On My Own
Traveling the world as an unaccompanied but observant Muslim young woman
When I was 16, my father taught me a popular Egyptian saying, which would spark my desire to travel on my own. “In the country where they don’t know you,” he’d said through his laugh, “hike up your galibeya and run wild through it.” It’s not exactly the advice a Muslim father would typically give to his daughter, but my father was different from the other Muslim fathers who had come to America to start a new life. His primary concern was still, of course, raising his children to be good Muslims—but he didn’t enforce Islam, telling us we had to pray and fast and be modest “just because.” He taught Islam with his marble black eyes and soft voice, explaining how the religion would guide us on the right path and keep us out of trouble in a material world that was ultimately of little consequence. My father understood that in the United States he would have to find a way to make us understand that just because you had the freedom to do what you want didn’t mean you had to do it at the expense of your culture and religion. Temptation would always be there, but my father was clever enough to know he had to show us why we should choose to stay away from it.
In our home in Queens, New York, he would sit his five children down on the living room rug and tell us stories of the Prophet Muhammad. It was the way he told the stories that made us respect and accept Islam as a way of life—rubbing his ankles with his left hand, and swaying back and forth—pausing and then repeating the most important parts of the stories to make sure we had understood. Some people have a way of earning your respect through their eyes. They search your face to make you understand what they are trying to tell you before they actually say anything, and their attention makes you want to respect them. My father was one of those people.
My father was also an indulgent man who never denied his children anything. In middle school, he let his three daughters attend a three-day school trip in the wilderness; most Muslim fathers would never let their daughters spend a night outside of the family home. If the sleeves of a shirt were too short or our pants too tight, he’d softly ask a question: “Don’t you think the sleeves of that shirt are too short?” It was his way—telling you, without actually telling you—that made you ask for his forgiveness. My father made me appreciate Islam, and I began praying five times a day when I was 8 years old, and everything I did from that point on was for Islam and my father. In high school I was teased for not wanting to stay out late. In college I was teased for not drinking.
During my junior year of college I decided I wanted to study in Granada, Spain, for a year. My father had already agreed to let me live on campus during my first two years in college, so I thought maybe he’d trusted me enough to let me move to another country. When I approached him about my new ambition, he took a deep breath and rubbed his beard with the palm of his hand. He never liked to say no to his children. “Rania,” he said softly, “you know a woman should never travel on her own without a male representative.” He looked at me to make sure I understood what he was trying to tell me. I made sure to let him know I was disappointed. “I understand,” I answered him lowering my gaze to the floor. “You are my father, and I have to respect your decision.” As I got up to leave, my father called out, “but I trust you, and I know you won’t do anything to make me regret having let you go.”
In the car on the way to the airport, my father looked at me from the rear-view mirror. “Rania,” he said—I could see through the tint of his glasses that he was uncomfortable—“be careful of the Arab men you’ll meet in Europe.”
“Be careful of all men you meet,” my mother quickly added, turning back to look at me and then my father. “Be careful,” he whispered in my ear once more as he hugged me goodbye and patted my back roughly in that awkward way he had learned to express his affection.
* * *
There was something absolutely thrilling about being a 20-year-old Muslim girl on my own in a country where no one knew me. Granada was home to a large North African community, and despite being Egyptian, with my dark hair and deep-set black eyes, I have very Moroccan features. The Moroccan men who worked at the souvenir shops on Calle Elivra didn’t know what to make of me. They whispered “As salamu aleikum,” to me, waiting to see if I would return the traditional Islamic greeting. I returned it in a whisper with a nod of my head and an innocent smile.
They would wait to make sure I was there on my own, before they started a conversation, at which point I immediately understood why my father had warned me against the Arab men who had left their homes for a blurred dream of a life in Europe. Once they found out I was an Egyptian girl from New York who was studying in Granada for the year, they got straight to the point. Was I married? Did I live alone? Did I have any family in Spain? If I wasn’t married and was living alone without my family it meant I was fair game—a “loose” girl who could invite them over to her place for a good time They relaxed their shoulders and crossed their arms. The nerves that had made their voices quiver began to fade. “Why don’t we go out for a beer tonight,” they’d whisper. At that point, I’d step back and tell them sternly that I don’t drink. Their faces would whiten. They uncrossed their arms and began tugging on the bottom of their shirts, trying to flatten out the wrinkles like they were about to present themselves to my father to ask for my hand in marriage.
Now, only one question mattered to them: “Do you pray?” I had gone from being the loose girl with whom you could speak Arabic and fool around without having a guilty conscience to the pure and righteous girl you respect and marry. “Alhamdulilah, I pray five times a day,” I would answer as I stepped out of their stores. “Thank God,” they repeated. “It was really a pleasure, meeting you,” they called out after me. “The pleasure was mine,” I shouted back with my naive smile.
* * *
My experience in Spain prepared me somewhat for Dubai. My father had grown accustomed to me living abroad, but he was apprehensive about sending me to an Arab country to teach young males at a language school. I couldn’t blame him. I soon discovered that being an Muslim Arab girl on her own in an Arab country was much harder than being one in Europe. I was surprised to find that here I was getting what I call “studged”—stared at and judged—by the women more than by the men. Here I was, an Arab girl, with all her Arab features, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and Nike flip-flops, presenting a different answer to the regional equation that balances tradition and modernity. They glared at me with their black abeyas opened to reveal their leggings and glittery tops, flowing to the ground despite their 4-inch spiked heels. They walked like geishas through the mall, trying to hold their designer bags in place at the crest of their elbows, and their veils that were wrapped in a cone shape from falling too far back from the half-point mark of their heads. Their thick chestnut-dyed brown hair fell over their deep kohl-lined eyes just above their hot-pink lips, but I could still see them looking me up and down. I was plain, but somehow I was still a threat. Who did I think I was with my flip-flops and my leather-strapped watch?
In Spain I had worked at an International Expo, for the United Arab Emirates Pavilion, and when I got to Dubai, I reconnected with my male Emirati colleagues. We walked around Dubai—they in their traditional kanduras and me in my jeans. Other Emirati men looked at them with envy—probably because I looked Moroccan and the behavior of North African women in Dubai was quite notorious. The women looked at me disapprovingly. I pretended not to know, and asked my Emirati male friend why the women were looking at me like that. “They are thinking, ‘What does she have that I don’t?’ ” he said. “And what is that?” I asked with a smile. He sat back, and traced the handle of his coffee cup looking at the women passing by and then at me, “Charm.”
I came to Dubai to teach English to boys preparing for careers in the military. When I was first introduced to my class I walked into a room of 10 open-mouthed Emirati men in their early to late 20s. At 24, I was younger than most of my students. They sat frozen, afraid to say anything to each other in Arabic for fear that I might understand. “My name is Rania,” I began, and one student turned to whisper something to his friend sitting next to him, who stopped him from making a fool of himself by nudging him to keep quiet. I began by telling them that I was from New York, and they sat with their backs hunched watching my lips—afraid that they would miss a word that would reveal my true identity. One student finally gave up and relaxed his shoulders and asked, “Where are you really from?”
“I’m really from New York,” I answered.
“But your name is Arabic.”
“My parents are from Egypt,” I said reluctantly. There was a collective aha that rang through the class, as the students simultaneously dropped their pencils on their notebooks and sat back relaxed as if they’d just been given the answer to a riddle.
“Do you speak Arabic?” one student asked. I was curious to know what they’d say about me, so I told them that I didn’t. They turned to look at each other and smiled at one another as if I wasn’t standing right there in front of them and couldn’t understand the language of smiles.
As the weeks went on, I listened in on their pre-class conversations.
“She really is lovely.”
“She looks really nice in red.”
“I wish she’d wear the silk blue blouse she wore last week.”
“I wish she’d let her hair down and not tie it in a pony tail.”
One time, a student bought cake to the class to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary. “Who else in here is married?” I asked. As the student proceeded to point out his married peers, one student stopped him and said through clenched teeth in Arabic, “No, don’t tell her I’m married.” I laughed, and the student’s face turned pale. “Why are you laughing?” he asked nervously. I looked at him and then the rest of the class, contemplating whether or not to let them in on my secret. I sat cross-legged on the edge of my desk. “You really are a funny bunch,” I said to them in Arabic.
The color drained from the top of their foreheads down to their chins, as if their heads were hourglasses being flipped over, and I could actually hear them swallow their embarrassment. Their mouths stayed open, and the back of their throats were getting dry. They looked at each other and then smiled nervously.
“Why didn’t you tell us you spoke Arabic?” asked Abdullah, the student who had wished I’d wear my blue blouse.
“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked with a smile. “Deciding what to wear in the morning has never been easier,” I added, and he tried to hide his embarrassment by covering his smile with his hand.
“Do you drink?” another student asked apprehensively. I was surprised by the question and didn’t see how it was related to the fact that I spoke Arabic.
“No,” I replied.
“Why?” asked another student, waiting excitedly for the answer.
“Because it’s haram,” I said seriously, and they all gave me their nods of approval. But they still seemed surprised to know that I knew drinking alcohol was forbidden in Islam. The same student who asked me if I drank came up to me later after class and crouched over my desk. He waited for the other students to leave. “Do you pray at home?” he asked. “Alhamdulilah,” I replied, thanking God. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up before heading out the door.
The students grew accustomed to me, and they enjoyed the experience of having a young Arab girl who understood them and with whom they could openly joke around. Many of these boys were married by the age of 20, and they’d been kept segregated from women until then. They seemed immature for their age. In a society where boys and girls “spoke” via Bluetooth in the malls, having a female friend—not a girlfriend—was a foreign concept to them. They appreciated the fact that they could be light-hearted with me, and that I could be good-humored with them without chastising them. Egyptians are known around the Arab world for making light of situations even if they aren’t funny, and they appreciated the fact that even though I was born and raised in the United States, I didn’t try to suppress my Egyptian half. They were learning that when they saw a girl in front of them who didn’t have her hair covered and who wasn’t in a black abeya, they didn’t have to think sexually by default and ask for Allah’s forgiveness.
* * *
The years I spent traveling on my own have made me realize that other Arabs find me both offensive and intriguing. They can’t seem to reconcile the idea of an American-born Egyptian-Muslim girl on her own in a foreign country without the eyes of her father on her all the time who also prays five times a day without anyone telling her to and who willingly chooses not to drink and stay out late in clubs. Here in Dubai, I’ve met many Arabs who are surprised that I don’t drink for religious reasons. “I used to be like you,” they’d tell me, as if they felt compelled to remind me they were once on the right path and that it would only be a matter of time before I found myself like them. To almost everyone I met, I wasn’t an Egyptian girl raised to be a Muslim—I was an American girl born to Egyptian parents, who made the effort to transmit their culture. I wanted to tell them that I owe the fact that I’ve been able to stay out of trouble abroad to my father, who taught me why I should be a Muslim and not why I had to be one.
Before leaving for Dubai, I traveled alone to Cairo to visit my father, who had retired to Egypt after a career at the United Nations. At passport control, I was met by a stern-looking officer with a white beard and a dark spot on his forehead, which many Muslim men develop over years of prostrating themselves during prayer. The spot on his forehead reminded me of my father. He flipped through my passport and saw all the European stamps from when I traveled during my time in Spain. “You’ve been all over,” he said seriously. “All alone?” he asked, showing his disapproval. We weren’t in Saudi Arabia and it wasn’t his business, so I didn’t let him bother me. “I guess you can call me Bint Batouta,” I joked with a smile, making reference to the 14th-century Moroccan geographer Ibn Batouta. His younger colleague laughed and turned to smile at me. “As staghfurallah,” I seek forgiveness from Allah, said the officer with the beard. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I couldn’t tell whether he was asking for Allah’s forgiveness on my behalf for having traveled without a male who was accountable for me, or because of an inappropriate thought he had when he looked at me. As he handed my passport back to me my pinky finger brushed lightly against his by accident. “As staghfurallah,” I whispered quickly looking down at the ground. I had beat him to it. He looked at me coldly. His young colleague could barely suppress his laugh.
I walked away smiling, and then I stopped and looked back at the officer. His face was still flushed as he examined the passport of a woman veiled from head to toe standing with her four children. I wished I could rewind and replay the whole scenario again, except this time instead of calling myself the daughter of Batouta, I would have responded with the phrase my father once taught me—in a country where they don’t know you, hike up your galibeya and run wild through it. I decided against it when I saw my father standing behind the glass of the arrivals sections, waving his hand enthusiastically, his black eyes staring at me and his own galibeya resting neatly at his ankles.
Rania Moaz is a writer living in Dubai.
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