of a gazelle, shoes clicking on the marble floor and giggling as they went. ALL of them were covered from head to toe…and ALL of them emerged a a different woman entirely! One by one, they would triumphantly strut from the kitchen–as if Wonder Woman herself had been in the changing room spinning them round and round until a new creature emerged. Every lady would shout in unison, “Ahhhhh!!! Ooohhhlalalalala!!” laughing and clapping, and smiling approvingly to one another.
And each time, as the room grew more crowded and swelled with more noisy girlish chatter–the metamorphosis would continue long into the night. As the doorbell rang each time, I curiously awaited the grand entrance of yet another shocking figure–donned in high heels, perfect hair and make-up, and fashionable new outfit. And as the night continued, the outfits seemed to get more and more sexy–I started to wonder if I’d come to a baby shower, or some other kind of party altogether!
As the clock ticked on, still they came–sometimes in groups–but always sprinting to some secret dressing chamber in some dark corner of the kitchen. It seemed the party was swelling to more than 50 people–that perhaps all of the female Saudi population of Los Angeles had been invited. Sometimes the Americans would steal glances at each other, flare our eyes in a brief moment of shock and concern, then return to chatting with some new Saudi woman sitting beside us. We were all starting to feel a bit under-dressed!
And then the doorbell rang out louder than before…Amy whisked to the door, sheepishly looked around as she slightly creaked it open, and spoke assertively in Arabic as a man’s voice spoke in the background. She called for help, as one of the ladies, not yet morphed into a beautiful butterfly–started to pass platters of food one by one into the living room. Ladies passed dishes in a line, and ran them over to the serving tables in the kitchen. I wondered just what was hiding under those steaming covered platters of catered food.
Soon, we were all called to eat–the Americans jumped up in typical eager form, smiling and nodding in the assurance that what we were about to partake of would be worth the wait. I entered the kitchen to see 3 tables of food set out and ready for consumption. It looked like a feast indeed, steam rising in the air, perfect for all of us Saudi princesses of the night (wannabe’s and authentic). There were fresh skewers of hot lamb/beef/chicken kabobs, plates of creamy hummus and pita, many dips and creamy sauces, platters of basmati rice, a few dishes that Amy proudly announced that she had made herself, and even dishes of Indian curries. I piled my plate as high as I could without seeming too desperate. Together, we sat around in one giant circle in the living room, eating slowly, chatting–doing what ladies do best!
And then, in the background I heard some of the younger girls tinkering with their laptop, searching for music. Every other second, I would hear “Assini.com” in a male mouse-like voice. Belly-dancing drums would pound from the computer screen, and very Arabic sounding music with female singing voices called to us, as Amy’s daughter searched her computer’s rolodex of musical numbers. Finally, one song echoed out–and all the ladies nodded and shouted in approval. And then…it happened. Two by two, the ladies got up and began to dance around the circle–enticing each other to join. I just remember lots of hip-action and twisting hands in the air. One lady would dance and then challenge the other one in a kind of dance-off, as all the others looked on, whistling in a syncopated rhythm to the music. Every once in a while, I would hear someone shout out in a shrill voice, “ay-yay-yay-ayay yay!!!” or another would loudly roll her tongue in approval. It just seemed to encourage them to dance that much more vigorously.
The Americans started to look nervously at each other–it would only be so long until we knew our turn would come! And then, the ultimate betrayal ensued. One of my co-workers shouted out, “Hey, Carey’s a good dancer!!” They all snickered to each other and I shot daggers at them with my eyes….the Saudis couldn’t resist…they began to shout in unison, “CAREY! CAREY!!” stomping their lady-like heels on the floor. I shouted, “No! Only if you guys join me!!” haha…suckas!…I snickered to myself.
With the force of a tidal wave, one lady pulled me up onto the “dance floor” and taunted me to shake my hips. I had no choice, here I was on the stage–if you will–so I began to just move–flashing through all my salsa dance classes in my mind–and the ladies all went crazy–whistling, shouting, clapping, calling out with that shrill tongue-roll.
So, I let them have it. I glanced around the room, the Saudis were looking at me in delight, yet disbelief–if that combination is possible. Each one with a wide grin, winking at the others. My co-workers seemed to look at each other with pride, “Yeah, we know her…see, not all Americans are dancing imbeciles!”
I pulled my friends up. A kind of Saudi dance class emerged. One lady took each of us under her wing–trying to help us find the rhythm. And we all danced. It was a weird phenomenon…all women together. I felt a strange kind of liberation, not having to worry if some perverted man was trying to check me out (as in my younger days). I had always felt a strange inhibition on the dance floor–but not tonight! Each Saudi lady wanted to take her turn challenging me to another dance move–and I tried my best to represent the Americans on the dance floor. And still–the pounding beats and Saudi voices sang in the air, as all continued clapping and shouting. Somebody even tied a sash around my waist “to belly-dance!” “Now hold on here a minute”, I thought to myself, “I’m not the entertainment!” But, the ladies all seemed to find pure humor in it.
And so the night continued…dancing, eating, chatting…rounds and rounds of baklava and Saudi tea. I spoke with many of the women, hearing their stories, how many children they had (almost all of them had more than 5!), what they had studied. Most of them had perfect English…and said to me how they had studied English in university in Saudi Arabia. I started to wonder if or when we were going to open any baby gifts for the “shower.”
Finally, we did get around to it–and Amy got a lot of loot! She opened the gifts one by one, and the ladies all clapped and passed the snacks around the circle again and again. I thought to myself, “Now this is the kind of baby shower I can get behind!” None of those “guess the baby’s name or birth weight” games…huh-uh. These Saudi ladies brought a whole new meaning to the concept.
And on that night of babies, bells, food, and whistles–I smiled contentedly to myself, “This will undoubtedly go down on my TOP FIVE list of parties!” It was like I was kidnapped in some kind of time-travel machine to a secret woman’s chamber in the middle of Saudi Arabia…only it was a wild female-only party near the shopping mall in Arcadia, CA. And instead of being a fly on the wall, I was thrust into the middle of it! Once more, I was THROWN outside of my box. And lived to tell about it! The cultural chameleon was transformed once again. What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure–but you better always have your belly dancing outfit on hand–you never know when you might need it! And women, no matter from which corner of the globe, know how to talk, sip tea, and enjoy each other’s company.