Daily Archives: April 25, 2011

The Woman Behind the Veil, I Remember Hamda

Amazing smelling rose from my garden, blooms endlessly, smells heavenly

Driving home from the grocery store yesterday I saw a Muslim woman, dressed head to toe in black. She wore a long skirt, a long sleeved blouse and a black scarf covering every inch of her hair. I noticed that it was an expensive scarf, trimmed with silver bugle beads and bullion. It made me think of my time at Pacific American Institute as Program Director in the late 80’s.

Those years were my personal introduction to the world of the Middle East. PAI was an English prep school located on the top floor of Saint Martin’s College; the institute specialized in preparing people who spoke English as a second language for their try at entering American colleges. At that time, Japan was rich, just rolling in money, and any kids who didn’t fit into the usual Japanese mold were shipped off to go to school in America. 

We also got a smattering of South American students, like Claudia from Colombia who introduced me to South American jazz and pop which I still love. We got a few Russians who desperately wanted to assimilate, and a few Chinese kids who were watched like hawks because China expected them to defect and disappear into the USA after they completed their educations.

We were the lodestone for Middle Eastern males who wanted to go to SMC’s engineering school but couldn’t until they passed their TOEFL test. The TOEFL is the ESL (English as a second language) SAT, and a passing score was the Holy Grail.  I came as a shock to those spoiled boys, as did all our female teachers. The boys, even if they were full grown men they acted like boys, were mostly rich spoiled brats who had been coddled their entire lives by their mommies.  Those mommies lived in purdah and ruled the roost from behind the scenes with an iron hand in a silken glove.

I despise generalities so I must say there were exceptions, like the amazing kid who was Palestinian and had a head of hair like a black Brillo pad. He was so curious about everything; we took him with us on trips to Seattle several times, delighted to watch him suck up the world like a curious easy-going sponge and loving it.  But, then there were the over-perfumed spoiled brats who thought the world owed them everything. Most of them doused themselves in very expensive colognes and you could smell them coming for miles.  I could have happily hung a few of them upside down in the corner as Airwick solid air fresheners, but I digress.

One morning, into this hotbed of testosterone dropped a beautiful Muslim woman who had her husband’s permission to learn English. She wanted to go home to Qatar and teach children and she was so hungry to learn. We became friends, Nancy, Linda, Diane, and me. Taro was a guy so he was out of this particular picture as was Mike, our Director.

Her name was Hamda Al Thani.  Hamda’s husband was a member of the ruling family of Qatar, as in a bona fide prince.  I think his name was Khalid and he was an engineering student at SMC at that time. He was older than Hamda and shorter than her willowy 5’10”. He was chubby and wore glasses and he personally dropped her off and picked her up after classes on a regular basis. They owned a car and rented a modest tract home a few miles from school.

Hamda's favorite store, funny, the Qatari royal family bought it last year.

The family, including two children, went home for a few months every year. On the way home and on the way back to America they stopped in London and shopped. This was my introduction to a lifestyle that was completely fascinating and alien. Hermes head scarves, hugely expensive couturier ankle length skirts and long sleeved tops and the shoes? Oh my God, the shoes she wore! High heels to kill for modestly covered by her long skirts of course.  She brought us back small gifts one year and I still have the silver tray-, yes real silver, the upscale chocolates came on.

Hamda invited us to dinner at her home one evening and we all accepted with delight. When we got to the house, her husband had been banished somewhere else and it was all girls, with the exception of her son.  Insight number one, mama may be kept out of sight but mama is the power behind the throne which is wielded delicately because the hubs  is technically in charge.

This son, about seven, was the most spoiled rotten brat I have run into in a long time, and mama Hamda?  Completely indulged him and petted him, treating him completely unlike her adorable daughter. Insight two: someone is creating Muslim fanatic men in the Middle East, and I believe we have been not been looking in the right place. There is an old saying, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, and until Muslim mommies stop raising sons who believe they can own women, nothing is going to change.

I can’t really blame them because Muslim women know their only power is to manipulate in the background, and like cloaked spiders they desperately spin webs about those sons and tie them to mama with sticky strings of love and adoration. When the sons marry, Mom goes on the back burner unless she is tough and strong and rules the daughter-in-law too.

 In a tribal-based society, families live in groups or compounds with many generations a large part of the time, so unfortunately the only out for the daughter-in-law is to wait for Granma to croak and then step into her shoes. Of course, she could easily be sharing those shoes with several wives which makes it even harder.

Back to dinner at Hamda’s house:  we were welcomed in and shock of shocks, Hamda was a freaking peacock!  Gorgeous black hair hung down to her butt, she had on some kind of designer label house pajamas, beautiful jewelry and make up that made her look like something straight off a tomb fresco in Egypt. Breathtaking, especially after seeing her covered up like an Italian granny every day.  No wonder her husband indulged her, he lucked out with a beauty queen in this particular arranged marriage, and I’ll bet he knew it too.

I was shocked, and I still am, that she had an indentured servant who cooked dinner and served it to us. This is common, servants from other poorer countries, are brought with the family to care for children, do the housework and be a general dog’s body. Their papers are taken away from them so they cannot escape even if they are treated badly and from the way Hamda talked to her servant/slave, I’m betting this woman was no exception.  It was one of those odd situations where one doesn’t quite know what to do and it was politically fraught, so I left it alone but I have never forgotten it.

We were served sweetened mint tea in tiny cups when we arrived and chatted until dinner was served. I absolutely adore Middle Eastern food, and I still treasure the bottle of sumac Hamda gave me. Sumac was something you couldn’t find in the USA at that time, it’s a spice that is agreeably sour and sharp and it replaces lemons in some recipes. It’s not the same as our poison sumac which I assume is inedible.

My bottle of sumac

The dinner was lovely and completely authentic, we stuffed ourselves and afterwards we retired to the living room couches to talk and drink more tea or tiny cups of coffee. Hamda left the room and returned with a huge tray of perfumes. I mean PERFUMES, if you can think of a perfume which costs an arm and two legs, it was on that tray. It seems a regular after dinner ritual among the ladies is perfuming oneself. I love that idea and so did everyone else, we sniffed every single bottle and dabbed on the ones that were most appealing.  We smelt like a garden in full bloom within five minutes.

I found a nondescript little bottle and opened it. It smelled like a summer night slipped out of the bottle when I sniffed it. I think I was probably stuttering when I asked what it was.  She dabbed some on my hair just above the back of my ears, telling me that was the best place to wear perfume oils because they release their secrets and unfold slowly that way.  It was roses. If you could put a million roses in one place and distill them into the absolute pentacle of rose-ness that was the fragrance Hamda dabbed behind my ears that night.

She told me every summer when she went home she and her mother distilled their own rose oil and bottled it. Can you even imagine what that undertaking is like? I can’t but I like picturing it and imagining how it smelled. By the time I was home that evening the rose oil had taken on a life of its own, the scent just kept changing and getting richer.

I planted a new white rose two years ago and it is so beautiful, it blooms all summer and has the most haunting scent, especially right at sundown on a warm day. I call it the Hamda rose because of the scent and I wonder sometimes how she is faring? Did she get to teach children? What is her life like now?

So here’s my last thought on the subject: Our sisters on the other side of the world are so hidden from us we cannot really know them or their lives so I risk generalizing again. Still from everything I have extensively and compulsively read, until mothers understand they must teach their sons to respect women and not fear them I don’t believe anything will change in the Middle East.  Perhaps they have the key to their prisons in their arms, maybe not this generation, maybe not the next, but I want to believe it can happen simply because the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Think about it, were fanatical jihad-inclined Muslims born or made?