Tag Archives | Muslim

a mall of contradictions

So I was at the mall.

I’m at the mall because “everything” is at the mall: grocery stores, bookstores (or at least stores that sell book-related products), the Walgreens-equivalent stores. These malls are vast echoey spaces designed to entertain: each mall has big toddler play areas; there are ice rinks, bowling alleys, fountains galore. In Dubai, there is a mall with a huge aquarium in it, and another designed around a series of canals, ala Venice.

The malls depress me, not only because I have to drive there but also because they are filled with chain stores, usually fair-conditioned to meat-locker levels, and because they celebrate consumerism as the pinnacle of civilization. (Now, granted, malls everywhere depress me, and for the same reasons; the Gulf doesn’t have the corner on garish displays of consumer culture. Mall of America anyone?)

Unlike Mall of America, though, the malls here offer a fashion parade of abaya style. I am fascinated by abayas, which is the word used here for the long black robe worn by Muslim women. The scarf covering the face is the niqab; the scarf that covers the hair and neck is the shayla, or, sometimes, the hijaab (but, confusingly, hijaab is also the word used to mean “modest,” and is thus sometimes the word used in a blanket fashion – yes, there’s a pun there somewhere – to mean “covering”).

Abayas in their plainest form are simply long black robes that sweep the floor.  Some women take hijaab to the utmost, adding black gloves and a full face veil, so that they are completely covered. I call this look the full beekeeper.  But – and this is where it gets complicated – I see women with abayas that look like a bedazzler has run amok.  Abayas with Swarovski crystals along the shoulders and down the back, like some kind of sparkly Hells’ Angels design; abayas with Louis Vuitton trim; abayas with spangled head scarves and peacock embroidery along the hemlines – abayas, in short, that are anything but “modest.”

I can imagine that for some women, a decorated abaya is a way to both follow “the rules,” and yet also assert personality – and status, because a custom abaya can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

Abayas seem to me an embodiment of the complexity involved in being a modern woman in conservative Muslim country, and in the malls, easily half the women are wearing abayas – frequently abayas that I think of as “performance abayas:” abayas that are meant to be seen.

Here are three women wearing fairly subtle abayas:

Relatively modest.

There is another level of complexity, though, and it involves what’s under the abaya. The malls are full of shoe stores, and the shoe stores are full of women in abayas (some modest, some blazing with bling) – shoe love, it seems, is a universal female trait that crosses all national and ethnic boundaries.  I took pictures in three different stores of the shoes on display:

and these:

or perhaps these (note matching handbag):

I swear, if a hooker went to the prom, these would be her shoes.  Hijaab these definitely ain’t.

Wearing any kind of uniform forces secret, or semi-secret expressions of self to emerge. I just find it odd that hot pink, rhinestone studded platforms would be anyone’s form of expression, other than maybe Gwen Stefani or Madonna. But if we judge by good old-fashioned capitalism, these stores are stocking what their customers are buying…so someone is trip-trapping along in sparkly gold platform sling-backs under her modest black robe.

And I’m thinking that maybe I’ve already been here for too long because you know what? I think those pastel patent leather platform sandals are kind of cute, in a Japanese school-girl anime sort of way.  Just the thing for a day at the mall.


What’s that you say? You don’t want to go to the mall, you just want to get away from it all? Here are a few suggestions from none other than The Bloggess, Scary Mommy, The Momalog, WanderMom…and me! (And hell yes, being on a list with these writers sort of made my week…maybe my month!) Click here for the article from Travel and Leisure Online, a great source for travel ideas all over the world.


And if you are at the mall and you’re waiting for your kids to stop staring at the games in Electro-Land, then you should be spending your time reading yeahwrite – some of the best writing on the interwebs.  Read around, click around, then come back on Wednesday and spread some voting love. I’m using this great silver badge this week because it goes with the shoes. You know you want a pair. Just think what the other parents will think at the Saturday morning Little League games when you stroll up in your 10 inch sparkly platforms.


Continue Reading · on April 23, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, Feminism, pop culture, shopping, UAE, What’s It Like?

Religious Instruction, Early Morning Version

Caleb came in for an early morning snuggle. 6:13AM on Friday morning, which in this part of the world is Saturday. Well, actually, it’s like Sunday, the day of worship. Tomorrow, Saturday, is like Saturday.

Anyway. It’s early, I’m sleeping, he’s chatty.

Caleb: Why do the Muslims make Friday the weekend?

Me (into the pillow, trying to remember what I was dreaming about): It’s just the way their religion works, that Friday is the day people go to the mosque—the church.

Caleb: What is the Muslim religion, though?

Me: Um…be nice to each other and be peaceful. Most religions are like that.

Caleb: Even the Christian religion?

Me: Uh-huh…religions are about peace.

Caleb: Then why do so many wars get fought about religion?

Me: Don’t you think you want to go play on the computer now?


Caleb: Yes. But still. It doesn’t make any sense.

Continue Reading · on October 21, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Parenting, religion

The Meaning of Easter?

As we drove in from JFK on Saturday, having just landed after a 13 hour flight from Abu Dhabi, Caleb said “now we can do that painting eggs thing for the Easter Bunny?”

The Easter Bunny thought fast. “Well, I’m not sure we have eggs at home to boil and then paint. The Easter Bunny might not come this year because we don’t have any eggs for it to hide and it knows we were away. So we’ll celebrate spring another way.”

Caleb wasn’t having it. “NOT COMING? He always comes! And with chocolate bunnies and maybe little presents in the Easter baskets, like cars or something.”

The Easter Bunny closed her eyes and wished she were still sitting in business class with the nice flight attendants plying her with champagne.  Then the classic punt: “we’ll see.”

And that’s why, after the boys were asleep, the Easter Bunny found herself roaming the pillaged aisles of Duane Reade, Walgreens, and Food Emporium, in search of something–anything–that would count as Easter Bunny offerings.  Here’s what was left in a walking-distance radius at 9pm on the Saturday before Easter:

12 plastic eggs with schlocky “toys” inside, which I supplemented with jellybeans; 4 Reese’s Pieces plastic eggs; 2 big Lindt bunnies; and 2 nerf footballs. Pathetic, I know, but the Easter Bunny had jet-lag.  These triumphs of plastic commercialism were hidden around the apartment and lo, in the morning, there was much joy and jellybean eating.

That’s the meaning of Easter, as near as my kids know.  I talked a little bit about Easter as a time of “new beginnings,” which is why we use the eggs, and about spring and re-birth.  Note that avoidance of any actual religion here.  The closest Caleb knows to anything is the story of the First Matzoh but as far as he’s concerned, that’s a story about bad guys chasing good guys and I think he’s pretty sure that Moses looks like Frodo (aka Elijah Wood), in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies.

Religion, in our household, doesn’t have much of a foothold. I heard Liam a while back talking to a friend of his about what J. was learning in Catholic school (J. will be confirmed next year). J. said “well, there are prayers you have to know, and you go to Mass, and stuff…”  Liam thought a minute and then, “what’s praying for? And what’s a Mass?”

Walking through Abu Dhabi the other night after dinner, we walked by a mosque, its green light shining from the minaret. “I know what that is!” Caleb exclaimed. “It’s one of those special places and all the different people who believe stuff go to different ones, right? What do people believe who go to a mosque?”

Every year at Easter and Christmas I tell myself that this year I will spend some time with the boys explaining the various stories and every year I do a little bit and then give up.  I don’t think I believe in god, or God, or anything, particularly, but often that makes me feel like I’m missing something–a larger community, if nothing else, and a way to encourage the boys to think about the world beyond their own needs and desires. We’re moving to a place where religion is unavoidable–that five-times daily call to prayer is a sure-fire reminder of the world of faith–so maybe now the time is right for us to embark on a little “introduction to world religions” course.  It’s not that I want the boys to believe in god, necessarily, but I think they need more information than we’ve given them thus far, if only to make sense of where we’re going to be living next year.

I grew up going to an Episcopalian Church. I remember three things: I was a horse in the Noah’s Art pageant; my mother taught Sunday school (reluctantly, she later told me; it was something she did because “she thought she should.); and the minister’s wife had a mustache and thick man-hair on her arms.

Husband grew up as a Zorastrian–seriously.  Zarathustra and the whole deal.  Zorastrians–Parsis–were driven out of Persia and settled mostly in India and what is now Pakistan; the religion sees the world in terms of the fight between good and evil.  Husband had a “nav jut” when he was puberty-ish (about the same time a Jewish kid might have a bar mitzvah); he had to recite some lines in an ancient language, memorize some prayers, and a few other things.  For a while he wore a special undergarment, like an undershirt, that had religious significance, but he gave that up when it started to be a pain in the ass to change for gym…and he’s never looked back.  You could say he’s a “lapsed Zorastrian.” Husband’s mom was a Protestant, so there was a bit of a flap on his father’s side of the family when they married, but the upshot is that Husband grew up with Christmas but not much else by way of religious celebrations.  I know there are some Zoroastrian holidays on the calendar but Husband doesn’t remember what they are, when they are, or how they are to be celebrated.

In short, we got ourselves some heathen kids and our holidays are primarily chocolate-based. I want the boys to know about faith and what people other than themselves believe, but I think it’s time for me to make my peace with the fact that this family isn’t ever going to be a faith-based operation, at least not on my watch.  I’m hoping that if we can institute family traditions (whether built around chocolate or some other eating venture), we will be building a sense of community and continuity.  Mom-101 wrote about this the other day, about making her own Seder for her kids and that she can make the traditions how she likes and not be beholden to the “shoulds” and “always haves.” If she can do it, so can I, right?

So. Happy Easter and Passover and alhamdulillah and whatever else there is: happy spring and happy chocolate bunnies to you all.

Continue Reading · on April 24, 2011 in Children, family, religion


Here’s where you get your abaya when you visit Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque:

No, there are no shoes available here, just black full-length robes for all female visitors not already wearing a robe, and white full-length robes for male visitors wearing shorts.

And here’s what you look like when you put on your black robe and veil:

When Muslim women wear the full abaya, with head scarf and face veil, they look to me like beekeepers in mourning. Me? I just looked like a white girl in a black bathrobe.

As I swished from the outer patios of the Grand Mosque into the inner courtyard, I imagined that wearing this robe would render me anonymous—just another devout Muslim woman.  But of course, peeking out from the black veil is my round Midwestern face–and no amount of Manhattan living, or black veiling, can disguise that, alas.

When I first put the headscarf on, Liam chided me for doing it wrong. I ignored him, of course. What ten year old boy knows anything about scarves?  And then just before I entered the mosque itself, the very nice young woman guard standing in the doorway pulled me aside. With a quick pinch of fabric in the back, a flick of the wrist, and a deft tuck or two, she had the veil adjusted: covering all of my hair in the back and snugly wrapped so that it wouldn’t slide around while I walked.

Liam, of course, was delighted to be corroborated in his sartorial judgments.

Wandering around the mosque in my black abaya, I wondered what it would be like to wear a robe all the time. It would certainly solve the whole muffin-top problem—there’s no waist-band in a robe and thus nothing for a tummy to spill over.  What happens to the concept of “sex appeal” in countries where women wear the abaya? Is it all about the eyes and the pedicure? The voice? Or are there codes and silent signals, the way there were when women carried fans all the time—fanning fast meant one thing, fanning slowly something else.

What would it be like to have your body not be available for scrutiny from anyone passing you on the sidewalk? To not catch a glimpse of a jiggly upper arm as you walk by a shop window and sort of wince? Would it make you feel more powerful or less powerful, do you suppose, to have your body just…not part of the equation of daily life, at least in public?

Considering questions of female empowerment was not, perhaps, the most mosque-appropriate line of thought, especially given that I was in the main prayer room—which is to say the men’s prayer room—while I contemplated the position of Muslim women in their society. (There are two ladies’ prayer rooms, each of which holds about 1500 people, adjoining the main prayer room, which itself holds about 9000.)  The main prayer room also, in fitting tribute to the “can you top this” spirit of the UAE, boasts the largest carpet in the world:

Of course, the other thing I kept thinking about, as I walked around with the boys, marveling at the intricate carvings and delicate details, is the Tea Bag Head kerfuffle a few months ago about the building of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan, near Ground Zero.  While there will be a worship space in that planned facility, it has about as much relation to “mosque” as a YMCA has to St. John’s Cathedral.

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Continue Reading · on November 29, 2010 in Feminism, Gender, NYC, Travel

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