Scenes From Muslim Ports of Call

AT sunset, the cruise ship pulled away from the pier in Muscat, Oman. Two tugboats assisted its departure. Half of the crew members attended to their work; the others threw prayer rugs down on the decks and knelt in the direction of Mecca. The tugs bobbed in the waves of the harbor, and the devout crew members bobbed in the process of their prayers.

As the tugs shifted their positions, moving the ship away from the pier, the men at prayer shifted their positions in order to be aligned with Mecca.

* * * *

The guard on the third floor of the Yemen National Musuem sat as still as a statue in a hard-backed chair. It was a surprisingly modern museum for what in many ways seems a medieval country. The guard's garment, black as the Dark Ages, robed her slight, unmoving body all the way down to her worn black leather shoes. Black gloves hid her hands. Dark cloth covered her head, masking it except for her black eyes.

I walked about the architecture exhibits, examining the models of various dwellings typical of these highlands of the mountainous Arabian peninsula. The model of a typical dwelling of the Sana area showed a four-story building similar to the one the guard and I were in: beige stone on the lower floors giving way to beige brick on the upper ones; painted designs over the doorways and above the windows; and semicircular pediments of carved limestone, each one different and set with stained glass.

The legend both in English and Arabic explained that the first floor of a typical house served as a granary, storerooms, and stables. On the top floor, a sitting room was located. There the men of the house would meet with male friends, and at separate times, the women of the house would entertain women friends.

I bent over the exhibits, my hands clasped behind my back, and walked about them. I had the urge to approach the black-veiled, unmoving figure in the chair and, maintaining the hands-behind-back stance, peer at the exhibit. For surely the figure was a cultural artifact of Yemen.

Of course, I did not. I examined the exhibits, and the guard examined me. Every now and then, I glanced at her. Her dark eyes, framed by dark skin and black veil, would meet mine.

But I felt no connection. She could see me: my lanky, gray-haired American frame, my long-sleeved sport shirt, my slacks, my hands with the gold band on the left one, my manner of approaching the exhibits. But I saw nothing of her: only two dark eyes robbed of context by the veil.

I felt as I had before in this country, that I did not know what I was seeing.

* * * *

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, businessmen paced about the hotel lobby, waiting for transportation. Hotel personnel - all men - leaned against counters marked "Concierge," "Reception," and "Cashier."

A group of tourists was also there. Some relaxed on leather couches; others stood near their hand luggage, shifting their weight back and forth, chatting in twos and threes. The tourists were waiting for folkloric dancers who would give them some depiction of Yemeni culture.

The figure entered from the outside, clothed in black from head to foot. A black veil hung from the crown of her head. She was obviously a modern woman, entering a hotel with self-possession and without a chaperone.

There was no crack of cymbals and no blare of trumpets. But everyone in the lobby was aware of her, this unexpected depiction of Yemeni culture. She drew the eyes of the tourists and businessmen and even the hotel personnel as she walked across the lobby, her step demure. She gazed at the floor, looking neither right nor left.

* * * *

At sunset on the docks at Salalah in Oman, five men were praying. The air was humid and warm, and there was no sound except for that of the cruise ship pulling away from the dock.

The men all faced the same direction: north/northwest toward Mecca. One man stood in front of the others. Then they knelt on prayer rugs. They bowed their foreheads to the ground. They sat back on their heels, still praying, and one of the men adjusted his leg, as if to avoid a cramp.

The men were alone on the dock, five small, sunset-reddened figures in the expanse of asphalt, praying as the light went out of the sky.

* * * *

At the airport in Sana, eight or nine Muslim women sat waiting to be called for their flight. The chairs they occupied were arranged in series of eights: four chairs on each side facing each other. Small tables stood between the second and third chairs. On these, travelers could rest small items of luggage.

Chadors cloaked the heads and bodies of the Muslim women in black cloth. Black gloves covered their hands and black veils masked their faces. Only their eyes and a framing of olive skin around them were visible.

It was so crowded in the waiting room that at first we had to stand. Then two seats became available opposite our friend Elisabeth. My wife Donanne and I took seats.

Next to Elisabeth and across from us sat one of the veiled women. It was hard to make any judgments of her from the kind, lively eyes that watched us. But guessing from her girth, she appeared middle-aged and was content with her life. Elisabeth tried to strike up a conversation with her. Pushing a map before the woman, Elisabeth indicated the route of our travels.

The veiled woman observed Elisabeth as if she were a jabberer from that curious corner of outer space where unknown foreigners talk at you in airports. Then she looked at me.

Hailing from the same outer space, I pointed to myself. I tapped my chest with my hands. "I am from California," I said, pronouncing my words with both unusual clarity and unusual volume. "I am going to al-Hudayah." The woman's dark eye's measured me. "Where are you going?" I asked.

The woman's eye's narrowed. Was she frowning? She glared at another veiled woman; this woman, thin, wrapped in her chador as if it were a protective covering, sat beside me across the small table on which her packages lay. Her veiled scrutiny was unmistakably hostile.

I looked at the "friend" across from me. "Are you," I asked, pointing to her of course, "going to Cairo?" Her mystified look left me bereft of other possible destinations.

Then she spoke. She offered a brief burst of unintelligible gutturals - not the English I had hoped to hear.

"Riyadh?" Donanne asked her. "Are you going to Riyadh?"

More gutturals and I recognized among them something that sounded like Riyadh. Suddenly we were all smiling at one another. And just as suddenly etiquette forced me to surrender my seat to the woman who had originally occupied it.

Withdrawing, I watched Donanne and Elisabeth continue a sign-language conversation with the veiled woman.

Donanne formed her arms as if they were cradling a baby and pointed at the Arab woman. In return, she smiled and held up four fingers. She indicated the heights of her children in stair steps. Donanne reciprocated. All the while the thin Arab woman, the one who used her chador as armor, looked on with uncertainty.

Soon the women were comparing jewelry. In the souks we had visited, Muslim women crowded jewelry stores. Following local custom, they wore much of the family wealth on their person in the form of gold.

Our "friend" scrutinized a gold bracelet brought from America. She shook her head and waved her hands along a horizontal plane. By her standards, the (quite lovely) bracelet was no good.

Donanne showed her a necklace - made of coral and "white metal," presumably silver - that we had bought only a few hours before. The woman placed her hands across it. Then she looked at Donanne, placed her hands before her, and put both thumbs up.

Everyone laughed, and Donanne felt she had made a friend of an Arab woman whose face she had never seen.

* * * *

We were given royal dispensation to enter Jiddah. Tourists are not welcome in Saudi Arabia, so we were a study group. The women wore scarves over their heads and over their bodies chadors, black high-necked outer garments that reached almost to their ankles.

It was a little like dress-up for adults. Some of the women even bought face-coverings: pieces of black cloth with eye-holes that fastened behind the head with Velcro. The women also bought sheer black veils to cover the crowns of their heads.

Once masked and veiled, our "study group" women were difficult to distinguish from Saudi women shopping in the souk. One of our men lost track of his veiled wife, then saw and went to her. When he touched her shoulder, she spoke sharply to him in Arabic. The woman he had touched was not his wife.

While the Saudi women were dressed in black, their husbands wore white robes with red-and-white headcloths. Usually the children had on Western clothes. It was charming to see a white-robed Saudi man pushing a stroller and keeping two other young children in tow while his wife floated from store window to store window, seeing what was on display.

* * * *

We had tea at the hotel in Cairo. It was the end of the trip. A couple sat nearby, looking out across the hotel garden that had once been the playground of a pasha.

We heard the woman say: "You know, I'm really not sure what to make of what I've seen on this trip. I mean, you see women veiled head to foot and you think, how dreadful. It infuriates you that the men of Muslim society - you assume it's the men who do it - force women to move about outdoors like black blobs, without any possibility to express their individuality."

The man with her nodded and sipped his tea.

"Then in Jiddah, when we actually put on the veil, I must say, I thought: Hmm, this is rather nice. I didn't have to worry all the time about how I looked, what I was wearing. Men didn't eye me, didn't check out my body.

"Then we get back here to Cairo. There are women on the billboards again, smiling enticingly, showing their bodies - not in bikinis, of course - but still displaying. It makes you realize the extent to which we've let sex drive our society."

"Hmm," said the man.

"Do you think a resurgent Islam is going to threaten our way of life?"

"I doubt it. The media has to write about something." The man took another sip of his tea.

"The men praying at sundown. I liked seeing that."

The man nodded.

"Didn't you like seeing that? You pray."

"In my closet."

"Closet religionist."

"That's the way we do it," said the man. "We've all made a tacit agreement that our society has two cultures: a secular mass entertainment culture we can all share and a private culture. We often let the secular be driven by sex and greed. And we put matters of faith in the private culture and mention them only to our very closest friends."

"I'm not sure I like that," the woman said. Then she added: "You know, I wonder why it is we've been so educated to think the Arabs are dangerous. Do you suppose they've been educated to feel the same way about us?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," the man said. "More tea?"

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