A couple of years ago I went to Doha, Qatar for a week to assist in a research project on the views of Arab women.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia and had vacationed in various parts of the the Emirates and in Bahrain, so the Gulf countries were by no means strange to me, but coming back as an adult, as an atheist, as a feminist, made me view things in different ways.
I was depressed because of how oppressive and dry the heat was, because of how empty and bleak and mechanical the city’s architecture seemed to me (so perfect, so high-end, so expensive, so empty!), because of the stories the women of Qatar University told us, because of the ornaments and figurines on display in the souq.
I sat in a classroom and helped conduct a memoir-writing workshop for several days, and the women wrote about their lives, and read what they wrote. They wrote poetry sometimes, likening the awakening of their womenhood to cherry blossoms shedding their petals, falling, wilting, against pavement. They wrote about their mothers, about watching behind them like shadows and growing into those shadows. They wrote about listening and making and moving and dreaming and wanting. They explained how fervently and lovingly they entwined their faith and their reason into their actions and beliefs. They sat in desks in a semi-circle, lifting their veils from their faces, holding hands, letting their narratives flow from their mouths and chime in with the words of their peers.
They were narratives of want, of struggle, of fight.
In the late afternoons and evenings, I walked through the shops in the souq and looked at the photographs of men hung behind burnished gold on walls, at every beautifully wrought piece of antique Bedouin jewelry, held and preserved and passed on, every ivory-carved figurine, every rug laid out in the sun, every other adornment up for sale, to grace a woman’s house, to grace a woman’s body. They were beautiful and lovingly handled, polished, maintained, well-kept and exorbitantly priced, but if you haggled enough with the shopkeeper, you could get him to push their price down significantly.
I bought a necklace and some vibrant scarves to take with me back to Lebanon.
And then I went back to workshop with the women university students of Doha, and listened to their work.
They wrote about fighting to be allowed to go to university, fighting to be allowed to enter their country’s workforce when money and foreign aid rendered their work unneeded, fighting to uncover their faces and still be deemed good Muslims, or to cover their faces and still be deemed intelligent and progressive.
Fighting to be competent and intelligent because their fathers were angry they were not born boys, fighting against early marriage and suitors being pushed upon them, fighting against being judged for marrying early and having children and going to school all at once, fighting against abusive fathers in silence and confusion, fighting against women relatives being privy to the most personal aspects of their lives.
Fighting being estranged from their faulty mothers who had been incompetent enough to be divorced, fighting to get divorces from abusive husbands without being blamed, fighting against being shamed for baring their heads or half of their heads or wearing heels or lipstick underneath their ‘abayas, fighting.
A few years later, in deciding to embark on this project, I thought about what I wanted my blog to look like, visually.
I thought about my pain, confusion, love. I though about darkness, dark font, dark images, dark places to reflect the violence, brutality, and fear I wanted to expose to the world. But that seemed too overt, too angry, too negative, helpful to so few, not helpful to myself.
But would not soft, vibrant, beautiful images and colors be a kind of lie too? Wouldn’t they mask over and screen and diffuse the sharpness and urgency of my project? Wouldn’t they negate my pain somehow, somewhat? Could I write in this blog every week or every fortnight to a soft beauty when I felt so much twisted ugliness inside?
Then I remembered the beautiful artifacts I collected from Qatar, how pretty they were, how they were from my heritage, how they were on display, unmoving, unspeaking, handled. How I wore those scarves over and again and they hid my hair with their beautiful colors. How they meant so much to me. How beautiful they were, these ornaments. How a woman is like a pearl, a jewel. How a woman is too chaste to be touched except by those who are closest to her. And I decided.