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My hands clutch a frozen steering wheel. The windows are frosted, the kids bundled into car seats that were not legally necessary for us just a week ago.
People on the streets are also covered up - out of necessity, though. Wrapped up in jumbo jackets, scarves, tuques, super gloves. No flowing black robes, no crisp white cloth, crowned with red and white.
In Heathrow, the winter's air snapped at us from beyond the connecting tunnel between the airplane and the arrivals building. I had promised to deliver a friend's salam to the dreary city where halal shops beckon a knowing, growing minority.
The anonymity covered the lower half of my face, which only a few months ago, had furrowed and creased with distaste at the mere thought of donning the black uniform required in the Kingdom - now worn with pride at its simplicity, its non-brand, its anti-fashion status. Sure, I gazed with interest at the fashionistas from all parts of the globe that trotted by with their colourful jackets, tight jeans and oversized bags, but I didn't long to be among them - fully swathed in a world that is passing. I liked having the extra time to plan for the season's good deeds - which I'm certain will one day be the most sought after accessories. Even my face was safe from the gaze - the judgement, the intrusion.
Now, in the car, traveling to see my patient, waiting mother - my face is visible in the rearview mirror. The sun is a mere decoration piece, the car heater barely making its presence known; like me. Because this is where I have to be.
My mother's voice was barely audible, the words it carried, indistinguishable - except when she asked me if we were going for Hajj, as I talked optimistically of seeing her soon. "Yes, we'll be going this year," I had told her, imagining her in her wheelchair, so far, far away, in a room which has become her whole world. Her happiness radiated with news of our imminent pilgrimage, though a question hovered - "When are you coming home?"
Soon after we returned from the spiritual journey, the question floated out of her heart, beyond her weakened vocal chords and to my straining ears. I was finally able to say what she longed to hear: "Yes, we're coming home, mom. We're coming home."
And so, like a mirage, the images of a Muslim country which had both comforted and irritated my eyes - in its glory, and with its faults - faded away; the shimmering water circling a lone House for its life-giving nourishment. A green dome symbolizing all that once was, and may yet be again.
The world discovered behind the veil was shifting away from my experience; a school full of happy, fulfilled women; children learning the "language of dunya", a world where English now rules where it used to be others like Greek, Latin and Arabic, that commanded attention. And yet, with or without concerted effort, these children were constantly reminded of their faith despite its waning influence on even their own schoolbooks - bought and purchased from the United States. They had simulated Hajj tours, contests about Prophetic history, even a willingness to try out nursery songs that had been modified to reflect an identity rooted in Islam.
My defiant jaunts around the neighbourhood - an attempt at staying physically fit in a land where only men walk anywhere - melted into searing hot pavements that had cooled in the winter months. At one point, mistaken for being one of the African women who push rickety strollers around, piled high with cardboard and knick knacks, I was offered some food. So much for women's liberation in a land where women are actually pretty spoiled - with maids, drivers, and a culture that coddles them so much that at one point, doing the groceries was considered a no-no. Like driving. Like walking. Like a lot of things.
And yet, my eyes were opened to the reality of a situation that looks very different from that appearing through an opinionated Western lens. The oppression of women was not the issue at all. Sure, some more freedom would be great - ridiculous that a female obstetrician has to hop into a car with her driver at 2:30 a.m. to go to a delivery instead of driving herself, thank you very much. But the lack of freedom actually preserved a male- female dynamic that I don't necessarily long for, but that can actually be good for marriages and societies where women are overly independent and men get short shrift. After all, men are used to taking care of people - their kids, their wives, their communities. Take away their raison d'etre and I think you understand why divorce is so high in the Western world (and increasing in the copycat Muslim lands). Though rich Saudi women can also be very, very independent, too - with drivers at their beck and call so that they never have to ask hubby for anything.
And at any one of the countless malls, adapting to a rhythm beating around the five daily prayers came easily; especially as a witness to the blessings of the place, surely related. Where else do you see security guards pulling closed the doors of a mega-store, with people still inside, because the call to prayer is about to sound? The ones who are vigilant, make their escape to the spacious prayer sections settled between glitzy women's shops featuring glittering gowns worn at the single gender parties which seems like another crazy contradiction. After all, modesty and humility are characteristics to strive for. . .
As we drove over Jeddah's smoothe roads for what I will always hope was not the last time, I thought of all the people I had met - who had proven me wrong, and who had also proven me right when it came to my initial thoughts of the place.
The negative was easy to spot - and there is enough of it to stir feelings of desperation in the hearts. Enough people long to escape to the West where fairness and justice can usually be counted on. And how can we blame them? Being turned away from a Saudi hospital because you are not Saudi is probably not a very nice experience, especially if you already have to scrounge up a huge amount of money for treatment. And being offered half the going rate for your work because you don't hold a Western passport is insulting, at best, maddening when it comes from people who should certainly know better.
And yet, I'm still hoping. Hoping for an ummah, a community, that is stirring. Stirring to action, to indignation, to awareness. Stirring to a life that is more than about paying for school, or weddings, or whatever. Stirring to a life where we may need to picket the Starbucks and Marks & Spencer's that sneak into Muslim lands. Stirring, and accepting, a life without Coca-Cola. A life that is more significant than finding fulfillment in temporal desire; a life where each action is measured against its impact on the world. The outpouring for Gaza shows that people know that they have to act. They just don't know how.
This is hopeful because it means we are realizing that faith is not only about those five daily prayers, those huge prayer rooms, the all-encompassing black robe (though those are important). It is not about the women who scolded me for letting my daughters thumb through copies of the Quran, just meters away from the Kaaba, because they might rip out a page (very, very unlikely, I should add). Faith is not being told that the stuffed animal your daughter is holding is haram because it sort of looks like a dog, and we're in a mesjid. Faith is not tossing the garbage out your window, and then peppering your conversation with remembrance of God.
Faith is about making the world a kinder, gentler place. A place where honest dealings supersede private gains. A place where no one would lose their homes because they can't pay their interest payments. Faith is about creating societies where the rich and poor have the same rights and privileges, and where the rich are just as concerned about their worker's well-being as that of their own children.
What is missing in the West is a connection between the individual and the Creator which manifests itself in the day-to-day. And what is missing in the Muslim world is a connection between the spiritual individual and his or her society which transforms the community into a dynamic whole, inclusive and responsive to the needs of all its members.
What is missing in all these places is true Islam. I just hope it's not missing in me.