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breaking circles

June 8, 2011

(or, what i’m learning from my second-culture relationships)

Arabs take pride in their incredibly generous hospitality–visiting is like the cornerstone of social life here, and women-who-are-not-me keep their houses spotless in anticipation of unannounced visitors. Homes here, even the tiniest ones, usually have some space or room marked off as a receiving room, and they are almost always set up in the same arrangement. (Sofa sets come pre-packaged with all the right pieces.) They celebrate their holidays by making rounds among friends and families, stopping by each other’s houses until all the chocolate has been given out.

In this culture of hospitality, locals also tend to fling open their doors to strangers with a hearty ahlan wa sahlan, providing you with cold or hot beverages, snacks, or if you’re lucky, a meal in which they give you the biggest and choicest portions. They include you in their conversations, bring you into the thick of their lives, tell you that you’re one of them now, part of the family…even as their special treatment of you makes it obvious that you’re not. At all.

Their open hearts and arms and homes make the initial steps of relationship-building seem strangely easy. That first hurdle of letting your guard down and getting to know each other…in the West it sometimes feels like the hardest part, but you step over it without even noticing here. Soon children are climbing all over you and women are sharing their stories, and it’s clear you’ve broken into their circle.

But the thing is, as I’ve only recently realized, sometimes that’s actually just an outer circle. And as easy as that circle is to break, there are inner ones, held closer to the heart, that take a lot more time to crack–time, and energy, and language comprehension. There’s a difference between being made at home in the salon and being welcomed into the messy bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom.*

I was thinking about all this last week as I sat with two women–both dear friends, both completely different from each other–and suddenly realized the hazards of reaching a place in my Arabic where I can comprehend basically every word coming out of someone’s mouth. [Depending on the conversation. Of course.] These are women who have more than opened their lives to me. I have spent hours upon hours with them. I teach their children, and once a week I teach them. I kick off my shoes and sit cross-legged on their couches. I’ve heard their stories, prayed with them, worried with them. But one of them has always been far more open about sharing her life, while the other is by her own admission very private, because gossip is so prevalent in this culture (a downside of the open-home thing–oh my does news travel fast).

Last week, the more reticent of the two cracked an inner circle with me and started sharing some of her tough stuff. The inner stuff. Stuff that changed the way I saw her and her life. And I understood every painful word of it, and when she turned to me and asked–mostly rhetorically–“What can I do?” I just stared at her and opened my mouth so that some meaningless half-words could fall out.

I hear all the time about how a common marital communication breakdown occurs when a woman tells her husband about her problems, he responds by offering solutions (duh), and she gets mad–turns out she just wants someone to listen and sympathize, not fix things, but he doesn’t get that. Well, I guess I’ll make an awesome husband someday, because if you share a problem with me, my immediate inclination is to offer you my unasked-for advice. Even if the topic is something I’ve never heard of before, dangit, I have an opinion and I want you to hear it! But in my nine-ish months here, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my role in my relationships is often more that of an encourager than a fixer. There is just too much that I don’t understand, and the most I can offer is some grammatically incorrect word of kindness and a prayer.

And you know what? This quieter, 2.0 version of myself would like to know: What is so wrong with that? With shutting up, and smiling or murmuring, and only voicing your opinion when it really, really matters? When my friend let me into that inner circle of her life on Monday, she wasn’t looking for advice. She wasn’t looking for a solution. She was looking for someone to listen, to absorb a little of her pain, to tell her it was okay to feel the way she did. So that’s what I did. It was all I could do. And I think it was more than enough.

Now if only I can convince Version 1.0 to carry some of this with me back to America. I’m sure my friends there would appreciate the quiet too.

*Once I attended a mini cultural lecture here where I was told I should avoid using a host’s bathroom if I could help it because that is private space. Good thing I’ve broken that rule many times now…first of all, if a visit lasts for 4 hours and I’ve been plied with tea/coffee/water/juice/Nescafe/Pepsi the whole time, chances are I’m gonna need to pee. Also, there was that one time I ran to a host’s bathroom to throw up because I had some stomach bug that decided to manifest itself in the taxi on the way there. Woohoo for breaking rules.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2011 9:18 pm

    Asalamu Alaykom,

    One of my blog entries dealt with going deeper into these circles. There are comfortable times sitting around after dinner while the kids do the homework. There’s letting it all hang out and telling family secrets. I want the former not the latter. Actually, in Islam it is seen as very bad to share your family secrets with the world.

    Lately, I had someone in my life (someone I barely know) trying to do this in cyberspace. I told her to stop because it wasn’t my business. Her reply? “Ya, but you’re not real.” That comment hit me. My time and my energy she was sucking certainly was real. She told me that she meant how I wasn’t really part of her life. It didn’t matter what she told me. Of course, she didn’t consider how badly I felt after she dumped her upsetting life on me. She didn’t consider that I had other things to attend to in my life.

    I feel this lady is doing much the same to you. You are “real” to her because you’re just traveling through. And you’re Western so you will not know the cultural norms to keep your mouth shut about what goes on behind closed doors. She can dump. You can not know what to say.

    It’s a double-whammy if you are supposed to teach in her home. That’s where my “miscena” had me trapped; or thought she had me trapped. I quit the teaching job. It was huge amounts of money. And once I quick she offered me any more. I didn’t want it. I only wanted to stay out of her circle of strange goings on.

    I advise you to do the same.

    Those people who are dumping on you will be fine without you. But you? You will be sadly affected by their emotional diarhea. Be careful of your energy in this part of the world. Energy is as precious as money here. Too many people want to waste yours.

    Sending you light and love 🙂

    • June 8, 2011 10:35 pm

      Hi, Yosra! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! To clarify, I guess I was pretty vague for the sake of privacy, but I actually think my situation with my friend M is more like what you had with the second lady in your post! I’ve never felt uncomfortable or over-burdened with her, but I did appreciate her moment of being real with me after the months we’ve spent building our relationship. Basically, there was a point in our conversation where our mutual friend made a comment and M kind of hesitated before responding fully, whereas she used to censor herself more if I was around. I should also probably note that she and the third lady are both (like me) Christians, so they have a slightly different cultural understanding of secrets, and this kind of sharing is quite a bit less taboo for them (in fact, they’re encouraged to bear each other’s burdens–mutually, of course, and within boundaries).

      But all in all, you’re right–there have been times here where I’ve made the decision to keep my distance from a family/woman because I felt I was being used or taken advantage. That is just not a great position to be in, and it happens way too easily. And I absolutely agree with you that energy is precious!! 🙂 Worth guarding. Thanks again for your reading/commenting.

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