Monday, February 17, 2014

Third Monday Musing: Mashrabiyah


By Eric Meub

1. I’m writing this in Mecca. Let me clarify: I am sitting at a conference table in a university whose grounds lie within the metropolitan limits of Mecca. I am not, however, within the precinct of the Holy Capital, the spiritual center of Islam and the most important city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where entrance is forbidden to non-Muslims. On all sides of the university campus, I can see the infrastructure and venues for the yearly hajj, the act of devotion each Muslim must make once in a lifetime, when over a million pilgrims flood the region for a week of fastidious following in the footsteps of the Prophet (‘alayhi s-salaam – or “Peace be upon him” – should be uttered after any mention of his name).
    There are deserted tent cities on one side, dormant monorails on the other, spear-like minarets over pilgrimage mosques that will not see crowds for another six months, vast empty lots for bus parking, and the now-quiet neighborhood surrounding Mount Arafat. This latter is the venerated site of the Garden of Eden and is a pivotal stop on the annual peregrination. From the university steps I can see large yellow billboards warning pilgrims that once they enter into the area of Arafat, they must remain until nightfall. But I am still outside, still alien, still infidel. I am, in short, very close to being too close.
    The main approach to Mecca for the contemporary traveler is from the royal city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s major shipping port on the Red Sea. A bustling eight-lane highway leads from Jeddah up into the hills and into the desert. There is here none of the romance of Lawrence of Arabia: the roadside diorama of high-voltage lines, windblown plastic bags, and discarded La-Z-Boy recliners has taken care of that. As in Mecca itself, everything is sized for the hajj. Enormous service stations (now nearly vacant), each surrounded by an oasis of fast-food outlets, are reached by five-lane off-ramps to accommodate the annual flood of buses and private vehicles.
    The voyage from Jeddah to Mecca takes about forty-five minutes. At least it does for Muslims. Twenty minutes out of Jeddah, freeway signs direct Muslim drivers to proceed straight ahead to the double-arched entrance to the holy region. On the right is a red sign warning non-Muslims to exit. (Intentional disobedience to this prohibition can result in arrest and prosecution.) To reach the non-prohibited areas of Mecca, non-Muslims must drive an extra hour on a circuitous and potholed two-lane back road. The unintended silver lining is that this journey penetrates a more traditional landscape: a few Bedouin tents and herds of goats, sheep, and camels.

A freeway sign near Mecca (Makkah)
    Regardless of the scenery, however, the experience of driving this “Christian Highway” is one of utter exclusion. The traveler may have been invited to Mecca for his or her international expertise; nonetheless, at this point in the journey, that expert must thread the same dusty road as all the immigrant truck drivers and other lowly traffic. No amount of expertise can atone for being an outcast.
Tents along the “Christian Highway”

2. The mashrabiyah of Arab architecture is a screen of latticework that fills the windows or projecting bays on the street sides of the private quarters. These screens are designed to permit the occupants of the house (especially the females) to look out on the city and enjoy the occasional breeze without being seen by passersby. Less impervious than a wall, there are two ways to penetrate the screen: to be invited through the gate, or to make oneself as small and persistent as a fly. Getting into Saudi Arabia requires both strategies.
A mashrabiyah in the old style

3. The Kingdom’s visa application process involves more procedural hurdles than in other countries, but, even with a visa, the Kingdom does not really want you to enter. Your flight, for instance, has landed at Jeddah, and you walk across the tarmac to a bus that takes you to Passport Control. Even from the outside of this building you can detect the chaos within. Long lines of robed men and women have queued around the four or five counters, none of which are currently manned. Travelers are sitting or lying on the floor, getting to their feet only when an attendant comes by to splash disinfectant on the terrazzo. Those who speak English complain of having waited hours.
    Eventually a uniformed inspector saunters to one of the stations, making a great show of setting himself up before admitting a businessman from one of the lines. He interrogates the man for several minutes, takes his photograph, then his thumbprints, looks through his passport for the fifth time, gets up to wander to another desk, meanders down the hall, eventually returns, hands the passport back, takes another set of thumbprints, and finally lets the man through to baggage claim. The ordeal has taken fifteen minutes. There are twenty people ahead of you in line, and there are four other lines.
    The vast majority of those waiting to get in are Muslims from around the world who have come to perform an umrah pilgrimage. Umrah is the “lesser” or “minor” personal pilgrimage that a Muslim can make at any time. Not as efficacious as a hajj, it can still be spiritually uplifting, and, under certain circumstances, can earn merit.
    Every now and then some official comes from behind and shouts out a few urgent Arabic phrases to these pilgrims. They all grab their bags and dash off around the corner. A few minutes pass. Those of us in the remaining line feel partly relieved at the diminished crowd, and partly uncertain as to whether we should follow the others. In a few minutes, however, the stampede returns. But they have lost their order, and riots ensue to get to the front of the line. One is reminded of Kafka.
    When my turn came, the officer stared at my passport for thirty seconds without blinking. He called to another officer, who came and stared as well. Then this second man snatched the passport away from the first, stepped out of the booth and returned to the waiting room without a word to me.
    I scrambled back upstream through the crowd to catch him. He tossed the passport onto a desk piled with papers. To my inquiries he replied only, “Sit, sit!” and then disappeared into another throng on the other side of the hall.
    There being no seat in the hall closer than half a football field away, I stood by the desk waiting, trying to keep my eye on the mass of papers in which I had last seen my documents, desperate to remain an American with a passport.
    When the officer returned fifteen long minutes later, he was in no hurry to address my case. Instead, he called to others sitting in those chairs a mile away. He dealt with seemingly trivial matters, chatted with cohorts, and studiously avoided me standing there right across from him.
    It took a third officer, out of pity for me perhaps, to finally ask me why I was waiting there. When he asked the second officer about my passport, he was given the response that my passport had expired – a ridiculous assertion since I could not even have boarded a plane with an expired passport.
    Suddenly everything was cleared up; they must all have felt that I had been punished sufficiently: my passport was duly stamped and I was sent through.
    Passport Control is, in a sense, the first screen around the Kingdom, a barrier which can only be passed with humility and perseverance. The Kingdom doesn’t want you to come in: you are after all a pesky fly. Nonetheless you hope that, once inside, those in authority may neglect to swat you.

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4. Jeddah is one of the world’s most beautifully situated ugly cities. Nestled beneath stony hills encircling a bay upon the Red Sea, it has blue skies, dazzling water, and long rows of date palms. But many of the trees are withered by the blistering sun and interrupted irrigation. The architecture is uniformly ugly, and not in an exotic or romantic way. It is as if all the builders took their inspiration from the backsides of second-tier Las Vegas casinos: endless rows of little windows competing with one another in the gaudiness of their pediments and balconies. The few corporate buildings seem devoid of spirit: vast expanses of mirrored window walls with no focus, no relief. If there is a civic soul to Jeddah, it too is hidden behind its mashrabiyah.
    Thus I was not terribly surprised, in being driven to my hotel, to find that it too was a nondescript and low-slung brown box like everything else.
    Once I stepped through the doors (and through the metal detector) this all changed. What a beautiful world inside: simple, yet elegant materials, muted colors, shafts of light coming in from the tiny windows overhead. With such a hostile climate, the buildings can’t afford to open themselves up as they do in the West. It made me wonder what interior environments are hidden behind other parts of the city’s drab façade.
    The hotel is protected by a different kind of mashrabiyah as well. Like any of the finer hotels in town, it is frequented by international travelers, and is thus a target for extremists. The gates, guards, and tank traps are disguised among the topiary and decorative latticework around the hotel grounds, but the protection is there. The fly has made it through the screen and must now take refuge in his little cage.
    But within the hotel there are further screens. The first-time guest discovers that the gardens and fountains facing the sea – the best portions of the hotel grounds – have been designated “Family Only” areas, for Muslim couples and their children, where they can be protected from the predations of single Americans like me. The fly is therefore trapped between mashrabiyah without and mashrabiyah within: one is truly welcome nowhere.
    Elsewhere within the Kingdom, I found the same architectural dichotomy: severe box-like forms on the outside concealing gracious, light-filled environments within. On the university campus I was visiting, monolithic concrete buildings surrounded a nave-like open-air circulation spine at the core.

An exterior campus walkway

5. The most pervasive screens in Saudi Arabia are those that wrap the human body. The white robes and keffiyeh headdress for men, unlike the western business suit, is truly a national costume. Very few Saudi men in authority dress otherwise, and it is unthinkable that a non-Arab visitor should appropriate this costume. Thus the differentiation between those within the Kingdom and those from without is rendered clear. The clothing is supposed to be cooler to wear in hot weather than western garb. It is also impossible to run in such robes, unless one subjects oneself to the indignity of lifting one’s skirts. Thus Arab men seem to move at a more leisurely pace than their western counterparts, which may have given rise to unwarranted generalizations of indolence.
    The ubiquity of this outfit, so parodied in the West, creates a bizarre first impression, like being at a Halloween party where everyone arrived in the same costume. The robes – because of their uniform color, the limited variety of headdresses, and prevalent styles of trimming facial hair – create a greater homogeneity of appearance than is ever the case in the West.
    Most of us – outside of Catholic schools or the military – have little experience with uniforms. In Saudi Arabia, the ever-present portraits of kings, princes, and important ministers (sometimes even full-sized cutouts standing in the lobby) can seem bewilderingly identical. With time, however, slight differentiations can be detected: the subtleties of tribal clan or royal status.
    More significantly, the traits of the individual come to the fore, not because of personal style – so worshipped in the west – but because of the intrinsic qualities of the person within the robes. In the West, we say that the clothes don’t make the man. In the Arab world, the robes seem downright unforgiving of certain personality traits. Corpulence, indecision, looseness of posture, or frenetic gestures are all exaggerated by the robes, much more so than is the case with slacks and sport coat, or even jeans and collared shirt. The robes favor an upright posture, decisive movements, and sobriety of gesture. I found these qualities in abundance among the clients I worked with on the trip. It is perhaps no coincidence that where these outward attributes were manifest, their interior counterparts also came to the fore: decisive thinking, straightforward speaking, and confident expression, all of which is matched by a courtesy I have seldom encountered on so wide a scale in the West.

Presenting to an important client
    The situation for the women would seem at first to be very different. The abaya is a requisite mode of attire in the Kingdom. Most women, at least in public, are also veiled. While the men are generally robed in white, the women go about in deepest black. This combination of black and white creates a consistently homogenous – and harmonious – street scene, with none of the saturated colors of western fashion to jar the senses. While we in the wWest have the freedom to wear whatever we like, the Arab, it seems, has the right to not be visually offended.
    Much has been written about the political and social implications of the Arab dress codes for women – especially in Saudi Arabia – and the relation of dress to the status of women. I can only say that the exterior appearance was not what I expected. We can be so pejorative in the west, referring to “penguins” or “women in Hefty garbage bags.” The reality is so different.
    First of all, the women tend to move about in small groups. Thus, it is not usually just the individual one encounters, but the trio or quartet. The surprising transparency of the group dynamic illuminates the persistence of identity despite the robes. The costume is not as opaque as we assume.
    Second of all, these black garments, while revealing nothing of the human figure, do present portraits of posture. The way women lean in towards one another, or pause in a group to look at something in a gallery, or follow by the side of a husband: all of these postures are more exquisitely highlighted than in Western clothing. This is probably due to the absence of other sensory data.
    Third of all, the eyes are so important. A single man must not look directly at a woman, of course. Nonetheless, one can’t help noticing the eyes: the flashes of white hemmed by dark lashes, or the upward or sideways glances, or the curious peering out at the world through the slit above the veil.
    The effect of some of the more elegantly attired women (and one may judge class by the quality and styling of the purses that are sometimes carried over a shoulder) is that they are enjoying the cocoon, that the abaya provides a portable mashrabiyah in which the women can go anywhere in the world without losing their protective enclosure. In a way, each is still at home, still under the protective scrutiny of the household, and yet out and about in the world at the same time.

Robed figures taking an evening stroll along the Corniche
    Some (not all) apologists for Islamic social mores are often quick to explain that the abaya is intended to protect the woman, not to oppress her, that by screening the physical charms of femininity, women are better defended from rape and other violent crime. Indeed, in combination with Islam’s sharia law, the abaya tends to render women more inviolable, but if the means are supposed to be through the obscuring of physical beauty, I can only say the abaya fails entirely.
    In surreptitiously watching the groups of women who passed through the halls and lobbies of my hotel, I can honestly say I have seldom seen such beauty, elegance and dignity. Even the western women in the hotel, who must also wear long and hooded garments in Saudi Arabia, attained a greater degree of visual refinement through their flowing robes and long scarves. It was easy to see, as they mingled in the lobby, that they enjoyed their own look: they adopted a more studied pace, they turned their heads and changed their postures more deliberately, they lowered their voices towards one another. And it is hardly a double standard: the men are nearly as covered as the women.

6. The Arab mashrabiyah started out as a screen, a way to enjoy the view and the breeze without sacrificing privacy. But it became in time an element of beauty. In the few remaining traditional neighborhoods of old Jeddah, it is the wooden screens that attract the eye of the photographer. The veil of privacy, the concealer of beauty, has become itself the object, the thing of beauty.
Mashrabiyah of Old Jeddah
(from an exhibit of photographs by residents of Filipino origin)
    The mashrabiyah, in all of its manifestations – lattice, veil, or customs of behavior – changes what is behind it. By making an object obscure, it makes it tantalizing. The indignities of Passport Control have the unintended effect of making entrance to the Kingdom seem a rare and desirable objective.
    But it is in the physical mashrabiyah that Arab beauty is best explored. By overlaying upon the world, upon space, or upon the human figure its geometries of carpentry or fabric, it simplifies complexity and unifies what is ordinarily disparate. The mashrabiyah thus becomes, not just a screen, not just a barrier to penetrating either inside or out, but rather a lens through which beauty is made more manifest. While this is not intuitive in the West these days – where beauty is displayed and accentuated – there is perhaps a compensatory lesson to be learned from the Kingdom, a lesson we all used to know: to make something even more beautiful, put up a screen and hide it (just a little).
Copyright © 2014 by Eric Meub

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  1. Thank you, Eric, for bringing back from Saudi Arabia this fascinating account of how the Saudis impose screens between themselves and outsiders.

  2. Enjoyed the tour, but if ever I might have wanted to visit---I have gotten over it. I was wondering if maybe the beauty you see is like a flower growing in a garage pile. It becomes more beautiful because of the ugliness around it. Be careful, I doubt they would send Seal Team 6 in for you.[smile]

  3. Thank you. I'm always fascinated to learn how an alien culture looks from the ground. I suspect that in this case its beauty would be lost on me, though. I can't help seeing it as a morally unacceptable denial of individual liberty, especially for women. My sympathies are with Malala.

  4. Chuck, I feel similarly and am glad it's Eric and not I who is exploring that culture. In reading Eric's report, I remembered an account by a female business woman of getting into a taxi with two Arab men (from the business meeting) and being almost immediately physically groped by BOTH of them. There may be some more (pretty troubling stuff) for Eric to discover about Saudi Arabian mores. But he might have to dress up in drag to confirm the businesswoman's allegation.

  5. I think they kill you for dressing like that there.

  6. I agree with Ed: I'm not going to risk it. But, from what I've read, the Arab male response to western (i.e. non-Muslim) women is very different from the respect given to Muslims. There seems to be a feeling that, by wearing less (or simply by not submitting to the moral teachings of the Qur'an), western women have looser morals, and thus are fair game. But the example also points out a potential level of sexual frustration among the men. Morris' acquaintance may not have done her homework by getting into a taxi unchaperoned by a male she trusted, and quite frankly by being there in the first place. I think my firm seldom sends female professionals to Saudi Arabia because of the inequality and the risks. Americans often take their constitutional rights for granted. One of the benefits of international travel is realizing the blessings we enjoy at home. Thanks for reading!

  7. Eric, thanks for reminding us (as Ed has taken pains to do also) that the situation is fraught with danger, and dangers that are not always appreciated by naive, taking-things-for-granted Americans.
        I very much dislike Gothic stories that have an ingenue a nearly central character, because having to identify with such a person makes me feel very, very uncomfortable (is the presence of an ingenue already an ESSENTIAL element of any "Gothic story" anyway?). Well, it just occurred to me, I also feel uneasy in much the same way when I watch a movie portraying Americans obliviously "acting like Americans" in crowded streets or bars in certain other countries. "Obliviously" is the operative word (and perhaps "acting like Americans" is an operative phrase); they seem to have NO IDEA what "marks" they have to be in the eyes of at least some "elements" of the humanity surging about them, even of professional kidnappers.
        If I sound a bit phobic here, it's likely because I simply am, and am admitting it in no uncertain terms.