Monday, September 26, 2016

May It Be Permanent

I'm teaching a class at Small College this semester, a kind of vestigial tail of my involvement with the place I worked for 27 years. The division chair had asked me to take on the media writing course last spring, and I had been apprehensive. I knew I knew how to write; did I know how to teach how to write?

The jury is still out on that question, but there is no question that this has been an experience I should not have missed: Two of the six students enrolled in the class are from Saudi Arabia.

I knew less than nothing about Saudi Arabia before I met Turki and Maher. My impressions were formed by osmosis from the many times I've half-listened to Lawrence of Arabia (it's one of Husband's favorite movies) and even I know that watching a 1962 blockbuster is not a good way to learn about a culture.

In the last two months, though, my students often have been my teachers. While I've been explaining the clean functionality of the inverted pyramid style, they've mentioned that they get most of their news from Twitter, where trusted sources are not state controlled. Turki stayed after class to let me know that his wife is within a couple of weeks of giving birth, but he'd be sure to let me know so that he could get the assignments. He told me that although they have a three-year-old this will be a new experience, that at home his wife would move in with her mother for 40 days after the birth, and if her mother wasn't available the 40 days would be spent with her mother-in-law.

Friday was Saudi Arabia Independence Day, and before class ended Turki invited all of us to a celebration on campus that night.

Husband and I walked into the conference room not knowing what to expect but we were swept into a celebration that was joyous and welcoming. In a long white tunic and red-checked headdress,Turki was almost unrecognizable as the blue-jeans-clad student in my 8 a.m. class. He handing us dates and tiny cups of coffee and told us this was a traditional way of welcoming guests. Then he filled our hands with delicacies, explaining what each one was and beaming his pleasure that we had come.

The room was filled with Saudis, the men and boys dressed in full-length white tunics and women in clothing that ranged from simple head coverings to gowns that left only their beautiful eyes uncovered. For the next two hours they joyfully shared their food, their music and dancing, and their adorable children. Husband wiggled into an ankle-length thawb and Turki buttoned his cuff while another young man arranged the red-checked headdress for a picture.

Husband and Turki
I waited my turn to have henna free-formed onto my hand, chatting with the woman next to me about her beaming baby, and the fact that her sister and I have the same name. The artist squeezed the henna out of a gold cone, brushing on a flower, then a feather, and curling the design down my index. It looks like a quill pen, and I imagine words flowing out of my pointing finger. "Let it dry, then wash it off with water," she told me.

Dancing was still in full swing when Husband and I slipped out, at Turki's bidding signing the green banner that would commemorate the occasion. "All joy," I wrote.

The henna on my hand dried as Husband and I sat watching another old movie, and I was sad to scrape the last remnants away. The remaining stain seemed faded after the joy of the evening. Even as I rinsed the flower and feather design, though, I was thinking of the children I had met a few hours earlier. They are beautiful and beloved, just like the children at the Mexican refuge where I've painted houses.

And it occurred to me:

It is impossible to hate a nation if you have played with that nation's children. Should we maybe make playing with children a requirement for political candidates, for bloggers, for anyone who thinks Saudis, or Mexicans, or Syrians, or persons of any other race than their own, are hate-bait?

The henna stain on my hand deepened overnight, and I have smiled every time I see it curled around my trackball. Saudi Arabia is no longer just a spot on a map or an abstract concept. It is Turki, and Nussi, and Maher, and Abdulaziz. It is the tiny boy in an ankle-length white tunic eating a piece of pizza off the buffet line. And in spite of my arthritis-knobby knuckles and work-crooked fingers and age spots, the shared gift is beautiful.


  1. Thank you for this. It is so refreshing to read something full of love and hope instead of the hate and doom that surrounds us right now.

  2. What a wonderful insight. Thank you for your beautiful words and observations.

  3. I love this! "It is impossible to hate a nation if you have played with that nation's children." That is the path to peace!